…assorted thoughts, musings, rants, etc…

Emerging Church

What we can learn from the newspaper industry

I’m several episodes behind in my listening to This Week in Tech (TWiT). A few days ago I was listening to an installment from early July, and one of the topics discussed was the changing paradigm for newspapers in the internet age. Their particular example was the Tampa Tribune, whose editor came to the realization that the online component of the paper was no longer just an adjunct to the printed version – they needed to start viewing the printed version as an adjunct to the online content. And that if they don’t make this shift, NEWSPAPERS WILL DIE.
That shift in approach involves all sorts of changes to how the business of publishing the Tribune is carried out – economic, structural, and procedural. When news is a commodity easily acquired for free from a huge array of sources online, how do you maintain a business model?

There are a couple of things that papers like the Tribune are focusing on: becoming more “hyperlocal”, and shifting from becoming merely a dispenser of news to becoming more a facilitator for discussion. Becoming “hyperlocal” means focusing more on local issues and activities in the local community. In the Tampa Tribune’s case, one result was to shut down their Tallahassee bureau, since Tampa locals were less interested in Tallahassee happenings, and the local Tallahassee paper could probably do a better job of covering that scene (and putting it online for anyone to see).

Becoming a facilitator for discussion of the news means shifting from a one-way model of dispensing information to a two-way model that includes feedback and discussion. While there has long been a limited feedback loop in the form of letters to the editor, this new model of feedback and discussion is immediate and has a very low barrier to entry. And many old school reporters and writers don’t like this new model – they’d rather dispense to the public, not discuss with the public.

Why am I writing about newspapers? Well, I see a lot of similarities to the church. If the church wants to keep new generations engaged, it needs to

a) become more “hyperlocal” in its mission and outreach, providing many opportunities to serve those in need within the local community in a very active, hands-on way, and

b) shift from becoming merely a dispenser of theology to more of a facilitator for discussion about theology, faith, and living the gospel – including letting worship be more of a dialogue rather than a monologue.

Church and the whole person

Emergent Village recently featured a post that is essentially a summary for a newly updated book called UnLearning Church. The book discusses the need to be aware of the different ways in which some people – especially younger people – are wanting/needing to engage the gospel. A couple of excerpts:

“UnLearning churches realize that people become engaged through environment and experiences. Such churches develop an environment that frees people and allows them to experience God in closer and deeper ways than they’ve ever experienced before. Too many people believe they cannot find an experience of God in the institutional church.”

“UnLearning churches focus more on connecting people to meaning than to activity. Fifteen years ago, we would have emphasized getting people to show up for church programs and listen-and-learn meetings. We would have sponsored a seminar and gauged its success by how many attended. Now we measure success by asking “How are people finding life change and purpose through the experience?” People are not looking for church meetings so much as for life meaning. We want to know if their church experience makes a difference in their relationships, parenting, Christian witness, and stewardship.”

While there’s a danger in focusing solely on personal experience and ignoring teaching/study/learning, churches would do well to consider these ideas. I’ve put the book on my “to read” list.

The God of Irony

I just got home from sitting in on a Budget and Stewardship committee meeting at Eastridge. It’s getting to be that time of year again, when church members will be asked to give just a little more than last year. I was asked to be there as a representative of the communications committee. They want my committee to make a DVD, with footage of Eastridge activities and interviews with certain people and narration and background music, to send to all the members of the church as we approach Stewardship Sunday in November.

As I sat listening to the discussion, I just sort of smiled to myself at God’s sense of irony. Just as I’ve been feeling increasingly ambivalent about the church (though excited about ministry), and feeling more and more that I’m being called away from the church in order to do ministry, I find myself in charge of making a video to get people excited about the church.

Who says God doesn’t enjoy a good laugh?

Can you get there from here? (part 2)

Last week I raised some doubts that major changes to the approach of “being the church” would be accepted or embraced by the established church. I’d like to expand on those thoughts a bit more, and try to explain the basis for my doubt.

I already talked about the fear and trepidation we experienced at Eastridge with relation to getting a contemporary worship service established on Sunday mornings. Not long ago I was talking with some ladies at church – ranging in age from early-50s to late-70s – about some of the characteristics of younger generations. Some of those characteristics are ones I’ve mentioned here before:

* a distrust of institutions and hierarchy

* a poor opinion of Christians

* a strong desire for community

* more experiential than philosophical in their approach to truth

* more interested in local, hands-on service than writing checks to an impersonal agency

* not as interested in church “membership” (at least as we currently define it)

As I talked about these characteristics, a couple of the ladies seemed increasingly perplexed and troubled. After I had commented about my desire to try and work around some of these issues in an effort to reach this demographic (and I hate using such a marketing-driven term, but I can’t think of a better one at the moment), one of the ladies said something along the lines of “Well, if they used our facilities, I’d expect them to become members and support our church”.

Part of me understands the mindset she’s operating from – it’s an institutional mindset, and it’s the paradigm she has for understanding “church”. For these women (and for many people), the institution provides the framework for understanding the body of Christ, and so to serve the goals and priorities of the institution is to serve Christ’s church.

But how do you approach “church” when the people you’re trying to reach generally don’t give a rip about the institution or its priorities? And what institution, operating from a mode of self-preservation, would even encourage the pursuit of ministry guided by such scandalous and blasphemous thoughts? Even if an institution had a desire to reach such people, I suspect that the long term goal would be to attract them with some new method(s), and then “institutionalize” these folks as quickly as possible.

My goal would be almost the opposite. If we were to attempt to reach some of these folks at Eastridge, through an alternative worship gathering and an alternative approach to “being the church”, I would try to shield them from the institution as much as possible. Or, perhaps a fairer way to phrase it: I would try to shield them from the institutional aspects of the PCUSA.

I would lean towards viewing such a group of people as a “sub-congregation” of the larger congregation – a church plant within our own building. To be clear, I don’t see it as completely isolated from the larger congregation. I think there can and should be opportunities for interaction. But rather than forced social events, I think such interaction can best be fostered through service opportunities, where both “contingencies” have the opportunity to work together beyond the church walls. From there, perhaps a more organic interaction could begin and grow.

I also feel strongly that we would need to downplay (and/or redefine) the notion of “membership”. In many ways, the current notion of church membership almost works against the church. We send people through new member classes, thinking and hoping that as members they will be more invested in and committed to the life of the church. But in reality, once most people finish the membership process, they feel like they’re “done”. Becoming a member is viewed more often as a destination rather than a starting point.

Think about it – if membership resulted in more commitment and participation in the life of the church, then how come the same 10%-20% of a congregation always carries out 70%-80% of the ministry? So if there’s no significant correlation between membership and commitment, why are we so fixated upon membership (beyond bragging rights)?

If we are going to insist upon a membership focus, can we at least redefine what it means to be a “member’? Maybe we can define membership to mean a commitment to actively worship with, study with, pray with, pray for, serve with, and support one another, and to show God’s love and grace to whoever we can.

In any case, it seems to me that the cards are stacked against any of this happening within the current institutional structure, for the following reasons:

1. We need radical, not modest, changes to the way we operate if we hope to reach most folks in this culture.

2. The institutional hierarchy will resist (if not reject) radical change.

3. Most local Sessions and/or congregations are averse to radical change.

So that’s the basis for my skepticism. I know that with God, all things are possible. But it doesn’t follow that with God, all things are probable. 😉

Can you get there from here? (part 1)

I’ve been thinking more about emerging church / institutional church paradigms. This ties back to what I posted a few weeks ago about the church I long for vs. the program-oriented church. In terms of Eastridge, both Pastor Jim and Pastor J.P. have indicated interest in trying some new things. I very much appreciate their willingness to consider some “outside the bounds” ideas. Pastor Jim mentioned the existence of a group in the Presbytery that met recently to talk about declining membership and what the Presbyterian church could do to attract new members.

I’m glad people are asking these questions, and I hope they continue to do so. At the same time, I can’t help but think that, in many ways, trying to incorporate things that are significantly different within the existing institutional framework is problematic.

Eastridge is in the process of establishing a weekly contemporary worship service. There have been some pilot services this summer to give people in the congregation a chance to see what a contemporary-style service would be like, and to work out what’s really required to do one on a regular basis. It will go weekly in early September. I think it’s long overdue, and it will minister to a lot of folks at Eastridge. It’s taken a long time to come together, and it’s met some resistance and criticism. “It’s too loud”. “You make us stand too long”. (Uh…you do have free will, you know. You can sit whenever you’d like). “I don’t like the headset microphones worn by the pastors”. There have been lots of Session meeting discussions about why we’re changing anything. Some people will likely leave Eastridge over it, because while we’re only changing one of the Sunday morning services, we’re changing their service.

And here’s the deal. The approach of “being the church” that I’ve been contemplating makes the fear and trepidation associated with establishing a contemporary service seem like nothing by comparison. The contemporary service represents a stylistic change to one of the Sunday morning worship services, and though to some in the congregation it’s akin to setting their entire world askew, it’s really a relatively minor change in the grand scheme of things. Though there’s a worship team, and contemporary music, and the order of the service is a bit different, it still has all the elements of a fairly standard worship service. And that point was emphasized over and over again by several people as we discussed the issue during session meetings, in an effort to address the fears and concerns of those who were less than enthusiastic about the idea: “It’s really not that different”.

While there are stylistic elements associated with some of the things I’ve been thinking about, many of the ideas represent a fairly significant paradigm shift in the way people think about being the church. And I have to admit – I have a hard time seeing such a different approach being embraced by the establishment.

I’ll post more on this next week…

An attempt at being constructive

If you’ve read my previous posts on the subject of the church, you know I have some criticisms of the church in its current institutional form(s) – our structures, our focus, our methods, our approach. There’s a lot that we could be (and should be) doing differently.

Part of the reason for my posting such criticisms is to vent frustration. But they’re also posted in hopes that it might get people in the church to start thinking about what we do and why we’re doing it.

I know that criticism can easily be a one-dimensional, negative exercise, and I’ve probably been guilty of that on these pages at times. So I’ve decided to respond to my own criticisms by trying to write something constructive. Rather than simply talk about the ways that the church is falling short or is mis-focused, I’ve decided it’s time to “put up or shut up”, and present some ideas abut how the church should (and actually could) be focused.

Case in point: I’ve been critical of the “programmatic focus” of the church – the “We need to offer lots of programs to attract new customers” approach. I don’t believe that programs are inherently bad or evil. But I’m wary of programs for a few main reasons:

1. Programs are often the starting point, rather than an intentional (and dynamic) response to an intentional (and dynamic) purpose/mission statement of a congregation.
2. Programs often exist either because a) they’ve been in existence for years (sometimes decades), and they come to be considered sacred, or b) other churches (often those churches considered to be “successful”) have a certain program, so our church should have one so we can compete in the church marketplace.
3. Every program that’s in place takes resources – in the form of peoples’ time and energy (both those that plan and lead the program and those that simply participate), as well as the church budget. And often these spent resources have little to do with the fundamental call of the gospel.

So if I were starting a church (especially one that would seek to connect with the unchurched as well as the “churched”), what would the focus be? What would be the basis around which all church activities would revolve? I’ve actually given this quite a bit of thought in the past few months, and here’s what I’ve arrived at.

A) Exploring/deepening spirituality

Spirituality is in. Even unchurched folks (sometimes, ironically, especially unchurched folks) are open to spirituality. Now, many of them may initially be wary of or even hostile to the Bible, so one would need to tread lightly in terms of how one approached Bible study, and would likely have to deal with some unorthodox ideas. I’m not suggesting that scripture be avoided – the Holy Spirit can move powerfully through the reading and studying of scripture. But that’s just it – we have to rely on the Holy Spirit’s ability to convey Truth to folks, rather than our own. To paraphrase Eugene Peterson, it’s about hanging around people while they acquire a taste for grace.

B) Pursing transparency

I believe that most people, at their core, long for the opportunity to be more transparent. They long to be able to put aside the brave face, the veneer that they “have it together”, and to be open about their doubts and struggles. Unfortunately, church is often the last place that happens, because while the church says it’s a place for broken people, it often doesn’t want to deal with brokenness and messiness. Sure, the pastors often deal with it, but the average church member would rather not have to really face other peoples’ messiness, because it’s uncomfortable and awkward. In many ways I think that the Presbyterian Church, with its emphasis on things being decent and orderly, is a hostile environment for the disorderliness in most of our lives. The church I long for would embrace messiness.

C) Serving those in need

Let’s be honest – most people (even those in the church) aren’t actively looking for ways to help the less fortunate. But in my experience, when people are given the opportunity and put in a situation where they can make a real difference, they begin to discover a sense of meaning and passion that helps them move beyond themselves. Unfortunately, most of the time when the church asks people to “serve”, it’s to serve the church and its programs – be on committee, organize a building campaign, benefit the institution. And even more unfortunately, many people end up being drained by the experience rather than energized by it.

Certainly there are needs that must be met within the fellowship of believers. Yet I can’t help but think that if the church could shift its focus more towards serving those outside the church rather than serving itself (see point 3 above), its members would be more inspired and more committed, and the church would be much more effective at reaching the culture.

These three elements – exploring spirituality, pursuing transparency, and serving those in need – would form the tripod – the basis – for a fellowship of believers. And I don’t think you’d need a lot of programs to accomplish it – you might not need any, at least in the conventional sense of the term. But I believe that these could serve as the foundation for a vibrant, committed, real, messy, and effective church.

Anyone want to help?


I have a large stack of books on the topic of the emerging church, most of which I’ve yet to find time to read. Yesterday I began reading “Stories of Emergence”, and as I was reading Mike Yaconelli’s introductory chapter, it was a bit eerie to read many of the same things I’ve posted previously in this weblog regarding the church and worship. It was almost like Mike was channeling through me when I wrote that stuff a year ago. Freaky. But also cool, especially since Mike was someone whose passion and approach to faith I respect a great deal.

I still believe that the church as an institutional structure is missing the mark (interesting that that’s the term often used in explaining the idea of “sin”), is too focused on preserving itself and its structure, and is so “set apart” that it can do little earthly good for those lacking membership cards. I’m still not sure whether it’s worth even bothering with attempts to change the existing structure from the inside, or whether God is calling me to “be the church” outside of the existing boundaries. The institution is, without a doubt, an old wineskin.

I’ll definitely be wrestling with these issues as I finish out my term as an elder…

Thought for the day…

“For many of us [in the evangelical community], the world exists for the church. It is like a strip mine, and people are mined out of it to build the church, which is what really matters. In the new emerging postmodern theology and spirituality, that image is terrible. It mirrors the raping and plundering of the environment by our modern industrial enterprises. In it, the church is another industry, taking and taking for its own profit. How different is the image of the church as the apostolic community, sent into the world as Christ’s hands, feet, eyes, smile, heart.” – Brian McLaren

Currently reading…

Marcia, Mark and I have started reading “The Church on the Other Side: Doing Ministry in the Postmodern Matrix”, by Brian McLaren. So far it’s a pretty good read.

Assorted quotes from "The Present Future"

Here are a few quotes from “The Present Future”:

“The current church culture in North America is on life support. It is living off the work, money, and energy of previous generations from a previous world order…Please don’t hear what I am not saying. The death of the church culture as we know it will not be the death of the church. The church Jesus founded is good; it is right. The church established by Jesus will survive until he returns. The imminent demise under discussion is the unique culture in North America that has come to be called ‘church’. This church culture has become confused with biblical Christianity, both inside the church and out.” (p. 1)

“A growing number of people are leaving the institutional church for a new reason. They are not leaving because they have lost faith. They are leaving the church to preserve their faith. They contend that the church no longer contributes to their spiritual development. In fact, they say, quite the opposite is true.” (p. 4)

“Faced with diminishing returns on investment of money, time, and energy, church leaders have spent much of the last five decades trying to figure out how to do church better…Consultants, parachurch ministries, denominational headquarters, and publishing houses prod and push the church toward whatever the current fad is…offer small groups…focus on customer service…return the church to basics…All this activity anesthetizes the pain of loss. It offers a way to stay busy and preoccupied with methodological pursuits while not facing the hard truth: none of this seems to be making much of a difference.” (p. 7)

“The point is, all the effort to fix the church misses the point. You can build the perfect church—and they still won’t come.People are not looking for a great church. They do not wake up every day wondering what church they can make successful. The age in which institutional religion holds appeal is passing away—and in a hurry.” (p.10)

“An entire industry of church growth experts, seminars, tape clubs, journals, and books all target church leaders who want to upfit their congregations to be competitive in the church market…There were church growth ratios to consider (how many dollars each parking place produced, how many contacts it took to close the deal on membership, how many relationships it took to ‘assimilate’ someone, how many people could be served by a staff member, and so forth). There was human psychology to consider (what color offering envelopes helped people give more, what level of building capacity constituted ‘full’). There were management issues that came with the growth of staff. There was strategic planning to help break through the growth ‘barriers’. There was the need for raising unprecedented amounts of money, requiring massive financial campaigns and a requisite growth in stewardship savvy.” (p. 24-25)

“The target of most church ministry efforts has been on the church itself and church members. Just look how the money is spent and what the church leadership spends time doing…The church that wants to partner with God on his redemptive mission in the world has a very different target: the community. In the past if a church had any resources left over after staffing Sunday School, and so on, then it went to the community. In the future the church that ‘gets it’ will staff to and spend its resources on strategies for community transformation. Members obviously have needs for pastoral care and spiritual growth. It is critical that these be addressed. However, I am raising the question of how many church activities for the already-saved are justified when there are people who have never been touched by Jesus’ love?” (p.32)

“We will see more and more people, in the church and out, who have the call, the ability, and the finances to resource their own ministry passions in the community. They will not wait for the church to catch up.” (p. 33)

“Hitting the streets with the gospel means adopting a new way of thinking on several levels. Kingdom thinking challenges church thinking. Kingdom thinking does not force people into the church to hear about Jesus or maintain that church membership is the same as kingdom membership…Taking the gospel to the streets means we need church where people are already hanging out. We need a church in every mall, every Wal-Mart supercenter, every Barnes and Noble…I recently met with a church that is lamenting their lack of Sunday School space. Yet within two miles of this church facility are over a dozen restaurants that don’t open until eleven o’clock on Sunday morning. Why not put Sunday School classes in these restaurants? If you guarantee the manager fifteen to twenty lunches, I guarantee you he’ll figure out a way for this to happen. Why not offer this ministry to restaurant employees who are not going to get to any church on Sunday because of their work schedule?” (p. 34-35)

Currently reading…

Wow. I’m tempted to suggest this book for everyone on Session at Eastridge. And everyone at PCUSA headquarters in Louisville, KY.

A philosphical missive

Brian McLaren has written a response to an article about postmodernism written by Chuck Colson and appearing in the December 2003 issue of Christianity Today. McLaren’s letter is an attempt to flesh out a broader and deeper understanding of postmodernism and postmoderns, and can be accessed here. It requires Adobe Acrobat or other PDF software.

Now Playing: “The Ballad of Russell Perry” by Vigilantes of Love (from the album “Live at the 40Watt”)

Making Sense of Church

I’ve been reading “Making Sense of Church” – it’s primarily a collection of excerpts from discussions at The Ooze about what church should look like – how and what the church should be. It asks some very challenging and sobering questions. This is the kind of book I would love to see chosen for an all-church study (such as the yearly Lenten study) at Eastridge, as opposed to a safer, fluffier book like “The Purpose Driven Life”. I’m going to suggest/request several of the Emergent series books from Youth Specialties/Zondervan be added to the church library, and displayed prominently in place of the latest Janette Oke romance novel and “Let’s Roll!”.

More thoughts on the emerging church – Part 2

Allow me to begin this post by stating that I have a generally high regard for the clergy – at least normal, everyday clergy–the kind that don’t have preaching “ministries” on the radio or television. 😉 I think that being a pastor is a challenging and honorable vocation.


It seems to me that in many denominations – the PCUSA being among them – the “priesthood of the believer” is a fairly limited one. I do believe that seminary-trained pastors (in general) are especially qualified to do a variety of things. I believe that most pastors greatly benefit from their training, including areas like theology, hermeneutics, exegesis, counseling, even administrative skills. And I understand the importance of having those skills and that knowledge to minimize the occurrences of whackos going around and baptizing people into some freaky, cultish belief system in the name of a given denomination.

But I believe that, in many ways, the focus has shifted too much toward the “credentials”. A focus on credentials leads to the viewing of the pastor as the “professional”, the “expert” – a sort of “Please do not attempt this at home” mentality regarding ministers and ministry. And my reading of the New Testament leads me to believe that this isn’t necessarily a biblical understanding of the way things should be. Scripture leads me to believe that the role of pastor is more that of a shepherd and less that of the “officiator” of the worship and business of the church; more guiding and training the flock to work out their salvation and carry out the ministry, and less being the dispenser of knowledge and the “keeper of the keys” of the sacraments.

A couple of examples come to mind with regard to the PCUSA, and Eastridge in particular. Both are associated with the act of celebrating communion – the Lord’s Supper. The first has to do with who the PCUSA says can be authorized to recite the “words of institution” – the actual words from scripture describing the Lord’s Supper – during communion. In practical terms, only an ordained (i.e., credentialed) pastor can lawfully read that passage of scripture during communion. Hello? I have a hard time interpreting Jesus meaning “Do this in remembrance of me – but only if you have a duly authorized agent of the denomination officiating – otherwise I just can’t recognize it as valid”. (OK, there is technically a loophole in the Book of Order. One or more ordained elders can be “authorized” to lead communion, but only for up to a year at a time, and only with special dispensation from the Presbytery – which inhibits most non-credentialed Christians from even asking.)

The second example has to do with how we “do” communion at Eastridge. It’s very formal and choreographed, which is annoying enough. But what I find disturbing is how the pastor (and whoever is helping the pastor officiate) is served first, and none of the other servers even moves to start serving the congregation until the pastor has been served. That sort of not-so-subtle “exaltation” really troubles me. And this criticism isn’t focused on the current pastor – it’s been that way since I’ve been at Eastridge, and it was that way in the church I grew up in. But it feels wrong.

There are other examples, including Jesus’ command to his disciples (which we are all called to be) to go and baptize people in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – another command which can only be carried out by the “credentialed”. I’m not sure where the line should be drawn to determine who has sufficient understanding of scripture and theology, and a right relationship with God (perhaps the more important of the two), to do these basic things that Jesus commanded his followers to do. But I think that emerging generations may be less impressed with credentials, and more likely to view the “priesthood of the believer” in very real and unrestricted terms.

More thoughts on the emerging church – Part 1

There’s a significant grassroots interest at Eastridge in having a contemporary worship service. Several people have approached me in the past few weeks about this issue, assuming that I would also like to see that happen. And their assumptions are correct – I think a good number of folks at Eastridge would be greatly ministered to by a weekly contemporary service.

However, many of these people are assuming, probably because of my quasi-leadership of the worship band, that I would want to help lead such a contemporary service. And on that score they are less correct. Certainly, I’d be willing to occasionally play at such a service. But my main goal and focus is on trying to establish an “emerging” type of worship gathering as described previously on these pages. When I mention that to people, and then try to describe and explain the concept, I find it somewhat difficult to summarize in a succinct fashion.

I usually begin with a 2-3 sentence summary of the elements of postmodern culture (hardly doing the topic justice), and then talk about some of the characteristics of many emerging worship gatherings – darkened environment, sense of mystery, focus on experience, use of silence. As I’ve done this a few times, it’s occurred to me that one general way to characterize emerging worship is that it requires trusting the Holy Spirit more than we do in the more scripted, event-filled worship that takes place on Sunday morning.

Now, I know that many people, especially pastors and worship leaders who lead “traditional” and even “contemporary” worship services, would take issue with that statement. They would argue that their mode of worship is designed to bring people in contact with the Living God, in all 3 persons of the trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And I tend to take them at their word on this – what’s more, I believe that many people do encounter the Living God via these modes of worship.

But I stand by my statement. From my understanding of scripture, the Holy Spirit is not something (or someone) that can be “scripted” – programmed to appear on cue at just the “right” moment during the service or through this or that particular song or sacrament. Most (if not all) pastors and worship leaders would of course agree with the previous sentence – at least on a philosophical level. Yet is that how we really regard the Holy Spirit? We want our worship services to be predictable, orderly, controlled. Of course the Holy Spirit is wild and beyond our control, yet we want it to appear on our terms during our worship services. In some ways we treat the Holy Spirit like a lion – it’s wild and powerful, but we want it trained and predictable and “safe” when we encounter it. I’ll repeat the quote I mentioned a few weeks ago from C. S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” regarding Aslan, the great lion and Christ figure in the story: “…but is he…safe?” “Heavens no, he’s not safe. But he’s Good”.

Lest anyone think at this point that I’m advocating an all-out charismatic form of worship, I am not. What I am suggesting is that emerging worship relies less on our intervention and more on the Holy Spirit opening up truth in the hearts and minds of those worshipping. I do believe doctrine is important, and I’m a big fan of othodoxy. But I believe that many in the established church, as a result of the effects of modernity and rationalism, are so focused upon teaching proper doctrine that they’ve become fearful and distrusting of the Holy Spirit to do it directly. I’m not suggesting that sound teaching, direction, and guidance aren’t important – I just think we’ve over-estimated our importance in the process.

Some might well argue at this point that our direct “experience” of the Holy Spirit is tainted by our fallen nature – that the Truth we “hear” might in fact be sprinkled with lies from the Evil One. That’s a very valid and real concern. I don’t want to set up personal experience as THE authorutative method of learning truth – I think current and historical interpretation of scripture, as well as the discernment of other believers, are critical in distinguishing Truth from lies. But think about this: the process of teaching is not immune from being affected by our fallen nature, both on the part of the recipient of the teaching AND of the teacher. Indeed, our doctrine is the product of teaching and interpretation by humans who are all fallen. Of course as a body of believers, we have faith and trust that this is what God would have us adhere to and believe, and that God will correct us if we veer from the Truth, because “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). All I’m suggesting here is that we extend a bit more of that trust – a trust in the ability of God and the Holy Spirit to be a greater force than the Evil One – to the personal and communal realms of worship.

Can we relinquish our need to control the worship experience, and allow people to experience the Living God in ways that are less structured, less uniform, less dependent upon us, and more dependent upon God?

When worlds collide…(part 2)

In considering some of the more practical issues involved with trying to start an alternative worship gathering at Eastridge, there are some fairly serious and non-trivial questions to be addressed, mostly having to do with potentially integrating the alternative worship participants into the larger Eastridge congregation.

I’m still not sure how much integration is realistic or desirable. I think much of it depends on how such an outreach project would be approached. Would it be:

a) a “sister church” utilizing the Eastridge building but operating (mostly) independently?
b) simply a different option for worship but with no other unique surrounding structure?
c) somewhere in between a) and b)?

I suspect the answer is probably c). Unfortunately, there’s a lot of ambiguity in c).

I have a hard time imagining most of the alternative worship folks wanting anything to do with a typical committee meeting. I can see them having major issues with their offering going towards some general denominational project as opposed to feeding or housing people locally. I can easily see them walking away from the church because of what they consider ridiculous bureaucracy (rather than simply being annoyed by it).

What should Eastridge expect or require of such a group, in return for providing facilities and resources? Is it enough for such a group to give back to the kingdom of God through service and offering, or should they be expected to specifically give back to Eastridge in order to merit support from Eastridge?

How much programmatic integration should there be? The conventional model of Sunday morning activities (including traditional Sunday School) doesn’t fit this demographic. I’m still not sure how wise it would be to attempt to shoehorn this group into existing programs, since they’re obviously not interested in those programs already.

How much social integration is realistic or appropriate? On the one hand, this alternative group may have significantly different types of pop culture sensibilities than the general Eastridge congregation, and they may not have a lot to talk about. On the other hand, the human condition is pretty much a constant, so they might have quite a bit to talk about. I do think that interacting with people who aren’t necessarily like them would be a good and useful thing (for both the alternative worshippers and the congregation), as they experience the wide diversity in the body of Christ.

Obviously, there are a great many issues to be resolved. I’m not sure how it all might look in practice. One thing I think we as a congregation can start to do is think beyond the way we currently do things, and perhaps start to implement some of them now. For example, I suspect that for this group of people, mission would be more hands-on than simply throwing money at various projects. I suspect that Sunday School may take the form of in-home study groups. I wouldn’t be surprised if “committee meetings” looked less like sitting around tables in Sunday School rooms and more like working through issues over lattes at The Mill or over beers at Lazlows.

Who’s up for it? I’m buying…

Now Playing: “Tá’ Mé Mo Shuí” by Clannad (from the album “Magical Ring”)

When worlds collide…(part 1)

I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about how an alternative worship gathering, and those who might be attracted to such a gathering, might mesh with the institutional church – both the existing culture at Eastridge and the highly bureaucratic structure of the PCUSA. At times it seems very much like a lost cause. The general characteristics of the intended demographic as reported by Kimball, Barna, and others – and somewhat corroborated in my interaction with some of these folks – include a lack of patience with and distrust of hierarchy, bureaucracy, and authority. I can’t help but think that we’re looking at an oil and water scenario.

There are many things about the PCUSA and its Book of Order that I like, and that I think have a sound theological basis. The Book of Confessions is also important – the notion of orthodoxy becomes even more vital in these postmodern times when Truth is defined by people as whatever they want it to be. Much of the governance of the PCUSA (group-focused rather than being driven by individual, charismatic leaders) is, I think, a good thing.

However, the governance in the PCUSA (and I suspect in many/most other denominations) tends to manifest itself in ways and degrees that promote routine, foster tedium, prevent any sort of spontaneity, and stifle the working of the Holy Spirit. I mean, when I read about the Holy Spirit in scripture, it’s described often as a wild, untamed, spontaneous, uncontrollable thing. I love the line from “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” when the 4 children first hear about the great lion named Aslan (the Christ figure in the story) from Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. Susan is frightened at the idea of a lion, as asks, “But…is he safe?”. Mr. Beaver laughs and responds, “Heavens no he’s not safe. But he’s Good.”

Yet we Presbyterians address the issues of our congregations only in measured, slow, rational, committeed-to-death approaches. (Don’t get me wrong – I’m a big fan of rational thought. But while I believe we can grasp some things about the faith rationally, the ways of God are super-rational, extra-rational.) While the committee approach can be an effective way to discern the will of God and carry it out, I can’t help but think that often God works in spite of committees rather than because of them. And I think the PCUSA as a denomination often makes things more bureaucratic and complicated than they need to be.

I suspect that much in the Book of Order probably made sense at the time of its writing, given the cultural milieu of the time. But the milieu is radically shifting, and I believe it’s time for the PCUSA to prayerfully reevaluate some of its rules and practices of governance. In light of the growing segment of the culture that abhors bureaucracy and authority, and has no desire whatsoever to be affiliated with the institutional church, how much freedom can and should be afforded to presbyteries and local congregations in terms of how they structure themselves and conduct worship? Where is the line between allowing freedom and maintaining orthodoxy? How much “control” over the actions of congregations is appropriate?

Some have posited that perhaps the decline in mainline denominations is God’s will – that they served their purpose for a few hundred years, and now it’s time for them to die. They may be right. But I see enough worth in Presbyterian doctrine that I think it merits trying to save. The $64,000 questions is this: Is the church willing to let go of some of its sacred cows in order to be a vital and meaningful element in the postmodern culture?

Now Playing: “Beats Me Like A Drum” by Pat Terry (from the album “The Silence”)


Len Evans had a link in his blog to an interview with Tony Jones, which appeared on the Vineyard Church website and talks about the topic of youth ministry. The format of the content has since been changed from html to pdf on the Vineyard site, and has been combined with other interviews and articles, so I edited out the other stuff and put the resulting PDF on my server:

Soul Shaper

Interesting thoughts…

Now Playing: “Silent Dove In A Distant Land” by Elim Hall (from the album”Let It Thrive”)


Over the past week, as I’ve started to think more about this alternative worship idea, I’ve been thinking about the possible implications of it. It’s going to take a significant team of passionate, dedicated folks, who are well versed in scripture as well as the vision of this type of worship gathering. Can we assemble such a team? I hope so. (Of course, it’s entirely possible that the whole experiment will fail to really catch on, and/or will lose steam after a few weeks. And that would really stink.)

But what has me even more worried is the possibility that it could really catch on, in a big way. If that happened, we would potentially need not only a dedicated worship team, but an even more extensive program that would go beyond just worship. This could include:

1. Regular opportunities for service – at least once a month. This could include serving at soup kitchens, fixing up houses, etc.

2. Opportunities for bible study. We may potentially need a few different classes, to cover the needs of new Christians as well as those who know their bible fairly well.

3. Social activities – attending ball games, picnics, movie nights, etc.

Ideally, each of these would happen with participation from alternative worship attendees and regular worship attendees both. It would be through these other activities – rather than a particular time or style of worship – that interaction with other members of the congregation would take place. Admittedly, it may be more difficult to pull off the social interaction, simply because of different interests and schedules. But, I think at least a bi-monthly “cross-cultural” social activity would be cool.

I can even foresee a potential need for a separate “new members class” for those hooking into the church through the alternative service, simply because our current approach seems more “program-oriented” (“Look at all we have to offer!”) rather than “person-oriented” (“These are the areas where we’d love to utilize your gifts”). I envision a more “intense” new members class that really emphasizes opportunities and EXPECTATIONS for getting involved in service and ministry. Again – pew-warming really doesn’t fit this model, and I suspect that most of the people who will be drawn to this type of worship will want to be challenged spiritually.

So, this little experiment could possibly launch a new need for lay ministry, and a coordinated effort among the church leadership to support, facilitate, and foster both an alternative worship “sub-group” of the congregation as well as the interaction of the alternative folks and the traditional folks. Also likely needed would be an open-minded attitude from the traditional folks, because the alternative service may well attract some very non-traditional type folks (in terms of appearance, artistic sensibilities, backgrounds, etc.).

Is Eastridge up to that kind of challenge?


OK, so I’ve been mentioning to various people this idea about starting an alternative worship thing at Eastridge. What I’ve come to realize is that there’s a multitude of expectations about what it should look like.

Some want a “contemporary service”, more of a bright and cheery sort of thing with the worship band playing, but structurally not all that different from the current Sunday morning services. There may in fact need to be a contemporary service put in place in order to help this segment of the congregation to worship more fully, and I’m all for that. However, that’s not the kind of project I’m feeling called to undertake.

The main target for this new worship gathering is the (roughly speaking) 18-34 demographic that’s largely not even darkening the door of Eastridge or any other church, people that are interested in spiritual things but either have an innate dislike of Christians or don’t connect with the way we currently “do” worship and church. These folks by and large aren’t interested in spectator worship – they’re looking for more of a participatory, experiential approach to worship. (I don’t think that there are really any age boundaries for this per se – I think certain people in their teens through retirement age would resonate with this approach to worship).

Here are some of the characteristics that others have utilized for this approach to worship (borrowed extensively from The Emerging Church). They may not all be applicable to our particular situation, but they could provide a starting point from which to solicit feedback from those attending:

• A flexible setup, with chairs so that people aren’t forced to simply face forward week after week. Chairs could be set up at angles, in a semi-circle, in the round, etc. Some chairs could be set around tables. At Eastridge, we’d have to use Fellowship Hall to accomplish this.

• More of a darkened environment, with some incandescent lighting and lots of candles. Darkness can help create more of a sense of mystery and wonder. We could accomplish this by getting some cheap dark-colored curtains at Walmart and stringing them up on ropes. Spaces could be set up behind the curtains where people could go off by themselves and pray at any point during worship.

• There would be no choir. Perhaps there would occasionally be a soloist, but overall the focus would be on participatory singing.

• The worship band, if playing, would set up in the back rather than the front, so that the focus is not on the people leading, but on worshiping God. The only thing up front would be perhaps a simple, rustic cross, and a screen for the projection of song lyrics, scriptures, images, etc.

• There would be plenty of silence programmed into the worship time – not the 10 seconds normally used in Sunday morning worship, but a minute or two, or perhaps several minutes, allowing people time to quiet their minds and hearts and really pray for a while.

• There wouldn’t always be a sermon. The Word could be proclaimed through multimedia presentations, through personal testimony, etc. There would be a time of silence or instrumental music after the proclamation of the Word in order to allow people to reflect and discern what God may be trying to tell them.

• People would have the opportunity to partake in the bread and the cup every week. That could be in the form of “official” communion, with the words of institution read by a duly authorized person. Or it could simply be in the form of the bread and the cup being out and available, with people informally partaking individually as the Holy Spirit moves them during the post-message time of reflection.

• The whole focus would be to foster an environment in which people might experience the presence of God – to provide them a little theological direction, and then stay out of the way as much as possible.

• These worship gatherings would be planned, organized, and carried out almost exclusively by volunteers, with theological guidance from the pastors.

I realize that if this starts off as a youth-oriented worship gathering, which it very well may, we’d probably need a time at the beginning of more upbeat songs and brighter lighting before transitioning into a more reflective time of worship. This also wouldn’t replace occasional worship band concerts as well.

There are all sorts of practical details to sort out as well – for example, what day/time to hold such a worship gathering. Weeknights may be problematic, what with all the other activities people are involved in. Saturday evenings are a possibility, though at Eastridge we’d maybe have to contend with Saturday weddings. Sunday evening may be the best bet. The scheduling issue would take some prayer and discernment.

And that’s where my head is currently at regarding this whole worship thing.

The Emerging Church

Mark, Marcia, and I have started reading The Emerging Church for our study group. I suggested it because there has been a lot of buzz about it on the Youth Ministry discussion list. So far we’ve only gone through the first two chapters, but I’m finding that many elements of it are resonating with me. One of the questions at the end of chapter 2 was, “Would you consider your church seeker-sensitive, post-seeker-sensitive, or something else?”. I had to answer “something else”.

Eastridge is pretty traditional in its structure and worship. It’s a very program-oriented organization – meaning that the primary focus of time and energy and discussion seems to be on the various programs and activities, with the assumption or hope that people will be reached via the programs. At least that’s my perspective – hey, I help run one of those programs, and to a large degree that’s been my approach as well. So far, my limited reading leads me to believe that the Emerging Church movement is more directly focused on people and relationships, with programs playing a secondary, support type of role.

I know that the Emerging Church movement isn’t centered solely (or even necessarily primarily) on the style and content of worship, but I do know that modes of worship are a significant aspect of it. And I know that I’ve needed something more/different from worship for some time now. I know that most of the Sr. Highers will almost never go to Sunday morning worship unless they have to. I remain convinced that we need to try some sort of alternative worship experience to help get them into the act of regular, deep, meaningful worship. At the same time, I would really want a broader cross-section of the church active in such a service as well, because I don’t think it’s in anybody’s interest to maintain the “youth ghetto” – the kids need to connect with people older than themselves, people who can act (even unintentionally) as spiritual mentors.

I’m hoping that my thoughts and ideas in this area will crystallize a bit more as I get further into the book and have a chance to reflect more on these topics.