When I go into someone’s house or apartment for the first time, I find myself especially drawn to their bookshelves. I want to see the books that they read and the ones they have on display. I like to know which ones have mattered enough to keep, which ones are dogeared and worn, and which are on the stack to be read next.
I don’t think I’ve written about it much here, but for a while, in seminary, I felt a strong call to be a military chaplain. I’m still not entirely sure why as I am someone who believe in pacifism and hates the military industrial complex. But I also have friends and family who have served in the military and seen the ways in which it has affected them. There is also something about doing ministry work in high stress situations, putting aside all of the pettiness and focusing on real issues, that really appeals to me. Anyway, I was denied even having a conversation about serving because I am trans*. I still have some pain over that.
This book was incredibly moving. Benimoff endures two tours in Iraq (although the first one is only mentioned) and then comes home and is assigned as a chaplain at Walter Reed Medical center. Along the way he struggles with PTSD and doubts about his faith. I appreciated his candor throughout and my heart just broke for the things that he and the people he served with experienced.
Next up was The Archbishop Wore Combat Boots: From Combat to Camelot to Katrina — A Memoir of an Extraordinary Life by Archbishop Philip Hannan. Hannan was a military chaplain in World War II, was part of Vatican II, and served as the Archbishop of New Orleans for decades. There were parts of this book that I really enjoyed: his seminary and early ministry years, his chaplaincy, and some of the sections on his relationship with JFK) but honestly this book was way too long. By the end I just wanted to get it over with. I was more interested in the years he spent in direct ministry and less in the time that he spent organizing building campaigns and managing the diocese.
He does have some really interesting stories to tell and I appreciated some of the insider information about Vatican II and the visit of Pope John Paul II to New Orleans. I wish that his editors cut out some of the more political stuff as that got old after a while. Still an interesting read!
*All links go to my Amazon affiliate page. If you purchase something I get a cut which helps to support this website.*
Last week started a new series here on the site: Rituals for Resistance. If we take seriously the idea that churches are to be base communities for resistance then our rituals as communities should strengthen us for the work of resisting the dominant narratives of the United States. I want to think through some of the things a lot of church communities already do and reframe them as tools for resistance. Last week I wrote about singing.
One of my first jobs was working in a restaurant. Restaurant work is demanding and often thankless. People are rude (or downright mean) the pay is terrible and the hours are long. But the people that work in restaurants are often amazing and the community that forms in the back of the house is stronger than almost any I have been a part of. I have seen servers pool money for someone who got their tips stolen, buy rounds of drinks for one another at the bar, cover for one another when someone needed an extra day to study, or give up their shift so that another person could make enough money to pay their rent. And then there is the act of serving, of providing hospitality and good food to the people that come to the restaurant. As a bartender I wasn’t just serving drinks, I was offering a listening ear, a smile, companionship. I took my job seriously and I did my best to make my guests feel at home. This history made me really resonate with Sara Miles’ book “Take This Bread”. I highly recommend it. It’s a beautiful book about the power of sharing food. She talks about her life working first at restaurants and then later taking seriously Jesus’ call to feed people. She started a food pantry that serves guests right off of the altar of the church. It’s a powerful story of what happens when we eat together.
We need to reclaim the act of eating together. There is something special that happens when we sit around a table together. When we pass plates of food around, when we pray together over the food, when we drink good wine and laugh. There is something about food that brings people together.
I want to be a part of a community that cooks and eats together. Where we can all sit around the table and everyone goes away full. Where even if you don’t have enough money or time to bring something to the table you still get to eat your fill. Where the people who have time and money can bring a little bit extra. There is always enough to go around when we share. We can pull spices out of the cupboards and add them to the veggies from someone else’s garden. Someone will bake bread and someone else will bring a bottle of wine. And we’ll sit down together and raise a toast to relationships.
This is more than just a potluck, this is creating something beautiful together and then sitting around a common table and sharing it. It’s a glimpse of the Kingdom of God. It might mean that our communities need to be smaller than they currently are so that we can make sure that everyone has a seat and everyone has enough to eat. Around the table no one gets overlooked or ignored. There are always hands passing and jokes being told. Everyone’s name is known and their stories are heard and cherished.
And we celebrate Eucharist in the midst of the meal. When we serve one another bread and wine and remember the life of Jesus. And we talk about our lives trying to follow in the way of Jesus. Our ritual becomes embodied in the meal and the community. This act fuels our bodies and our souls for the act of resistance.
I’ve been writing lately about what I see as the problem with the liberal/mainline/progressive church. You can read the entire series here.This post will wrap up this series and transition us into a new series to begin next week.
I’ve offered a lot of ideas over the past several weeks about what the church should look like. More and more I am coming to understand the role of the church to not be about personal (or even communal) piety but about being base communities that strengthen their people for resistance.
On the blog Koinonia Revolution, the author describes Christian Anarchism as a form of liberation theology for the oppressor class (pointing out that many Christian anarchists are white and come from privilege). I think there is some truth to his statement (even as all Christian anarchists don’t fit the white, cis, straight, male designation).
Understood in this way, church becomes less about form and more about function. Writing from a North American context, how are we strengthening and equipping one another to resist the dominant ideology of the nation? How are we imbuing one another with a prophetic imagination? How are we actively resisting violence, consumption, and greed?
But this is more than just an activist collective; this is rooted in a study of Scripture, a deep contemplation, singing, and sacrament. It’s this fusion of deep faith and radical action that makes it work and make things make sense.
So what does this look like in a practical way? How is it that our communities can become base communities? Over the next couple of weeks I want to begin to explore sacraments as sites of resistance. How do the rituals that we do as a community become signs of our resistance to the Empire?
Yesterday I raised the question of Missional vs. Attractional, or, more specifically, who/what is the worship service for. Here are my thoughts:
On the one hand, I believe church services should be attractional. They should be appealing to the people who come. I think most of us have had the experience of walking into a new church and being completely confused. We don’t know when to stand up or sit down. We don’t know where to find things (like the hymnals or the bathrooms). We have no one to talk to. It’s incredibly alienating and uncomfortable. I think we’ve probably also had the experience of being in a worship service that was painfully boring; not contemplative and quiet but just boring. This is a problem. If someone were to wander into our worship service, they need to be able to figure out what is going on (clear instructions in the bulletin or on the screen) and they need to be able to find the bathrooms (and have bathrooms that are gender neutral and safe)!
On the other hand, I believe worship is a bit of an insider experience. A worship service should not be the place where people are learning about Jesus for the first time. It should not be the “face” of our community. It shouldn’t be what all our energy is centered around, nor do I think it should be the “thing” we invite people to. On this front I think the missional church people have it right: we should be out there, in the community, making a difference.
I see the act of having a worship service serving a very specific function in a community. That service is the place where people are strengthened for the journey and where they mark ritual and sacrament together. The service is not the primary place for outreach, for education, or even for teaching (although a bit of that happens). Instead the service is the community coming together to worship God and to gain strength. Which means that worship service cannot be the only thing a church does.
I believe that following in the way of Jesus means resisting the things the world tells us are important. Which means that following in the way of Jesus is exhausting. It’s counter cultural. It’s an attempt to do something that you are constantly told is silly, or futile, or wrong. You need to be able to gather with other people who are on the same journey to encourage one another.
At the same time, I think the Christian life is something that is so exciting, so worthwhile that it draws people in. My favorite scene in the first “Sister Act” movie is the one where Whoopi Goldberg’s character has taken over the choir. Watch the scene below:
People are so drawn by the music that they wander in off the street. The Sisters take a very traditional hymn but make it accessible to people who aren’t from the church. But it’s not just about the music and the worship because the very next scene shows the Sisters leaving their cloister to go be a part of the neighborhood. It’s this push/pull of accessibility and getting out of our cloisters.
It’s also about understanding that the worship service is such a small part of what the church is about (even though an important one). How many churches, though, spend so much time and resources on the worship service? On having a building to have a worship service in? On that once a week meeting? And so we pour energy into making that once a week meeting really interesting but the odds are the people won’t walk in off the street simply because our music is so good. They will, however, be drawn by our lives in the community.
I realize that it sounds as if I am contradicting myself in this post, and honestly I am. That’s the tension. Worship is for insiders, but should be accessible. Worship shouldn’t be our focus, but should be done with great care. These are paradoxes, I know. I’m okay with the tension. What I’m not okay with is boring worship services combined with churches who never leave their buildings (and who don’t let anyone else come into their buildings). I’m not okay with resources (time, money, talents) being poured into a once a week gathering without the church coming together any other time (and board meetings/committee meetings don’t count as coming together). I’m not okay with telling people to come to our worship services when we refuse to go out and be a part of the community.
I see church as a non-residential intentional community. It’s a group of people who are committed, not only to one another, but also to following in the way of Jesus in a specific community and location. Worship is like the community meeting. A place where people can share their struggles and triumphs with one another, a place where sacred time is marked, a place where the community can support one another and pray for one another. It’s the place where people gather around rituals of Eucharist and song and pray and gain strength for the work. If someone wanders into the intentional meeting they should be welcomed with overwhelming hospitality and invited to join the feast. But they should never be left with the impression that Worship is the only thing or the most important thing a community does.
I follow a lot of churchy folks on twitter, read a lot of church books, and try to keep up on the current trends and “buzzwords”. Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of talk about “missional” church as opposed to “attractional” churches. Words that anyone outside of the church world would think are made up. At it most basic (in my understanding), “attractional” means worship that attracts people to come into your church building for worship while “missional” means your church people go out into the community to be a witness.
This brings us back to something we started hinting at a couple weeks ago. Who is the church for? And what is worship about?
Those who pull for attractional churches say that our worship should be comfortable for people: they shouldn’t have to feel like they are walking into a foreign land when they enter into worship. Our worship should be accessible and meaningful to people who are outside of the church (or who have been hurt by the church).
Those who pull for missional churches say that we should be salt and light out in the world: we should be going to where the people are, that “church” should be a lifestyle.
Should we be trying to get people to come to our worship services? How “seeker sensitive” (to use an old church growth buzzword) should our services be? Who is the worship service for?
Should we put less emphasis on our worship services and instead focus on outreach to the community? Maybe work more on social justice and less on Sunday (or whenever you worship)?
Should we use words like “missional” and “attractional” if no one outside of churchy folk know what they even mean? Does this kind of language lead to some kind of insider culture?
Is “missional” simply a post-evangelical evangelism bait and switch? Is it still a quest to just “win souls” or does it point to an actual shift in thought?
Yesterday I asked us to start getting into the nitty gritty of church. Over the next couple of weeks I want to tackle some of the things that I have been feeling are the most pressing for me as I consider starting a new church in Minneapolis. As I start this conversation I am going to take a couple things as givens: I believe that public gatherings of people who are trying to follow in the way of Jesus are vital to the lives of those believers. I believe that churches are important. I believe that our worship services are not really for those who don’t consider themselves Christians (not that they aren’t welcome, but that they aren’t the focus). And also, I’m talking, right now, specifically about how we come together in our worship services. (Later on I’ll get more into other programs of church life.)
I have been a part of all sorts of churches stylistically. I grew up in a fairly traditional evangelical church (hymns, organ, and piano) that morphed into a church with both a “traditional” and a “contemporary” service by the time I was in high school. In college I sang in a rock band at a service aimed toward Generation X. I’ve been in churches that are all about the organ, classical music, and the choir and wouldn’t DREAM of playing any kind of contemporary worship song and those who don’t really sing any of the old hymns. I’ve been in churches that make space for silence, that are creative with screens and art, that are centered around a sermon, that are high on liturgy or that use no liturgy at all.
I’ve been thinking a lot about tradition vs. ritual.
First a quick comparison to show how I am defining these terms: Ritual is the act of gathering at the table on Thanksgiving, the way the family gathers, maybe even some of the food that is eaten. Tradition is saying that only this food can be eaten at Thanksgiving forever and ever amen. Ritual is the meaning behind the acts, the reason for the gathering, the space that is made and the love that is shown. Tradition is about doing it a certain way.
I’ll show my hand up front: I am drawn to fusion. I love the old hymns, but I prefer them set in modern arrangements. I like rock music, but if it has an undertone of chant that would be better. I want the organ and the electric guitar. I want lots of space for silence and a high liturgy. I want candles and screens. I want to read out of a “real” Bible and maybe be encouraged to tweet during the service. I want a space that feels both comfortable culturally, but that also moves me toward transcendence.
Here’s what I don’t want: I don’t want to be told “but this is how we’ve always done it”. I don’t want us to get so caught up in style that we miss out on why it is we’re gathering. I don’t want to feel uncomfortable (unless that discomfort has a liturgical meaning). I don’t want to be bored (this doesn’t mean I want to be entertained, but it does mean that I want to be engaged with the service). I don’t want people to look at me as if I am being disrespectful if I pull out my phone to tweet something that has resonated with me (as that is part of how I worship).
I want ritual, but not tradition. I want ritual because it makes space for worship, because it marks time, because it connects me to the past; to the great cloud of witnesses. I don’t want tradition which says “this is the only way to do things and we can never change.” This is why I am drawn to the Catholic Mass. There is a rigid form, but there is stylistic things you can do within the form (take David Crowder Band’s newest album “Give Us Rest” as an example). I appreciate the history, the beauty of the language, the bodily movement it requires. I also appreciate that it can work with visual art, that it can include candles, and other things that engage the senses. I appreciate that it is a communal liturgy. I want that fusion of the ancient and the new.
I realize that this isn’t for everyone. The question then becomes: How can we make space for ritual without getting stuck in tradition? And if you’re into super contemporary stuff, how can we make space for silence and for the transcendent in the midst of the driving guitars and drums? How can we open ourselves up to the holy in the midst of the style of the service?
Are denominations worthwhile or are they troublesome?
Realizing that lots of things about the church are contextual, are there certain things that carry across traditions and styles? Are there certain elements or programs that a church must have?
How should the church be using its money? Should churches be committed to starting new communities? Should churches be a certain size? Is there such a thing as a “too small” or “too large” church?
Does it matter what kind of form the leadership of the church takes? Pastoral team? Solo pastor? No pastor at all?
I’m asking these questions because I think they tell us a lot about what we think the church is about and who it’s for. I think we all have our preferences around style and structure, but I also think there are certain forms of church that maybe aren’t working as well (or at all). As we look to the future of the church these questions become guiding principles to help us think through the issues we face.
Are there any questions here that really resonate with you? If you could dream up a church to attend (or to serve) what would that church look like?
Ask the Anarchist Reverend is a weekly feature here on the site. If you have a question you’d like to ask, you can send me an email (anarchistreverend at gmail), find me on twitter, or submit your question using formspring.
What does (or can) Christian anarchism look like in a practical, daily sort of way? I can imagine a theoretical future Christian anarchist uptopia but I’m not sure how I might begin to live into that reality now in a way that is also sustainable and helps move us toward that future goal.
I really love this question! It was challenging to write this because I realize all of the ways that I don’t live up to my own ideals. This journey of being a Christian anarchist is never complete. I am always in process, always learning (failing) trying to be and do better. But that challenge is a healthy one. It reminds me of the areas I can work on. For me, I think about practical Christian anarchy in two ways: Where are the places you can drop out? Where are the places you can rebuild?
Where are the places you can drop out? Where is resistance possible? I think about where are the ways I can show resistance to imperial living: I can refuse to say the pledge of allegiance or sing the National Anthem. I can spend my money in places that are committed to fair labor practices and sustainable goods (or better yet I can barter for things; trade labor, skillshare). You could have a yard (or larger) garden (or window boxes). You could make your own clothing, or only buy second hand. It’s all about not propping up the system that is broken. Get your money out of big banks if you can, buy local or direct from the source, etc. You could refuse to pay taxes, refuse to register to vote, or refuse to register for the draft. You could teach your children at home.
Where are the places you can rebuild? Christian anarchy is about living in the shadow of the Empire. How can we build communities that show another way is possible? I think the early Christian community was anarchist in nature. They all took care of one another. They adopted abandoned children, they cared for the sick and the elderly, they ate together and worshipped together. All of this was revolutionary. What if we formed ourselves into small enough communities where we could make sure that everyone was cared for? That those who were sick got what they needed, that everyone had enough to eat.
If we practiced these radical acts, I think we begin to show the world what is possible. We begin to help people rethink the ways they relate to one another. It definitely won’t be easy, but change never is.
Even more than behaviour, though, is freeing our minds to think in new ways. To dream together what is possible. To erase “But I just could never…” from our vocabularies. All of us who have any modicum of privilege are imbued with the mentality of the Empire. We have been taught that this is the way it is and this is the way it has to be. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We need to dream ourselves into a new reality. One where we are restored our humanity, where people have dignity, where we are all cared for.
The Empire doesn’t have the final word. We need to live into the reality of the Kingdom of God here and now because it is already here among us if only we could recognize it.
I’ve been writing lately about what I see as the problem with the liberal/mainline/progressive church. I’ve talked about Liberal Vs. Progressive, why we’re not growing, and said that I think Mark Driscoll is right. Then I shifted a bit and raised the question “Why Christianity?” and offered my reasons as to “Why I Am A Christian.”. My next question was about a “Salvation Moment” and my answer. Then I asked What does a Christian Look Like? and gave my answer. Last week I asked about Discipleship and Accountability http://is.gd/kwtmGi and then gave my answer. http://is.gd/e27NnO I want to continue in that vein of raising a question and then offering my answer on a variety of different topics. I’m not trying to provide definitive answers, but rather to raise what I see as the provocative and/or essential questions that the church needs to be able to have answer for (even if that answer is to say that this isn’t an idea we need).
I loved the conversation that is beginning yesterday in the comments. It highlighted the tension of the church being both for outreach and service, but also for being a community.
When I think about the early Christians (at least the picture we get from the book of Acts and from some of Paul’s letters) I get this sense that the reason people were attracted to joining the community was because of the way they took care of one another. Being a member of the community had actual physical benefits. People shared meals together and those who didn’t have food were fed. Rodney Stark, a Christian scholar, talks about the fact the Christian communities adopted abandoned female infants and raised them. He says that there were real benefits to becoming a Christian, especially for women.
The early church was about both meeting together for worship, education, and ritual acts (baptism, Eucharist, etc.) and about actual change in the community. That change, though, was grounded in their spiritual lives. It’s this both/and that I feel is missing in a lot of churches that I have been a part of.
The reality is that most churches aren’t equipped to do large scale social service work. So when I think about wanting to effect real change in my community I would probably be better off to do it outside of a church. A social service organization dedicated to, for instance, running a shelter or providing emergency housing is going to be able to utilize resources more effectively. The money they get from grants goes directly to the work, the people they hire are trained for that specific work, etc. By becoming a part of a church community I am saying that there is something more than just doing the work.
Here’s how I understand church: It’s a place for a community to gather to talk about following Jesus. It’s a place where we can learn together, challenge one another, support one another, and make ritual space. It’s a place that strengthens us for following Jesus every day. Now, I understand following Jesus to be about radical social change and so when I think about being equipped and strengthened for that journey, I’m looking for serious encouragement and support. I need people to remind me that I am living in an Empire and I need to not capitulate. I need people to challenge me on how I am spending my money and if I am caring for my neighbor. I need to be encouraged to seek justice.
And then, when people see Christians living together, challenging the Empire, confronting injustice, then maybe they’ll want to know more.
This Christian life is counter-cultural. It goes against everything the American empire values. We need encouragement and support to walk the way of the cross. We need to support one another in our confrontation with injustice. And it needs to be rooted in worship of a God of justice who calls us to a path of love and non-violent resistance.
I’m going to spend the next several weeks teasing out more of these ideas, but this gets us started. What do you think? Agree or disagree?
The questions of the day: Why do we have church? What and who should church be for/about? What elements are most important?
If we believe there is something to this Christianity thing, odds are we are going to want to do something about it together. I want us to talk about the reason for the church and the methods we use. In this case I am particularly asking about gathered together people who are doing or being church. This isn’t a question about the larger Christian community as a whole, the entire body of Christ, or Christendom the world over, I’m asking specifically about the local community expression.
Why does the church exist and who is it for? Is it for the benefit of people who consider themselves Christians? Is it a place where they can come to get encouragement, support, and education about what it means to follow in the way of Jesus? Or is the church for other people? Does it exist to tell people about the way of Jesus and to encourage others to follow? Does it exist to care for the “least of these” (Matthew 25)?
Does it matter what form the church takes? Are denominations still important?
Why church and not some other civic organization? Why a Christian church and not an interfaith or Unitarian Universalist community (especially for those of us who don’t believe in hell)?
If you go to church, why do you go? What does it mean to you? What does it give you? And what do you give the church? Is there something you get from church that you don’t get anywhere else?
Is there anything about church that wounds you? That you wish would change? Are there structures and systems in place that actually make it hard to worship?
Are these questions simply just consumerism in church? Does it matter if we “like” or “get something out of” church or are those notions harmful?
I have so many thoughts on this topic that I’m going to be breaking it up into a series of posts, but I’ll give my first thoughts tomorrow. I’d love to have some conversation about this topic. Are there other questions that I’m missing? What resonates with you in these questions? What do these questions bring up?