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When Church Walls Prevent Us From Being the Church

As Ben and I were enjoying our afternoon Panera coffee break (he just had water), we met an Assembly of God minister who was interested in what we were doing at ministrieslab. He explained that church starting had started to be a conversation in the AG church and church starters were encouraged to find a theater or a school to meet in. Then he asked, “Where are ya’ll going to meet?”

I responded, “We’re not going to have a place. We’re going to be the church and pop up in the midst of need.”

He considered that for a minute and then drew the connection to the early church movement. I smiled as he continued to reflect on the changes in church and the emphasis on having bigger and bigger congregations and buildings. He concluded his reflection by saying, “But a lot of those churches don’t have missions as their center. They just want to have more people.”

“Exactly,” I agreed. “Whether we like to admit it or not, having church walls has changed our perception of church. Most people believe church is a place to go to and not a way to live your life.”

In working with the homeless population in Columbia, I’ve heard numerous stories of people who have invited the clients to church, but they can’t go to church because of their limited mobility. It made me think of the number of times I have been invited to church and these invitations have always been to a certain place at a certain time on a certain day, but didn’t Jesus command us to go?

Church walls confine our ability to dream about the future of the church. Church walls ask us to label and separate children, youth, and adults into age-based Sunday School classes. Church walls confine our ministers to office and office hours limiting their ability and mobility in the community.

Church walls limit our creativity in thinking about the future of the church. Perhaps it’s time to break down some of those walls that exclude and label and dream of what we could do if we were the church instead of if we went to church.

Because ministrieslab doesn’t have a building, Ben and I met a fellow minister at a coffeeshop. A fellow minister with whom we got to fellowship and who also provided a donation to the work we are doing.

Want to join us in our mission to pop up in the midst of need? We’ll come to you.

On Pastoring a Church in Which I Am the Minority

For eight weeks, Sam and I have been co-pastoring ministrieslab,a church popping up in the midst of need. This week, as we gathered for our weekly service at Transitions, I was struck by the overwhelming task of preaching on the Good Samaritan as a white woman in community of faith in which I am a minority.

What could I say?

I had no words for the violence experienced. I had no words for the systematic discrimination exposed. I had no words for the lives lost. I had no words for the way we were all able to be witnesses these deaths through technology over and over again. I had no words for the way I had been challenged and reminded of my own white privilege throughout the week.

And in the midst of being tongue-tied, a question came from one of the people in our community. He asked me about my journey into the ministry. I told him about not being accepted or affirmed because of my gender. He was shocked as were some of the other people gathered that there were churches who did not believe women could preach.

And as we worshipped and prayed and mourned and feasted on the word, I was reminded of my call to pastor. I was reminded of my call to preach. I was reminded that when we don’t listen to the still, small voice that calls us to take up our cross and follow after Christ, then we end up walking on the other side o f the road when people are in need. I was reminded that when we truly see each other, then we bear each others burdens: burdens of despair, of grief, or hopelessness.

As we concluded the service, the same man who had asked me about how I became a pastor said while looking me straight in the eyes, “Thank you for coming and blessing us today.”

“Thank you for coming and worshipping today,” I responded.

But what I wanted to say was, “Thank you for seeing my need. Thank you for seeing my wounds of rejection and being excluded and tending to them. Thank you for reminding me of what it means to be a good neighbor regardless of our race, our gender, or our religious beliefs.”

On Needing Each Other

Whether I like to admit it or not, I need help. I need help as I learn to be a stepmother. I need help as I learn to be a mother. I need help as I continue to learn how to pastor. I need help as I continue to encounter the disappointment and discouragement that comes with being a Baptist woman who is called to be a preacher.

I need you, women who have traveled this road longer than I have, to continue to tell your story with openness and authenticity. I need you to tell me why you didn’t give up hope and why you’re still Baptist when it’s so difficult to be a Baptist woman in ministry. I need you to share your experience. I need you to revisit those dark and difficult places that brought you to where you are today. I need to hear your story.

And I need you, who find yourselves in positions of power and privilege, not to let guilt over that place of privilege distract you. I need you to be brave and risky. I need you to use your power and your privilege to speak for those who find themselves on the other side of power and privilege. And if you do, I promise to do the same should the roles be reversed one day.

We were meant to live in community with each other. We were meant to hold each other’s stories. We were meant to work together to bring the kingdom of God here on earth.

Let’s get started.

Freedom for Some

Yesterday, many churches joined the worship or God with the worship of country as the lines between church and state were blurred with the singing patriotic songs and the parade of red, white, and blue in sanctuaries. In blurring those lines, we forget how many people are not free to be themselves in our country and communities of faith.

God of grace and love, in your mercy hear our prayers:

for those who are not free to express love freely for threat of losing their jobs,

for those who are reduced to their gender or sexuality ignoring their talents and abilities,

for those who speak on behalf of your name, Creator God, judging who are your children and who are not,

for those working three jobs tirelessly trying to feed their children,

for those giving up their own food to feed others,

for those whose EBT debit cards are empty before the end of the month,

for those who work this holiday and every holiday so others can celebrate,

for those grieving the loss of loved ones from gun violence,

for those grieving the loss of loved ones from gun violence who have heard that their loved ones’ death shouldn’t take away the freedom of others to buy assault weapons,

for those who feel trapped, oppressed, unheard, and unseen trying to pursue the American Dream that does not exist,

May we remember in the midst of our celebration those who aren’t free living in a country where people believe everyone is free. Amen.

 

Worship When Life Has Not Gone As Planned

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The call Sam and I felt to start ministrieslab to pop up in the midst of need is indeed a call from God to minister to God’s people, but I didn’t realize it was a call to question my own privilege. Privilege that blinds me to need. Privilege that causes me to think I know how to help people. Privilege that makes me believe I know how to plan an authentic and engaging worship service because I hold a MDiv.

Privilege that’s challenged me every week over the past eight weeks as I walk into Transitions Homeless Shelter. As I walked in today, our pianist was practicing, but this week it was different. He had gathered a chorus with him, a chorus that gladly agreed to sing as part of our service. As they ran through Amazing Grace, more and more people came in the open door and set down as I set the Lord’s table for communion.

And with the music, came worship.

Worship not that I had planned, but that the clients at Transitions led. Worship that came from their hearts, their concerns, their voices, their experiences, their needs. Worship led by God’s people. Worship that transformed my understanding of what worship truly is.

I come from a tradition of carefully-crafted worship services with orders of worships, written calls to worship where the leader and people’s parts are clearly labeled, and where those who lead the service often don’t worship because they are concerned about ensuring that everything goes as planned. Today, I didn’t have to start the worship service, but instead I was invited into worship with this community of faith.

There is a beautiful truth that exists in this integrated community of faith: life has not gone as planned. In this community of faith, race, gender, and sexuality don’t matter because the truth that we are all in need transcends all those labels. It reminds me a lot of our chapel experiences at Gardner-Webb School of Divinity that invited us to worship together, black and white, old and young, male and female, and all kinds of different sexuality.

Perhaps instead of planning worship so carefully, we should instead plan on placing ourselves in the midst of need. Because there in the midst of need, we will surely find the presence of God.

 

 

The Importance of Naming Spiritual Abuse

As I hear more and more stories of spiritual abuse, I am discovering that many people who are victims of spiritual abuse shy away from saying they experienced spiritual abuse. I understand their sentiments because to name yourself as someone who has experienced spiritual abuse is to identify a community of faith as a place where spiritual abuse has taken place. If you have experienced spiritual abuse, then you know the consequences of questioning this type of power.

So, thank you, to those readers who have shared their stories with me. It has made me feel like I am not alone, but more importantly, you have done powerful work for those who are in the midst of spiritual abuse because you have named their experience as something real. By naming and claiming your experience as spiritual abuse, you have given life to the truth that spiritual abuse happens and is happening in communities of faith.

When God asked Adam to name the creation in the Genesis 2, it was a demonstration that Adam held dominion over these creatures, dominion that Creator God had entrusted to Adam. In the same way, those who lead God’s people have been given called to name what God is telling God’s people about themselves. When ministers and spiritual leaders, name one of God’s creations as unworthy or excluded the process of naming becomes labeling. Instead of this act of naming being life-giving, it is life-draining.

Using God’s calling as a minister to promote some as more worthy and more important is spiritual abuse. Naming this act of spiritual abuse, reveals the misuse of dominion and how easily naming can become name calling.

To you who have been called names by religious leaders and followers of Christ, hear now the word of the Lord:

God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

You Have Access

On Thinking Religion this week, Dr. Thomas Whitley and the Reverend Sam Harrelson talk about the access to information we all have at our fingertips. (How they get to this point is a really fascinating trail that’s worth listening to!) We all have the opportunity to read from a wide range of perspectives and we should. We should read about Donald Trump’s conversion experience and we should read about those who wonder if he’s conversion is a political stunt. We should read and we should read a lot about the future of technology and social media and how it is changing our jobs, our families, and our churches.

We should also understand the impact that these changing dynamics have on how we communicate with one another and how we form our religious ideals and beliefs. Even if you think that your absence from these forms of communications makes you immune to the conversations being held in the virtual world, the conversation is going to leak into our face-to-face interactions.

My move to co-pastor with Sam to create something different, a church without walls that has the flexibility to pop up and respond to need is an affirmation of what I believe is the future of the church. This is what ministrieslab is. If you’ve been in church recently than you know the conversation has shifted from going to church to being the church. This isn’t just a clever preaching takeaway, this is the future of the church. And if you think it’s not relevant that church news has been a part of Huffington Post, then you’re missing out on the importance of where we find ourselves in American church life.

All signs point to significant changes in the way church exists in America in the next five years. The question is where will you find yourself in the midst of these changes?

I know where I’ll be. I’ll be popping up in the midst of need with the person I love the most in this world.

On Coming in Second and Competition for Open Positions

“I don’t want to be in competition with you. I want to be in collaboration, in community, in fellowship with you,” I recently admitted to a group of young baptists. It was a reflection on the realization that the open pulpits that exist are not enough for the number of talented men and women who are looking for pastor positions.

Of the 17% of people who attend church, 50% of those people attend megachurch, leaving the other 50% of that 17% who are attending all other churches. It’s a shocking realization for those of us who are in CBF because it indicates a shrinking job market. It’s even more shocking for young baptists who have answered a call to ministry hoping and praying to also provide for their families as they answer that call.

It’s another statistic that reminds us that the church is changing and reminds us that the future of the church might look drastically different than it has in the past 100 years. It’s another statistic that reminds us that bi-vocationalism is going to become more and more important. It’s another statistic that reminds us that those we called classmates and friends could very well be our competition in our next search process experience.

For those who have been down to the final two candidates and not been called, may God’s peace surround you and remind you that even when a church doesn’t call you, you are still called. Even in the midst of competition and a shrinking job market, you are still called. May Creator God inspire you to think of new ways to serve and create in this changing dynamic of church to which we are called.

 

A Fractured Reality

As more and more people begin to arrive in Greensboro for CBF’s General Assembly, there is no question that the press release this morning with a call from Suzii Paynter to work towards unity was meant to set the stage for the conversation about CBF’s discriminatory hiring policy. It sounds a lot like we are following in the footsteps of Methodists, except for one thing. While the Methodists are willing to admit that their process of discovery is in regards to the LGTBQ question, Paynter says:

We are introducing a process not for a single problem or for a single moment.

Her statement reveals the fractured reality CBF has been living in.

Because CBF does not kick churches out of their fellowship, there exists a wide array of churches along the theological spectrum. In fact some of CBF churches are still dually aligned with the Southern Baptist Convention, which had protestors at the funerals of the victims of the Orlando shooting. These dually aligned churches are hoping CBF will do exactly what Paynter’s words indicate: avoid the LGTBQ question entirely. The reality is by avoiding the question, CBF is hoping to maintain the financial backing of churches, ministers, and lay people from a wide range of theological understandings.

But CBF can’t exist in this fractured reality for much longer. Churches and ministers who support the LGTBQ community and who don’t or don’t want to address the question, will keep pushing for a clear answer on what CBF believes. As more and more ministers and churches push, the fracture will become bigger.

And maybe this isn’t a bad place for CBF to be because it mirrors the conflicted climate of the church. The possibility of losing funding or losing members over the difficult conversations of gender and sexuality is a reality that so many churches and ministers are trying to navigate. Maybe by feeling the pressure and stress that so many churches and ministers are bearing, CBF will look to a future that values not money above all, but rather the resurrection power of Christ to transform the world.

Hold On

For those of us who are preparing and traveling to CBF General Assembly, there is a question that is on all of our minds, “What is the future for CBF?” This is the 25th Anniversary of CBF and while it is a time to catch up with people and celebrate, it is also a time that we are all expecting a clear vision for what’s next.

CBF is no longer an awkward teenager testing boundaries and trying to find its identity. Instead, CBF is, well, a millennial. The millennials in attendance are not nones (they are attending CBF after all). These are millennials who have not given up on the church, but instead have answered calls to ministry. These are millennials who are pushing on leadership hoping to find a place to serve, a place to grow, and a place to be themselves.

Will CBF have a place for millennial ministers in their midst?

Maybe, but there is a hiring policy standing between many millennials and CBF. A hiring policy that taints the good work CBF does in caring for those in the midst of crisis because it asks members of the LGTBQ community to silence part of who they are. It is a hiring policy that excludes rather than excludes. It is a hiring policy that stands in contradiction to a theology of welcoming and affirming all people.

As we wait for General Assembly to begin, we wait hoping beyond hope, we won’t hear what we have heard for the past 25 years. We hope we won’t hear, “Hold on,” because we have held on for 25 years. It’s time to stop holding on, grasping an identity based on what we are not, and climb to the future that includes all people.