5 Reasons Why I am Rethinking Church

I recently read a post entitled:  Top Five Reasons Why I Am Not A Progressive Methodist

I was drawn to it, because I am working with our Chaplain and two of my friends to start a covenant group and Bible study on campus that is rooted in a desire to repaint, rebuild and rethink the Christian faith in a way that understands the history and traditions of the church, the Message of Jesus Christ, and contemporary culture and finding where these intersect to show us the most loving and holy way to minister to people in 2013.

Our biggest problem was finding words for that besides “Progressive Christian.”

Because that phrase carries with it the trappings of denominational splits over hard-to-maneuver battlegrounds of post-modern politics and battles of books written on all sides of everything we don’t know about what Jesus would say about our lives.

So I’m not going to call myself that, just like Kathryn, Helen, and I are not going to call this group that when it starts meeting next week. 

I am instead going to tell you the 5 reasons why I am rethinking church, because I think that’s what I’m really doing more than anything. 

1. I don’t believe anyone holds “exclusive rights” to the Gospel (or even the “social gospel”)

2. I believe that Heaven and Hell are real and that Jesus actually came to teach us that it was not us who are to judge the quick or the dead or anyone else we feel like we need to.

3. I chose to apply ancient authority of the scriptures to modern context and culture, instead of squeezing modern assumptions of the scripture into ancient context and culture.

4. I also hope and pray to embrace the heart of the Wesleyan movement — a passionate belief in free will, a celebration of the assurance of salvation, and a promise to spread scriptural holiness,” but I remember that Wesley had to preach in some graveyards when things at church weren’t changing. I won’t mind preaching in a graveyard if that is where the Message God gives me to deliver can be heard.

5. I know that reading the Bible “literarily” means taking things like the commandment to love God and neighbor as literal, and to hold up everything else (in and out of scripture) to that as a litmus test, and to appreciate the historical and cultural significance of it as a God-inspired, though human created document. 

I’m Rethinking Church because I don’t have all the answers and I don’t expect to ever reach that point. I’m Rethinking because I know that if God brought me to this school, to meet the people who are now two of my best friends, and instilled in our hearts a common desire to rediscover and reclaim what it means to follow Him, then rethinking is what He is calling me to do. I’m Rethinking because I know that no amount of lengthy blog posts will change the world, and I know that I have to Retrace Jesus’ steps to find the way to the hearts of people of the 21st Century.

Road Full of Promises

“I believed it couldn’t matter what people felt. It mattered that this was what God wanted.”

This is a line from Megan Phelps-Roper’s blog, her first social media activity since leaving Westboro Baptist Church. She tells a beautiful and heartbreaking story about faith and doubt and seeking truth for herself. She talks about reading and talking and discovering how unlikely it is that WBC had a “monopoly on the truth.”

And I never realized what it was that stirred my heart so violently about this group of radical Topekans until today. 

When I was 16, WBC came to Arlington to protest some of the churches in the area, including their Catholic church where I had my first communion. I stood there, soaking it all in as I held a sign that someone else had given me with Romans 12:16 scrawled across it. This was the beginning of one of my deepest passions. I wanted to be a heart softener, an eye-opener, and people lover. 

Soon after I coined the phrase “I can’t stand intolerance.” This not only became a silent motto for me, but also something I spit out (and was made fun of for, of course) whenever I felt like I couldn’t carry the weight what I saw.

It weighs on you to hang onto that kind of anger. That kind of judgement. That kind of hatred. 

In Luke 9, we see Heaven open up and proclaim: “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”

And we say, “I will follow Jesus,” only to ignore His word over that of Old Testament law or the rantings of Paul or, the political agenda of whomever has the most booming voice, proclaiming what they feel to be the only message for this generation of Christians.

Later in the 9th chapter of Luke, Jesus speaks with his followers:

57 As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”

58 Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

59 He said to another man, “Follow me.”

But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”

60 Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

61 Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.”

62 Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

We can never become stagnant in what we tell ourselves, in what we show others. We can’t cling to those things that weigh us down, no matter where we find justification for them. We use our beliefs for the sins of other people to bolster up walls around ourselves. We build ourselves a home deeply inside of the assurance in our own salvation and our removal from the world. 

But if we aim to be instead Kingdom Builders, we have to realize that there is no home for us like that–have to understand that there is no clinging to these things–understand that we can’t look back.

Following Jesus means understanding that an encounter with him changes everything: for the world, for your heart, for your mind, for your mouth. 

Let’s drop the weight of our picket signs and pick up His plow instead. 

Small Group Leading Like Jesus

I read through the Gospel of Matthew with the intention of finding a message specifically for youth small group leaders. Here’s my top ten tips for small group leading like Jesus:

1. Don’t be distracted
If Matthew 4, Satan tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread. Jesus responds, “It is written, One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (4:4)
When someone tries to draw the group off course, don’t ignore them, don’t encourage them. Respond to them in a way that is caring, constructive, and relevant.
(Don’t take the comparison of junior high kids to Satan seriously, I am mostly just kidding.)

2. Get something out of the quiet kid
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” -Matthew 5:5

In my experience (which may not be abounding, but has been consistent in this aspect), students that are not talking in small group sessions aren’t quiet because they aren’t thinking things or don’t have things to say. Pretty often, kids who are sitting on the sidelines of conversations are thinking too much and hurting their brains and have so many things to say that they just don’t fit in their mouths. Some kids are nervous to speak in front of a lot of people, but in most small groups I think it is more kids are nervous to be talking about their faith. There is a big feeling of “I don’t want to be wrong,” in faith-community settings, I would argue bigger than in a regular classroom.

One way to get more students participating in conversation are to go around the circle and have everyone answer the question. You end up hearing the same thing a couple times, but it gives everyone a second to see that they can answer something and nothing bad will happen. This kind of breaks some awkwardness and gives some comfort.

3. Give real-life advice that coincides with your message
“Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.” -Matthew 7:24

Don’t let students get away with giving you abstract, literally biblical answers. At some point, your conversation has to meander into the realm of life beyond your small group. Ask them how this stuff applies to life at school, their relationship with their parents, how they treat their little brothers. Don’t settle for broad, distant, ‘when I grow up I can do this to live out this’ kind of stuff. You have to talk about how this Message changes who they are and what this new person looks like.

4. Be more than a small group leader
“When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him, saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.” And He said to him, “I will come and cure him.” -Matthew 8:5

While Jesus doesn’t end up coming to the Centurion’s home, He is ready to do this, and He does heal the servant. Whether you are at a local church, a camp, a retreat, or anywhere, this applies to you. You have to be ready to talk to any student from your small group (or any student who finds their way to you) if they come up to you outside of your sessions. For a lot of kids, it is a big deal if they are going to talk to an adult or student leader about something (especially if they don’t know them). God is bringing this kid to you, give them your full attention and be prepared to respond to whatever it is in a loving and helpful way.

5. Give them something
“Then the disciples came to him and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” -Matthew 13:10-12

I hope that the fact that you’ve been asked (or more likely voluntold) to lead a small group means that you have an excellent grasp on the theological concepts and the biblical examples used in whatever lesson or curriculum you’re using. That’s awesome for you.
But make this affect how well you teach, not on what level you teach.

Keep in mind, some of your students haven’t heard this story, haven’t read the Wesley study notes on this passage, haven’t thought about it as much as you have. You can’t just read scripture aloud and ask them questions. You have to help them out, and you have to do that in fun, relevant, creative ways. (Oh, yes, we might actually have to have fun.)

6. Let your haters be motivators
“‘Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house.’ And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief.” -Matthew 13:57

When Jesus returns to Nazareth, everyone remembers him as a child and does not take his teaching seriously. This one is especially for student leaders. If people look down on you, or patronize you, or don’t respect the work you’re trying to do…ignore them, forget about them, move on. You have awesome kids that want to learn about your awesome God and, frankly, you don’t have time to defend yourself or prove yourself, because you are called to something much bigger than that.

7. Just keep going
“So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed a strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” -Matthew 14:29-30

You will get super off-topic. You will get tripped up and say something embarrassing. You will give an example that makes zero sense. All of these are going to happen. I’ve already told you that they’re coming, so don’t worry about whether or not they are going to happen.  Have faith that God is going to move through this group with or without you and that it’s all going to be alright in the end.

8. Give them what they need
“Then Jesus called the disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat,” -Matthew 15:32

They are hungry, so He feeds them. In that moment, they needed something besides teaching. Some small groups need guidance or counseling on something that is not in your curriculum. Some small groups need to play game and take a break. Some small groups need to talk about boys and complain about life. Don’t confuse taking a break with getting sidetracked. You have to be able to fulfill these smaller needs at least a little bit if you want youth to focus on their deeper, more tiring, spiritual needs.

9. Know that you won’t have all the answers
“An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign,” -Matthew 16:4

Don’t put up a front that you know all the intricacies of our faith. No one does. Be honest. If you don’t live up to a youth’s expectations, maybe you need to help alter those expectations. There are things that we just have to trust, and that might be something that needs to be talked about with your small group.

10. Understand what you’re doing
“Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” -Matthew 19:13

Leading youth small groups is one of the holiest experiences I have ever had. Youth have a fantastic energy and awesomely curious hearts. There is something really sacred about teaching and learning with people that are not-quite-ruined by the world yet. Jesus thought that ministry with young people was worth His time because humbled, dependent  faithful, energetic, loving children were what He wanted all of his followers to be. You are now part of that kind of ministry. Be open to this experience in a way that understands that your growth is a part of this process, in a way that is ready to have fun, and in a way that is excited to share Christ’s message in the way He shared it.

Why Epiphanies are Better than Resolutions

Matthew 2:12—And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

This is the story of the Wisemen, and an often over-looked awesome moment of discernment that protected our Savior’s life. This is the story that we recall on Epiphany each year, the first Sunday that our ‘new’ selves worship together. 

This is the Sunday when everyone has a stronger, slimmer, more loving, more well-read, more dedicated, healthier, happier, better-looking, more faithful, newer, better version of themselves bubbling under the surface, waiting to come out from under layers upon layers of anger, fat, procrastination, distraction, laziness, sadness, loneliness, brokenness.

And we are so quick to write off all the things that brought us to where we are, so ready to become entirely new. 

And while self-improvement is something we always will, and always should, strive for. Something about this tradition is off from that.

That’s why I would invite you to take this resolution with me instead:

Spend time discerning which areas of you life God would change, rather than the ones you would change. 

Isaiah 60:2-3—-For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

We’re all in a darkness that makes it hard to see our own life and our own selves.

So instead of peeling backs layers…

Why don’t we walk to the end of the light and see what falls off?

Why congregations have to invest more than money in youth ministry

1. Youth groups are microcosms of churches, not outreach/mission work.

While a youth ministry can be a tool for outreach or ministry, reducing them to that expectation ignores that fact that youth are living, breathing members of the church, too. If you know the youth, you know a lot of the families, a lot of what they’re going through, and a lot of what you can do to help. This being said, if you don’t know the youth, you could be missing important opportunities to minister to families and the whole congregation.

2. Youth need a well-rounded theological and social experience.

If pastors don’t spend time with youth, they may be in a situation where they are getting watered-down theology (and pastors or parents don’t know it.)
I can’t even begin to imagine my youth experience without having our pastor and a wide variety of adults (not just parents or youth directors) involved.

3. Pastors words and actions affect youth, and youth cannot be fairly taken into account if they are not truly known.

Sometimes pastors publicly offer condolences to a youth for something the youth didn’t think was going to be or didn’t want to be public knowledge. Or they make sweeping statements about ‘young people today.’ I’m pretty positive that these things would happen much less often (and we would hurt less feelings) if pastors spent time in fellowship with youth, getting to know them the same way they do other congregants.

4. Youth need role models that are not necessarily authority figures.

Some really influential people in my life were adults who were not my parents, not my youth directors, not my pastors, or teachers…they were just people who decided I was important and took an interest in my spiritual formation. Because they were not in a position where they were telling me how to be, they actually had one of the greatest impacts on how I did turn out to be. This is why we need rock star adults.

5. The Church has misconceptions about what youth even is.

It is so easy to reduce a youth group to pizza-eating and superficial Jesus analogies. The best way to understand the importance of relationships in student ministry is to be a part of them yourself.

If all you have is sunshine….

“Catch on fire with enthusiasm and people will come from miles to watch you burn.” -John Wesley

Since I’ve been home for winter break, I’ve had to answer a few vital questions for family members, church members, former teachers, and every other person I’ve come in contact with. There are the innocuous and friendly ones like, “Got a boyfriend yet?” But then there is one question that is much harder to explain the answer to (because “Nope. Forever Alone” can be out of my mouth at lightening speeds by now.)

So…what are you studying?

I’m a preministerial student at Southwestern. This means that I have a rock solid idea of the fact that I am called to work in the church and spread God’s love and Word. Unfortunately, this calling doesn’t come with a degree plan.

So I’ve had a lot of fun answering this question. I haven’t decided yet. I try to avoid mentions of a possibly feminist studies major around the older crowd. I try to avoid telling anyone I’m considering sociology (because there are NOO jobs in THAT field anymore!) And I often begrudgingly tell people I’m considering a double-major in religion and political science (because those conflict each other inherently, apparently.)

Really, if I could study anything, I would major in Heart-Changing Studies with a minor is Radical-Mind-Opening.

When I (finally) complete my schooling, I want to do two things: Change the church’s idea about the world, and change the world’s idea of the church.

I have seen so much hurt. I’ve seen people torn apart by societal expectations, by their family, by the church.

I want to have a church that is a place of comfort that, as soon as you settle in. challenges you in a way that stretches your every brain muscle, your every heart string. That constant settling and overturning is what makes us grow into the people we never knew we could be. The people God knew we could be all along.

I want to build a community that starts building friendships as soon as you arrive, instead of ‘being friendly’ to those who come. I want to teach church people about how much beauty there is that they are missing by never leaving their wood-paneled sanctuary walls. I want to teach people that if they want to truly live a Christian life, they have to understand that they have to live. I want to show them that there is no one too dirty, too scary, too extreme to be a beloved and valued part of their community.

I want to tell people to try again. I want to say, “I am so sorry” for all the things that church people have said about them–to them. I want to show people that my God is not the God of internet memes and picket signs. My God is the God of trees taller than life and hearts larger than worlds. I want to hold their hands as they walk through stained glass doors for the first time in years. I want to give them the Message that other people wouldn’t feed them.

I recently told someone that my only talent was sunshine.

And this sounds sad and naive and odd.

But I think that it’s true.

Beyond that, though, I think it’s the only one I need.

I’m going to cause positive change in my community by preaching grace, speaking kindness, showing love–and doing all these things with the unbridled enthusiasm that is inside me. And I hope that my change will cause lavender-scented traces of this enthusiasm to reach people all over.

We live in a world where bipartisanship invades not only congressional halls, but Facebook feeds and dinner tables. The outrageous animosity that surrounds debates on the fiscal cliff, prayer in schools, gun control, marriage equality, women’s health issues, and any other issue we could possibility fit into 140 characters or less, is something that terrifies older generations, but feels normal to my own.

Our normal is over a decade of war and not being able to waste thirty seconds on learning another person’s opinion. Our normal is tall buildings and short-order kitchens. Our normal is spouting of ancient inclusive language from the Bible, the Constitution, the speeches of Civil Rights activists to protect exclusive institutions of marriage, religion, and the political sphere. Our normal is stubborn and fragile–broken and unchanging.

When I’m through with school, I want to work to create a new normal. That is why I’m going into ministry. Because if all you have is sunshine, you must be the one to light the way.

Hearts broken wide open

40 chapters of tragedy bombards Job.

Then out of the whirlwind, the Lord spoke.

We are too often waiting without listening. Our words crumble in the air-completely insufficient, but God’s message for us heals all hearts, covers all sins, and sprinkles new life into our bones.

We pray for God to light the hands He’d have us hold.

Bring me to Your bridges; take me to Your trolls; let me love Your lonely.

We have found the lonely. The are grieving. They are frightened. They are broken. They are violent. They are empty.

God has shown us His lost; we have seen His lonely.

Let us inform them that they are also His beloved.

Let us transform them into His loyal.

We have found the lonely. The Lord has lit these trembling hands with the intensity of gunshots and wailing families.

Now it is up to us to hold them.

#saveyourtweets #saidnooneever #exceptnot

“My talent is to speak my mind, God won’t mind if I bury that talent.” -John Wesley

There is so much pressure to spit things out. You have to teach class everyday, you have to have a sermon prepared every week, you have to have all the answers for everyone who asks (and even those who don’t). And, we all know, that the vitality of a ministry is directly correlated to the number of tweets and blog posts done by its ministers. #exceptnot

To share what I recently found out was from the Simpsons, you are a human being, not a human doing. Your words, no matter how many of them you can provide, will never be sufficient to god or to any one else. There are so many other ways to provide grace, comfort and love to each other than by fulfilling minimum word counts.

Say what the Spirit gives to you, and when it doesn’t bring words, follow its motions instead. 

Pastors in Your Bathroom

     I’ve always been of the mind that you have to meet people where they are. In the postmodern, there is no “build it and they will come,” there is only “go and make disciples.” Often church workers (myself especially) criticize others for being too introspective, too concerned with the Church within four walls than the Church that you have to GO to. 

     However, in the past several weeks of being at school and seeing all of the different people that are trying to offer Christ to students in anyway they can, I’m beginning to see that sometimes it takes more than GOing. 

    In Isaiah 55 we see this invitation to the thirsty: 

Come, all you who are thirsty,
    come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
    come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread,
    and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
    and you will delight in the richest of fare.
Give ear and come to me;
    listen, that you may live.

   In these three verses there are 13 verbs expressing something imperatively. Come, eat, listen, give, come, listen, listen, listen, come, seriously. 

   The Lord says, “I have something for you, come and delight in it.” 
   He does not say, “Don’t hit your teeth on this bucket when I pour living water into your mouth.” 

   A Church can open their doors to you, they can pray for your, they can offer your free food, they can call you, they can Facebook you, they can come to campus, they can smoke signal you. But, ultimately, worship, devotion, fellowship, service, and prayer have to be your priority.

   The funny thing about priorities is that they demand time and effort. And they come before other things. It would be super convenient for someone to give you The Gospel in bits and pieces whenever you had some free time. Maybe church members could come tuck you in and tell you a bedtime story about the life of Jesus. Or a pastor could project their sermon through the bathroom door while you’re taking a shower before class. That would be fantastic for a college kid on the go. 

   But no matter how old you are, you have a responsibility to your own soul. If investing time and effort in your faith is something you’re having a hard time doing, that is all the more reason to find a community of believers to surround yourself with. 

In the story of the Samaritan woman, she travels back to her people and they say to her:

“We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”

Jesus is calling. Go hear him for yourself.

Belief is motions of the heart stitched together into a home-made understanding

Look at your hands

There are lines so small

you can barely tell they’re there.

And sometimes our cracks

leak and burst and give us away.

But others they drizzle out

a glorious light from inside us.

Because I know we all

have glitter in our veins,

even if you can’t see it

when we walk into the sun.

I know we are all beloved

even if there are no arms around us.

I know that on night’s when we gaze up at the stars

and realize how huge everything besides us is,

that there is a Holy Elephant

whispering that, ‘size…doesn’t…matter…”

He is counting hairs on our head

as we argue the difference of

a trunk or a tail.

While we are searching for Jesus’

long-form birth certificate,

he is singing to us,

slow down, you crazy, crazy, child,

While we are flowing arguments

off our spitting lips,

He’s calling us

from an inter-galactic pay-phone,

‘come home, come home,’

But we are stubborn,

stubborn creatures.

And for every ounce of stubborn,

we are two times fragile.

And it is so unfortunate,

Because it’s the limbs that

just barely survive the storm

that are pruned back.

And so we are pruned.

I told you I believe in Jesus

because The Bible told me.

But that’s not true. 

I believe in Jesus because when

I was three-years-old I wandered

away from my Dad at the Wal-Mart

and a gay couple put my in a basket

and walked me around the entire store

until we found my family.

I believe in Jesus because a

pick-up truck full of men pulled over

onto the side of I-35 and taught me

how to change my first flat tire.

If I didn’t believe in Jesus,

I may calmly walk into the ocean,

and so I believe He calmly walked upon it.

I believe a lavender-scented ghost

follows you around everywhere,

whispering in your ear, “be nice,

be kind, be gentle, be loving,”

and you often blow raspberries

right in its face. 

I believe a cloud of invisible

smoke hugs you every time 

you have a bad day.

And that it is not a giant, white man

who tells it to do such things.

I believe it’s a giant pair of eyeglasses,

because it sees potential in everyone.

I believe it’s a victrola record player,

because it hears everything we pray.

I believe it’s ten-or ten billion-thumbs,

because it always says that it’s all alright.

I believe you die and your

relatives and childhood pets are waiting

for you in an airport lobby.

I believe you dance,

even though you are old.

I believe you sing, 

even though you are broken.

I believe you are embraced, 

even though you are flawed.

I believe all these things 

fall off of you like

clothes after tequila.

(or so I’m told) 

I believe in long talks

with The Creator,

and he just says,

‘you are done,

you have fought your fight,

you have run your race,

let us rest now.’

And a couch emerges from 

the clouds and you sit and watch

Boy Meets World re-runs together.

I believe the hurt stops.

I believe confusion settles. 

I believe that feeling small is permanent,

but that feeling alone is temporary.

I believe our logic leaves us to our own devices

and we find comfort we don’t understand. 

I believe our brain only takes us so far

and our heart picks up the slack from there. 

But most of all,

I believe that when you cry out,

someone up there hears you

and they want you to know

that they do