Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Labeling the Church

Labels tend to
communicate, "I am actually
a Christian."

Ever notice how hyphenated Americans (African-, Asian-, Latino-, Republican-) seem to have been assigned a sub-American status among us? Likewise, I sometimes wonder about the terms we use to describe people in the church: missional Christians, emerging Christians, neo-monastic Christians, fundamentalist Christians, universalist Christians (some would omit the word “Christian”), crazy-rabid-apocalyptic Christians (ditto). You may use some of these terms more than others, but the problem remains – why can’t we all just be Christian? Isn’t it enough to be a follower of Christ? Can’t we admit that we (and others) aren’t perfect, that it’s some kind of miracle that so many people with so many different ideas of what it means to be church are still trying every day to live into the image and character of Jesus?

Here’s the problem: we lose sight of what’s important when we take on or assign identifiers. What matters is the person and presence of Jesus among us. What matters is our struggle – sometimes successful, sometimes superficial, sometimes selfish, sometimes stupid, sometimes surreal – to know Christ, to grow in relationship, to become the people we were created to be. There is something to be said about risking a label, working to define who we are in community with other believers. And maybe it’s important to admit that there are real differences between us. But many of those differences are on the non-essentials. They’re not deal-breakers.

On the other hand, to ignore our differences is to lack integrity. We are not the same. God doesn’t require or expect us to be Jesus robots, mechanical contraptions that have no choice but to march and march and march. Labels, used responsibly, can help us to understand who we are (and maybe even to understand others).

Here’s the danger. Labels tend to communicate “I am actually a Christian,” or worse, “I am more of a Christian.”

I am a pacifist. I identify with many of the church’s emergent voices. I want to be missional. I’m an evangelical Quaker, but I love the Catholic mystics and have been challenged by an as-yet-unsuccessful call to reconciliation from Episcopalians (among others). I love the full-sensory experience of an Orthodox service. I’m intrigued by the seeming ease with which Mennonites sling off institutions that channel their efforts at social justice.

These labels help me to understand the nature of the Christian faith I’m pursuing. These labels help me to find my place in the life and community of the church. But I’m discovering that I must hold these labels loosely, that I have to be able to let go (or let loose), that these ideas aren’t necessarily “better” expressions of Christianity than others, that the rule for finding my place in Christian community is humility.

I guess I’ve come full circle.

Labels can be helpful, allowing us to understand and relate. But they are also weapons used to divide, to distance, to accuse.

We must be careful.

At Barclay Press

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

We're not
going to compromise the

Frequently, in ministry-related planning sessions, someone will say something like the following: "We're not going to compromise the message." It's a statement that catches my attention because it reveals the speaker's opinion of others in the group: they can't be trusted. Is it possible that some of what we ascribe to the "message" is not, in fact, central to what we believe? Is it possible that we sometimes confuse cultural values with moral values? Is it possible to think before we speak?

Monday, February 08, 2010


During worship, I heard a little girl, humming in the balcony. There was a toddler, cheerfully posing questions in a pretend conversation. They were happy among us.

Something New


What about new models? What about creating a worshiping community in which change is pervasive (and expected)? Is it possible to create an environment in which anything is possible? where anything can happen? Can we comfortably create and live in a system that fosters expectation, creative problem solving, and continuous challenge?

Friday, February 05, 2010

Nobody wants to be the
one to say those one or two people
weren't worth the effort.

Church work is mired in a culture of nice, and that culture keeps bad programs and unnecessary efforts from being eliminated; it also uses up resources that could be and should be used to help good work work better. We're just too nice to call a bad project a bad project. If we criticize, we do so in abstractions or through back channels (gossip). No one has any problem identifying bad products as bad – the Yugo for example. (If you don't remember the Yugo, there's a reason for that; it was bad, and now it's gone.) Maybe the problem is that in the church, we’re addicted to nice.

It boils down to human decency. When good people are making a good faith effort to do work that matters, you feel like the worst kind of jerk calling them out for waste or incompetence. And every program benefits one or two people. Nobody wants to be the one to say that those one or two people weren't worth the effort.

But there are a couple of people who liked Yugos, too. Artist Kevin O'Callaghan, for instance, saw something of beauty in the car that the public rejected. He bought 39 rusty Yugos and asked his students to make objects of functional art from them. That doesn’t keep the rest of us from being able to explain exactly what’s wrong with the car. A Time Magazine review judged the vehicle -- constructed in Soviet-bloc Yugoslavia -- as feeling like something "assembled at gunpoint." The car had "carpet" listed as a standard feature, and several former owners admitted that the rear-window defrost was a nice touch as it kept your hands warm while you pushed it.

Another problem in identifying and eliminating bad programs is social self-interest. Every program and project is initiated and managed by people I like, people I work with, people with whom I worship, people who own the house in which I live, people who are responsible for contributing toward my monthly paycheck. I'm not about to criticize a friend, let alone an employer (at least not directly). But if we all shut up, then sinkholes of mismanagement and despair keep swallowing up our limited resources.

I don’t really know how to fix this. And I'm not ready to tell you exactly which programs suck. (I like my job.)

Still, it's worth thinking about.

At Barclay Press

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Theological Models

It's interesting to note
what conversational bottlenecks reveal about
what we really think.

A trip 'round the table in a recent discussion of church change reveals an interesting assortment of personalities:

1) Inerrancy of scripture, necessity of a moral compass, impatience with any trespass of perceived boundaries, repeated emphasis of evangelism's importance as the center of whatever we do.

2) Historical perspective -- this is how we got here (without stressing one current viewpoint), offerer of information, sometimes seeming to use perspective as a means of discouraging certain lines of discussion.

3) Pragmatist -- it's good if it works, and if it doesn't work, it's not good. Impatient with "time-wasting" historical and logistical discussion. Seems eager to preserve the status quo (because it's easier).

4) Champion of the business model, continually bringing forward examples from corporate experience. Treats much of the discussion with a seemingly hands-off-listening approach, recognizing that much of our discourse ranges over topics with which he's unfamiliar.

5) Two accommodators, willing to share personally but generally unwilling to contest points that have been made other than to ask clarifying questions.

It's interesting to note what conversational bottlenecks can reveal about what the group members really think as well as what it suggests about where people are unwilling to go.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

What if all
we are is a group of people
who don't know?

What if all we are is a group of people who don't know what we're doing? Sometimes I'm overly sensitive to social cues. I sense a lack of confidence, note a stutter or misplaced pause, an awkward jitter of hands, a blinking eyelid, downcast eyes. I know what I see, but I filter through my own experience, my own personality, my own history. I interpret what I see as fear, maybe even stress. But I lack context. I don't really know.