A new church? Embracing diversity

After my article on “The Future of Victorian Worship,” I decided to go into more depth regarding the three underlying values (conformity, compliance and standardisation), but this time looking at them from the point of view of new ways of being church, rather than just new ways of doing worship. This is first of three articles to come on this subject. The next two will be tackling the issue of stimulating the imagination, and then encouraging creativity.

1. What we take for granted

If you grew up in the church – depending on the variety of contexts you were exposed to – you will probably have a set of ideas about church that you take for granted. For instance, you may take for granted that a church needs to have a building, a membership roll, a board of elders, a pastor, and of course a Sunday morning service where we sing songs, say prayers, and listen to a sermon. These are only some of the things we take for granted. All these things are important to keep in mind when we set out to imagine new forms of church. Continue reading

Article on ‘Fresh Expressions’

Here’s an article of mine published on the Fresh Expressions website:

“What’s at the heart of innovation?”

When we first decide to venture out in creating new expressions of church, the first question we usually ask is ‘how?’ But before we can ask the ‘how to’ question, I believe we need to ask the ‘where from’ question. What do we bring to the task of innovation? Where are we coming from or, more specifically, what are the underlying values that we are taking for granted? The underlying values are tied to our personal histories, to how we were brought up, how we were educated and nurtured, our previous and current experiences of church, and so on.

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The future of Victorian worship

For a time I was fascinated by traditional Presbyterian worship. There was just something majestic, dignified and deliciously predictable about it. That fascination slowly wore off, and for a time I could not tell why that was, and I found that troubling. I’m referring to the kind of Reformed Presbyterian worship on a typical Sunday morning in a 19th century traditional stone building, with uncomfortable pews, strange smell, pipe organs, massive communion table, elevated pulpit and sometimes a choir.

Coming from an Eastern European context where order is an exotic word, this type of worship was like a magnet to me. It is beautiful and dignified. It has a lot going for it. If I were to build a new form of worship, that’s where I would probably start. But it is not where I would end up. Not anymore.

It took me awhile to figure out why it just failed to satisfy. It just wasn’t buzzing for me anymore. What I initially regarded as different and refreshing soon became restrictive and oppressive. Trying to tinker with it as a minister lead to backlashes that shocked and disturbed me. That also contributed to my disenchantment. Continue reading

Make me a seer

Make me a seer! Not the kind that sees the future, but kind that sees the present. One that really sees the present. One that sees under the surface of politics, niceness, neatness, coverups, the games people play, the games I play, the things people say that they don’t really mean, the things I say that I don’t really mean, the discrepancy between the saying and the doing etc.

Is this not the primary role of the spiritual leader in a community? Is this not the source of all spiritual leadership? Is it not true that without seeing the spiritual leader becomes a mere religious functionary? What else does ‘the blind leading the blind’ mean? To me, it suggests that seeing is kind of a big deal for a leader! (It also suggests why we don’t want to do that very much: once you see, you can’t un-see.)

Of course I’m not talking about merely engaging your visual cortex. That should be obvious from the first paragraph. It is also about seeing with your ears, with your heart, with your hands, with your mind, with your whole body. It’s really about wholeness, which is actually the goal of Christian spirituality. Or so it should be. It is about integration.

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A short (fictitious) conversation with an 80 year old

“I’m worried…” John said to me, his eyes fixed on the carpet after we talked about the weather.

“What are you worried about?” I asked, shifting in my seat, struggling to find a comfortable position on his sofa, moving cushions and tucking them behind me.

“All my grandchildren were born in the church… went to Sunday School… and now they left the church. It’s just us old folk!” he replied, his face darkening.

I nodded silently, trying to be respectful to his grief even if I had 100 explanations in my mind as to why that is happening everywhere in the church. For an instant, I felt the clerical collar choking me. I know why they aren’t coming. Let me tell you!! I thought.

“Have you ever asked them why they don’t come?” I asked him breaking the silence.

“It’s not just my grandchildren… We don’t have any young people in the church!” he added.

“Yes, that’s true… to a certain extent… we do have some…” I attempted to correct him. “But have you asked them why they don’t come?”

“Yes, I did. I don’t remember exactly what they said… Oh, yes, they said it’s boring!” he recalled scoffing.

“Boring… yes. My children get easily bored too… The bored generation…” I said, enjoying a wee laugh with John.

“When I was their age I was in Sunday School, and then Youth Group and Boys Brigade, I was in church every Sunday, and I never stopped…” he told me emphatically.

“Were YOU ever bored in church?” I asked him looking for his gaze.

“What?” he asked, taken aback by my question, as if saying ‘What’s the point of that question?

“Were YOU ever bored in church growing up?” I repeated, looking straight at him.

“I… I think so… I mean… There was a lot that went over my head… I didn’t understand everything… But I still went. I didn’t give up!” he said.

“I was the same, John. I don’t remember ever not going to church. But here’s a question for you: Were you ever given the option to not go?” I asked him tilting my head.

“Huh? No… no…” he shook his head. “I know what you’re trying to say. You’re saying I didn’t have a choice!” he said with a grin.

“Did you?” I insisted.

“Of course I did!” he said with a higher pitched voice. “All my friends were there!” he justified.

“Mhm. Yes… it really does help to have your friends there, doesn’t it? I was the same. All my friends were church friends!”

“Exactly!” he said with some relief in his smile.

“Do you remember your parents ever asking you if you WANTED to go, or if you liked it?” I asked, taking him back to the initial rub.

He thought in silence, trying to jog his own memory, scratching his head. He shook his head.

“I can’t remember…” he said softly and sighed.

I nodded silently.

From life/work balance to life’s work

In my training for ministry – which involved a complex programme of academic study, conference cycle, ministry placements, learning networks and so on – we were taught again and again about the importance of life/work balance. We were told in no uncertain terms that ministers should have two days off. I remember I was told off by a retired minister who saw the Order of Service from my church that mentioned my day off is a Friday. “You’re supposed to have two days off, not one!” he told me.

But then I was ordained and inducted to a pastoral charge, and was soon overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work that a minister in the Church of Scotland has on their plate. Two days off? You’re joking, surely! When are you supposed to do all the work that needs to be done? “Remember, the church already has a Messiah!” – we were also told towards the end of our training. Hm… so I guess if I don’t get everything done the church would not cease to exist, or be less church?

As I reflected in my last article on the Protestant Work Ethic – a term coined by Max Webber – I was challenged to see work in a different way. What is the motivation for work? Is it to prove my worth? To earn my keep? To occupy my time to keep me out of mischief? Somehow, motivation seemed to matter a lot. Do I work myself to death in the church to prove to people that I am dedicated, that I am worthy, that they need me, that I am a hero of faith, that I am respectable? All these motivations ring so hollow.

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Grace vs. Protestant Work Ethic

Yes. I want to write against the famous Protestant Work Ethic. I think it damaged the church in the West and it continues to do so. I really do. It created competitive capitalist economies and a considerable degree of prosperity in the West, but the price for all of these on the weak and the under-performing have been devastating. I had a sense that this was the case the moment I moved to Western Europe. Something didn’t feel right. Why did the poor in Glasgow tell a minister friend of mine: “Church is no’ for the likes of us!” Why did one of our non-church-going friends tell us that church is elitist, and only the well-off are really wanted there? That seemed a bit harsh to me. This was not something I experienced in the East.

It took me awhile to begin to realise why the church is NOT perceived by people living in poverty as a place of grace and acceptance, but rather as a place of judgement and condemnation. I believe we have the Protestant Work Ethic to blame for this situation. I know it’s controversial, but I will say it nonetheless.

Here’s how the wretched PWE works: If you want to amount to anything, you have to work hard, be frugal, and perform to your maximum ability. If you don’t, you starve. Or in other words, you’re not really worth very much. That’s it. Wait a minute! What? What about grace? Oh, here’s how it works: the results of your hard work and high performance are SIGNS of the grace you already freely received. Ooooh, right. OMG! This, friends, is how you render a word like ‘grace’ meaningless. Prosperity gospel anyone? That’s where it comes from! Not the same thing, but a logical consequence.

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