For The Someday Book

Archive for November 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling, Scholastic, Inc., 2007, 759 pp.

I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the Harry Potter series over the years. I saw the first movie, then picked up Book 2 one night when I was stranded at Midway airport. I have looked forward to the release of each book and movie since then. I went to see the new movie on opening day (not at midnight, but a nice, empty 1:30 p.m. Friday afternoon showing). Before I did, I stopped to reread the book version. As always, the book is much richer. In particular for Book 7, I thought the movie just felt way too fast, so that the audience barely had time to absorb everything that was happening. When you are reading the book, you have the choice to pause and reread that you do not have in a film.

I think what is most compelling about the series is the way Rowling takes classic mythical themes and dresses them up in fresh and creative ways. The Harry Potter series combines all these familiar plotlines and tropes: unloved orphan who discovers he is special, good vs. evil, coming of age, quest, tragic hero with loyal friends, a war story, a sports story, an underdog story, perceived evildoers who turn out to be good, sacrifice of an innocent and many more. These are stories that have been told for thousands of years, because they speak to the human heart in powerful ways. Rowling dresses them up in wizarding robes and creates a compelling new world and new characters to live out those stories. We are captivated and delighted once again.

One of the things that particularly captivated me about the last book was the way it worked like a classic war story. Book 7 (and the movie) both work like all war stories—battle scenes punctuated by waiting scenes and conversations between war buddies about what it all means and why they are doing it. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry and his friends are in the middle of a war against Voldemort and the Death Eaters. Some of the battles take place directly with Harry, Ron and Hermione, but there are battles happening on a wide array of fronts. Death is an ever-present reality. In the course of Book 7, characters are dying all the time. From the opening battle on, someone that we have known and loved for all or part of the series dies. But because there is a war going on, there is not time to mourn each loss. Like soldiers at the front, the remaining characters bury the dead, pause for a moment, and return to the front. I am impressed by Rowling’s ability to capture that grinding presence of death and its threat, instead of tipping into sentimentality.

The other part of Book 7 that captivates me is the story of the sacrifice of the innocent. There is an implication from the end of Book 6 (if not before) that the death of Voldemort will also be the death of Harry. Harry the innocent must die, so that Voldemort the evil can be vanquished.  (Warning: potential spoilers ahead, although all details are deliberately vague.) This plays out to completion in the book, but the recent movie is only Part I and does not get this far. You can pick up on some of this even in the trailer below.

This sacrifice of the innocent is another classic story in human history, but it is also at the heart of many versions of the Christian story. In some theologies of the atonement, Jesus was sent by God to be a perfect innocent, so that he could be sacrificed on the cross and his innocent blood could pay the price for our guilt and sin. In order for us to be saved, an innocent life must be lost. (I do not share this theology myself. I would say that Christ’s life and death were the ultimate demonstration of God’s love for us, that Jesus was an example of faithfully following God even unto death, and that the resurrection is proof of God’s ultimate victory of life over death.) While it’s not as blatant as the death of Aslan in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, there is clearly a parallel to the Christian story of willingness to follow the faith unto death, sacrifice of an innocent, and resurrection.

For all the hoopla about some Christians who object to the Harry Potter stories for inspiring our youth to dark magic and devil worship, the story in the end is not far from the Christian story. There is certainly a case to be made that one could read the Jesus story parallel to Harry Potter and use one to interpret the other. While I have not read it, I suspect that The Gospel According to Harry Potter by Connie Neal does exactly that.

Harry Potter is captivating because it takes familiar myths that speak deeply to the human heart, and offers new plot twists, characters and settings to entertain and inspire us. I, for one, am looking forward to the final installment of the movie!

This is a new (what I hope will be weekly) feature on the blog–an initial reaction and some opening thoughts on this week’s lectionary passages, in preparation for preaching on Sunday. For more info, see About My Blog.

Highlighted Passages: Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122

Opening Thoughts on Advent

We treat Lent as the great season of abstinence, self-examination and spiritual discipline in preparation to cleanse ourselves for Easter, asking God’s grace and forgiveness for our sins. Advent, on the other hand, has become a season for carols and decorations and pageants, as though we are preparing for a party rather than the disruptive presence of God. I think Advent should be more like Lent. I don’t mean dour and deprived, but I do mean a time of heightened intentionality and spiritual attunement. In Lent, we examine our souls and our behaviors and ask God to make us righteous again. In Advent, I think we are challenged to examine our cynicism and closed-mindedness and ask God to make us visionary again. The scriptures of the lectionary during the Advent season present some of the most compelling visions of peace, hope, love and joy in the whole Bible. Advent urges us to dream bigger, open ourselves to more possibilities, and to raise our expectations for what we can do and what God can do. My sermon series this year will focus on digging deeper into those traditional Advent themes of peace, hope, joy and love, and challenging us to pray for them in a more meaningful and considered fashion, with faith that God will answer our cries.

Advent I: Praying for Peace

People use the phrase “peace on earth” with abandon this time of year. It comes directly from Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ birth, where the angels announce that he comes to bring “peace on earth, good will to all.” From the beginning, then, Christmas has been tied to the promise of peace on earth.

But I think our thoughts and even our prayers on the subject are puny at best. In fact, they seem to be more like letters to Santa than petitions to God.

“Dear Santa-God, I’ve been very good this year. Please bring me a new bike, a new car, an X-box 360, those cool jeans I saw at Abercrombie, and an i-tunes gift card. That is all. Oh yeah, and peace on earth.”

It’s as though we use our prayers for peace on earth at Christmas to assuage our guilty conscience. The frenzy of consumerism and desire for worldly things seizes us particularly tight in the days between Black Friday and New Years Day sales. We recognize the selfishness and self-centeredness of all this spending on things that we may want but probably don’t need, and we feel guilty about it. We pray for peace on earth and try to give a bit extra to those in need this season, so we can feel better about all the money we spend on ourselves.

Perhaps that is a little too cynical. I think most of us go for something more like this:

“Dear Santa-God, who makes wishes come true and everybody happy, I don’t want anything for myself. All I really want for Christmas this year is peace on earth.”

There’s nothing blatantly wrong with this kind of prayer, but it just seems so weak to me. The only image I can conjure for “peace on earth” is a Coca-cola commercial with lots of little kids of different hues holding hands and singing. That’s nice and all, but not exactly powerful. It’s certainly not going to bring a stop to the decade-old United States wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. It’s not going to stay the violent hand lashing out in anger at an innocent child. It’s not going to free the woman held captive to an abusive husband. It’s not going to make a suicide bomber stand down and stop making bombs.

And we all know it. Which is what bothers me. We all know that these prayers for peace are pathetic and weak. But we don’t really know what to do about it—so we just keep praying with the angels, for “peace on earth, good will to all.”

God is better than that. Our prayers should be worthy of God’s true power, God’s true longing for peace and the depth of brokenness in our human condition.

Peace, true peace, is not about wishes come true and smiling children and a contented, happy people. True peace is risky, uneasy, fragile, vulnerable, and challenging to all our contentedness. It requires courage and probably will make people unhappy. After all, war usually makes some people happy at the expense of making others miserable—I figure peace is probably going to make those victors lose some ground and leave them feeling displaced and discontented.

Isaiah and the Psalmist in this week’s readings—they really knew how to pray for peace on earth. In the Psalmist, I hear pleading, almost begging: “For the sake of my relatives and friends, I say: ‘peace be with you.’” That sounds like the kind of prayer that might be uttered by the spouse or parent of one of our soldiers currently deployed in a combat zone. Or even by the family of one of our enemies—terrorists have families too.

Isaiah takes it even further. He puts flesh on his prayer. He asks God to serve as judge between the nations, rather than allowing the victors of the war to set the rules and make the judgments. This is where the unhappiness comes in, as those victors see their privileges disappearing. He paints a picture of what peace looks like, in which human beings take their weapons of war and melt them down into tools for growing things. Swords into plows, spears into pruning hooks.

Behind both of these prayers, the thing that makes them so powerful is the absolute confidence that God can make that peace possible. It is the absolute conviction of the person praying that peace—no matter how fractious and uncomfortable—is what God wants, and what God’s followers want.

Can we pray with such conviction for peace on earth? What does a hearty prayer for peace really look like? Dare we pray for our armies and those of the terrorists to lay down their weapons? With the passion of the Psalmist and the specificity of vision of Isaiah, can we move beyond a generic “peace on earth” and start praying for a concrete vision of peace, with sacrifice? Are we willing to give up some comfort and even some happiness in exchange for peace? Will we let God’s peace reign in the world, knowing it may disrupt our way of life? Will we let God in, so peace is possible?

I had a dream last night about this post, and about a new metaphor for pastors. We are preachers, teachers, counselors, visitors, business managers, supervisors, coaches, cheerleaders, leadership developers, fundraisers, advocates, biblical scholars, facilities managers, marketing directors, administrators and a dozen other things—often all of the above in the course of a day or week. To that list, I would like to add the title of spiritual personal trainer. (Not that we need more things to do, but I do think that a good metaphor helps us sort out what it is we are doing.)

First of all, the description of the skills needed to be a personal trainer sounds quite similar to a list of pastoral skills:

Personal trainers need to have a multitude of skills. You should be analytical, patient, nurturing, persistent, organized, an effective motivator and, most importantly, a good listener. You should love working with different kinds of people and be a self-motivator. You don’t have to look like a body builder to be a fitness trainer, but you should definitely lead a healthy lifestyle to be a good role model for your clients. (from about.com)

If you replace fitness training with discipleship or spiritual development, it’s a pretty good match. We pastors do not need to be saints, but we should definitely  have a healthy spiritual life to be a good role model for our churches.

What does a personal trainer do? Personal fitness trainers work with individuals on developing a healthy lifestyle through improved diet and exercise. They help people identify their own goals for their body and develop a plan for growing into those goals, encouraging and challenging them along the way. They have a reputation of pushing people beyond what they perceive as their own capacity. People sometimes get angry at their trainers for pushing so hard, demanding so much—but they praise them for the results and for helping them become more and better than they could be on their own.

The body we are training is not the physical body, but it is the Body of Christ. We are working the various muscle groups and strengthening the core so that we can better serve God in this world.

I think this metaphor is especially apt as we work with church leaders. We have the opportunity to work with leaders to set personal spiritual goals and then to live up to them. We can challenge them to grow in prayer, in communication, in evangelism. We help them tend to various parts of the Body of Christ and keep all the parts working together as a whole.

My church is preparing to enter a capital campaign. We will be asking people to make a sacrificial gift to our church in order to help us renovate our building and move into what we believe God’s vision is for our future. We will be asking people to stretch themselves, to act in faith, to dig deeper than we have in a generation. As pastor-who-is-personal-trainer, I want to challenge them to do more than they think they can do, to exercise greater generosity (even if it hurts a bit), to exceed their own expectations. The exercise of growing in generosity will, I believe, strengthen our Body in faith, commitment and connection to Christ, and equip us to serve God more effectively in the future.

I am imagining myself as a personal spiritual trainer, building up the Body of Christ. What do you think? Does this metaphor make sense to you?

Church in the Inventive Age, by Doug Pagitt, Sparkhouse Press, 2010, 114 pp.

A few months ago, I wrote that Doug Pagitt’s book A Christianity Worth Believing was the book I had been looking for to help people facing a spiritual crisis over theological issues. Church in the Inventive Age is the book to recommend for people facing a church crisis over a changing culture.

Pagitt outlines the rapid cultural and technological shifts that have happened over the last 200 years. He marks four eras. For most of human history, we lived in the Agrarian Age, where we lived precariously dependent on the land in tight-knit communities and rarely traveled. The church in the Agrarian Age worked on the parish model, where people bonded together for survival. Early in the 19th century, the Industrial Age began, with migration and immigration to cities, lives and communities built around factories, and the drive to mass production and efficiency. The church in the Industrial Age mirrored factory life, with standardization and development of particular brands based on ethnicity (the German church, the Italian church) or denomination (Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregational). Post-war 20th century America saw the dawn of the Information Age, when knowledge and expertise became the currency of the day. Just as suburban neighborhoods centered on schools, churches became education-centered institutions as well, building educational wings and emphasizing an increase in knowledge and expertise in the faith. (I wish I had read this before my four-part series on Adult Christian Education, because it would have added a great additional perspective.)

Pagitt argues we are now living in the Inventive Age, “one in which inclusion, participation, collaboration and beauty are essential values.” (30)  People are yearning for meaning, for spiritual experiences, for community. Pagitt spends the rest of the book outlining the contours of this new era, and how the church might change and respond. What might churches be like in the Inventive Age? He offers multiple approaches, for churches that can be for the Inventive Age (churches that are both traditional and vital who want to welcome the new), with the Inventive Age (a “church-within-a-church” that speaks to the Inventive Age) and as the Inventive Age (creating completely new ways of being/doing church).

A Look Inside

Pagitt announces in bold print in the opening chapter, “I’m going to throw out big ideas and move fast.” (2) That’s exactly what he does—and it’s what makes the book so handy. This book is a perfect starting place for anyone interested in exploring new ideas of church for the changing culture. The design of the book itself invites a fast-paced read, with multiple pull quotes, bold headlines and logos to guide you along the basic points. It would make an excellent book for discussion with a church leadership board, visioning team, adult class or clergy group. I have read many books on similar topics, but they are usually loaded with statistics, historical analysis or a tone of desperation. Pagitt not only portrays the Inventive Age and the church’s role in it in ways that are simple and easy to grasp, he does it with a glee and gusto that are contagious. It leaves me excited to launch into this new era, whether my church is “for,” “with,” or “as” the Inventive Age.

Spend two hours with this book, and you’ll not only be able to explain the Inventive Age, you will get excited about becoming the church in it.

I am addicted to flash mob videos, especially the ones that feature seemingly random groups of people coming together in public places to sing and dance. They just seem full of such joy and beauty and delight. Improv Everywhere does excellent pieces. Some of my other favorites are the Glee-inspired “Don’t Stop Believin'” and “Do Re Mi” from The Sound of Music in a train station in Antwerp, Belgium.

But this latest one really got me thinking. It comes from the Opera Company of Philadelphia as part of the Knight Foundation’s Random Acts of Culture. Six hundred and fifty singers gathered at the Macy’s store in downtown Philadelphia and burst into a full-voiced rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. It was awe-inspiring and moved me to tears. Watch it. Please. You don’t want to miss it.

It is my secret longing to be a part of a song-and-dance flash mob someday, because the whole thing just looks like so much fun. This experience at the Philadelphia Macy’s was fun too, but it was more than fun. It brings tears to your eyes, because  the power of the music and the message sweep you up in an encounter with something transcendent. It is sanctified—the voices resonant in that secular space sanctified that shopping center, even if only for a few minutes. I imagine the experience of being there must have felt holy.

And so an idea is beginning to take shape in my mind. Could we in the church take a lesson from the flash mob craze? Could we take an experience of excitement, welcome, even transcendence, directly to people, right where they are? Could we use the flash mob as the newest evangelism tool? Think about it: church folk emerge from the crowd, looking just like everyone else, until they burst into song and dance. The crowd is excited, entertained, intrigued. They want to be a part of it. They see that we Christians have joy, that we look just like they do, that we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Maybe they even see God’s presence in the world around them in a new way. Maybe we sanctify a space, just for a moment or two. Maybe some of that crowd wants to be a part of something that looks so fun, so amazing, so connected, so much bigger than one person. Maybe the video goes viral, and more people get the message about a different kind of church, a different kind of Christianity, that welcomes you “no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey.”

Here’s my proposal:

Let’s do it–at UCC General Synod 28, July 1-5, 2011, Tampa, FL

It would take a lot of people, at least some of them with talent, to pull this off well. But if any church has the attitude, the talent and the sense of humor and whimsy to pull it off, our United Church of Christ does. We could do it on Synod Saturday, at some venue in Tampa, and get video to set loose on the web. What’s the worst thing that happens? We all have a great time, and a bunch of random people get to know something about the United Church of Christ.

What do you think? Are you in? Do you want to participate? Do you have ideas for songs, places, people that would have expertise and ideas to share? I’m serious about considering this idea. If enough friends and followers seem interested, I’m going to reach out and see about making it happen—so let me know what you think!

The Birth of Venus, by Sarah Dunant, Random House, 2003, 403 pp.

After reading Sacred Hearts, I was eager to read more from Sarah Dunant. Thanks to Juniper, I had a chance to read her most popular novel The Birth of Venus next.

The Birth of Venus is set in the late 15th century in the city of Florence, during the unraveling of the di Medici rule. The book starts with a prologue that details the death of an elderly nun, a death which unexpectedly contains elements of mystery. The novel then proceeds from the time that nun was 14 years old, and tells the story of her life, which was full of passion, sexual exploration, art, history, violence, and more. In other words, not what you’d expect out of an elderly nun.

I enjoyed the book, but it was more beach reading than substance or lasting depth. Dunant is a great storyteller, and her characters, historical research and ability to construct entire worlds made The Birth of Venus a really fun read. Her prose is solid and evocative, but it does not arrest you, and it’s not the kind of book I felt compelled to slow down and savor. It’s a good story, and you want to just keep turning pages. I stayed up until 2:00 a.m on a Wednesday just to get to the end.

In the end, I think I enjoyed Sacred Hearts much more, because I was more intrigued by the setting, exclusively in the world of women inside the convent. The Birth of Venus was a more traditional historical novel, but it still centered on a smart, independent, creative woman trying to make a meaningful life in a time and place that does not accommodate women’s intellect or passion. I love those kinds of stories, and I had a good time reading this one. I’ll be looking for more from Sarah Dunant next time I get an escapist urge to immerse myself in a novel.

Today is the opening of a new movie called For Colored Girls, directed by Tyler Perry. The script is an adaptation of a 1975 choreopoem-style play entitled For colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange.

I first encountered Shange’s magnificent poetry when I was in college, when I was diving deep into both African-American poetry and feminist literature. Her words and images penetrated deep into my mind and heart, and they still grab me at my core. After hearing about the movie, I spent most of the evening yesterday combing through books looking for excerpts and watching clips from the stage play on YouTube.

The women of Shange’s creation radiate a kind of honesty, strength and vulnerability, a truth-telling and emotional exposure that is absolutely compelling. She creates compassion without pity. One of my favorite lines is: “i’m finally being real/no longer symmetrical/or impervious to pain.” The women Shange writes are real, almost more than real, rich and deep and profound and broken-bending-to-whole.

The poems speak of a deep need to be seen and known and loved, of heartbreak and hope. And, in the end of the play, they find that love—with God, with each other, within themselves. One of the most famous lines in the whole show comes at the end, when the women gather and repeat: “i found god in myself/and i loved her/i loved her fiercely.” That line has echoed through my theology ever since, imagining God dwelling inside me and inside every other person I meet, God embodied in female form, imagining God using my own self, a God whom I love absolutely fiercely. Ntozake Shange and her words have been a shaping influence and powerful point of spiritual connection for me for many years.

Here’s the problem: I don’t think I trust Tyler Perry with Ntozake Shange. As much as I want to see the movie, as much as I want to see any production of these amazing words, I can’t trust the creator of Medea to handle real women with depth and power and passion and compassion. The actors in the movie are phenomenal, and I would trust any of them to honor the depth and beauty of Ntozake Shange’s poetry. But Tyler Perry has made his name dealing in stereotypes, flat characters, slapstick, and witty repartee. I want to see the film, but I am nervous that he will not do justice to the writing, to the characters and the poetry that have come to mean so much to me. Perry has many talents, but can he do this?

I want the world to know about this play, these women, Ntozake Shange. I hope Tyler Perry can introduce them in a way that is as powerful and compelling as the original.

In Shange’s words: “this is for colored girls who have considered suicide/but are moving to the end of their own rainbows.”

What about you? Do you have a connection to Shange’s work? Have you seen the movie? Do you have an opinion?

Mindful Resilience: Navigating the Labyrinth of Change in Times of Challenge by Pamela Cotton, Mindful Resilience Press, 2010, 148 pp.

It is a pleasure to tell you about Mindful Resilience, since it is a book you might not have heard of before. Pamela Cotton is a member of my congregation, and this book represents a coming together of her professional skills as a therapist, her spiritual life in contemplative practices, and her personal journey through a tumultuous time of change and loss in her life. Mindful Resilience offers concrete strategies, personal storytelling and Spirit wisdom for anyone seeking to be present and open to growing through life’s most difficult challenges.

Mindful Resilience is grounded in the belief that our ability to remain resilient in tough situations is connected to and improved by the practice of giving sustained, “non-judgmental attention”  and presence to the situation. Pamela tells the story of her own journey through a major move to a new and unfamiliar location; the death of her father; her mother’s diagnosis of ALS and subsequent need for care, and eventually her mother’s death. She describes the techniques of mindfulness that she practiced during this time, and how they enabled her to relish the beauty of these holy moments, in spite of their pain and her own natural resistance to the events that were unfolding. It was my privilege to serve as Pamela’s pastor during much of the journey she describes in the book. I can testify to that she practiced what she preaches, and that those practices kept her present to the moment and gave her strength to not only endure but grow and even find joy in the midst of the struggle.

As a pastor, I connected most deeply with her descriptions of being present to the moment. We clergy journey alongside people in some of the most difficult moments of their lives—the death of a spouse or child, a medical crisis, a divorce, a job loss, family violence and more. Sometimes, we can help in concrete and meaningful ways. Most of the time, however, all we have to offer is our presence and a few words of prayer or scripture. Pastoral care literature has long taught us that clergy can help in crisis situations by serving as a “non-anxious presence” available to those involved, remaining calm and open and attentive as those around us are in crisis. This is both impossibly difficult and the easiest thing to do. It is impossible to be present and not to also feel the intensity of pain and grief in a situation. It is easy to differentiate and remain calm, because it is not your pain or your crisis or your family.

Mindful Resilience suggests that even those in the middle of the crisis themselves can practice the same non-anxious presence by learning to be present to the situation, to their emotions in it, and to the possibilities of the power of the Spirit within them. That mindfulness practice enables everyone to be more resilient in crisis, more open to life-affirming change, more able to support family members and more attuned to the workings of the Spirit. Using the metaphor of traveling a labyrinth, each chapter of the book recounts Pamela’s own story, and introduces a new turn on the path of mindfulness, such as Mindful Presence, Mindful Commitment-to Transformation, Mindful Embracing, Mindful Embodiment, and Mindful Awareness-to-Balance. She strikes just the right balance between allowing the concept of mindfulness to remain mystical and teaching concrete techniques about how to practice it.

I think this book could be helpful to anyone who feels overwhelmed by life, crisis, change or emotion. After all, this book is about resilience.  I would also recommend it for caregivers (professional and non-professional) seeking to help those in crisis. The techniques of mindfulness she describes can help sort through the chaos. Being mindfully present to the emotions and the events helps overcome the feeling of  being out of control, of being a victim of your life rather than centered in it. Practicing Mindful Resilience opens us to the Spirit within our lives, no matter how tumultuous, and builds our resilience.

This is Part IV of a discussion of adult Christian education, particularly the problem of low attendance. It originates in response to this post from Jan Edmiston at A Church for Starving Artists. It begins with Part I: Is Christian Education a Cultural Thing? and continues with Part II: Other Reasons for Struggling Christian Education, and Imagining a Different Way and Part III: Moving toward Holistic Faith Formation.

I promise, we’re nearing the end of this long series of reflections. I’ve already pondered the cultural support necessary to sustain traditional adult Christian education, reasons why people don’t attend and argued for a different approach that takes a more holistic approach to faith as a way of life and seeks to form people into disciples of Jesus Christ.

The fact remains: learning about God, the Bible, spiritual practices and the Christian tradition is still important. While information and intellectual knowledge is not the only aspect of faith or even the most important one, knowing the scriptures and understanding the faith is critical to discipleship. How do we accomplish that piece of faith formation? As I explained in an earlier post, our current practices all work on a school model. I believe that the time has come to get much more creative with our delivery.

Bible teaching does not require a classroom context. In my previous post, I talked about integrating bible study and faith reflection into various aspects of church life. I also believe we need to find ways to deliver information and study to people outside of church life, to connect with people where they are, and expand our reach beyond our church walls. Here are some ideas, some we are trying and some I would like to try.

  • Video Messages: I post a brief (1-2 minute) sermon preview message every week. In it, I try to avoid simply hyping church events, but instead focus on a brief, devotional, inquisitive look at the scripture that anticipates the message I will be preaching on Sunday. I post the video on my church’s Facebook page and my own, on YouTube, on my sermon blog on the church’s website. I also send a link to church folk via e-mail. This puts the opportunity to pause and spend a moment with their faith right there in their news feed or inbox. I always try to pose a question or two for reflection, to engage folks in thinking about the Sunday scripture before they arrive. You can watch them here if you’re interested.
  • Mid-week Reflection: I have several colleagues who write a brief reflection every week, which is posted on the church’s website or delivered via e-mail. This is similar to the video message, taking a short topic or scripture and inviting people to pause for a moment to contemplate their faith.
  • Online Bible Study: We have tried this, but it’s never gotten off the ground. We usually have a “leader” who posts the lesson and a reflection, then invites commentary, questions and response. Because it usually hosted on a website, people forget to check back regularly for updates.
  • Still Speaking Devotional: This is a great tool produced by the United Church of Christ that delivers a beautiful, simple devotional reading to your e-mail inbox or Facebook news feed every morning.
  • Podcast Sermons: Nearly two years ago, I began posting my weekly sermons on the church’s website as podcasts. I imagined that they would be an evangelism tool for people exploring the church online before visiting in person. To my surprise, it has become much more. People who miss church often download the podcast to listen, and the podcast now has several RSS subscribers that I do not know and are not otherwise connected to the church. The site averages 70 podcast downloads per week, which is almost as many people as attend church on Sunday morning.
  • Theology on Tap: I’ve never been a part of a church that has done this, but it involves drinking beer at a local bar while listening to a speaker and having a conversation about God. Sounds like an awesome new model of faith formation to me.
  • Small Groups: Mega-churches and evangelical churches rely heavily on small groups. They fit well into a model of faith formation, because they gather regularly for fellowship, study, social service, and community. I’m not sure how well they work in small or medium-sized congregations.

What about you? What’s working for you and your congregation? Share your ideas!

Part III: Moving toward Holistic Faith Formation

This is part III of a discussion of adult Christian education, particularly the problem of low attendance. It originates in response to this post from Jan Edmiston at A Church for Starving Artists. It begins with Part I: Is Christian Education a Cultural Thing? and continues with Part II: Other Reasons for Struggling Christian Education, and Imagining a Different Way

We need to move away from a school-based model of Christian education and toward a holistic faith formation. How do we do that? What does it look like?

A holistic approach to faith formation takes everything we do in the life of the church—worship, mission, meeting, meals, service, fellowship, and (of course) classes and bible studies—and sees it as an environment for experiential learning about the Christian life and the content of the Christian faith. Christianity was originally called “The Way,” because our faith is about a way of life in community. Whenever we gather as a church, we are instructing people in The Way of Jesus Christ.

Faith is more than an intellectual assent, an idea we believe in. Faith is a commitment to a way of life. Our instruction in the life of the faith is not solely an exercise in cognitive understanding. It is a discipleship, a disciplining of the body, mind and spirit into the shape of Christ. Hence the term “faith formation,” because we are not educating people with knowledge, we are forming them as a certain kind of person called Christian, one who practices generosity, compassion, worship, prayer, service, study, community, and hope.

What does that look like, in real terms in the life of the church?

At my church, we are working to understand everything we do as an act of faith formation. Our meetings, our worship, our mission activities, our prayer groups—everything we do is a chance to form all who gather in the shape of Christ. We are also working to take the Bible and faith formation to them, rather than expecting people to come to us. Here are several examples:

  • The meetings of our governing body, the Council, begin with at least 30 minutes of bible study and checking in. We take time to build community by listening to what’s going on in people’s lives. We understand this meeting as a time of learning and discernment, and we study together in preparation to lead and decide on behalf of the church. Many of those who serve on Council would never attend a traditional Bible study, but look forward to the learning and conversation at the Council table.
  • The Rite of Confirmation is an important milestone in faith formation for our young people, usually of middle-school age. In the past, preparation for confirmation was a class taught by the pastor that included bible lessons and catechism. Three years ago, we changed our understanding of the purpose of confirmation instruction. Instead of teaching our youth about Christianity, we wanted to help them experience the Christian way of life. We still had a class to study the Bible and the United Church of Christ, but we also required that they attend worship regularly, help lead worship occasionally, participate in service projects and experience all the major events in the church’s life. Each youth was assigned their own mentor, with whom they met regularly over the course of 18 months to talk about what it was like to live as a Christian. Of the ten youth we confirmed in that class, seven can be found in church almost every week, two years later. The remaining three still participate regularly, but not as often as they did during the confirmation preparation period.
  • We are still working on how to incorporate more reflection into our acts of service. The church hosts a weekly soup kitchen, and various neighborhood churches take turns preparing and serving the meal. There is always a practice of saying grace before the meal is served, and there is a custom among some groups to dine with the guests. When it is our church’s turn, we also invite one of the founders to gather the work team to say a few words about why this ministry is important, why it is grounded in our faith and how it impacts us and those we serve. It’s not complicated or lengthy, but it centers our actions in Christ. I would like to grow this kind of reflection, so that the team gathers for a brief (5-10 minute) scripture reflection before serving the meal. I hope to use this model in other service projects as well.

How about your church? In what ways to you practice holistic faith formation? What ideas do you have for engaging the task of forming disciples in the way of Christ?

There will be one more part to this series: Part IV: Engaging Scripture Reflection with Creative Delivery Methods


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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