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This is the seventh in a series of posts from research I have done about lay leadership training in the United Church of Canada. In the previous post and this one, I have been considering the context in which that training needs to happen — a context in which many churches are struggling to serve faithfully while their numbers (attendance, finances) are declining. Part of the decline reflects a larger cultural drift away from certain kinds of organizations, in particular, organized religions and service groups,

Some of the decline is the result of cultural shifts which make the Christian message less appealing. As the alliance between the Church and the power centres of culture disappears, it becomes increasingly evident that the gospel, when taken seriously, is profoundly countercultural. The Church’s story has always been in tension with the world’s story. In post-Christendom, that tension becomes more apparent. The gospel invites you to lose your life in order to find it (Mark 8:35). Summoned and gathered by a God of suffering love, the Christian community has the cross of Jesus Christ at its centre — a symbol not of worldly success but of suffering and rejection and sacrifice for the sake of others (Douglas John Hall, “Suffering: The Badge of Discipleship,” The Living Pulpit, Inc., 2005).

Christians are “buried with Christ by baptism into death” (Romans 6:4) so as be freed from being pre-occupied with their own self-preservation or self-fulfillment and, thus, free to be concerned for others. Christian faith embraces disciplines and practices that form communities with the courage they need to confront the powers that rob humans of dignity and freedom. Christian spirituality is primarily communal: a matter of being found by God in the midst of messy, difficult, challenging human relationships. Such a gospel will find it hard to gain much traction in a culture that elevates consumerism, hedonism, and individualism as the highest values.

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A sermon by Christine Jerrett. The worship service in which was first preached is available at Reformed Worship week 5.

Scriptures: Genesis 2: 15 -25

In 1986, a woman named Alberta Billie stood up to address a meeting of the General Council of the United Church of Canada. She was the First Nations community of Cape Mudge in British Columbia. She began her address by saying, “We are the salmon people. . . . We recognize the way the salmon run inland from the sea and their return to the sea. We respect that cycle and we celebrate it in our lives, our ritual, our art, our festive occasions. . . We are the salmon people. (James A. Taylor in Currents)

What kind of people are you? What is the dominant story in your culture that tells you who you are?

Over one hundred and seventy-five years ago, the French philosopher Alex de Tocqueville visited the United States. Upon his return, he wrote Democracy in America. He noted, ‘Each citizen is engaged in the contemplation of a very puny object, namely himself.” The story that dominates much of our culture is the story of the Self. Its main characters are My Wants, My Needs, My Feelings, My Desires, My Appetites, What I Deserve. They are placed at the centre of our lives and are not only celebrated, they are coaxed and coached and cultivated. They are coaxed and and coached and cultivated because our society depends upon us being pre-occupied with ourselves in order to keep going.

In order for our economic system to function, we need constantly to be dissatisfied. We need to define ourselves as not having enough, not being good enough, not being loved the way we are. There is always something more we need to get, to buy, to do, to achieve if we are going to be happy and satisfied an fulfilled.

The Self as defined by its needs, appetites and desires is a story that lives deep within us. It shapes our lives and our relationships in powerful ways that undermine human dignity. That story, dominated by the ‘not enough’ Self, makes human community impossible. Said Wendell Berry, “‘Every man for himself’ is a doctrine for a feeding frenzy or for a panic in a burning nightclub; appropriate for sharks or hogs or perhaps a cascade of lemmings . . . A society wishing to endure must speak the language of caretaking, faith-keeping, kindness, neighbourliness, and peace. That language is [a] precious resource and cannot be privatized.”

The story is told of a director of a charitable organization in a small town who noticed that the town’s wealthiest man had never once made a donation. The director decided he would visit the man. He said, “our research shows that your income is at least $500,000 a year, and yet, you never give to charity. Wouldn’t you like to give back to the community in some way?”

The man replied, “Did your research also show that my mother is dying after a long illness and has medical bills that are several times her annual income?”

The director was embarrassed. He mumbled, ‘No, I didn’t know that.”

The wealthy man continued, “Did your research tell you that my sister’s husband died in an accident, leaving her penniless with three children?”

Humiliated, the director said, “I am sorry. I did not realize.”

The wealthy man finished by saying, “So, if I don’t give any money to them, why should I give any to you?”

We may not have an annual income of over $500,000, but we do know what it is to be anxious that there will not be enough. That’s the story that inundates us from many different directions: not enough money, not enough health care, not enough social services, not enough to fill the empty places in our own hearts and souls.

Genesis 2 defines the Self in a radically different way. The main character in the story is not the Self. The main character is God. God has been doing all the talking. God has done all the acting. God has made the human, has breathed life into the human, has placed the human in the garden. So far, the human has not said or done anything. The main actor in our lives is God, not our Selves: God who creates and provides and gives life and pronounces blessing. We are the beloved children of this God. The first thing that defines our lives is that we are a people created by a good and holy Creator. We are formed by our relationship with God.

Whenever we try to live without that relationship, whenever we try to make the story all about us, our lives get small. They become less than God intends them to be. God wills something far greater than that for us.

This God places the human in the garden and gives us work to do there. We are to care for the earth: respect its particularities and its needs so it can remain fruitful for all people.

In the middle of the garden was the tree of life, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God said to the human, “You may eat from any tree in the garden except from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” The tree from which we are not to consume is placed in the middle of the garden. It is not tucked away in some corner where we might forget that it is there. It is in the middle of our garden, in the middle of our lives as a daily reminder that everything we want or desire is not going to get satisfied. There will always be a deep yearning in us that will not be filled no matter how much attention we lavish upon ourselves. No matter how much we think of our own needs, not matter how hard we work to make something of our lives, there will always be an empty space that we cannot fill. We were never meant to “have it all”. (Thanks to Craig Barnes for this insight in his book, Yearning)

That emptiness, that yearning, that ache in the deepest part of you is not something you are supposed to try to fix or fill up. It is not a problem that you need to solve. It is the place in your soul where the living God comes to meet you. The act and the yearning that cannot be stilled is trying to direct you toward leaving space in your life for God to show up. Said St. Augustine, ‘You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

We are a people created for community. We are created for relationship with God first of all. We are also created for relationship with the world that God makes and values. We are not to exploit it, grabbing whatever we want. We are to tend it and to care for it. We are also made for relationship with each other. We cannot be who we are on our own. We are dependent on God. We are dependent on each other to become what God intends us to be.

Every time we baptize someone, we baptize them into the Body of Christ. We receive them into the community of people who have apprenticed themselves to Jesus Christ. We are those who have promised over and over again to live as a community that is learning to live beyond our pre-occupations with our Selves. We have promised to live, instead, trusting God who has met us in Jesus Christ and who sustains us with steadfast love and faithfulness. We are a people who are learning to receive life as a gift from a gracious God who has a good and holy purpose for all creation. We are a people who are learning to live our lives on God’s terms: not grasping to get all we can for ourselves; not anxiously trying to make our lives count; living, with wonder and awe because we live in the midst of mystery and miracle.

Being that kind of community is not easy. It requires commitment of time and energy. We cannot be a community in the abstract. It happens only as we sacrifice for the sake of a common purpose. It requires courage and risk. Being part of the community that follow Jesus Christ will challenge us beyond our comfort zones as our Lord takes us deeper and deeper into the mystery of God’s love.

Through such a community, God gives us and the world an alternative to the anxious grasping that is killing creation. Through such a community, God gives us a way to live in hope in a dark time. Such a community receives its life from God who is making all things new.

It takes our whole life to learn to live that way. It takes the whole community together. Who are we? We are the people of God who comes to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are the people of the Garden: gifted with a wonderful, diverse creation. We are not to exploit or abuse it. We are to live within it on God’s terms. We live honouring, respecting and cherishing this fragile treasure. So shall we live to the the glory of God.

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The following are some quotations and reflections on a seminar I attended at Calvin Institute of Christian Worship’s Symposium 2015. The seminar, “The Turn Toward the Formative in Christian Worship”, hosted four conversations: Stories of the journey, music, ‘frames’, and leadership.

Four young worship leaders and pastors offered their stories of journeying from a contemporary style of worship to a worship in which they were incorporating elements from more traditional liturgies. They were trying to ‘let the formative breathe and become expressive’. They were finding ways to lead people into participating in those traditional elements in a way that touched the deep experiences and emotions of their lives.

Miranda Dodson set the Apostle’s Creed to music (http://mirandadodson.bandcamp.com/track/apostles-creed). She explains: “Apostles Creed is an attempt to bring a sing-able melody and corporate unity to a creed that most of the Christian world professes. The aim is to remind the church of their belief in the triune God and his work by collectively proclaiming it in song. I tried to stay as close to the original Creed as possible while taking a few liberties for the purposes of congregational worship. For instance “I believe…” I changed to “We believe…” in order to unite the Church in these common beliefs.”

One of the presenters spoke about using the traditional elements but ‘changing the setting’ so that ‘the brain thinks again’. Putting quiet music under the prayers can do this. Or, inviting the congregation to face each other for the prayer of confession (which is followed always by a vigorous proclamation of God’s grace in our lives). Someone suggested leading the prayers of thanksgiving by inviting people to turn to the person beside them and to name what they were thankful to God for. The time of prayer led into a singing of “Great is Thy Faithfulness”.

Someone reflected on the impetus for working with the tradition to make it speak into the lives of the people who are gathered together in worship: “We were serving the same meal every Sunday and wondering why we weren’t getting healthy.” Worship that does not ask anything of the worshipper, that leaves the congregation as a passive audience of worship that others perform, not only leaves the people caught in the culture of consumerism; it also does not help people to grow in maturity in Christ. People’s spirits need exercise: they need to participate and to respond in ways that touch their hearts and take them deeper into God’s grace and love.

Crafting that kind of worship takes time, of course. Some participants in the seminar wondered how they could add that in to their schedules that were already too full. We were reminded that “liturgy” means “the work of the people”. We need to be looking for ways genuinely to make it the work of those who gather. More on that in the next post.

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This is the eleventh in a series of posts about the differences between a pastoral and a missional church.  The phrase ‘from pastoral to missional’ came from Harold Percy, who was one of the first people to articulate for me the shift I was experiencing in congregations.

I have come across a few different ways of describing the differences between the two models of church. Somewhere in the past, I picked up a chart in which Harold Percy compares the attitudes and expectations in the two models. These posts will work through that chart of comparisons and give some explanation of what I think the differences imply for the way a mainline congregation operates.

The tenth difference is described this way:

When thinking about growth, the pastoral church asks: “How many [United Church] people live within our church boundaries?”
When thinking about growth, the missional church asks: “How many unchurched people live within a 20-minute drive of this church?”

When a church says that it wants to grow, it sometimes thinks that the people with whom it will grow are the people who live within its ‘church boundaries’ who are disaffected with the church and who just need a bit of persuading to give the church another chance.  The notion of ‘church boundaries’ is left over from Christendom, when congregations primarily served people who lived within particular geographical areas around the congregation’s building. A church that wants to grow works out of broader horizons. It recognizes that, these days, most people are very mobile; travelling longer distances to get to their places of work, the recreational venues of their choosing, the places where they shop.  People who may become part of their faith community are generally willing to drive the same distance to their church.

However, it is more complex than that. When a church says that it wants to grow, it often  begins by assuming that it will grow by reaching out to people who are disaffected with the church and who just need a bit of persuading to give the church another chance. Sometimes that is true. Often, however, the disaffected people will take more than a bit of persuading. They may have good reasons for being disaffected that will take a lot of effort by the congregation to heal. More than an invitation is needed. The members of  the congregation will have to demonstrate in its actions and in its way of treating each other that the church is genuinely a place worth getting involved in.

Furthermore, the neighbourhood (or area within ‘church boundaries’ has changed. Within the area (whether defined as ‘church boundaries’ or a ’20-minute commute’), the community is much more diverse than it used to be. There will be some people from other religious traditions. More and more often, though, they will have no religious affiliation — the so-called ‘unchurched’. It is a mistake, however, to think that these people are blank slates, waiting to receive a particular take on spiritual or religious practices. Whatever religious affiliation people may claim on a census, all of them have been the targets of powerful forces seeking to convert them to a particular way of life centred on consuming more and more. A missional church will recognize that this is the most powerful challenge they face as they seek to bless people and to invite them into Christian faith and to persuade them to participate in Christian community.

We live in a culture where many forces are on mission in the sense that they are trying to convert people to their way of living. The most powerful missional force in our culture is consumerism. William Cavanaugh in Being Consumed writes, “Consumer culture is one of the most powerful systems of formation in the contemporary world. Such a powerful system is not morally neutral; it trains us to see the world in certain ways.”

William Willimon describes it this way: “In the middle of a sermon I said, ‘If you bring a child into this church, say a child of four or five, that child will have a difficult time during the service. Church does not come naturally. The child will have to be trained to sing this music, to bend his life toward these stories, to pay attention to that which he quite naturally avoids. If you take that same child into Toys R Us, no training is necessary. Greed comes to us quite naturally. After all, this is America.’

But then I caught myself in mid-sentence, and said, ‘No, that’s not quite fair to Toys R Us. Billions have been spent, and our very best talent expended, in forming that child into the habits of consumption. Barney is not innocent.’ (Resisting the Clutches of Consumerism)

Consumerism not only trains us to see the world in certain ways; it trains us to live in the world in certain ways. It forms our character around discontent and greed. It is a costly religion: it requires more and more devotion while delivering less and less of the satisfaction it promises. We are beginning to see in frightening ways that a way of life driven by consumerism threatens the planet.

A missional church not only broadens its horizons beyond the geographical boundaries of its members. It also recognizes that its work is not simply a matter of bringing people into a church community: it is a matter of helping people confront the addictive forces of consumerism with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Tom Bandy suggests that a critical question to ask is, “What must we change in order to bless these people around us?”

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People resist unwanted change in many ways. Sometimes in the church that resistance comes in the form of people threatening to withhold their offerings. Here’s how my husband has responded to someone making such a threat when the church was contemplating a decision she didn’t like: “What you do with your offering is between you and God. If you want to hold God to ransom, go ahead. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend it, but that’s your decision.”

Behind the threat is the notion that the church is a ‘service’ for which customers pay a fee. If they don’t like the service they’re getting, they’ll take their business elsewhere. It’s a sad thing when church boards and ministers capitulate to such threats. It’s sad because bullying is never a good strategy for discerning where the Holy Spirit is leading a church. It’s sad because succumbing to such threats cuts short the conversations that need to happen in order to discern what God is trying to say to a congregation.

The fact that members of a congregation think that making such threats is an appropriate way to be the church signifies a number of things; among them is the power of consumer culture to form us. When Christians start thinking of themselves as ‘paying customers’ and their offerings as leverage to get what they want, it means that we have a lot of spiritual formation work to do. Members of a church are not ‘customers’ or even ‘clients’ of some voluntary organization. They are baptized children of God and followers of Jesus Christ. They are participants in God’s mission with others in the community of faith into which the Holy Spirit has gathered them. Their offerings are not the price they pay for certain religious services. Their offerings are an expression of their gratitude to God for God’s abundant, extravagant grace in their lives. Their offerings are a token of their commitment to the holy purposes of God in the world.

If your church is taking a direction that you do not like, figure out what is driving your opinions and your feelings. Is it a genuine concern that the church is departing from faithful obedience to God? Is it a fear of any change which you are not controlling or managing? Is the conversation triggering some unresolved emotional issues? Are you afraid that there won’t be a place for you in the ‘new’ that is emerging? Are you concerned that you will lose the power you think you currently have? Have you counted on the church to be a ‘safe port’ in the tidal wave of changes that are happening in your life and in our world? Are you feeling like you don’t have a voice (or that your concerns are not being taken seriously) in the discussions? Is this genuinely a new direction in which the Holy Spirit is leading you — one that feels strange and unsettling, but is making you grow and mature in Christ?

Whatever it is, figure it out! Work with your brothers and sisters in Christ to work through the issue. Just don’t hold God to ransom.

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A reflection on Galatians 1: 3-9

Christ is our compass as we journey into freedom. Christ who ‘rescued us from this evil world we’re in by offering himself as a sacrifice for our sins.’ Being set free from this ‘present evil age’ by this kind of Saviour must be difficult enough, or counter-cultural enough, that we look for an easier way. We encounter other directional signals along the way – promises about how to get a good life. Promises that would take us down paths in the opposite direction from Christ. Paul doesn’t describe them yet; he just warns us not to take the detours.
Paul is so adamant about this — he curses those who would lead people away from this gospel of freedom and of grace. There is obviously a great deal at stake here. Lies about God diminish us. They enslave us to lesser gods.
We’ll end up in a place where the gospel of Christ is perverted — where we are no longer living in the freedom Christ gives; where we no longer live in response to ‘God the Father who raised him from the dead’; where we no longer live out of God’s grace.
What a contrast to the ‘laissez-faire’ attitude that permeates conversations about spirituality these days. It is a great ‘sin’ to sound judgmental. “Everyone must find their own path” becomes the only acceptable truth.
Does that mean that we believe that all paths will lead us to a good place? Or, that we believe nothing critical is at stake in the spirituality people choose? Or, that we believe we have no authority to speak to others about such things?
Maybe all of those.
Yet, such an approach plays into the hands of the gods of consumerism, who do not leave us to find our own way. These days, consumerism is the spirituality that offers an alternate gospel. The gods of consumerism are actively at work to shape in us a particular vision of ‘the good life’. They are adamant that they have the products and experiences that will get us there. They relentlessly bombard us with advice on how to get better at consuming things.
Surely the gospel of grace in Christ Jesus offers more truth than that. Why aren’t we as passionate about speaking that truth as we are about competing with each other in the size of homes we own and the vacations we take and the toys we purchase?
We have a gospel about God bringing a future where none seems possible. We have a gospel about a Saviour who rescues us in the midst of this world’s steady march towards destruction — who gives us a way to live freely, creatively, courageously in the midst of it. Should we not be more distressed that people turn away from such a life-giving God and turn instead towards ways of living that are enslaving and killing them and destroying the creation?
To have Christ as our compass leads us on a passionate quest to find and tell the truth about God.

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