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Losing My Religion

A lot of you have asked why I have stopped posting about items of faith and Christianity here and the reason is pretty complex.  First of all after reading around 5 books a week for 15 years or so, I no longer have the time or the desire to read that much.  Much of that reading was theological or about church life and what has been said on the topic for me has been said.  I still get probably 100 books a year to review and most of them are just rehashing what has been said and said and said again.  On the occasional time when I can force myself to enter into Scott’s Parable, I see the same book, just written by different authors.  I know I am taking some shots at some friends here but it seems like a lot more reflection and a lot less publishing may help everyone.

It goes for me as well, if I don’t have anything to say, I am not going to log in and write anything.  To paraphrase a good friend of mine who used to joke, “If you want a better sermon, get Max Lucado to write better books”, so in other words, if you want a better blog, write better stuff for me to link to.

The more serious reason is that I struggle with the distance between neighborhood/community and the church.  I have read and heard pastors say that they need to vision cast (what a geeky and churchy phrase) or sell their church on the idea that they need to be a part of their community.  This is a phrase I have heard for years but I never realized how strange it was that the church had stopped being part of the community.  Now of course with more and more churches wanting more real estate, they are literally moving outside of their cities and towns so they can create more programs that compete with and pull people away from the communities they are apart of.  The fact that we have to “vision cast”, sell, manipulate, or coerce our congregations to be part of the community, in fact, we had to come up with new church growth terminology to describe what should be our natural reaction as human beings… (I’m missional, your missional, we are all missional) that is our responsibility to make our local communities a better place for everyone to live in. 

Years ago I listened to a series of podcasts by Todd Hunter and Dallas Willard in which Hunter talked about one of the metrics his church used was how far people were travelling to get to his church without realizing the impact it had on local communities.  While that may represent one extreme of the equation, it was quite similar to what we experience as a family in finding a church in Saskatoon.   There is a pull to be a part of the church community, which church leaders tend of think of as a true or at least superior community which puts us in tension with my commitments to other things that are going on in my geographic community.  While I agree there is a need for involvement in the church, our local communities the need is often just as pressing.  So I have kids clubs that interfere with Mark taking karate, small groups that only work for people who work 8-5 (and definitely not for those who like Wendy and I who are work from 7:00 a.m. when I go to work to 10:45 p.m. when Wendy walks in the door from work).   I have prostitutes on my street, a brothel on my block, guys grinding drugs across from the local elementary school, the Terror Squad working out a local restaurant and bar and I keep hearing that my number one priority needs to be a small group in a church.

I follow some pastors and church leaders on Twitter and I realized it’s a giant irrelevant echo chamber where the tweets and retweets reinforce what they believe.  I haven’t lost my faith in Christianity, I am just in doubt that the church is an accurate representation of what it represents anymore.  I was in a room of pastors earlier this year and they were still talking about media in worship, ancient future song writing, and all sorts of peripheral things about church life with great interest and not one of them mentioned life in their community.  A friend of mine sent me a sermon the other day on YouTube to check out as it would cure what ailed my soul.  The stage looked like it was stolen from David Letterman and I am pretty sure it was meant to be a copy and after watching the sermon, I realized that he was speaking in the same style that Vince does while pitching Slap Chops.  Sadly not only did I used to speak like that in public but so do so many other pastors I know.  I realized while watching this that the church had become a parody of itself.  The Emperor has no clothes.

I realized that I no longer see most churches any differently than Kiwanas or another service club but this one has higher fixed costs.  Are all churches like this?  I don’t think so.  One of the great experiences I have had in life was spending a bit of time with Dave Blondel and the Third Space.   Both Wendy and I have said that we would be quite comfortable attending a church lead by my friends, Scott Williams, Randall Friesen, Pernell Goodyear, Kim Reid or Darryl Dash but those kinds of churches and those kinds of pastors aren’t that easy to find.  The problem for me is when I see the kind of church that is engaged in creative ways in it’s community, it’s awfully hard to go back.  When I was down in Maple Creek, I did some pastoral work with people.  We literally put on some orange Salvation Army vests, went from flood ravaged house to flood ravaged house and chatted with flood victims.  Everyone in that community knew the Salvation Army Corps officers, Captain Ed and Charlotte.  Every last person.  When he was in Saskatoon, he was everywhere in the community as well.  If he can do it, so can other churches and their leaders.  If Wendy, myself, my staff, and a bunch of volunteers can work amongst Saskatoon’s poorest, so can everyone.  What we do isn’t brain surgery (umm, except for my staff, you are all brilliant… underpaid but brilliant) but a compassionate response to the community around us.   Instead I find churches that are isolated and focused on themselves.  Too many times over the last couple of years to hear a sermon on parenting, the need for leadership, church growth or again, church growth.  Did I mention I hear a lot of sermons on the need for church growth.  Sadly I am not alone.  A good friend of mine recently left his long time church and said, “I’ve learned all I need to learn from the pulpit on the need for church growth”.  It’s like the church has lot’s it’s reason for existence and is just looking at how to keep paying the bills.  Yet sadly in a lot of communities, the need for the church and it’s redemptive message has never been greater.

The other thing is that while I hate the overuse of the concept of “a dark night of the soul”, it has been an extremely lonely time spiritually for me.  God was extremely distant and I don’t really have a lot of people to talk to about this stuff.  The praxis of my spiritual life was solid but there was no connection.  After exhausting my traditional options, I sought out a Roman Catholic spiritual advisor who I spent a lot of time talking with.  He was the one who said, “It’s not a dark night of the soul, it’s a wounded soul that I was dealing with.”  A co-worker once said to me, “We aren’t normal.  We are so desensitized by what we see sometimes, we aren’t bothered by what should bother us.”  I thought about it a lot and realized that my job had changed me deeply and for the worse and I wasn’t equipped for what that has done to me.  As an INTJ, I am already an underdeveloped feeler which at times makes it hard to fully understand what I am feeling.  Looking at life from a rather cold and analytical mind has it’s advantages but it always makes it hard to look at life when the problem isn’t a rational one and as any of the staff that I work with will say, rational behavior can often be in short supply with what we see some days.  Toss in that the amount of violence and death we have seen this summer, it has taken a toll.  It seems like every murder and suspicious death in the city has been connected to someone I know and it’s hard.  The first thing I am doing in the morning is dealing with another one.  Jaded or not, it has had an impact and those add up a little bit.

As my spiritual advisor and I have talked, I shared that when God reveals himself to me, often I feel He was disappointed in me.  I have long that was my biases, insecurities, and self worth issues coming out.  I have come to seriously wonder if maybe God was quite disappointed in me and the reason for the silence, or just lack of disappointment is that maybe He isn’t anymore.

My evangelical friends don’t really get what I see.  It actually upsets many of them when I tell them what I am seeing.  I was talking to one friend about the fact that there are 600 known prostitutes in the city (of course they move from city to city to city) and he was totally freaked out.  Our conversation ended with, “I am glad our church isn’t on the west side, I couldn’t deal with this".  Yet I talk with some of them all of the time.  They are working tonight two blocks down from where I am writing this.  Addicted to drugs, sexual abuse survivors, acquired brain injuries.   They aren’t abstract numbers but real girls with real stories and real families but the church ignores it.  They also ignore the fact that many of their congregants are the ones that are paying these girls to get them off.  While my faith seems as strong as always, I am no longer interested in a religion that is disconnected from the community it is a part of. 

I know there are reasons for that, Lyle Schaller will tell us that the idea of the neighborhood church died with the rise of the car and cheap fuel but at the same time when I hear that people are living in over crowded slum suites because of sky high rents, there are 600 known prostitutes in the city and the vast majority of them are being trafficked, gangs are taking an toll on our kids, and some local elementary schools have had to cut back to 30 minute lunch breaks to stop elementary school girls from working the street on lunch breaks… doesn’t this call people to do something other than giving away some free clothes and serve soup once in a while?  If young grade seven and eight girls losing their virginity to STD carrying john’s doesn’t call us to drastic action, what will?

Over fifteen years ago, columnist Paul Jackson wrote in The Star Phoenix that the church had abandoned it’s role of social services provider – taking care of widows and orphans – to the government during the 1960s and 70s.  As the economies in North America struggled to pay for their new obligations, Jackson felt the church needed to step up again.  It hasn’t happened yet.  In fact most trends show churches walking more and more away from those difficult tasks and instead continuing to move to younger and younger suburban neighborhoods and therefore away from the problems.  It may be great church growth doctrine but what about the neighborhood and that you left behind.  The east side of Saskatoon has twice as many churches per person than then west side does.  Guess which side of the city has the higher concentration of wealth and guess which side has the core neighborhoods in it.  I’ll let you figure it out.

Cultivate Gathering

Cultivate Gathering is coming to a Hamilton near you on May 16, 2009.

Cultivate is for anyone who is interested in missional church, and is happening because of numerous conversations between different people, organizations, networks and churches in Canada that long to see new forms of church thrive and relational networking happen. We are tired of the same old, same old conferences and just simply want to be friends, inspire each other, and swap stories, ideas, and encouragement.

Cultivate has taken place twice a year (in the Spring and in the Fall) since 2006.

Steve Taylor is coming in from New Zealand and for the first since it launched, I am flying out from Saskatoon (Saskatoon > Regina > Calgary > Toronto) to take it in.  I am looking forward to seeing some old friends and meeting Steve for the first time.

Missional Tribe Launched

Missional Tribe LogoIn amidst the activity that has been my life lately, several friends have done an excellent job and launched Missional Tribe, which is a hybrid social networking site and portal for those engaged in the discussion and praxis of the missional church around the world.  The implementation of the technology that powers the site is amazing and the team has done an excellent job pulling it all together.  The community has responded as well and everyday there are new bits and bytes being posted worth reading.

I am registered over there but I haven’t had much time to do anything other than look around.  When I get some time in two weeks (that is such a depressing thought), I will fix up my profile and respond to the friend requests.

The Missional Church in Canadian Context

An interesting discussion paper (PDF) by David Horrox is an elder at Grace Presbyterian Church in West Hill, Ontario.

Where we are

Although Canadian churches believe that it has the answer or humanity’s problems in the message of Jesus Christ, its message is largely ignored. Faith is now a totally private matter. Allowing for Stockwell Day’s shortcomings as a national leader, the ridicule to which he was subjected in the last federal election for his offence of holding Christian beliefs and, perish the thought, actually being influenced by them, clearly demonstrated the hostility towards religion, particularly the Christian religion, in our public square.

Faced with an increasingly secular outlook, Canadian churches have struggled to cope with changes that they do not fully understand. To some, Canadian churches have aped the surrounding culture, with ministers becoming marketing professionals shaping religious doctrines to the needs or perceived needs of Canadians. Church language, once distinct, has become laden with secular slogans. Programs proliferate to meet the perceived needs of church members, with Bible studies in some churches concentrating on such subjects as "How God can make you a winner." The prosperity gospel, in its crassest form, reflects our materialistic, consumer-driven society. The church seems more marginalized and irrelevant to more and more Canadians, and in sharp decline in its capacity to influence the trends in our society.

To where we need to be

The answer proposed by Darrel L. Guder of Princeton Theological Seminary, among others, is that the Christian church in Canada should return to its roots and become a "missional "church. That is, the church should strike out in a different direction; it should reject the cultural forms that carry questionable assumptions about what the church is, what its public role should be and what its voice should sound like and become a "sent" community. The church should stop mimicking the surrounding culture and become an alternative community, with a different set of beliefs, values and behaviours. Ministers would no longer engage in marketing; churches would no longer place primary emphasis on programs to serve members. The traditional ways of evaluating "successful churches"—bigger buildings, more people, bigger budgets, larger ministerial staff, new and more programs to serve members—would be rejected.

If you could start over?

Just a quick question. If you could start fresh and wanted to create a organization or a community to make a difference for the Kingdom of God in a region, what would it look like? A local church? A house church? Something completely different? I am just wondering.

So how does one make a difference?

I was reading some comments, IM, and e-mail in response to my last post.  Instead of editing my post, I am going to offer up some further thoughts.

I grew up in the church and therefore Christmas productions.  It was a lot of rehearsals and time that I could have been playing road hockey and in the end I was glad when it was over but I also admit it was kind of fun.  It taught me some great truths, mostly about how important it was to learn my lines and sing in a choir (yes, I sang in a choir off and on into my teen years).  It also taught me that it was okay for people to yell at one another and cry if they were musical.  The community came, drank apple cider, and engaged for that season with our community.  For the most part it was people connected to the performers (either kids or adults) or people looking for a nostalgic Christmas experience or other Christians looking to soak up as much Christmas as possible over the holidays (Christmas-holics?)  I am sure there is some value in it and I am sure many people love it but come January, whatever changes in church attendance went back down to previous levels.  Even if you are part of a church where a bunch of people come twice a year (Christmas and Easter), whatever is being done at Christmas isn’t bringing them back very soon.

n5048876131_2834 Now what could be done with a couple thousand volunteer hours in the community?  Servant Evangelism has a plethora of ideas to do over the holidays locally.  Every day at work we have people asking for warm winter gear (thanks to all those who have donated).  Globally there is the Advent Conspiracy where churches have come together to raise money for fresh drinking water in Africa or as they put it, “Advent Conspiracy is an international movement restoring the scandal of Christmas by worshipping Jesus through compassion, not consumption”.   Other churches like Ginghamsburg have committed to confront with the crisis in Sudan.  As a worship event, instead of the big event, how about stealing an idea from Grace and give people a “time out” during Advent.

I am trashing Christmas traditions and maybe there is some value in dusting off the Maranatha Christmas books but if the aim is to be a missional community, I think there may be some better options.

christmas_ad1I had a couple of IM conversations with friends who commented on the past as saying that part of the problem is that in the suburbs, you don’t see that much need… especially in communities where the homeless problem is invisible and as one friend said, “People in my church don’t have very many friends who are not Christians.”  I wonder if this the result of the church doing what Dallas Willard talks about when we take people out of the regular communities and keep them in church communities.  Not only does the church deprive a community of ones redemptive potential but at the same time we lose touch of the community we live in. 

It got me thinking of the Christmas ads the Salvation Army runs.  Click on the ad for a full sized version.  Partly because I can see a crack house while typing this blog entry out and where I work, the need is pretty obvious for me.  Guys need warm winter clothes, many single parents who were on a losing strike at the University have very little for Christmas, there are even those who are trying to sleep outside in this weather (which makes the graphic there a little haunting to me).  Today in a meeting arose the need for more programs for people with full blown AIDS and of course low income housing is a big issue with occupancy rates as low as 1% in the city.

There are a lot of materialistic choices to be made this winter (I have even linked to some for you) but as I said before, there are a lot of things we can do that can make a big difference for others this winter.  Maybe my definition of “making a difference” is different than yours but I still think the church can do better than a Christmas cantata.

Characteristics of the Missional Church

A video of Tim Keller speaking about the characteristics of the missional church.
 
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