Sunday, January 13, 2013

Irritating New Ways of Being Church

Saturday morning irritation prompted a wonderful young woman I know to post on Facebook:
[I] Hate how our bedroom's by the block's main door. Have heard someone buzz & ask every flat, "If you could ask god a question, what would it be?" Mine would be, "Why the hell are these people harassing everyone in their own homes before 11 am on a Saturday, or in fact, at all?"
My friend lives in Birmingham (UK), so this is not a local thing; I don't have a clue who would pull a stunt like this. Is it some nefarious, counterproductive new way of trying to get people interested in church? If so, I'd say it reflects a tin ear that some churches have when it comes to appealing to people today.

One of the first rules I learned (thanks to Kate Fox's wonderful book, Watching the English) when I moved to England was that a person's home is his/her castle. Incursions into that sacrosanct space are tolerated only for the most urgent causes. Even watching your neighbor's home through the blinds would be frowned upon. It's a small, old, densely populated country, after all. People like their space and usually keep themselves to themselves.

So why would anyone think it was okay to ring the buzzers of every flat in a block to ask theological questions? Didn't they read the rules? Such a provocation, especially early on a day of the week when many people are having a lie-in, could only embitter -- against the buzzing, against churches, against people who care about faith, and even against God.

How would I redesign this scenario if I were inclined to doorstep evangelism? Well, in my university days, I remember one Sunday morning when the dorm's exemplary breakfast chef, +Randy Wayne,  sent a crew around the halls delivering orange juice and hot breakfast to every room where people answered the door. No questions; no promotions, just breakfast. Probably a bit over-the-top for Birmingham in 2013, but it seemed like a good "random act of kindness" in the late 1970s UMass.

Close to home, Dear Irascible Husband has been irritated in previous years by the local benefice's Good Friday activity when the more demonstrative, fervent evangelicals took to the streets with a huge wooden cross and marched to the only supermarket in the area (Tesco) on their "walk of witness." Again, why would anyone think a march like this would accomplish anything positive? I appreciate that Jesus had to endure Good Friday for his followers to become Easter People, but celebrating his ancient, brutal torture and death with an in-your-face demonstration??? At Tesco??? Fortunately, I don't think they're doing this one any more. NEWS FLASH: They are. Doing this. Again. Nooooooo!!

Beyond single acts of evangelism are the ongoing experiments in new styles of church. An old friend of mine from America (who would probably recognize himself if I described him as a "living anachronism") sent me a link to a New York Times article about new ways of being church, as spotted by their reporter, Amy O'Leary. My friend went beyond irritation to weeping over "Building Congregations Around Art Galleries and Cafes as Spirituality Wanes." The rather jumbled article starts by looking at:
 "a cultural center built for the artistic, social, economic, and spiritual benefit of Deep Ellum and urban Dallas. Through its four pillars of Art, Music, Commerce, and Community, it strives to promote life and growth in our city through creative initiatives and strategic partnerships. Life in Deep Ellum is about a way of life, cultivating purpose, and guiding people into relationship with God."

The article didn't upset me like it did my friend, but it made me lose any confidence that I can hope to recognize IT, the ultimate solution to the Wicked Problem of what Jesus' community of followers should look like in the 21st Century. I did actually see some good things in what Life in Deep Ellum says about itself on its website, especially in their gentle response to the NYT article.

The website addresses my foremost concern--that they might be trying to hide the fact that they are a church...lure people in with the latte, then slip 'em the religion. LIDE says they are open about their religion, and strive to focus efforts on helping the community without roping people into church membership. Saying they are not some experimental project in new worship styles, LIDE insists the beneficiaries of their service are primarily non-members of the church.

I also liked the values they place at the top of statements about their faith:
Values: He answered: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself." Luke 10:27
But then I would fall for this -- it's where my faith, such as it is, begins. After that they say a lot of good stuff about relationships, personal growth, service, creativity, compassion, and cap off the summary of their beliefs with:
We hold to the Apostles’ Creed as a unifying statement of faith along with our commitment to the authority of the Holy Bible, which serves as our sacred Scripture.

I guess it wouldn't be church otherwise.

The NYT article goes on to lump LIDE in with what they see as a national movement to staunch the flow of people, especially younger people, away from church:

The “spiritual but not religious” category is an important audience that evangelical leaders hope to reach in a culture that many believers call “post-Christian." 
So they arrange meetings in movie theaters, schools, warehouses and downtown entertainment districts. They house exercise studios and coffee shops to draw more traffic. Many have even cast aside the words “church” and “church service” in favor of terms like “spiritual communities” and “gatherings,” with services that do not stick to any script.
Other churches mentioned in the article are "Relevant Church" -- a non-denominational evangelical church near Tampa FL (which affiliates itself with churches like Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in Orange County, California and Willow Creek Community church near Chicago); and National Community Church, with six locations in and around Washington, D.C. The article also tosses in a mention of "Emergent Church" -- which I see as quite remote from some of these churches. At this point the article becomes mishmash.

The churches mentioned do have in common large, not-like-your-father's-church spaces for their "gatherings." These look like places my son might go "clubbing" and house a variety of functions, like coffee shops, intimate theatre venues, or galleries (which help pay the bills). The churches all seem to have hip/edgy-looking young pastors and staff (replete with tattoos and half-inch-diameter holes in the ears). They all include house groups. They all welcome visitors dressed any way they choose. Services feature sophisticated sound and video equipment and contemporary music.

But beyond these features, and guessing only from their websites, the meatier aspects of the churches seem quite different. LIDE stresses its community service. Relevant Church follows the most traditional conservative evangelical party line. And National Community Church offers the least traditional
"Core values... the DNA of of who we are as a church:
*Expect the unexpected
*Irrelevance is irreverence
*Love people when they least expect it and least deserve it
*Playing it safe is risky
*Pray like it depends on God and work like it depends on you
*Everyone is invaluable and irreplaceable
*Everything is an experiment
*You cannot out give God
*Maturity does not equal conformity
*Go the extra mile
*It's never too late to be who you might have been
*Do it right and do it big"

I again wondered if NCC is trying to disguise the fact that it's a church.

Locally, the central church of our benefice has started its own experimental project -- "The Angel," an old inn/pub converted to cafe, shop, and venue for community activities. These include computer classes, knitting-for-charity, scrabble, English-as-a-second-language conversation, and outings for elderly folks from nursing homes.

I find that all laudable, and several folks from our village and church are enthusiastic volunteers at The Angel. But others note that The Angel was initially planned as a local church project. Predictably, its needs overwhelmed the small host parish and The Angel now draws resources, including scarse volunteers and donations, away from the seven other parishes in the benefice, which can ill-afford the loss. The clergy -- who are supposed to divide their time among all seven churches in the benefice -- now spend a disproportionate amount of time and energy on The Angel. Will the birth of The Angel herald the death of the churches (some many hundreds of years old) in the benefice ?

Some locals love dropping in to The Angel for the warm welcome and acceptance they find from volunteers who sell and serve food and latte. But the project may be unwelcome competition for the numerous commercial coffeeshops in the area which actually pay their staff.

Doubts about some of these new ways of being church also primed the pump for my worries about Rob Bell, formerly my favorite (podcast) preacher. Bell left Mars Hill, the independent church he founded in southwest Michigan, and moved to California last year to create faith-infused television programs. But an article in The New Yorker says dissent at Mars Hill following Bell's publication of "Love Wins" contributed to his departure. Bell became persona non grata among evangelicals when he expressed doubt that his loving God would let non-believers burn eternally in Hell. The New Yorker article says

By affirming his evangelical identity, [Bell] could put people at ease. At Mars Hill, he cultivated a careful ambiguity, allowing worshippers to think that he was however evangelical they wanted him to be. He wanted to make a wide range of worshippers feel comfortable—until, after his crisis, he decided that he didn’t.
Evidently previous rancor at Mars Hill over inclusion of women in church leadership caused attendance at the megachurch to drop "by about two thousand." A series of sermons in 2006 saying churches "are called to fight poverty, oppression, and environmental degradation" was heard "as an announcement of political liberalism, and attendance dropped by another thousand."

These instances suggest to me that, unlike St. Paul's declaration at the original Mars Hill, there's no such thing as a universally acceptable Christian message, and certainly no one perfect way of conveying that message. It can be good; get better; get bigger; but sooner or later churches, gatherings, or just ill-considered Saturday morning evangelistic adventures get on someone's nerves.

What irritates one person about a new way of "being church" may be just the thing that someone else loves. What makes my friend weep may be what I see as a way forward. It's possible there may be numerous solutions to the Wicked Problem of how to "be church" in the 21st Century. Or no solutions. It may be humans, with their diverse sets of values, are fundamentally evolved to affiliate in smallish tribes, and nothing can ever bring us together as a global group -- or even a largish congregation surviving more than a generation or two. Maybe that's just who we are.

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