March 2016

To Be or Not to Be “Church”


In this week’s Alban Weekly post, The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck, asks a question without a subject or verb. “A Place at the Table?”


This is a forward-looking post that reveals an emerging vision — a vision that our little congregation has been living since, oddly enough, we were denied “a place at the table” within our own denomination.


She points to experiences where non-church entities demonstrate their willingness to work with the Church on projects that would benefit all. Collaboration.


Why is this a surprise?


The Church has trouble collaborating even within Church structure. Every congregation, church agency and institution is an island. All come together once a year to report to one another, but otherwise we all have independent leadership, missions and funding needs. We are more likely to find collaborative partners outside of church structure than we are within, where everyone looks out for their own mission interests.


The 21st century is incompatible with historic Church ways. The world around us changes faster than we can keep up. Where once we related only to family and community, we can now connect with people of similar interests all over the world.


We could spend time regretting the loss of a cozy, tightly defined past—or we can join the as yet to be defined future. Maybe we can help define it!


Fischbeck nails it:

We would need to explore how the structures of our own denominations and judicatories help and hinder us for such collaborations. We would need to examine our attitudes, our pride, our theology, about profit and non-profit, about collaborating with those who do not share our faith, about compromise. We would need to have conversations and prayer, discovering, cultivating, and assessing ways for the Church to be a part of such innovative conversations and solutions.


Imagine you are an ordinary good-hearted citizen—the type that self-describes as spiritual but not religious. You care about others. You want to good with your life. You want to be as effective as possible. What would lead you to choose to enlist in a church’s mission? We must be at the table to communicate how we care just as they do.


Secular philanthropy is better positioned to serve. It has a much bigger well to find funding and volunteers. That makes it harder for churches but not impossible.


Rising generations care about effect. They are less inclined to follow tradition for tradition’s sake. A lot of today’s Church dialogue is drowned out by the static of how things were and should be. Reality? That’s another story.


2×2 has experience. The last eight years have been difficult. We were getting along fine. Not without problems, but fine. We had a well-defined mission and action plan. With the lure of property and endowments up for grabs, church leaders sighed “We just don’t see how you can continue.”


They couldn’t see what we lay people were starting to see. Our future would be brighter if we started networking with community.



With doors locked and bank accounts frozen, we started to work with what we had—connections in the community. We expanded by using the internet. We discovered that people are willing to work with churches. We started working with government and local institutions. We found experts in various fields willing to donate time and talent.


Fischbeck’s ideas are our experience. If our little church can do this without any ordained leadership, imagine what churches with more than we have can do with networking (evangelism).


Time to be part of the world.


The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck is the founding Vicar of The Church of the Advocate, an Episcopal Mission in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.


“Follow Me” Means “Take A Chance”


Immigration made America great. How?


It might be in the genes. Scientists have identified an adventure gene. A gene that predisposes people to take risks. You could call it the “What if?” gene. (Its real name is DRD4.)


America was likely populated by people with that gene—whether it was Asians wondering what life might be like to wander east across the Bering, whites of various ethnicities heading west across the Atlantic, blacks arriving here not by choice but surviving to seek freedom, or today’s huddled masses lining the Rio Grande. A high percentage of the people who found their way here loaded our cultural gene pool with the “What if?” gene.


Here is a description of the What if? gene in a post written by Xiao.


The natural desire to explore is most intensely expressed in children, who aggressively form hypotheses in their minds and experiment. Can I place this block on another one without toppling over? Will I get the cookie if I cry or ask nicely? What happens if I hit the person who takes my toy, will they give my toy back or fight back? What if I hop over this fence I’m not suppose to; will I find new things to do? Such ruthlessly efficient hypothesis testing makes children natural adventurers.

And people who retain this adventurous trait in adulthood are the explorers. The ones who dare to venture into unchartered territories.

The ones who push human civilizations forward.


Christians seeking religious freedom were among the early immigration waves. They were the innovators and risk-takers in the Church at a time when it was risky to ask any questions.


Their dedication inappropriately labeled our country “a Christian nation.” We were a nation with a lot of Christians but never a Christian nation.


Lacking that gene leads to contentment—lives lived in the same town or job, among the same people. Perhaps the contented have their own gene—the rocking chair gene.


Without an influx of new blood, the percentages even out over time. The rocking chair gene grows and the What if? gene wanes.



Are we able to explore and take the risks that might move us in new directions? Or is the rocking chair gene moving us back and forth in the same place?


Christianity has prospered in America for a dozen or more generations. Is our gene pool now diluted? Does the population that comprises the Church have leaders with the risk-taking gene?


All Christian should ask these questions of ourselves. We should ask these questions before we call a pastor. We should ask again as we elect leaders. Will they forge a new direction? Will they create a lot of movement that gets us nowhere?


If we no longer have the risk-taking gene, we need to find new blood. Leaders who cannot accept risks are not leaders. They are rocking chair jockeys. The rocking chair gene would have kept Moses in Egypt. It would have kept the disciples in the Upper Room.


Jesus chose followers with the risk-taking gene. “Follow me. No questions.” Accepting the call, means accepting the journey. Sky-divers don’t dwell on the landing. They relish getting there.

Dignity—A Return to Camelot

or the foundation of Christian practice?


I subscribe to two theaters. I pay no attention to what’s playing. I go, take my seat, and watch whatever they offer.


I’ll read any genre, liberally mixing it up.


This week I was surprised to find the same theme jumped out in the theater I attended and the book I read. The play was August Wilson’s Two Trains Running. For two and one half hours, the actors portrayed people seeking dignity.


I had no idea what The Rowan Tree was about when I downloaded it. I like trees. The cover grabbed my eye. It was free on Kindle Unlimited.


I didn’t realize what the book was about until the last quarter of the book. The author, Robert Fuller, a mathematician and former president of Oberlin College, wrote the book to present his vision for leadership based on honoring the dignity of others. Dignitarianism.


Dignity is something we sometimes impose on others as we gloat in victory. Victors strive to impose dignity on losers as they demonstrate superiority. The Rowan Tree asks what might result if we thought about dignity before we conquer and as we negotiate.


We know dignity is desirable. But still we seek to use it as condescending victors.


The beginning and middle of the book explore interesting characters struggling with the changing moral perceptions of the post-1990 era. At first, the reader might think the book is about interracial families—or maybe about changing marriage customs or various international exchanges—but each of these themes is interrelated. At the end of the book Fuller states his theories clearly. His preaching is more thought-provoking than offensive. Putting dignity first in political, domestic and international negotiations might change the world climate.


The characters in The Rowan Tree are remarkable in that they are all privileged and civilized. They are kind to one another as they seek to find themselves in a changing world. The story is set 25 years later than Two Trains Running and takes us into the future. The racial divides are less rigid. The characters make mistakes. They disappoint one another. They make peace with unusual grace. They manage to put others first. It’s hard to find an antagonist!


Both works point out that honoring dignity is the most profound change agent. In Two Trains Running characters in a black neighborhood diner in 1969 seek personal dignity—while walking all over other characters. Each has a different role in the community. The levels of indignity vary in the beginning of the play. The oppressed waitress senses the Civil Rights Movement means little to her. A mentally challenged man was taken advantage of ten years before and can’t let go. An ex-con wants to avoid returning to jail but can’t find work. The most successful character, the undertaker, insists on dignity as he buries the members of the declining neighborhood.


Dignity. What a concept to consider during this election year as our future world leaders try to gain power and influence by humiliating one another! If this is how we treat colleagues with similar goals, how do we negotiate with those with fundamentally different ideas?


Church has its politics too.


Combine the messages of Two Trains Running and The Rowan Tree. Like it or not, acknowledge it or not, getting our own way is part of church life.


We preach a gospel of love but we are tempted to first carefully calculate what’s in it for us. We think about how we can keep what we have and calculate how we can get more. We protect our own dignity over that of others. This is often disguised as stewardship, legalistic dogma, tradition, church order, respect, authority—all kinds of things.


It is part of the placement of pastors, the distribution of resources, and the closing of churches. The end is often decided before negotiations begin. Sometimes the negotiations never begin. Dignity, imposed more than practiced, is often nothing but legitimizing bullying tactics. The fate of the congregation and its members are collateral damage.


Yet, the ideas of dignatarianism are rooted in Christianity. The leper, the prostitute, the centurion, the king are all equal in Christ’s eye.


Something to think about.


Afterthought: The rowan tree holds a special place in Celtic tradition. 


When we silence ourselves long enough to listen to the rowan speak, we hear her message: “look deeper, see through the object before your eyes and you will encounter visions into the worlds beyond the one you physically know.”

Can Small Churches Reach Youth?

youthPastor Andy Stanley, the faith leader of Atlanta’s North Point (mega) Church, made a big mistake.


He spoke out against two things—parents in small churches and small church ministries.


Here is the important thing. He is really, truly sorry. He made a heart-felt, complete apology that congregations rarely hear from leaders. He added no “buts.”


Enough said? Time to move on?


Before moving too fast, let’s look at what he claims were the roots of his comments. He and his church had just come from a successful youth retreat for middle school children. He was high from the experience and wishing every middle school child could have been part of the event. Stanley attacked parents not so much for attending small churches but for not giving their children the opportunity his church had just provided. His mistake was in thinking that the large church is the only environment that can serve this age group.


Small churches can serve youth. The problem is often we don’t. We don’t have the extra staff that are often dedicated to youth ministry. We struggle to find volunteers to lead energetic teens. But the potential is there. It is a matter of finding the way.


Middle school is a microcosm of life. A great deal of potential and dreams are bundled up in packages of hormones and insecurity. Some middle schoolers thrive in large groups. On the other hand, being part of a large group can torture other young teens. They can feel overshadowed by the emerging “A” personalities (who may be struggling with their own self-images). They can be bombarded by what they see as insurmountable shortcomings.


Again, Stanley has retracted his statement in full. He realizes that parents may know best. He realizes that small church ministries have value and good ideas and love their children. He points to the support money his congregation provides to other ministries. He even cites instances where his ministry borrowed ideas from small church ministries.


Small church ministries can provide opportunities for children. Young people can learn to serve, can be individually mentored, can develop faith and talents when they aren’t just another middle school kid. Small churches can do a great job at this.


Unfortunately, in many cases, small churches fail to reach out to this age group. They have programs for the very young. Volunteers to lead programs drop out when children hit — middle school! These days this can be as young as ten.


Before we totally dismiss everything Pastor Stanley foolishly said, let’s look at why and recognize the little bits of truth that prompted it.


Stanley said his comments were about caring for the next generation. His concerns are well-founded.


Small churches need to address youth—for the children’s sake and for the longevity of their own faith communities.


I would have no trouble making a list of why young people can and do thrive in small church ministries, but I’ve visited many congregations (some even fairly large) that have a huge age gap in attendance between the ages of ten and fifty! That is a frustrating cause of concern.


Let’s hope Pastor Stanley’s gaffe is a prompt for something good.

A Moving Story that Touches on Black Lives Matter

We tend to focus on the topic of Black Lives Matter when violence erupts.

Here is a story well told that speaks volumes on the topic of Black Lives Matter. Russel Omar-Shareef’s story is more powerful than guns.


This writer/artist was a street kid in our own city. He doesn’t mention our neighborhood but he mentions neighborhoods that border ours. He walked our streets and we failed to see him. We were not prepared to make a difference in his life. The schools, the social services system, the justice system, the faith communities — society’s designated solution-providers failed this obviously gifted man. His insignificance was the seed of a life viewed as a problem. We failed to see problem as opportunity—to borrow the words of a common business mantra.


Maybe there can still be a happy ending. If the Black Lives Matter movement does nothing else, it can tell these stories. Separating foundational issues from hot button gun control issues might lead progress.


His first encounter with the law was when he took action as a five-year-old to save the lives of his older sisters threatened by their abusive mother. He became a foster child. He spent some of his most formative years in jail. Jail—the solution for truancy? No wonder his first adult years were spent looking for an escape!


Note how this young man’s struggle in society began with a sense that he didn’t matter. He was the youngest child, inspired to copy the artwork of his big sister. He was just learning to use the tools. He wanted to be noticed. But he was brushed aside. This reminds me of the story of the Beatles. A leading educator points out in a TED talk that one middle school music teacher in Liverpool once had 50% of the Beatles in her class. Paul was discouraged from joining the choir. Sometimes we can’t see for looking! The critics that counter with “All Lives Matter have a point!


After years of dealing with institutional oversight in one form or another, Russel could be reentering society fueled with resentment and hate. His words do not reflect bitterness—just raw reality.


How many youngsters do we pass on our sidewalks that are like him? How many never dig deep within themselves to develop skills as Russel has?


And as for the Church connection—if we abandon the neighborhoods that are home to so many struggling young people (the continuing mainline trend), then we are abandoning the Russel’s that live in these neighborhoods.


Read his moving story written in his own words and illustrated with his own art.

How My Peter Pan Syndrome Landed Me In Prison For 10 Years

Never Never Land turned out to be a maximum-security penitentiary.


What Is It About Tradition?

4833534949_860b827b23_bYoung People in England Are Drawn to Evensong

What will shape the worship experience of the coming decades? Will jazz liturgy gain wide acceptance? Will praise bands be the norm, rocking every sanctuary with numbing sound? The fact of the matter is that the church has always dealt with different music styles. They were just divided by centuries and decades and now there are multiple choices in our diverse and connected society. So what is the future of liturgy?


Church music has a long tradition. The church is probably the only place outside of the folk repertoire where tunes and words of songs that date as far back as the triple digit years are still regularly played and sung.


We’ve lived through many eras—the early chants, the baroque, the theological treatises of the Reformation, the folk music tunes that found their way into hymnals, the marches of the 19th century, the acceptance of the gospel tradition, the awkward years of the twentieth century during which we clung to the past while stumbling into the future. Recently we seem to have returned to chanting. Praise bands tend to feature chant-like lyrics and phrasing.


Things seem to be a bit unsettled today. What lies ahead? We might be surprised!


Leaders of worship in English academic world of Oxford and Cambridge have noticed a remarkable upturn in student attendance at Evensong where ancient tunes and texts are used.


Neil McCleery, assistant chaplain, New College, and a member of the Oxford committee of the Prayer Book Society remarked,


“Very hard working students say that it provides a time towards the end of the day when you can just sit in silence and tune out all of these influences [technological].”


He suggested that the 16th century language may seem less demanding or threatening and somehow more inclusive, perhaps because it is equally foreign to all.


Is it a condemnation of the previous generation or two?


“The era of jaded folk worship is coming to an end,” McCleery said. “Indeed I think the people who want that sort of thing are the older generation now and the young are coming back to traditional worship and the choral tradition.”


I come from the Lutheran tradition and love hymns. I value the words and the history. I love sharing stories of hymns. As worship leader noted members’ favorites just as a cook takes mental notes on what foods are best received. I’d make an effort to choose hymns that I knew would resonate despite the diversity. It wasn’t hard. We just used as many as eight or ten hymns on Sunday as opposed to the standard three or four. We had members from the Anglican tradition, who would call out during worship if I chose the nonAnglican tune to accompany the words. “Wrong tune!” One member was a Fannie Crosby groupie. I can recall one pastor asking if I knew the favorite hymn of a member who had recently died. “In the cross of Christ I glory” came quickly to mind. We’ve had members who leaned toward gospel music, loved adding dance moves, or wanted to sing trending the trending tunes on religious radio. I find value in all.


There is a cultural element that requires adjustment in sharing varying music traditions. I have the hardest time with praise bands. They seem performance-oriented. Despite the fact that the leaders stand before the assembly with mics in hand, encouraging the congregation, the participation is usually pretty spotting. People are usually really into it or totally passive. The decibel level of praise bands is sometimes so overpowering that it affects me physically. The loud bass thumping against my chest competes with my heartbeat. I am reminded of my insignificance when I can’t hear my own voice! I also get bored repeating the same dozen words for five minutes. But these worship styles seem to be attracting people. I’ll look deeper to find out why.


So are the collegians of Great Britain setting a trend? Is it a cultural fluke? Are others experiencing this? Where do we go from here? Is tradition poised to make a comeback?




Praise Band: photo credit: Cash Cash via photon (license)
Organ: href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/70961014@N00/25173359116″>Rose via photopin (license)