Progressive Fundamentalism?


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I was recently visiting a church that is known as the progressive voice in their city. The majority of members are highly engaged in social justice issues and serve their larger communities in multiple ways. They are proud of their open and affirming welcome of the LGBTQ community, but also with how they have been in ministry with the local elementary school providing a free after school program for families with low incomes. The school principal, teachers, and parents love the partnership and the program has a waiting list of people wanting to be a part of it.

As I toured the church a key volunteer with the after school program turned to me and said, “We have this great program but our church is dying. Most of us are in our upper 60’s and 70’s and we won’t be able to do all of this good work forever.”

In further conversation I found out that, even though this after school program has provided love and care for children and their parents, no one has ever invited these families to be a part of the life of the church.

Why? Continue reading Progressive Fundamentalism?

Open Source Church – a Potluck of Sorts

What role does the institution of the United Methodist Church play in fulfilling its mission to “Make Disciples of Christ for the Transformation of the World”? Is it an enabler or an obstacle?

According to Clay Shirky, an institution always excludes and marginalizes people.  He refers to the 80/20 rule: 20% of the users of any institution use 80% of the resources.  The 80% zone is the cost of running the institution, while 20% of users are treated as employees.

When a movement becomes an institution its primary concern becomes self-preservation. The focus shifts to a consumer mentality that tries to keep church attenders happy so that they will give money so that the 20% can be employed doing the work of the church.  When this happens decisions are made that benefit fewer and fewer people and we lose the bigger picture of sharing the good news that God’s kingdom is at hand. We end up playing church instead of being the church.

I often ask people to pretend that Jesus has just given them and 10 of their friends the charge to share the good news of God’s love to the ends of the earth.  How would they go about doing that today if they had to start from scratch?

How do we get pre and post-church as well as spiritual but not religious people together without the institutional baggage? Can we build cooperation into the structure, arrange the coordination in the group and get the same outcome (making disciples) without the institutional costs? Can we design systems that coordinate the outcome of the mission without regard to institutional models and metrics? Can we convene people without trying to control them? If so what would this look like?

I am imagining everyday life and discipleship formation as one in the same.  I am imagining small groups of people getting together to dream about God’s preferred future for them and their neighborhoods and then daring to make that a reality. I am imagining people being allowed to contribute as much or as little as they like. I am imaging a pot-luck of sorts where everyone is fed spiritually and physically.

We can look to the phenomenon of social/amateur media. The former audiences of mass-produced professional media are now increasing full participants. We need only look to the role that social media played in the Arab Spring to know that when anyone can be a reporter of the news as it is happening movements can begin. They can be as playful as a flash mob to as inspiring as a regime change — messy for sure, but filled with spirit!

We have learned that the role of social media is less and less about crafting a single message to be consumed by individuals. It is now about creating an environment for convening and supporting groups.  This just happens to be a hallmark of our post modern times. People long to connect and make a difference. Everyone has their own story to share, their own take on truth and their unique gifts to offer. They just need someone to ask the important questions and begin the conversation.

How can we make best use out of this metaphor in a post-modern church? How can we help the Church move from being a professional (paid clergy) platform of information/theology/praxis in the form of church as we know it on Sunday morning to a social network (Methodist movement) that learns from and empowers each other?  How can we go from inviting the stranger in to being the stranger that is sent out?

Can we build the system so that anyone can contribute at any amount? In other words can we embrace the gifts of the non-church-goers and treat them not only as consumers but also as producers? Can we treat Wesley’s means of grace not only as open source content but also as a platform for further creativity in spiritual practice?

Listen to this wisdom from Clay Shirky, a consultant and teacher on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies.  And just imagine an open source church movement!

 “The trends are towards easier collaboration, and still more power to the individual. The open source movement has demonstrated that even phenomenally complex systems can be developed through distributed volunteer labor, and software allows individuals to do work that once required a team. So while we don’t know what ultimate effect the economics of free content will be on group work, we do know that the barriers to such free content are coming down, as they did with print and images when the Web launched. …The interesting questions are how far the power of the creator to publish their own work is going to go, how much those changes will be mirrored in group work, and how much better collaborative filters will become in locating freely offered material. While we don’t know what the end state of these changes will be, we do know that the shift in publishing power is epochal and accelerating.” Clay Shirky

What is a House Church?

About 6 years ago two families who had been members of one of the churches that I had served as a pastor asked me to meet with them because their teenagers no longer wanted to attend church.  The parents, however, wanted to raise their children in the Christian faith and did not want to do it alone.

When I met with the families I asked each one to share how they connected with Spirit/God/ the Holy, and each one of them had different answers.  Here are some that I remember.

  • “I connect with God when I walk in the woods.”
  • “For me it is when I am making music.”
  • “I feel connected when I cook a meal and share it with others.”
  • “I like helping other people and feel like I am a part of something bigger when I volunteer.”
  • “I connect to God when I watch a movie that expands my vision.”
  • “I like to study scripture and talk about it.”
  • “I feel connected when I do yoga and meditate.”
  • “Reading poetry helps me to pause and know that I am connected to beauty and that for me is spirit.”

After listening to each other, we decided to experiment with a way of being a community of faith that honored all of these ways of connecting to God. We knew we wanted to learn more about God through sharing our passion for, and way of being with, the Holy.  Each one of us committed to take turns leading the group once a month.  I played the role of resource and support person so each leader did not feel alone as they planned an experience that helped us awaken to Grace.

Here are some of the things we have experienced together.

  • Hiked in Forest Park in the Fall while contemplating life transitions through poetry readings and walking meditation.
  • Cooked a meal together and talked about life. “Garlic and onions can be strong and bitter, but when sautéed  become soft and sweet.  What are some times in your life where your bitter moments have softened and become sweet with time?”
  • Volunteered at the local food bank and at a shelter for homeless teenagers.
  • Listened to our heart’s desire through guided meditation and then made vision boards  for the new year.
  • Watched movies and talked about them.
  • Celebrated Christ’s birth through sharing good food, reading the Christmas story, lighting the Advent candles and singing carols.
  • Studied the Bible together

Some folks might say, that’s not church.  But I beg to differ.  Churches in the New Testament were often small gatherings that met in homes and remained rather simple until the emperor Constantine changed Christianity from a persecuted movement to being the religion of the Roman empire.

For me, church in the best sense embraces 3 movements:

  • Connecting to each other
  • Connecting to God
  • Connecting to the larger community

The gift of being in a small community is that each group can flesh out how those movements get expressed in ways that are meaningful and appropriate to them.

Our house church was such a gift to all the families involved, helping to shape and form us in the ways of Christ.  Now many of those teenagers are in college and it is time to share the gift of that experience with others.

This is my call and passion — to help form communities that can grow together in the ways of love and peace one house church at a time. Will you join me?