Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Life in The Crossing

A single coal does not stay on fire on its own. It needs the warmth and presence of the other coals to keep burning.
~ Jason Long, member of The Crossing community

Before I go to visit any group during this sabbatical, I explore their website. If you go to the website for the Crossing, a worshiping community out of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Boston, one thing you will find is a rule of life for the community. The above quote is used to introduce the idea.

Now, rules of life for monastic communities are commonplace. Generally speaking, they are written as behaviors for the individuals to follow. But how would you translate that idea to a worshiping community that does not live together and is made up primarily of young adults who are rejecting the old models of church?

At the Crossing, they have recognized that the rule of life is a collective statement for the community first and for individuals second. In fact two weeks after my visit, they will be having a service of commitment for those individuals who choose to make it their own. It is not a membership requirement. Theologically, I believe they have just blown up the Confirmation service and put it back together in a coherent fashion.

(To see what they have come up with, go here:

I joined the folks at The Crossing for Ascension Day services. The Crossing meets on Thursday evenings, in which they transform the sanctuary into alternative worship space. The altar is given their own decorations, the chairs are moved so that everyone can sit in the sanctuary (though other space gets used during the service); if you want, you can sit on the pillows. The service more or less follows the Episcopal Church Rite 3.

Yes, there is a band. But they are sitting down to the side. It’s like someone has figured out that the band is not there to give a performance but to be part of the liturgy. When you walk in, they are playing R&B and jazz riffs. I definitely heard some Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder in there.

If you have been reading these sabbatical postings you know that performance music in worship is becoming more and more an irritant for me. One way I know that they have crossed the line between worship and performance is when people clap after each song. That’s not worshipping God, it’s praising the artists. If you are all one community, you will have time to thank the musicians after the service for making the experience more, well, worshipful. How and where you place the musicians also indicates what importance you give to them; if you put them on a stage above everyone else, you are setting up a concert.
The Crossing also does not use projection screen. Let’s be fair; our worshiping community was about forty people, so printed bulletins could still be used. Projection screens would have detracted from the intimacy of the experience, which, in building that is a cross between gothic and colonial styles (Imagine that combo, if you will), looked much better with candles and softer lighting that screen montages of lyrics, sunsets, and crosses on a distant hill—let’s face it, we’ve all seen the crosses on the hill projections. Aren’t we tired yet of those same old filler screens? But I digress....

Leading worship is divided between several people. One interesting moment was a Spiritual Practice, which was a piece of poetry that we were invited to meditate upon. I like the idea of engaging spiritual practices in the midst of the service. That was a home run!

The reflection was given by the music director, who admittedly has a seminary degree. He played off of piece from Martin Luther: “Pray as though everything depends on God alone. Work as though everything depends on you.” He added one more piece: “Love others as though everything depends on them.” People were invited to respond to the reflection, and then we moved into the space to go deeper, either in mediation (with music) or in decorating a hanging or in further conversation.

The prayers had a chant response, the communion was offered in a circle with instructions for passing the bread and wine. Drop the second cup of grape juice guys. I understand the temptation to accommodate, but since you have to take the time to give instructions on what to do with two cups passing, you could just as easily explain why it is not necessary to receive both kinds to get the full benefit.

I also appreciate that each week, there is some activity after worship, whether it is dinner at a local fajita joint, a social ministry, or a discussion of a book. Fortunately, I was there for the fajitas, which meant we had time to talk with folks about the experience, the value of The Crossing for them, and the challenges they now face. The fact that Stephanie, their priest, is leaving is one. The need to provide a way for folks with children to participate is another; though The Crossing is aimed at young adults, some of them actually do have kids, and Thursday evening is not perhaps the best time for them. But these are the challenges that face growing communities. It will be exciting to see how they respond to them creatively.

I realize that my two favorite worship experiences have been of Episcopal communities, but that just means I can easily filter out the same old crap being done in typical Episcopal Churches and skip going to them. Notice how I have yet to mention a visit to the 9:00am Sunday contemporary service in the parish hall at St. Swithen's. That's because there's nothing new going on there.

All in all, The Crossing hit a home run, I think, if for no other reasons than that I 1) remembered the key point of the sermon two weeks later, and 2) plan to borrow copiously from them in the future. That community rule of life is one we are going to study this fall, I think.

Where is Christ to be found for the people at The Crossing? In the opens arms of acceptance. In the silences. In giving everyone a voice. In giving new energy to the old traditions.

Stephanie, Godspeed in your journeys, wherever they take you! To my priest friends: This would be a great position for someone. Keep your eyes open to see how it shapes up.  And, no, I am not looking to move (Anyone who may have had questions about that, let me be clear!), so the field is wide open.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Flag Football and Peacemaking

“Man, I don’t want to fight. I wanna stay in the League!”

Right now, I am sitting in the dining room of the hospitality house of the Simple Way, the monastic community begun by Shane Claiborne and friends. Don’t let the name fool you. This is about as complicated a monastic system as you could create. There are more or less permanent members of the community who live I houses in a part of Kensington in Philadelphia. There are temporary members of the community, interns, as it were who stay in one house also; currently there are three of them, but there can be as many as five. Next, there are people who live outside of Kensington but work at the Simple Way, who do everything from publish a magazine called Conspire to arrange Shane’s speaking schedule. One of them splits his time between the Simple Way and Pittsburgh!

And, of course, there is the neighborhood. In a sense, everyone in the neighborhood is a part of The Simple Way because, it is the neighborhood that is the reason they are in this part of Philly. And everyone in the neighborhood knows the people of The Simple Way. Remarkably, the reverse is pretty much true as well; as I walked through the neighborhood with Brett, a former Vineyard pastor from South Africa now staying at The Simple Way with his wife Valerie, I was amazed at how many people he knew by name.

So where does the quote above come from? I overheard it at a flag football game. A few years back, The Simple Way decided to respond to the drastic statistics of minority boys dropping out of school. Only 45% of African American males get through high school, and only 43% of Hispanic ones do. 

Yes, they offer tutoring like many groups do. But they also created a flag football league called Timoteo, Spanish for Timothy. Now, imagine football played where any act of aggression is a penalty. There is no tackling or pileups. Next, imagine teams of boys ages 13-19 showing up at a field to compete in a sport that, as they have seen it, is dependent upon aggression. Six games are played on Saturday, two at a time. Brett, Valerie, and I were watching one game, a blowout sadly. A few members of the losing team started getting frustrated, mostly with the inadequacies of their own quarterback. The coach told them firmly to hold it together, that they would discuss it after the game.

It was another young man behind us, however, who delivered the winning line I quoted at the beginning of this piece. I never even saw the young man who said it, but that was not important really. We didn’t know what prompted him to say it either, but the message was loud and clear. Staying in this league was more important to him than some perceived slight or momentary frustration.

Timeteo teams are sponsored by various congregations in the Kensington community, though you would not know by looking who sponsors who because they congregation names are not plastered all over the shirts. The coaches commit to being involved in the lives of their players. Unlike school sports, you do not have to keep up a grade point average, or, for that matter, be in school at all. You just have to be responsible to your team and not fight. 

And it is working. They started with just four teams a few years ago. Now they have expanded to a second adult league, and men who have aged out of the original league are also providing referees. 200 hundred boys are learning a new way to interact and are being mentored by men who are willing to give time.

Now, this is creativity in the name of the Gospel! There are no Bible thumping sessions, no coercions to go to church, just a real show by churches to be involved in the lives of the community, to share Christ’s love for everyone. 

I once asked Shane Claiborne how it was that folk at The Simple Way all seemed so creative. His response was that when you have little or nothing, you get creative. You see that in poor communities all the time, he said.

Lots of congregations feed the poor, provide clothes, build schools in Latin America, and volunteer at shelters. For most of us, that still means going home to comfort at the end of the day. Not many of us can say we practice peacemaking by playing football.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Taking on Brian McLaren

I could've called this "In Defense of Style" I also could've written this as a response to Brian McLaren's recent post about what emerging is and is not. But, hey, nobody reads my blog anyway. Maybe using his name in the title will bump me on the Google listings. Yeah, right.

I was intrigued by what Brian had to say about emerging and style; you can read the full column he wrote here, but he pulled out the section about style to repeat on his own page. First, you should know that I have read lots of his stuff and think he is doing much great work for Christianity, including for the church. I really appreciated what he had to say at the Episcopal Church's 2009 General Convention, and I look forward to seeing him at Wild Goose this summer. That said, I think there is something to be said for style, more than Brian’s declaration that a particular style is not the mark of an emerging church.

I say this with two hesitations. First is the feeling that my blog has started sounding like the church critic who hates almost everything. That was not my plan when I started writing this series. What I really wanted was to blog my in process thoughts about what we are called to be and what we are called to do, lessons I am learning from visiting places that are do things differently. I have been traveling to see how authentic worship and ministry are being lived out today, aiming to provide messages of hope for me and my friends who are trying to shape meaningful ministries in our communities. In other words, none of this should be read as mine final words about any subject.

The second hesitation is that it is hard to oppose Brian when he is essentially correct. Emerging is not a style of worship. I know that. If it were, the worship at Westover (see a few columns back) should've been perfect instead of leaving me disinterested. They had the band, the money, the people, the beautiful worship space, all the trappings that some people are mistakenly associating with emerging.

But I am going to challenge Brian because it would be too easy to read his column as suggesting that style is not important. Nothing could be further from the truth. First, it is a lie to suggest that there is a worshiping community of any kind that does not have a style. We all do. Our style may be minimalist or reactive to things we don’t like, but that is a style too. And acknowledgment of one’s style means deliberate consideration of how you look to others, which is part of evangelism.

And right up front, I must say that style without substance is meaningless. As an evangelism tool, style only gets people interested enough to listen. Without substance, they will soon drift away.
Though it is possible to be emerging in a great variety of styles--some Episcopal communities have chosen to go there through incense and sung liturgy, for example--nevertheless, the style you present to visitors says a lot about who you are and how you understand the gospel of Jesus Christ. If your style is primarily for the people who worship with you, for example, then you will continue to attract the same kinds of people. Style is a bit like clothing. People get their first impression of you through it, which is why most of us don’t go naked.

So, not knowing that I would see McLaren’s article on style and emerging on Tuesday, I visited Cedar Ridge Community Church on Sunday. That is the congregation that Brian and friends started years ago. From a distance, it is the emerging church that has made it, right? They own property, a converted barn and acres of land that they are learning to use for sustainable gardening (A whole message--never say sermon--series right now is on land, food, and work in conjunction with this.). They have full time paid clergy that the congregation supports. They have more than 20 people showing up. And guess what? They have a style all their own.

First style choice is the architecture. I believe they converted a barn already on the property. From the outside, it looks like a very nicely kept barn. The inside, though, says a lot of money was spent making it beautiful. We are not shabby. Upon entering the building, you notice that the foyer is huge, a real gathering place that serves the purpose of most parish halls as a gathering point. By making the foyer into this space, they can gather informally before church as well as after. The coffee and doughnuts are here; you can bring them into worship if you like.

Just a couple of thoughts though. Nametags do not work unless everyone wears them. Most of the regulars did not put one on, and visitors like me are not ready to be clearly marked that way; we tend to want to blend in. Also, perhaps greeters on the lookout for visitors should be working the room. If they were, they missed me for a while. Someone eventually did come up to me, but I must say that I made myself look as lost and unsure of myself as I could.

They physical layout of the worship space says the band is the most important things. They are on the highest stage. The altar and lectern were closer to us, but definitely lower. The number of chairs they have set up for the worshipers is too many. As a result, everyone sits in the back and there are lows of empty chairs in the front. Even churches with pews can rope off unneeded pews to encourage people to sit closer to the action.

And here is my pet peeve for almost every place I have been on this journey. Let some natural light into the place. Yes, I know barns to not normally have windows, but you could’ve changed this! The only other places I associate with no lights are theatres, prisons, and casinos.

So what about the style of worship? The leadership clearly knows the difference between worship and a theatrical production. The band is not bathed in a lighting display, and they are not the worship leaders. The lectern is a simple one, placed for practicality. The altar is prominent enough that the symbol is always there, though I wondered why the leader moved from it to the lectern to show us the bread and obviously empty cup.

The band played. Announcements were made. A prayer, including a few lines of responsive litany was read. And then, straight into the message about work for 45 minutes. The band played a song chosen to wrap up the message. We got instructions about communion time, a brief prayer of institution that took place at the lectern, not the altar (why?). Then, while the band played two more songs (including a nice jazzy version of Wade in the Water), we communed, either by gathering around a table and communing one another or by going to a more traditional station. You could also write a prayer  or an offering at this time, and stations to pray with others were set up on in the rear. There was one more song and then a dismissal prayer.

What struck me most about it was the passivity and individualism of it all. Some people sang the songs they knew, but there was no real encouragement to do so (Well, the words were on the screen.). The message was a lecture with no real chance for interaction; I vaguely remember a show of hands at one point, but that’s about it. The prayer and offering stations during communion were solo acts. There was no passing of the peace or equivalent, so I did not interact with the few people around me (I foolishly sat in the front half of the room.).

I never had a reason to interact with the people I was worshiping with unless I did the table communion. Sorry, but watching the first group of 10-12 people down their grape juice shot glasses all at once was more like watching some friends taking shots at a recent birthday party then communion for me. At the same time, it seemed too intimate an act to do with strangers. I had to go to a station to keep from laughing.

So, here is what the style said to me. Communal prayer is of little value to you. The role of scripture is to illuminate whatever the message giver wants to say that week. Color is important. Comfort is important, as is being relaxed for worship.

Communion is something you are still not actually all that comfortable with, so you downplay it as much as possible even though you offer it every week. And someone yearns for a bit of the Book of Common Prayer more than they want to admit ("The gifts of God for the people of God?").

While discipleship groups are a significant part of your congregation, many if not most people are not a part of them. You are wonderfully multicultural (but so is your standard denominational church in the Washington area). You have succumbed to the notion that children and worship don't mix--but does that really have to apply to the senior high group?

And, I learned that you avoid controversy; this may not be true, but the message this week sure conveyed that impression. I listened to a 45 minute message on work that told me that one should shape one's life so that, while at work, one can still live as a Christian. It did not address whether or not all jobs are appropriate for Christians. The message giver told us all about his years of working for Lockheed Martin with only one half sentence nod to the idea that maybe a Christian should think about whether working for a war manufacturer was a good thing. I was, frankly, stunned. Perhaps because I work with college students who wrestle with vocation questions all the time, I thought he missed the mark. It seems like the hard question that a lot of people face—is the work that I do really something a Christian should be doing—was simply too confrontive. So I wonder if this is always true for messages at Cedar Ridge.

I’ll be honest, it was the seating situation coupled with the passive nature of the worship and the message that told me this was not a community that wanted to reach me. The rest I could get past. Obviously, I am not the target, being an out of state visitor. And I understand that much more learning and discussion take place outside of worship. But I am an empathetic visitor, and this is my first contact. Do you know what you are saying to visitors?

So, yes, style is important along with substance. It does not make a ministry emerging or not emerging, but it does reflect some of the ways in which you understand the Gospel. Forgetting that reality could be fatal for a worshiping community and dangerous to the spiritual lives of those who come into contact with your community.