Monthly Archives: December 2011

Re-Tooling the Church

Recently Richard and I spent a very pleasant afternoon with two friends. One of the women was sharing how some of the proposed changes local government is making for training in her profession (training educators) could actually make her position obsolete in the not-too-distant future. While she admitted these changes would save money, she also shared her concerns that the quality of training would suffer. The reduction in quality of training would then have negative impacts on future educators as well as the young people they instruct.

The discussion then turned to what we would do if our jobs became obsolete. How would we “re-tool” to adjust to our new realities?

This is a question that has been on my mind a lot in the past year or so. On one hand, I’m blessed to be a fairly compensated full-time pastor; on the other hand, I know that reality can change in a very short time. No, I don’t sit around worrying that the next phone call I receive will be from the Vice-Moderator of our board, notifying me the congregation is calling for my resignation for one reason or another.  And although we don’t have an endowment, and our board does have to watch our finances very carefully, I also don’t worry that next week’s paycheck is fully dependent on this coming Sunday’s offering.

No, the re-tooling question comes from what I see as the new realities of organized religion. And if what I am reading on various blogs, in books and magazines, and hearing in my discussions with colleagues across denominational lines are any indication, I am not the only one thinking about the issue of what I call “re-tooling the church.”

Like so many other professions these days, there are multitudes of talented and dedicated clergy who cannot find equally dedicated and caring congregations who are able to pay their clergy a living wage. Younger clergy cannot find positions because older clergy who should be retired are staying put in their churches and denominational leadership positions. And you can’t really blame all the older clergy, because–like everyone else–what little retirement and pension funding many of them had has taken a beating. So, they continue to work and serve as long as their health allows–or their congregations or denominational leaders “encourage” them to retire.

Like some other institutions, many of our administrative structures–especially at the national leadership levels–are sorely outdated and too expensive to maintain. I am not saying these structures are all bad, either. They worked at one time when going to church, synagogue, temple, or mosque was just “what people did.” That is simply no longer the case. People are learning they can be–as the title of Humanist Chaplain Gregory Epstein’s book reminds us–“Good Without God”–at least when it comes to being part of a church, mosque, temple, or synagogue. That is, people who believe in God–however they define that word–are learning that their eternal destinations aren’t tied to the support of any religious institution.

All these realities are just that–realities. The challenges I’ve mentioned are faced by religious groups across the theological/spiritual board. I don’t believe they are signs of an external God’s displeasure with us for being too “this or that” (pick your favorite label and insert it here). We may (and do) tweak our worship words and wardrobes. We add and subtract drums, keyboards, and organs. We add and subtract programs as people come and go. Trust me, I’ve done all these things at one time or another in my pastoral life; and I support mixing, matching, and trying new ideas. Still, regardless of what we try, it doesn’t change my core belief that these realities I’ve mentioned may point to yet another evolution in religion and religious expression.

And once again the church is being left behind redecorating our exteriors without doing the hard work of examining our interiors. When I say “examining our interiors,” I’m not talking about making sure we have all the “right” words and beliefs about our  faith to ensure our sweet seats in the afterlife, either. I mean asking questions like, “Why are we even doing this thing called “church” anyway?”

“Why are we even doing this thing called “church” anyway?” Let that question sink in for a moment. If we can’t answer it, we should be concerned.

For me, church isn’t about worshipping an external Deity, or for feeling better about myself after beating myself up during silent confession. As much as I love good music, church isn’t all about the music or the liturgy. And especially as a pastor, I seriously dislike the whole idea of “church as entertainment.” Yes, I strive to make my reflections relevant and I love to use humor. Still, as that great theologian Pink reminds us in one of her songs, “I’m not here for your entertainment.”

Church isn’t about escaping the reality of life that waits for us outside our pretty little white building, either. For me, church at its best is about learning how to support, love, and appropriately challenge one another as we face life–both as individuals and as a community of faith.

So what is it going to take to re-tool the church to not only face, but also embrace this evolution and revolution? I have a few ideas; one thing for sure, however, is professional religious people like me had best be prepared to adjust to our new realities. For our roles–and those of our denominational leaders–will have to evolve for religious communities to continue being relevant pathways to growth and positive living in our world.

Now I think I understand why there are so many “fear nots” in the bible…

The Church of Oz

There is a scene in the classic movie “The Wizard of Oz” where the real identity of the Wizard is exposed. And it is nothing like the identity he presented to others.

It really wasn’t his fault. According to the story, the Wizard arrived in Oz quite by accident–literally dropping from the sky as the result of a balloon trip from Kansas gone awry. Still, his unusual arrival amazed the people, and apparently they gave him absolute authority over their lives and practically worshipped–and sometimes feared–him. We could say the whole situation took on a life of its own.

As strange as it sounds, I sometimes think the institution of church came from Oz–at least from the first part of the movie, that is. And that thought scares me because–let’s face it–I’m considered by at least a few people to be one of the multitude of leaders in that institution.

I’m not saying the institutional church itself is all bad. I just think that sometimes–like the story of the Wizard–things have gotten out of hand. Jesus came teaching people a way of peace, love and inclusion that was, in large part, very different from both the government and religious policies and practices of their time. Jesus did not start a church. Jesus did not start a religion. Scripture records that Jesus came so we might have abundant life.

And we’ve settled for an institution.

It wasn’t always that way. Christianity started as a small, marginalized movement. I believe it was probably when Constantine “legalized” Christian worship in 313 of the Common Era with the Edict of Milan that things began to change. Depending on which scholars you read, this move was more political than spiritual, as Constantine was working to consolidate his power. If I understand the edict correctly, however, its purpose was to legalize the practice of all religions in the Roman Empire. Still, Christianity eventually became the religion of choice in the Roman Empire–especially if you wanted to be part of the favored power structure. In Christian history, we might even say that that is when the balloonist from Kansas became the Wizard behind the curtain.

History records church leaders (the Wizard) sending thousands of people (the Dorothys, Scarecrows, Tin Men, and Cowardly Lions) out to earn their salvation by killing the various enemies of the church (the Wicked Witches of the West); only to be told on their return that there were more “tasks” yet to do (those who were lucky enough to make it back alive, that is). Some church leaders held the power to read and interpret scripture for everyone else; others sold sweet seats to the afterlife (or at least took money to pray souls out of Purgatory).

Some people might read this information and say, “Yeah, but that was then and this is now.” True. At the same time, some groups–including some Christian groups–still have “crusades” against ideas and people who do not measure up to their expectations and definitions of “truth.” Some still claim to know THE way to eternal happiness and peace; and yes, you can have it too. If, that is, you are part of their group and follow their doctrines and dogma. And let’s face it, some members of the Institutional Church are still sleeping with the Empire.

In my opinion, what started out as a movement with amazing potential to change the world, over time became an institution mired in struggles for power and wealth. And like the Empire (and the Wizard), it has played on people’s fears of the unknown to maintain that power and wealth.

Just like in the story of the Wizard of Oz, however, I believe the curtain is being pulled back, and people are learning a few things about the church–and themselves.

Hopefully we’re learning that behind the big, booming voices, education and pageantry are at best imperfect human beings who do not hold the keys to our final destinations. And while church folk are definitely not perfect, I believe most of us are well-meaning, loving, and caring human beings. And as there were good things happening in “the merry old land of Oz,” there are good things happening in churches all over the world, too–even with all the big, booming voices hiding behind the curtains.

People are also learning that they don’t necessarily have to attend a church, synagogue, temple, mosque or any other building to be moral, ethical people who can make positive impacts in this world. As the Wizard eventually told Dorothy and her friends, they’re learning they’ve had the power within them to face their challenges the whole time. They just had to learn that lesson.

Who knows? Maybe that is what the church should be about–encouraging and teaching people that we already have the power within us to face the challenges of life, as well as to bring peace and justice to the planet. And since people have different names for that power, we should celebrate our different understandings of that power rather than try to establish our understanding as the Truth.

Yes, people are learning that sometimes the church isn’t always as it appears from the outside. And that knowledge is painful at times, too. At the same time, I believe some of what we’re learning is potentially life-giving and freeing. Who knows? Maybe some of what we’re learning is even salvific.

If we’re willing to keep pulling back the curtains, that is.

Breaking Up is Hard to Do

This week I stated reading Paul Rasor’s “Faith Without Certainity: Liberal Theology in the 21st Century.” Although I have only finished the somewhat lengthy introduction and am now about 1/4 way through chapter one, I can already say this book is challenging me in positive ways.

First, I thoroughly enjoy Rasor’s definitions of religion and theology. He states: “The term theology is often associated with arcane and academic or technical concepts that focus on abstract doctrines. But the purpose of theology is really quite simple. If religion is about the large-scale world pictures that orient us in the universe and help give our lives meaning and purpose, then theology is about examining those worldviews and the assumptions that go into them.”

What I like most about these definitions is they recognize the fact that everyone is a theologian at one time or another–including people who either question–or who do not believe in the existence of–any representation of the divine. That is, we all have questions about things like how life works, why life isn’t always fair, the ultimate meaning of life, and if there is anything beyond our current existence. One way of looking at religion then is our viewpoints represent those large-scale world pictures; and when we examine those pictures, we are doing theology. As Rasor reminds us, “our struggle and our outrage are always grounded somewhere.” And I would add, whether that grounding is in what some of us call “God” or not. So for me, identifying that grounding is “doing theology.”

Another quote from Rasor I like is: “Theology is not something we do just with our heads. We must also use our hearts and guts, as well as our hands and feet.” To me, that means theology is something we think about, feel, and is reflected in the words and actions of our lives.

Now, an integrity (or wholeness) of thought, feeling, and action is a “trinity” in which I can believe.

So how does my appreciation of Rasor’s viewpoints regarding religion and theology relate to the title of this post, “Breaking Up is Hard to Do?”

Well, if–as Rasor asserts–“liberal theology is characterized by the belief that human religiousness should be understood from the perspective of modern knowledge and experience”–and if we acknowledge that our knowledge and experiences evolve and change over time, it follows that many of us are going face the prospect of “breaking up” with some of our most cherished and deeply-held beliefs at one time or another in our lives.

And as Neil Sedaka reminds us, “Breaking Up is Hard to Do.”

For some, these changes involve breaking up with the idea of a supernatural being who controls every detail of our existence and has a specific plan for every person who ever has, and who ever will, live. Some  have broken up with the ideas of Jesus being literally God Incarnate, as well as literal intepretations of heaven, hell, virgin birth, miracles, resurrection, the rapture and second coming of Jesus, and an inerrant bible.

Some people are even breaking up with the idea of worshipping God as we often do now. By that comment, I mean there are people who are questioning not so much the existence of mystery that is beyond our comprehension, but why we continue to relate to that mystery much like our ancient ancestors did: offering thanks often out of fear of punishment or to gain favor not only in this life, but hopefully in the afterlife as well. I mean, we may not actually believe a lot of what we’re saying in these worship services; but hey, it can’t hurt to hedge our bets, can it?

Now before anyone thinks I am poking fun at certain beliefs, let me be clear that I respect all peaceful paths to truth and understanding. So if the beliefs I mentioned above are part of your path, blessed be–seriously. At the same time, these same beliefs are no longer useful for many people–including me. Rasor points out that “what we long for is a theology that both makes sense and feels right. Until we find this, we haven’t finished our naming process. And when we do finally get the intellectual and spiritual dimensions in sync, our theology becomes not just a label but a resource, a grounding for spiritual practice, for social critique, even for healing.”

So know that if you are in the process of a religious/theological break up, you are not alone. And while break ups are often a painful process, there is often hope somewhere deep in the midst of that pain just waiting to be born. Finally, if you will allow me one more musical reference, from the group “Shinedown:”

“Sometimes good-bye is a second chance.”