Tag Archives: Church

Unintentional #Exvangelical

I often read about social movements on Twitter long before they hit any sort of mainstream discussion. If you can put in the time to curate your Twitter following, you can find quite a world of stimulating (and sometimes asinine) discussion.

One subset of people I follow happen to be Christians or ex-Christians who are trying to shine the light of #metoo on sexual abuse in the church. Some of these folks have coined the hashtag #Exvangelical to describe their abandonment of Evangelicalism, especially in the wake of the 2016 election and its aftermath.  This started with #emptythepews and #churchtoo, a couple hashtag discussions about unchallenged rape and sexual abuse in Christian circles that hasn’t yet forced much of a behavior change or policy changes. But the community grew to include thousands of Tweeps who flocked (haha) to share their stories of abandoning a faith they were raised in.

I didn’t mean to become an #Exvangelical…. until one day, I realized I was already there.  

This is going to get messy if I try to write a post about it. Let me do a Frequently Asked Questions instead – I can probably hit all the salient points, reassure some fears, generate others, and keep it shorter.

Q. So, if you’re an #Exvangelical, does that mean you’re no longer a Christian?

A.  Not at all. I’m 100% committed to the Gospel and to faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. I affirm the historic creeds of Christendom.  I’m not here to tell anyone else how they should feel about their church affiliation.

What I’ve abandoned is Evangelicalism: that particularly American, individualistic strain of Christianity which prioritizes a personal conversion experience above all else, tends toward extreme biblical literalism, and is currently lusting after political power and a “win” in the “culture wars.”

Q. Wait, you can’t have it both ways. If you aren’t an Evangelical anymore, then you are left with only apostate, liberal, compromised churches for fellowship, right? And not all Evangelical churches are power-hungry or harboring Tea Party conventions. 

A. Way to be judgmental? Also, I’m not sure you asked a question.

Ok, this is a critical point, and I understand why people who’ve been thoroughly taught that there are only two options — in the tribe of the True Believers or standing outside in the wrong –struggle to see alternate pathways for genuine Christian belief.  It would take me weeks of blog posts to untangle this point. If you care that much, either Google till you find others who’re writing about their faith journeys, or have a cuppa with me and we’ll talk it out.

The short response to your query is this: the world isn’t a simple “you’re in or you’re out” with regards to Evangelicalism being the only right way to be a Christin. If you genuinely believe that, then we probably aren’t going to do anything except disagree over fundamental assumptions.

The Church is larger than I was led to believe. This has happened to me twice in my life: first, when I was in Fundamentalism and left it for the PCA.  I remember how betrayed yet happy I felt to discover that Evangelicals didn’t worship Satan’s devil music, and they were pretty great people.  And now, I’ve learned that Evangelicalism never had a lock on being “right.”  There are good, faithful believers in many faith traditions.  Romans 14 speaks to this pretty strongly, IMO, and I recommend reading it and taking a deep breath if this post is making you angry or anxious.

Q. So what’s changed for you? How are you different than you were, say, 5 years ago?

A. This will be easier as succinct bullet points. Again, I’m not inviting you to come argue with me over the bullet points. They’re here for reference, not as an invitation for argument.

  • I believe the study of theology should begin with an understanding of God and His Ways, and then move to a discussion of the inspiration of Scripture.  Karl Barth explains this way better than I can, and before you burn his Church Dogmatics, you might consider reading it.  His view of inspiration is far more vigorous than anything I found in Fundamentalism or Evangelicalism, and it avoids the bible-olatry that continues to plague the American conservative church. Christ is The Word. The Bible witnesses to Him. He is the center, the beginning and ending.
  • I reject the individualism that plagues American Evangelical Christianity, including the excesses of revivalism and dispensationalism.  I think we were created for community, and prioritizing the experience of the individual above the powerful voice of the Church through all her ages and expressions is dangerous.
  • I reject the dominating narrative of the American culture wars.  I reject the assertion that American Christians are a persecuted minority.  I reject the combative personality by which Evangelicalism is known, especially after the 2016 election. The battle line between good and evil runs through, and not around, every single human movement or institution or idea or group. “Us” vs “them” tribalism is toxic.  White Evangelicals have bought hook, line, sinker into a racist, xenophobic vision of America, and I’m just not ok with it anymore.  And the culture war’s main fronts – the creation/evolution battle and the anti-abortion movement – are generally doing more harm than good. Why are people walking away from the Church in droves? Because they have the frikkin Internet and can read science articles for themselves.
  • I condemn Donald Trump as a pathetic human whose morality is in the sewer. Watching “Christians” like Dobson fall all over themselves to paint Trump as a believer, rather than defending the victims of his abuse and rebuking his lechery and misogyny and greed and corruption, is what broke Evangelicalism for good, for me.
  • I cannot in good conscience be part of denominations where the only functionally acceptable political position is to be a Republican or a libertarian. You’re welcome to be part of those camps, but to assert that no good Christian could be a Democrat is ignorant and unwise — and just plain wrong.  Good Christians have historically fallen across the entire political spectrum.  Again, I’m somewhat stunned this is even a point of contention among people who claim that we should be reading our Bibles every day in order to be good people…    (Sorry. This is an area that makes me rather angry these days.)
  • My LGBTQ+ friends have never been welcome in Evangelicalism.  I don’t know how to reconcile the fact that a loving sovereign God has created humans who are wired from birth to love the same gender, or humans who experience such gender dysphoria that they cannot identify as the person their body parts would suggest that they be.  I don’t disagree that a literal reading of the Bible would suggest that LGBTQ+ are, in a word, “born wrong.”  But I can no longer deny a place within the church to my gay Christian brothers and lesbian sisters and transgender friends who’ve been beaten down by the church again and again.  God’s going to have to sort this mess out Himself. Till I get a chance to ask Him in person, I’d prefer that we accept LGBTQ+ Christians as full citizens of the kingdom.  Even if they’re wrong. Especially if we’re wrong about them being wrong.
  • If I had a daughter, I’d be angry that she would never see a woman in a legitimate position of authority within 99% of Evangelical churches. (Small exception for a few ARP churches that ordain women and the AMIA Anglican congregations who hold to conservative theology but make room on their platforms for women to teach and preach.)  You’re welcome to bar women from being a preacher if you want, but to bar them from every single position of church leadership except running the nursery or children’s Sunday school seems ….well, blatantly misogynistic.  I don’t think the New Testament was trying to define church leadership primary by who does/doesn’t have a penis, and I certainly don’t think male-only leadership makes for healthy organizations.  A whole lot of sexual abuse by powerful men might have been avoided if women had been given a voice – any kind of voice – and genuine power within the church.  Conservative Christianity has been sleeping with abusive patriarchy for a long time. This one is an easy fix, folks: women as deacons, women as ruling elders, women as equal teaching partners per those obscure little sentences in I Corinthians 13 that nobody wants to talk about (“a woman, when she prays or prophesies, must cover her head”). Just….start somewhere…..

Q. I think you’re dead wrong. 

A.  You know what?  I sometimes wonder that myself.  Like, how do we know anything about anything?

One of the worst things about any Fundamentalist system – and Evangelicalism has a whole lot of Fundamentalism in its DNA, despite its rock worship bands and willingness to let megachurch pastors say “shit” in a sermon or talk about masturbation — One of the worst things about this system is the way it stifles doubt.

The opposite of doubt isn’t faith. It’s certainty. And certainty can be dead wrong. Faith is hopeful; it can co-exist with doubt because faith IN God means I’m ok with letting Him catch these details I can’t make sense of myself.

I’d be a fool if I were so arrogant as to think my little mind can contain the universe, the whole of God’s will toward mankind, the order of events of salvation – ha! what hubris!

When you let the world get perfectly quiet all around you, what do you hear?  Do you hear little tiny questions creeping into your mind? “What if I”m wrong? What if, once I die, I’m just….dead?  What if there isn’t a God? What if the Hindus or the Jews or the Muslims are actually right?”

I’m not saying you have to doubt to be a good Christian; that seems a bit backward. But good Christians can –must!–be honest about their epistemic uncertainty.

I left Evangelicalism because I’m tired of people telling me they have The Answer. You don’t.  You and I are in the same place: we seek wisdom in the Word to see God for who He is.  And we shake our heads at the ugliness in this world.   And those two ideas conflict in uncomfortable ways.  Can’t we be honest about that for just a minute?

And once we’ve got this honesty train going, how about we be honest about a few more things we shouldn’t claim certainty about…. like whether life actually begins at conception, or how exactly this world came to be and the processes of creation, or pretending like every issue has a clear-cut moral answer just waiting out there along the side of the road carrying a big ol’ “I AM THE RIGHT ANSWER” sign. 

Q. So where are you going to church these days?

A. You aren’t going to like this….but truth is, I haven’t been to church in a while. I didn’t mean to leave…. it just….happened.  I stepped away from music ministry in 2016 because of a job change, and when I tried to come back, all I got from the guys in charge was crickets. :/   So …I left.

I want to find a new church home, I really do. I miss the sacraments and how they shape our understanding of what really matters in this world.

But I also needed to detox from the grind of the “Christian lifestyle,” where everything is matchy-matchy and sorted out.  I’d been uncomfortable about that for years, but I genuinely enjoyed the worship ministry team and the fellowship I found among my fellow musicians. It’s a special thing to lead a congregation in praise, and I was honored to do it for as long as I did.

Aside from the bond I had with my fellow musicians, I have very little in common with women my age in an Evangelical church.  I never had kids (wasn’t on purpose; just never happened) so my #1 function as a woman in the PCA went completely bust. I don’t enjoy babies or little kids. I don’t have endless stories about diaper poops and elementary escapades to link me to these women whose lives are so different from mine.  I hold two masters’ degrees and am married to a man who’s practically earned two PhD’s.  I love video games, science fiction, and progressive metal.  I can read the Bible in the original Greek and Hebrew, and — if I’m being truly honest here — am more qualified (if we’re talking about education) to teach the Bible than nearly all of the male elders at the churches where I’ve been a member. (Except I don’t have a penis, so…. )   Making “small talk” with adults at any church function will always be a struggle, unless there’s a gamer/metalhead church out there somewhere I haven’t found.

It wears me out to think of jumping into the church dating scene again – I mean “finding a church.” Because that’s what it is, right?  A bad dating game.  A church is a collection of people, and honestly, it’s the camaraderie and community that differentiate two congregations.  The trappings and faith statements and liturgy have their own effects, but the day-in, day-out experience of being a member of a particular church rests entirely on the group of people who meet there.  The only way to find a new one, unless you’re going to go all Fundamentalist and filter out all but a couple based on their statements of faith, is to visit around and smile politely and be the weird stranger and listen to people constantly tell you how much they SO HOPE YOU’LL KEEP COMING.

Gah, the sheet awkwardness of it gives me hives.

And, to be frank, I don’t know where I belong. Where we belong.  I want a church where Grace is central (and not just talked about, but lived out as Grace); where sermons are short yet meaningful;  where people are open about their struggles; where Christian lingo isn’t so pervasive that people from outside are turned off; where the prevailing theme isn’t “how to do the right things this week so God will love me more.”

With kickass music.

Q. Last question: Aren’t you afraid people are going to be disappointed in you? What about all your former students? You could tear them down too!

A.  If my students are willing to throw out their entire belief system because of what they see me do (or don’t do), then I failed as a teacher. I never wanted robots, or students who would accept what I said as THE right answer.  I pushed my students to wrestle, reason, challenge, think for themselves. So I’m 99% sure they’re going to be ok, and I’m also sure the Holy Spirit is in charge of bringing people to faith and holding onto them.  If you think my actions are going to overwhelm His work, well, that’s the disagreement right there.

Are people disappointed in us for leaving the PCA?  Hell if I know. I’m not sure anyone really cares.  If you’re a committed Evangelical, then good for you. Please, for the love of all that’s holy, question the connection between your faith and your politics, your power systems, your views on social injustice and the culture.  But have at it.  (See: what I just said about the Holy Spirit, above.)

I wrote this post because I know thousands of people– mostly Millennials–have left the Church in the wake of the 2016 election.  You’re not alone, friends, and please don’t throw out your own relationship with God just because you’re not happy with how things are going in the American Church.

I don’t think Evangelicals really grasp how UGLY this power-grab has been.  You have sold the Gospel for a pot of beans. Actually, Esau got a WAY better deal than you did on Trump and the Tea Party, because at least his mess of beans filled his belly for one night. This whole moral-majority nonsense has cost you pretty much everyone under the age of 40…..and people like me who didn’t sign up to ride this crazy train all the way to the final destination.  American Evangelicalism is nearly all white. And as the cultural influence of white people (especially white men) wanes in the face of America’s changing demographics, it’d be nice if you didn’t drag Jesus down with you as you howl in despair at your loss of power and influence.

Jesus TOLD Y’ALL THIS.  He TOLD YOU that following Him means picking up a cross and dying.  Y’all.  What part of “a corn of wheat must fall into the ground and die” made you think you’d get to run America?  What makes you think worshiping guns and libertarianism and America and military might and “family values” is the equivalent of “taking up your cross” and following Jesus?

*raises hands*  Peace.  I’m done.  I’m not trying to start a fight.  We could go have a beer instead.

I’m an #Exvangelical because I love God and the Gospel. You may disagree with me, but at least you know where I stand.

 

Link: “6 ways Fundamentalists need to grow up”

A while back, Mike Pence publicly referenced that he abides by the Billy Graham Rule, which is to never eat a meal alone with any woman who is not his wife. I wrote about the fiasco and said this about fundamentalists,

“…what frustrates me most about the BG rule used by grown ups is that living by rules is still the framework that dictates ethical living. I often feel as if evangelical adults do not move past the developmental phase of differentiating.”

Scaffolding is an educational term that can be used to apply to parenting. It basically means providing a structure to help children function as they are developing their capabilities. But the purpose of scaffolding is to be dismantled once the child reaches maturity and no longer needs the prop. 

I think of rules functioning as scaffolding. When our children are developing cognitive and intuitive skills to make wise discernment choices for their own lives, we can provide some rules to help them—to keep them safe from devastating consequences and give guidance for their own maturity. But the rules should fall away and autonomy extended so our children learn to independently forge their own paths. 

In this and other ways, I find that fundamentalists never grow up. They never acquire the skills necessary for mature, adult-appropriate behaviors. These immaturities result in dysfunctional relationship patterns which they then pass on to their children, causing harm to themselves, the children, and to the world.

via 6 Ways Fundamentalists Need to Grow up – Unfundamentalist Parenting

I do think the author paints with a rather broad brush, supporting points with anecdotes and some argumentation rather than research and supporting facts. But my experience growing up in Fundyland doesn’t contradict the author’s applications. And that opening section (above) nails it.

Fundamentalism (and legalism in general) stunts the growth of people’s faculties to reason and to discern.  That’s not horrific when somebody is 6 or 14, but it gets uglier and more dysfunctional as the person grows into adulthood without the coping skills needed to function in the world as it is.

It’s also worth noting that the downsides of Fundamentalist legalism are alive and well within Evangelicalism too. Reading Cindy’s post, I found myself nodding along as the PCA provided many examples of her points. Despite the irony of offering the same broad-brush statements supported by anecdotal evidence, here I go….

  1. Dependence on authority – this is the very backbone of the PCA’s leadership structures. Rule by a group of elders is far, far better than the one man dictatorship of the IFB churches I grew up around, but that doesn’t mean the leadership team exhibits much diversity in the PCA – it’s white, male, solidly middle class (or higher), and WASPy. Many subgroups within the PCA celebrate a view of masculinity that’s very one-sided: husband, gun-toting hunter, manly-man drinking and pipe-smoking, virile father of many children. I certainly heard plenty of PCA parents teaching their kids that obedience means “obey me right away without delay.”  If you start listening to the subtexts of the PCA conversations about parenting and Christian living, you hear a lot of the same legalism that I left Fundamentalism to escape. Squashing questions, dissent, or challenge delays those problems till later, when they’re much bigger in a kid’s mind.
  2. Lack of emotional boundaries – a lot of nouthetic counseling and weird crap has crept into conservative Evangelicalism.  Many PCA folks are just as resistant to the idea of eschewing spanking as the average Southern Baptist. Telling people they can pray away their depression or follow a 10-step Scripture program to restore their marriage is unhealthy and unrealistic. I saw a lot of bad boundaries in my sojourn through the PCA.
  3. Naivete about the world – while Reformed teaching is a better basis for living than crackpot dispensational pre-millennialism, it can easily fall prey to a creeping fear that generates just as many rules as Bob Jones had in its rule book when I was there. Fear of sex. Fear of “weird” music. Fear of pop culture. Fear of losing power within the American political system. Fear of non-white cultures when they’re expressed outside of White boundaries. And (most damning of all, IMO) a simplistic, knee-jerk-Republican view of economic systems, injustice, and systemic oppression. The denomination would rather bicker over whether it should pass a code of conduct to prevent sexual abuse in its churches or acknowledge its racist founding in the civil-rights-era South. Even better is the theological pin-dancing over minutiae while blindly wondering why more Black people never bother to visit.  Or why almost no one who’s poor and not-college-educated bothers to attend a second time.
  4. Incomplete sexual education – ever try to convince a Christian school community that someone besides the parents might should teach some sex ed to kids of any age? It’s a blast of a discussion, let me tell ya.  Purity culture is dangerous, no matter how you package it. If you worship virginity, you’re going to break the faith of a lot of kids once they go off to a party in high school or college, get shitfaced drunk, and wake up in bed with a guy they barely remember. That’s a hell of an introduction to sexuality, but it’s not uncommon for kids whose primary sex education has been simply “don’t do it” and a video on the basics of their anatomy.  And girls bear the brunt of the shame once it happens.
  5. Anti-intellectualism – the PCA prides itself on its high standards of education for ministers, demanding post-graduate education that’s expensive and exclusive. So we could talk about the inherent racism expressed in the way most conservative Presbyterians choose to fight anti-intellectualism. But I think it’s important to note how few adults in any church are willing to confront their own doubts or assumptions. I think that’s why doubting people struggle so much in the PCA, where intellectual argumentation forms the core of faith.  James KA Smith has done a good job pushing back against this, asserting that our loves run deeper than our beliefs or worldview. I’m surprised an angry mob of Presbyterians haven’t burned down his house yet.
  6. Lack of healthy conflict resolution – This may have as much to do with upbringing as denomination, honestly. But there is a lot of weirdness in relationships within conservative religion. If you’re a woman working for a man, you’re always trying to suss out the boundaries of authority and appropriate behavior. The politeness codes and morality codes are also unwritten yet brutal in their consequences if you break them.  The few times I’ve worked for non-religious organizations (as I am now), I’ve seen far less organizational dysfunction. People “out in the world” seem to have a better grasp on how to interact with their fellow humans.

I fully admit that my examples hold no more weight than curiosity or fodder for discussion or disagreement.  But my central thesis is this: conservative Presbyterianism suffers from a deep-set legalism that’s just as insidious and damaging as what they decry among Fundamentalists.  Our hearts crave the surety and simplicity of a rulebook rather than a relationship with the Creator.

 

Newspring without Perry

Last night, Newspring Church met offline with its congregants to discuss the future of the church without the rockstar fallen from grace Perry Noble. I haven’t kept up with the church’s pastoral drama in the past year, but I stumbled across a Twitter live-blog last night of the meeting, and it’s worth noting a few things.

Screen Shot 2017-07-22 at 11.04.18 AM

First, it’s notable to me that Perry crashed and burned as hard as he did.  I wouldn’t say that every megachurch pastor will meet this fate, but Francis Chan articulated recently the way that power and fame begin to chew away at the foundation of your soul. (I recommend reading his remarks.) When 100,000 people are watching your hologram preach on Sunday, you are being tempted by Power. And Tolkien taught us well that only the most humble can carry such Power without it corrupting them – and even then, the burden of it leaves wounds that may never heal.  I’m genuinely sad for Perry Noble’s fall from grace; I hope that he finds peace, healing, and restoration.

Second, I’m glad to see a humbler Newspring tone from the leadership, based on this reporter’s observations of the meeting. Pride doesn’t look good on anybody, especially a church, and Newspring always had a chip on its shoulder about being the biggest and the mold-breaker.  Humbling itself to follow the wisdom of more experienced church leaders wasn’t their strong suit.  They were happy to be the outlier.  Problem is, lone wolves get eaten — and that’s just as true for a church as it is for a person.  This was a very fundamentalist streak within the Newspring culture (I’m not saying they’re fundamentalist – they aren’t), for Southern Baptists in general tend to have that “you can’t tell us what to do” streak of American individualism in their DNA.

 

The pastors who spoke mentioned that they are moving to a group leadership model — or as we Presbyterians call it, “rule by a plurality of elders,” a much stronger and healthier church leadership approach. It sounds like the leadership are trying to move forward together, slow their roll a bit, and trade growth in numbers and dollars for actual development. This is good. They want to see shepherding group growth over butts in the seats — also a much-needed change in emphasis. Having Perry Noble as the hood ornament of a giant machine was never a good idea. I’m glad his departure didn’t wreck more than it did (though there’s been quite a bit of damage).

 

I’m not saying everything here is 100% comforting – there’s still some of the rally feel (like when they talk about how much money they gave to community projects last year), but that’s true of every church.  Also, I’m not certain they’re theologically grounded enough to provide more than the barest surface-level preaching.  Newspring’s model has been “get your friends here and we’ll introduce them to Jesus,” and they’ve been effective at that (though the sacerdotal smell of it makes me cringe). But the model worked well for what it was intended to do: get people to church. That was Newspring’s mission: get people saved, not necessarily do the hard work of discipling them (IMO). Hopefully that will change.

Probably the biggest red flag to me continues to be Newspring’s disparaging of theological education (another Southern, fundamentalist characteristic in their culture). Did you catch the comment that moving to a  group of preaching pastors reinforces the idea that preachers don’t have to go to seminary to be able to preach?  Interesting remark given that preaching pastor Clayton King is an adjunct faculty member at Anderson University’s nascent divinity school.  Ignorance and good motives can carry a man only so far in the pulpit. At some point, people need to be taught Bible content, theological frameworks, and pastoral care.

I wonder about the future of Newspring College.  Newspring has spent years now discouraging young people from getting a seminary education and jumping into ministry after a year of training on their campus. The NS College website notes that students will carry a heavy load  in the Newspring services, including the big Christmas Eve and Easter productions. This bothers me. It looks like a farm for unpaid labor that will produce a lot of really young, really underprepared 20-somethings to throw into ministries around the world.  But I’m willing to live in peace with Newspring on this point. Formal education has never been a critical element of the Gospel, and for some minority groups, it’s a discriminatory practice that bars them from leadership positions (see: PCA). There are far worse things a 19 year old can do with a year of his life.

I haven’t been to a Newspring service in a long time. I still appreciate the energy they put into their services, their heart-felt intensity. I understand why so many “churched” people fled their churches to join the Newspring movement in the mid 2000s. Most churches aren’t feeding their congregations much in the way of biblical content, and when “church” boils down to being a social club, it’s easy to get bored with the one you’re in and leave for the one that’s got better facilities, a great show, and fun leadership. But church was never supposed to be about those things…. I think the New Testament model is much more about “doing life together” around the Word and sacraments and prayer.  You can’t do that via a once a week meeting; doesn’t matter how big or small the operation is.

Newspring is an arm of The Church, and though I’ve often disagreed with their emphasis and practices, I have seen them preach the Gospel to people who need it and love many types of folks who would never be willing to step foot in traditional Evangelicalism. All Evangelicals can learn from that. For this reason, I defend Newspring’s right to exist, to muck around and make mistakes just like all churches and denominations do. Have they “done damage” to the “cause of Christ”? Well, in the minds of some, they certainly have. But show me a church or denomination who hasn’t.  Much of the Newspring hate around here seeps out of old wounds, back when a very arrogant fast-growing church sucked thousands of people out of other churches’ pews.  Doesn’t mean I’m not going to recognize Newspring for what they are: fellow believers, brothers and sisters in Christ.

So I wish Newspring well and hope that this painful year bears good fruit in bringing their leadership to greater wisdom and maturity.

A fond farewell

Dear friends at NCC,
After 15 years among you, we are headed out.

You haven’t seen us much on Sundays for the past several weeks, and I apologize if it felt like we “ghosted” you. It wasn’t my intention, but it’s kind of how things happened.

I deeply appreciate everything I learned when we moved to the PCA in 2001-2002 after a lifetime in Fundamentalism. I had a lot of warped thinking ground deep into my soul, and New Covenant was a place of Grace for us, especially during those early transitional years when we had to figure out what it meant to abandon the old ways.

I have rich and blessed memories of early home ministry groups, including the one at the Rountrees’ for any visitors and new members of the church. We spent many happy Sunday lunches there, talking with the retired folks (one was a retired Navy nurse!) and internalizing the excellent logistic strategy for food service, “Get in line behind someone older than you.” (Every potluck should adopt that rule.)

We met Calvary Home for Children through NCC, spending many happy Sunday lunches doing HMG at the cottage hosted by the Fastenaus. We learned a lot about what love looks like by watching John and Laura open their hearts to 7 kids after raising their own 4, and then happily seeing that set of 7 siblings adopted by 3 local families. It’s still one of my favorite stories. Thanks to CHC’s work with teens who attended NCS, we have learned so much about foster care and the incredible work CHC does for children and teens who need a forever home. We will always heartily support CHC’s ministry.

Our lives were deeply shaped by our work at New Covenant School. We were so young when we arrived, had so much to learn. I cannot fully describe how much teaching changed me. It made me who I am, and I am much better for knowing every single student who walked through my doors. I cannot separate my NCC experience from my NCS work, and I value those years so much.

For a few years late in our teaching career, we worked with the Youth Group, under Mark Wells’s leadership. I’ve always been impressed by the level of involvement of the parents in NCC Youth, especially fathers. Having dads integrally involved in leading, teaching, and mentoring youth makes such a difference in the lives of the teens who mature there.  It was during Mark’s time that the youth (unbidden by us adults) moved themselves to the very front pew for Sunday morning worship. Actually, I think that was Colt’s doing – he couldn’t pay attention otherwise. 😉 I’m so glad we decided to dive into youth work for a bit, and seeing those young’uns grow into fine adults makes my heart happy.

Since my first years at NCC, when the service was still pretty traditional, I’ve been part of the music ministry at New Covenant. It began with singing in the choir under David Wilcox (including my first-ever solo for a Christmas program, accompanied by an orchestra – never expected such a debut!), and I soon found myself behind the piano (or keyboards) supporting various styles of music as NCC sought to find its musical “voice.” Darrell Tricket warmed my heart with his pure, unadulterated joy at the power of Grace. And after he left, Brett and Kevin have continued to lead worship with patience and contentment despite the difficulty of serving week after week in an area where everyone seems to have an opinion. I don’t think any other church does what NCC does with music. I don’t think anyone but Brett can envision how to put a Led Zeppelin bassline under a 400-year-old hymn and join those so beautifully and creatively. Playing with the praise team has kept me engaged in worship in ways that sitting in the pew never could. I hope that has been a blessing to y’all as well.

So with all this good, why are we leaving? Fair question.

I think it’s simplest to say that we’ve changed, and we need to move our worship and ministry somewhere where we can live that out, and where our differences won’t undermine the leadership or ministry of NCC or the PCA. Honestly, it was a short walk from where we were in Fundamentalism to conservative Reformed Evangelicalism. And the similarities which made that transition easy then are chafing us now.

About once every decade, Coart and I go on a “walkabout” through Christianity. We visit a wide variety of churches so that we can see the breadth and depth of the body of Christ. It’s breathtaking. Sure, some churches make me uncomfortable; some theological emphases  are IMO just wrong; many pulpits suffer from weak preaching; most Christian music is pretty boring. But we are all united under the banner of the Cross, as expressed in the most historic of our creeds. That unity corrects a lot of the judgmentalism and disapproval that seeps into our opinions about our fellow believers.

So, as we leave, please be assured, friends, that we leave with a full heart and with gratitude for all that New Covenant Church folks invested in us during those early years. No hard feelings. Our door remains open to all who would be friends with us, and we hope to continue fellowshipping with you at hearths and tables here in Anderson.

The value of artists for the church

This thought struck me today:  Do the “worship wars” exist in our churches (and I’m thinking of conservative Evangelicals mostly) because we lack a deep and meaningful theology of art?

Do we devalue certain kinds of music or performance because, generally speaking, we devalue the artists among us?

I realize that I’m generalizing here based on mostly my own experience, the echo chamber that is my Facebook feed and my friend groups, and articles I tend to see on the Internet. But hear me out — let me know if you think there’s something here.

Worship music exists on a settled continuum at this point in American church history. Since the 1970s, rock and pop (and country) sounds have become more and more mainstream as part of the Sunday service. What began as “praise choruses” (thanks, Keith Green!) grew into a huge Christian music industry by the 80s (who hasn’t heard of Amy Grant) and a juggernaut of Christian media, praise and worship music, and performance styles. But it’s not been a smooth ride. New forms alienate traditional worshipers. And I think we can agree that a lot of Christian music – like secular music – is at best mediocre, from a musician’s point of view.

It seems like the worship wars have cooled to an uneasy detente: traditionalists scoff at “Jesus Is My Boyfriend” music that repeats the same line 25 times. Contemporary worship leaders value traditional hymnody but want to get away from the funeral dirge of organ/piano/face in hymnal that they probably grew up with.

I think the two positions can be summed up easily thus:

And if you need a third example, find the Eddie Izzard clip (from his stand-up routine) about Anglicans singing in church …. (it always goes through my head when I’m singing “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” not my favorite tune).

Thing is, both approaches to music, traditional and contemporary, can serve up skill and artistry. And both can fall into the traps of mind-numbing boredom or lack intentionality.

And – with a gentle nudge to my hymn-loving / repetition-hating friends – repetition is a valid song-writing technique. To say otherwise is to deny the artistry of the psalms – and not just the famous ones like 150 or  136 (which repeats “for his mercy endures forever 36x…. just saying…..).

So I’m wondering.  Do we war over music (or simmer silently when the worship leader picks a song we hate) because we lack a cohesive theology of art?

Think about your church. Aside from the main platform musicians who are playing for worship regularly, how many artists and musicians get the chance to integrate their skill set into the ministry of your church?

How much art hangs in your worship space?  If you’re from a Reformed denomination like I am, perhaps not much. Maybe word art of some kind, cloth banners with verses on them, or perhaps a long-established symbol of something non-controversial like the Trinity.

Any art that isn’t totally unambiguous?

Any music that speaks to the more difficult passages of Scripture, like the prophets or Revelation? Any music that doesn’t always resolve to a happy ending?

Any physical movement? Any dance? Any theater?

Many churches are working to incorporate art, music, dance, and other aesthetics into the worship and life of the congregation. For those churches, I am deeply thankful and hope they lead the way for the rest of us. 

This morning at church, teens from our congregation led us with tambourine and dance. It doesn’t happen often, and it’s usually just one song, but there’s so much joy sparking out of their hands and feet. It nudges even our congregation to move, to smile, to reflect the God Who rejoices over us with singing. 

If we put 90% of our worship energy into making or listening to propositional statements, I think we lose the power of space, time, sound, and sight to shape our understanding of God-given beauty. And then we end up throwing shade at the people who don’t worship like us. “They have a band.” “The drums are too loud.” “It feels like a concert instead of a church.” “The music is old and boring.” “I hate the organ. It sounds like death.”

We must learn to worship. Learning to appreciate different types of music, song construction, liturgies takes time and intentionality.

And one of the best resources for that work often lies untapped among our congregations – the artists among us, those who are honed to see a more complex beauty, those who are wired to feel truth as much as know it.  Let’s value the artists among us for the gift that they are.

*****
I recommend James KA Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom if you want to explore further the ways in which the incarnated practices of liturgy train our hearts at a pre-conscious level. Here’s a condensed lecture version.

 

Empty-Nesters: Please get back Into the pool. We need you.

Why aren’t there survival support groups for parents of teenagers?

I’m serious. Hear me out.

If what I observe is even remotely accurate,  the World has decided that Toddlers and Preschoolers demand the kind of support and attention given to Three Mile Island by a nuclear engineer prone to anxiety attacks.

d42dbb727391bbeb114561bb6ae8ae78New mothers should be surrounded by a support group the size of a brigade — including grandparents, friends of grandparents, church nursery workers, the moms of older kids who miss having a baby around, the fathers of older kids who are actually really great with babies but don’t push themselves into the gaggle of chattering women to get a chance to hold the newest addition…..Basically everyone within earshot of the crying babe.

I’m all about support networks.  Good lord, if I have a kid, I’m calling on anyone within siren distance for help.  I am an idiot when it comes to little kids. Completely incompetent.

But I think this whole parent support network breaks down as kids get older.

I spent a decade teaching teens, meaning I got to know a lot of parents of teens.  As a crowd, these parents tend to share some common characteristics:

  • They’re confused and sometimes hurt or angry because their teen seems to be suffering from multiple personality disorder. It’s as if 6 children have all moved into the same body…. 4 of them are total assholes at least half the time, 1 is always asleep, 3 “can’t even,” and the only nice one emerges when the parent isn’t around.
  • They’re tired because teenagers have ridiculous expectations for social lives but restricted access to driving privileges, a car, or gas money.  So the parental taxi service runs non-stop, the management of curfew is non-stop, the litany of last-minute requests to buy something that should have been taken care of last week is non-stop, the vigilance over “what were you doing last weekend” never stops.
NOT IMPRESSED: Teenagers as a species.
NOT IMPRESSED: Teenagers as a species.
  • They’re poor because nothing tops teen expectations for transportation except their need for money, electronics, clothes, games, movie tickets, adventures with friends, and school supplies. Maybe you can resist “keeping up with the Joneses” but your kid probably can’t.
  • They’re weary of the interpersonal conflict.  Sometimes kids grow up without giving their parents hell all the time. But almost every parent  has to live through at least 12-18 months of crap. Kids know where your buttons are. They know where it hurts. Sometimes they go for the jugular…but usually they’re just cluelessly self-absorbed adolescents drowning in angst.
  • They’re scared that they’re doing it wrong. Parenting is one of those jobs where you don’t know what to do until after you’ve lived through it and gained the experience you would have given a body part to possess 3 days ago.  And every kid is different so those hard-earned lessons may not transfer to the next one.
  • PARENTS, this is you.
    PARENTS, this is you in TeenWorld….. Misspellings and all. Without RDJ’s cool factor.

    They’re wrestling with the balance between safety and freedom, with when to intervene and when to let life teach its hard lessons. A teenager’s character blossoms in exciting ways, giving glimpses of the incredible person tucked inside, a vision of stunning future potential. But they’re also old enough to really, truly screw it up….bad. With lifelong consequences.  That’ll keep anyone up at night. Which makes teenagers’ unhappiness with their parents’ involvement all the more infuriating.

  • They’re feeling guilty because social media and casual conversation make it look like everyone else, despite all their protestations, is doing it so much better. Those people’s kids seem nicer, kinder, smarter, better dressed, better fed, better educated, more involved, and readier for college. Oh yeah, college! Another thing to feel guilty about – how big is your tuition savings account? (Answer: Never big enough.)

If the teen in question is a first-born, raise the intensity of all of these by a factor of 10.

To this, I have something to say:

Empty nesters, we need you.

Where are the support groupies for the parents of teens? They’re out on the lake. They’re chasing retirement. They’re trying to keep up with a kid at college who never calls home and loses all his socks so he just doesn’t bother wearing any, ever.  They’re tired because they’re 50 years old still working 50 hours a week. They’re saving for a future wedding (fingers crossed). They’re distracted because a first grandchild is on the way.

But empty-nesters, we still need you.

266092394761f1b95c58df16df767d59YOU are the voice of reason to the parents of teens in your life (and in your church and in your extended network of people you knew when your kids were in school).

YOU are the evidence that parenting adolescents need not be a terminal illness or the #1 cause of ulcers in adults in their 40s. (I made that up; stop Googling.)

YOU possess the power to say the magic words that parents of teens need to hear again and again and again: “It’s going to be okay.” 

The Apostle Paul gave Titus a model for church relationships as Titus got started in his pastoral career in Crete. In chapter 2, Paul suggests that it’s the older and more experienced people in the church who should mentor those coming along behind in the ways of life: marriage, parenting, working, living.

The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve noticed this mentoring cycle  seems to break as families grow up. I can imagine many reasons:  Social circles for kids and parents harden into the natural groupings driven by school, pulling families into spending time primarily around people who have kids of similar ages. With everyone tucked neatly into these strata, who has time to break out and ask for a hand up?

So. If you’re reading this, and your kids are grown, please find a family who’s still raising their kid13441326730742762560-1368441969s, and invest in their lives. Just start with going out for coffee or beer – what parent of teens doesn’t need chemical assistance?

Get to know teens in your church or neighborhood. Volunteer to chaperon a youth group trip, or have a bunch over for cookies. (Teens still like cookies.) It won’t be weird. I promise. Teens hate only their own parents. 🙂

Hillary earned a lot of scorn in the 90s when she reminded us “It takes a village to raise a child.”  But it DOES take a village. Being part of the Body means parents aren’t supposed to be stuck doing this alone. The rest of us at different stages of life should be investing something in the people coming after us.

Get back in the pool, Empty Nesters! You’re the lifeguards.

Gender, Church, and More Questions

10 Ways Male Privilege Shows Up in the Church | The Junia ProjectThe Junia Project.

^ I appreciated this post because it sets in front of us a difficult question regarding male-female roles in the conservative Church.

I fully understand why leadership positions are reserved for men in most Evangelical churches. It’s a long discussion, so if that idea is new to you, I’ll have to refer you elsewhere rather than giving all of that context here.  This link offers a fair statement of the viewpoint I’ve heard from pulpits my entire life, though this author is more emphatic about a woman’s role in the home than most pastors I’ve sat under.

But I think there’s a failure here to consider the whole counsel of Scripture, the illustrations of women in leadership, and (especially) the negative effects of a myopic, one-gendered viewpoint when it comes to corporate decisions.

(It was Dr Mark Minnick, in one of the pinnacle churches of Fundamentalism, who hammered home the point that I Cor 11 clearly assumes a woman is involved in verbal public ministry when it takes up the question of wearing head coverings.  “If a woman prays or prophesies …..” I’ve rarely heard anyone else bring this up.)

This is a difficult question, and one that many others have tackled recently. So I’m not going to reinvent the proverbial wheel.

I guess I’m just here to wish that conservative Christians would revisit exactly what they think Scripture prohibits, not set up fences to make sure there’s no possibility of crossing a line.

Many women in our churches do the work of deacons (even wielding considerable de facto authority) but are stripped of the title, salary, recognition, or respect for their work.

And the question of whether women can be pastors is not at all the same as discussing the extent to which women should be active teachers and participants in the ministry to the Body as a whole — as adult Sunday School teachers, in worship, and in guiding the direction of the assembly.

Maybe let’s start there?