Posts Tagged ‘culture’

Conversations about equipping the baptized for their ministries turn quickly to matters of spiritual formation and discipleship. What Christian practices need to be embraced? What does evangelism and witness look like in our context? What enables people to discern not only where the Holy Spirit is at work but also what their call is in that work?

What is apparent is that behind those questions lie more foundational questions about the nature of our congregations. What does spiritual formation and discipleship look like in a church culture where that has not been a priority? It is difficult for people to discern where the Holy Spirit is already at work when they are unpracticed in such elemental disciplines as prayer, standing under the scriptures, and talking about faith together. Exciting new initiatives lose steam when those who participate in them are not deeply grounded in the Source of Life. As Elizabeth O’Connor articulated the wisdom of the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C., “If you do not attend to the journey inward, you will burn out on the journey outward.” Frank Viola has warned, “You cannot raise the bar on discipleship without raising the bar on the ekklesia—the living experience of the body of Christ—the native habitat in which true disciple-making and transformation take place” (Discipleship in Crisis, e-book).

What is needed is not simply a matter of offering more courses and seminars on discipleship or evangelism. What is needed is a shift in the culture of congregations. A new imagination for what it means to be the church needs to be cultivated. A different set of symbols, metaphors and narratives need to shape the ethos of the United Church of Canada.

Chris Pullenayegem, New Ministries Animator for EDGE, outlines the process of change as a matter of asking some basic questions:

*What has to remain?

*How do we do it more efficiently so that resources are freed up for new experiments?

*What do we need to let go of in order to create space for something new?

*What new things do we need to do in order to make this new thing happen?

Andy Crouch, in Culture Making, advises that “the only way to change culture is to create more of it. . . . If culture is to change, it will be because some new tangible (or audible or visible or olfactory) thing is presented to a wide enough public that it begins to reshape their world . . . if we seek to change culture, we will have to create something new, something that will persuade our neighbors to set aside some existing set of cultural goods for our new proposal” (p. 67).

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Today’s post is the second of three that look at some of the changing assumptions about what ‘church’ is — assumptions that have influenced the kinds of leaders congregations need. Yesterday’s post looked at the assumption that churches provide stability.

Christendom churches were also seen as being responsible: responsible to the culture in providing moral leadership and its social conscience. Membership in a church was considered part of being a good, responsible citizen. Parents brought their children to Sunday School so that they could learn good moral values. Communities looked to church leaders to provide guidance on social issues. That close alliance between church and society no longer exists. The assumptions upon which the alliance was based no longer hold.

The culture is not looking to the churches to form the morals of its citizens or to underwrite its social and political agendas. The churches can no longer count on the culture to help them form Christians. They now need to be intentional about doing that. There is a renewed interest in ‘discipleship’, but what is entailed in being a disciple of Jesus has also shifted.

Increasingly, the surrounding culture is not just indifferent to what the church is; in many places, it is actually hostile. Christians are rediscovering the counter-cultural nature of the gospel. The risen Christ is active in the world confronting and challenging the forces that diminish people’s dignity and wound their souls, the systems that degrade the social and natural environment and keep communities from flourishing, and the structures that perpetuate violence and injustice. The God of suffering love sends followers of Jesus into the suffering world to participate in God’s transformation and healing of God’s beloved creation. The community of the baptized is a counter-cultural community, living and acting in the world as a sign, witness and foretaste of the reign of God.

If you take following Jesus seriously, you will have trouble with the world. Disciples need resources for speaking truth to power, for challenging evil, and for courageously resisting what the New Testament calls the ‘powers and principalities’. Although some segments of the church already understood that to be their mission, the new dimension to the work is that Christians are no longer the dominant voice in the conversation.

Leaders are finding themselves in unfamiliar territory. They are guiding disciples who are trying to be faithful as they live on the fringes of the culture: as a minority in a culture that does not share many of their convictions about life. God’s people have often been in the minority. Many of the stories of God’s people come from similar marginal situations. Ancient metaphors that speak of the Church as being a cultural minority are being reclaimed: “resident aliens”, “a colony of heaven”, “exilic community”. They point to the hopes that formed the community of faith into a genuine alternative to the surrounding culture.

Jesus described the community of the baptized, his ‘little flock’, as salt and yeast and light — small things that change their surroundings in large ways. His disciples learn what it means to live faithfully as they journey with him ‘on the way’. They hear the stories he tells. They watch him encountering ‘the other’. They share meals with strangers. They both receive and give in mutual hospitality. In the world, in their ordinary, every-day living, they encounter God who is present in unexpected places and among unexpected people. In all of that, they are being formed to participate in God’s mission. Leaders for such communities do not function as experts. They themselves are followers on the Way, helping the community of the baptized hear questions God is asking and discerning with them ways to answer faithfully.

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A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett at Central United Church, Sarnia on April 22, 2012.

Scriptures:          Isaiah 42: 6-9; Revelation 16: 6-9

 “By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down and there we wept
When we remembered Zion.

On the willows there,
We hung up our harps,
For there, our captors asked us for songs
And our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a strange land?”

Do you recognize that poem? Do you know where it is from? It entered popular imagination in the movie Godspell, as the song “On the Willows”. Perhaps you have heard it as the reggae song, “Rivers of Babylon”.

It is Psalm 137. It comes from five centuries before Christ was born. Israel had been invaded by Babylon. The leadership of the community had been carried off into exile in Babylon. They found themselves far from home, far from everything familiar and settled. In a new and strange context, they had to figure out what it meant to be people of faith. How would they worship God now that the temple was gone? How would they live out their faith now that they were no longer in charge of the culture? How would they pass the faith on to the next generation now that the culture around them was not helping them to do that? How could they sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

That question has haunted me for the past thirty years. Thirty years ago in May, I was ordained as a minister in the United Church of Canada. The church into which I was ordained was very different from the church as it is these days. The culture was very different as well.

Thirty years ago, to be an ordained minister meant that you were accorded a certain status in the culture. You were also accorded a certain level of respect in the congregation.

Thirty years ago, Christians still thought that they were in charge of the culture. They could pass motions at Presbytery meetings and at Conference Annual meetings and people would actually pay attention. The public would make note of what the church thought people should do. It doesn’t happen that way anymore.

Now, the major task for many people in ordered ministry is learning how to negotiate the politics of declining and dying congregations. Nothing in my training taught me how to do that. Nothing in my training even suggested that that would be on the radar.

I have been learning how to lead worship EPICally (worship that is Experiential, Participatory, Image-rich, and Communal, Leonard Sweet). I have been learning how to preach differently than I have preached for most of my ministry. Every church that I have served has had its pulpit elevated above the gathered people. Having the pulpit elevated was not just about sight lines. It was a physical symbol of the authority that the Word pronounced from that pulpit was to have in people’s lives. It was a symbol of the authority accorded to the person who pronounced that word.

Now, I lead worship and preach from the same level as the congregation. Some of you do not like it much. Beyond questions about whether or not you can see the front clearly, you sense that a profound shift has happened in worship. The change in location signifies the shift in our hearts and minds – a shift that has already happened in our culture. These days, authority does not come from ‘on high’. It is not automatically accorded to people because of the positions they hold. Authority emerges out of our midst, from among us and from our life together.

These days, I find myself having to lead a congregation without any roadmaps for the road ahead. What we did in the past does not work in the present. There are no clear guides to tell us what road to take. There is only the Holy Spirit. There is only the question, “How do we sing the Lord’s song in this strange land?”

Each of you faces the same question in your own life. None of us is living the life we had planned on living. One of the great privileges of ordered ministry has been hearing some of you looking back on your life and saying, “I have been so blessed. I have had a very privileged life.” The life you have had is not the life you had planned. Who could have planned all the opportunities that have opened for you in the past fifty years? You are aware that you have received a great gift, and you are grateful.

I have watched as some of you have lived through tragic losses or as your lives took unexpected detours. In all of it, God has been asking you, “What does faith look like now?” What does faith look like in your life of privilege? What does faith look like beyond the loss? What does faith look like in new and unexpected circumstances? “How do you sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

There is no doubt that it is often difficult to live into the answer to that question. It is difficult, but it is the pattern that is given to us in our baptism: the pattern of dying to some things so that God might raise us to new life. We live into that pattern over and over again. It is full of the promises of God for a new future and new hope, but it is not easy.

That same question is being addressed throughout the whole Bible. This morning we heard two scriptures:

Isaiah summoning us to praise –

“Sing to the Lord a new song,

His praise from the end of the earth!”

and the book of Revelation, summoning up the whole witness of scripture—

“Let us rejoice and exult and give glory for the Lord our God reigns! Hallelujah!”

 What you did not hear was the loss, anguish and despair that form the soil out of which those songs of praise and joy grew. The praise carries with it the scars of people who have found themselves in circumstances for which they had not planned, in which they felt unprepared and inadequate. They were circumstances in which they had to wrestle for faith beyond the wounds and doubts and grief and sense of abandonment.

When these passages were written and composed, the hard times were not yet over and gone. “Our God reigns!” they proclaim. “God is enthroned in glory!” they shout. However, there was very little evidence in their lives that that was so. For Isaiah, Babylon still ruled in power. For John, the Roman Empire still seemed strong.

Those songs are visions of the ‘end times’ – of that time when God finally gets the world that God wants. This is a world where armies no longer wage war; where people are no longer homeless; where mothers do not have to stand in the grocery store wondering if they have enough money in their pockets to buy supper for their children that day. It is a world where environmental toxins do not threaten our health. It is a world where there is enough for everyone and everyone lives in peace and unafraid.

Against the evidence, people of faith sing these songs, boldly proclaiming that the way things are now will not be the way they are forever. The world with all its suffering and injustice is not the final word. Our God reigns and God intends are very different world.

Sing those songs and you begin to see the world differently. Sing those songs and you begin to live in the world differently. You begin acting against the evidence.  You begin acting toward God’s promised future. You begin, now, to enter into God’s new creation.

How do you sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? You sing against the evidence, and then you act against the evidence and then you watch ‘the evidence’ change.

That is what the church is doing every time is gathers around the communion table. From the earliest days of the church, communion was not just about something Jesus did in the past. It is about what Christ will do in the future. Here, we catch a glimpse of the Great Banquet as the end of time when God gets what God wants. Here we act out our hope for the world – a place where all are welcome; where there is enough for all and to spare; where sorrow is turned to joy. Here, all creation is made new.

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A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett at Central United Church, Sarnia, Ontario on November 20, 2011. (Reign of Christ Sunday)

Scriptures:  Isaiah 9: 1-9;  Psalm 23;  Mark 1: 14-20

Who is imagining your life for you?  (from an article by Michael Paul Gallagher,  Anchors in an Ocean of Change)

One of the highest values of our culture is that we should be imagining our own lives. We should be the ones choosing our lives. We become what we choose.

This past week the Royal Society of Canada said that assisted suicide and euthanasia should be legal in Canada: people should have a choice about when they die and how they die. Their recommendations will resonate with many people because for decades now our culture has been vigorously nurturing the notion that choice is the highest virtue.

Some of you will remember when ‘duty’ was the highest virtue. If you did your duty, the world would progress to become a better place. ‘Duty’ now has been replaced by ‘choice’. “You can be anything you choose to be”, we tell our children. Now, the millenials — the group of young people between the ages of 13 and 29 — are what someone called ‘the Choice Generation’. They have been part of family decisions since about the age of 4. They are characterized by their “unrelenting demand for choice in every aspect of their lives.”

There is, of course, every chance that we are fooling ourselves — that we are not really the masters of our choices that we think we are. Many of the choices we make have already been chosen for us by marketing companies. They want to imagine our lives for us. They spend billions of dollars and enormous amounts of energy shaping our desires and our fears, our hopes and our dreams. They want to ensure that the choices we make are the choices they want us to make. And they are experts at making us imagine that we our making our own choices about the things we choose.

I remember hearing years ago about a government official from the Soviet Union who was visiting North America. He wasn’t here too many days before he turned to his host and said, “Everybody looks the same. How did you do that?”

We may not be as in control of our choices as we think we are. Even the notion that ‘personal choice’ is the highest virtue was chosen for us. We were trained to think that way. It makes us very good consumers.

As we enter more and more deeply into that season of the year when the marketing companies are moving into high gear, it is helpful for followers of Jesus to take time to take stock: “Who is imagining our lives for us?” Are the images they offer us helping us to become more deeply human — sensitive and compassionate to others? Are they nurturing in us moral courage?  extravagant hope? Do they inspire our imaginations so that we live creatively? Are they shaping our desires so that we are being set free from ego and pride? Are we being set free to love in more radical and risky ways?

Someone once described Jesus Christ as “the Lord of the imagination”. He came to subvert all unworthy images we might have for our lives. In his words and in his actions, he coaxes us out of narrowness and fear — anything that leaves our lives small and pre-occupied with trivial matters. He awakens us to new possibilities for our lives. By his stories and his actions, he pulls us into the great, expansive imagination that God has for our world. He nurtures us toward goodness and holiness and beauty and truth.

To follow Jesus is to enter into his imagining of the way the the world is meant to be.

Have you ever been in an Eastern Orthodox church? How did you feel? Did you feel like you were entering into a very strange world? — a world very different from the one just outside the doors through which you entered?  Orthodox churches are intended to help you see the world that surrounds us all the time   but a world that usually remains invisible to us. It hovers just beneath our consciousness. The walls are filled with icons — stylized art that is meant to be a window into the spiritual world. The icons at eye level depict saints of the church throughout the ages. As your eyes travel upwards, you see the apostles and first disciples of Jesus — Mary, Peter, John, Paul.  At the highest level — often in a great dome at the centre of the ceiling, there is an icon of Jesus, Christus Pantocrator — Jesus, ruler of all, Lord of history, ruler of the nations.

There is lots of gold everywhere. The gold is trying to help us imagine the splendour of the God’s glory. The beauty of the light of Christ that shines in our world.

You enter this space and you smell incense — a reminder of the prayers of God’s people. Both the prayers of the congregation that are said every Sunday, but also the prayers of the saints being continually offered to God who rules over all.

In a book called “The Russian Primary Chronicle”, there is a story about Vladimir, a prince of Kiev in the tenth century. He was not a Christian. He was what we today would call a seeker. He sent envoys to various countries to discover the true religion. One day his envoys entered the Eastern Orthodox Church of St. Sophia in Constantinople (now Istanbul). They reported back to Vladimir, “We knew not whether we were in heaven or one earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere on earth. We cannot describe it to you. Only this we know, that God wells there among humans, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty.”

There is a saying that, “We shape our buildings and then our buildings shape us.” Orthodox churches are decorated so that the beauty and splendour of the building will shape the lives of the people who worship there: shaping what they see, what they value, what they value, what they hope for.

If you come into a sanctuary week after week whose exquisite beauty points you to the glory of God, your eyes and spirits are being trained to look for that glory out in the world. You learn to recognize it as you go about shopping and working and sitting in the doctor’s office. More than that, you become discontented with anything that mars or disfigures the beauty that God intends for all creation and are moved to change it.

If you come into a sanctuary week after week, aware that you are surrounded by saints through the ages who even now watch over us, joining our prayers with theirs, it becomes more possible to live your life with courage and in truth. You go out into the week, facing the challenges you face, knowing that you are not facing them alone. The saints of the church have journeyed through such discouragements before — some even greater than our own– and they are whispering to us, “Courage, courage”. Their words keep pulling you towards the finish line where you will see how your little story has been part of the great drama of salvation and reconciliation and peace that God is writing.

If Sunday by Sunday, you see an image of the crucified but risen Christ presiding of all things, making the sign of blessing over your life, you are being trained to go into the world aware that Christ really is Lord. In spite of all the darkness that can cover the earth, the great light of Christ is shining.

We are part of a tradition that has emphasized the word more than images. But those words invite us into an alternative imagination for our lives. We don’t put an icon of Christus Pantocrator at the highest spot of our sanctuary; we tell stories that shape a world for us. We hear Isaiah tell us that the world is presided over by one whose name is Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. We hear Isaiah promise us that, in spite of all the precious things that are ending, God is at work, bringing unexpected newness.  That newness is small and fragile as a child is small and fragile, but the authority of Mighty God, Lord of the cosmos, rests upon the newness. It will grow because God is determined to move his beloved creation towards goodness and truth. The resurrection of Jesus is God’s promise that nothing in all creation can ultimately defeat God’s purposes. In all the moments of our lives, Christ is offering the blessings of God’s redeeming grace. In every situation, we can be on the lookout for the blessings that Christ is inviting us to receive.

The most elemental confession of the Christian Church is “Jesus is Lord”. We don’t have to be jerked around by every television commercial.

Jesus is Lord. Christ defines your life and he defines you as a beloved child of a good and loving Father.

Jesus is Lord.  All the structures and systems of this world are not. We do not have to settle for a world of violence and injustice. God’s Spirit is on the move and we can be part of the new creation.

Jesus is Lord. What ultimately shapes your life is not your choices. As important as they are, what ultimately shapes your life is God’s choice of you. In Christ, God chooses you to receive love and grace, forgiveness and the possibility of beginning anew. God is Christ chooses you and he longs for you to choose Christ.

Allow that word to dwell richly in you. Let it shape your imagination and it will transform your life in good and compassionate and holy ways. And you will live to the glory and praise of God.

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I am at the Festival of Homiletics in Nashville, Tennessee. It’s a gathering of preachers from across North America. We worship, listen to sermons, and listen to people talk about preaching. Yesterday, I also went to the Grand Ole Opry. Because its own building was affected by the recent flood, it was held at Two Rivers Baptist Church, across the road, on higher ground. It was an interesting contrast and a good reminder to be mindful of the culture in which we witness to our faith.

There were two younger performers, Eric Church and David Nail, both of whom commented on how strange it was for them to be performing in a church. One mentioned that most of his songs would not be appropriate for such a setting. The other said that it was many years since he had sung in a church building. It was interesting to realize that there was still enough of a church consciousness in the culture that they perceived that a church building was a different space. I wondered whether or not that would be true in Canada.

I was also struck by the difference in perspective from the speakers we had heard in the morning and afternoon sessions at the Festival. Charlie Daniels sang a song about there needing to be more rednecks; Darryl Worley sang a new song about the changes he sees in the American culture — about being to determined to hold on to freedom, his God, and the law and ‘you can keep the change’. The people loved it. It reminded me of one of the speakers in the morning talking about a town hall meeting at which a white, upper or middle class woman stood at the microphone weeping and asked, “What has happened to my America?” There is a deep longing for the past, which is perceived as being more congenial than the present. There is a deep fear about the future and what all the changes portend. In the morning, however, many of the speakers were encouraging people to embrace many of the changes — the acceptance of homosexuality, the increase in ethnic diversity. One change they were not enthusiastic about was the stress under which churches are operating. It feels like an annual meeting of Conference from about 20 years ago.

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What would you say is the most powerful influence on our culture today? The internet and all the ensuing communication technologies? They’re changing the way our brains are wired. They’re changing our language. They’re changing the ways we conduct social relationships.
What about Hollywood and all the movies, television shows, celebrity obsessiveness? There’s an interesting article in a recent Maclean’s that talks about the ways in which young girls are pre-occupied with developing their image rather than themselves — and so losing touch with who they really are.
What about the automobile? It shapes our life-styles (more mobile and faster), our communities (less in touch with our local neighbourhoods), our expectations (that we can accomplish more), our environment (pollution) in profound ways.
Any ideas?
Anybody think the church is a powerful influence in our culture? Why not?
At the beginning of the second century, there were a few thousand Christians, gathering in small communities scattered throughout the Roman Empire. About 200 years later, there were perhaps 30 million Christians. The Christian Church grew so rapidly because they offered life in the midst of a culture of death (the Roman Empire). Where are our congregations offering life in the midst of our culture that is obsessed with death (while at the same time avoiding any real encounter with it in many ways).
Just thinking as I ponder the final vision of John’s Revelation (Revelation 21 and 22).

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The mission of the Church is always lived out in a specific context. In Hope in Time of Abandonment , Ellul argues that the present context is one of a lack of hope for the future. There are a number of causes that have led to this: despite astounding advancements in technology – indeed, as a result of such advancements – human beings find themselves in the midst of such inflexible structures and bewildering events that they simply give up trying to make sense of the world or to change it. “Each one lives, more or less consciously, with a ‘what’s the use?’ written in his heart.” The ‘age of suspicion’ brought on by the Enlightenment means that any attempts to forge a new future are met with derision, doubt and distrust. Most decisively for the possibility of a future, modern people have turned away from God and the gospel for so long that God no longer speaks a creative, history-creating Word into our situation. The work of the Church in such a context is to be a community whose lifestyle proclaims, bears witness to, and lives hope. Such hope has three aspects: first of all, it is a matter of entering into combat with God in prayer, protesting our abandonment and calling on God to turn again to our world. Secondly, because of the freedom that comes from the judgment and mercy offered in Jesus Christ, Christians are able to face the reality of our situation. Thirdly, Christians are to be a people who are waiting for the Holy Spirit to intervene, ready to serve when that happens. In such a way, Christians fulfill their unique role, witnessing to the sovereignty of God, even when there is so little evidence of it. By being a living sign of the Kingdom of God, a reality that comes from outside our closed down world, Christians “open up … situations which want to stay closed.”
Ellul’s three attitudes that express hope (prayer, realism, and waiting) require significant changes in many congregations. I would venture to guess that most people in our churches do not engage in prayer primarily as combat with God, pleading with God to turn away from God’s abandonment of our world. We are a people who believe ‘God helps those who help themselves’. So it is that, often, prayer ends up being a matter of telling God what we are up to and asking God to bless that. It is not seen as the one necessary action in which Christians must be engaged. In addition, in recent years, the practice of prayer has turned inward. It is often the way people ‘get in touch with themselves’, ‘center themselves’, or access ‘spiritual powers’ to help them cope with the stresses of their lives.
Similarly, the ‘realism’ which Ellul advocates as essential to hope faces resistance from a people who have been inundated with messages about thinking positively and avoiding any discomfort. Ellul’s contention that “the person who fails to look at the real, to accept it even in its most threatening aspects, to see the impasse or the fatality in which he finds himself, can never find a way out of it either, can never surmount the reality nor in any way get beyond it to make history” bumps up against the popularity of the kinds of gurus who tell us that success requires one to allow only positive thoughts into one’s mind.
Suggestions that we wait for God’s Spirit to act are often received as advocating passivity. Besides, there are things that must be done to keep the structures functioning; what will happen if we stop doing them and wait upon God for direction?
Ellul points the church in directions that are countercultural. That is his intention, of course, since he believes that it is the work of church to be a “‘third order’, introducing the unusual, the novel, the incomprehensible, the radical… a completely new and unexpected dimension.” If our churches are to become communities of hope, we shall have to find ways to help people comprehend and embrace such a countercultural identity. It is in baptism that we receive that identity. In baptism, God’s Spirit draws us into God’s creative work in our world. In living out our baptism, we embrace practices and habits that form our characters in ways that we can respond to our creative, radical God.

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