Monday, November 25, 2013

Silly Season or Re-orientation?

This coming Sunday marks the beginning of Advent  – the time in the traditional church calendar when Christmas is celebrated. Advent is about expectant waiting, preparation and reorientation as we look forward to Christmas, to the coming of Christ into our world.

For many though, the next four weeks are regarded as the ‘silly season’, a time of stress and anxiety as we try to navigate the hustle and bustle of a consumer-driven materialistic Christmas. Fuelled by clever marketing, for some Christmas brings a whole lot of pressure to give the right gifts, to eat the right food, to throw the right kind of party. But we don't actually have to buy into these pressures. We don't have to be overwhelmed at Christmas.

Advent offers us four weeks to re-orientate our thinking around the true meaning of Christmas – Christ with us. We remember Jesus' birth two thousand years ago and that, in Jesus, hope entered our story. Knowing how the story unfolds, we're reminded that in Jesus, his life, his death and his resurrection, there is an arms wide open invitation to receive grace and love and reconciliation. Advent is also a chance to remember that Jesus still seeks to be a part of our lives today! Hope, joy, peace and love are found in Christ and that’s what we celebrate at Christmas.

So this Christmas, if you're feeling overwhelmed by the ‘jolliness’ of the jingles, if you're feeling pressured to give beyond your means, if you're tempted by months and months of differed payments and interest free options, if you're feeling anxious, stressed, disorientated, lonely or lost – take a moment to pause and reflect. Consider the reason for the season, the coming of Christ and the joy, hope, peace and love found in him. These things can be a reality in your life today. Don't be consumed by the consumerism of the season.

Maybe you could purchase an Advent reflections booklet for your Kindle or iPad? They are only a few dollars but full of meaningful reflections for this time of the year. I briefly looked at the following and they all seemed to be good value. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

If not cool, then what? Relevant and contemporary.

If the attraction of church isn't its 'cool' quotient, what is its attraction?
I do think church should have an attraction factor, a number in fact. There are a few that spring straight to mind.

Firstly, and foremost, should be the very presence of Jesus in the church community, in the worship, the word, the sacraments, and in the individual lives of those that gather as the church.

Secondly, in a world full of pretence, show, self marketing and masks, there should be an attraction factor in the church in regards to authenticity, honesty, transparency, acceptance and its ability to ask hard questions and not just offer easy answers. The church should be a 'come as you are' community. There is something beautiful about this. Though of course the church need not apologize for also being a transformational community; 'come as you are' doesn't always equate to 'stay as you are.'

Thirdly, there should be an attraction factor in the way that the church community loves one another, cares for one another, stands with one another, celebrates with one another etc. As a redeemed community, as an advance party of heaven's invasion of earth, the church is a community (though flawed) that seeks to dwell in right relationship with God, self, others and creation. There should be something attractional about this.

And then fourthly, the church should also be a community that is relevant to contemporary society. Yep, I said it, RELEVANT and CONTEMPORARY. By this though, I don't mean cool. Remember my last post? Relevant to contemporary society doesn't have anything to do with being cool.

By relevant to contemporary society  I mean the, way in which it speaks  the life of Christ into the issues, cultures, addictions, pursuits, longings, questions and concerns, and worldview of its particular context in history. This doesn't necessarily mean contemporary mediums or packaging, in fact, you could argue that it may in fact require counter cultural mediums and distinctly alternative packaging in order to truly speak into today's cultural context. If the famous idiom 'the medium is the message' is true, then consideration must be given to the ways in which the mediums the church use at times enhance our message and other times distort it.

I think that if the church is to remain contemporary it must also be ancient. It should take seriously Jesus call to give, to pray, to fast, to turn the other cheek, to lay down one's life, take up one's cross, die to self. It should encourage stillness, reflection, contemplation. If people want to be 'pumped up' they can take a spin class or go to an AMWAY conference or tune into Anthony Robins. The church has some pretty ancient and some pretty unfashionable things to call people to. Fasting in a world of consumerism focused on touch, smell, taste experience? Have fun rallying the troops for this fun pass time!

At times, the more contemporary we become, the more irrelevant we become. It's hard to critique culture if we're not counter culture. And so it's an ongoing back-and-forth shuffle, working to ensure that the Sunday gatherings on the life of the church community are relevant to contemporary society,

that is...

they speak hope and truth and love,
and promise and grace and forgiveness ,
and the reality of Christ, and of his life and his death and his resurrection,
and of his arms open invitation to follow,
right into the very heart of the issues and challenges of 21st Century living.

I know as a local church pastor that sometimes we do this really well and that sometimes we don't do as well as we would of liked. I know too that sometimes I think we've nailed it and nobody says a lot and other times I think we've bombed it and people say things like, 'now I wish every Sunday was like that!' You scratch your head, trust God and push on. Jesus has a way of graciously meeting people right where they are at.

When the church speaks into the issues, the longings, the questions and concerns of its contemporary context, ultimately, it is attractional. Why? Because people know deep down that surely there has to be more to this life than this life. More going on than just consuming and acquiring and tasting and experiencing and conquering and striving and burning out and...

It's not about being cool.
What's the point when your message isn't cool?
It's just confusing.
It's about Jesus, authenticity, love and a boldness to offer ancient truth into a 21st Century context. 

Check out these Christians in the Philippines worshipping together after Typhoon Haiyan. Come on! That's what I'm talking about. The real deal.

Side note: I'm not here wanting to contrast attractional with incarnational. Ultimately the church should be incarnational rather than attractional, that is, a church that goes into the world rather than expects to attract people out of the world. I'm talking about a different kind of attraction here and believe there is a manner of speaking of the church as attractional that I think is appropriate.  

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Should Church be Cool?

Addie Zierman recently wrote an article that was published in the Washington Post. You can read it here. It got me thinking; should church be cool?

It's not unusual to hear that advance guard millennials (born roughly 1980-1985) have, despite growing up in church, opted out of church but not out of faith. Now wearing fashionable fluorescent clothing for the second time in their lives, this crew grew up on a diet of easy answers, catchphrases and clichés. Zierman lists a few phrases you may be familiar with and I hope that if you break out in a nasty rash and cold sweats that you recover quickly: 'The Bible clearly says,' 'God will never give you more than you can handle,' 'are they a believer, an unbeliever or a backslider?,' 'God is in control, he has a plan, he works in mysterious ways.' I've got a couple to add: 'If it's God's vision look for God's provision,' 'God says it, I believe it, that settles it.' Enough? I could go on. 'A Bible falling apart will belong to someone who isn't falling apart.' Stop there? Ok. Sorry. 'Bigger level equals a bigger devil.' Sorry. Again. If there is one thing that these folk have learnt it's that; life is always more complicated than the clichés.

In some cases however, these millennials, now often with a young family in tow are returning to church. Partly cynical and partly hopeful they're willing to give church a second chance. For their own sake and for the sake of their children. Having a family they now crave a family beyond their own; immediate or extended. And with this in mind, it seems that if there is one thing they're not looking for the church to be, it's cool. In fact they expect the church not to be cool and would be suspicious if it was.

 They're looking for community, for authenticity, for grace, for inclusion, for acceptance, for church to be in fact what by nature it should be - everyday messed up broken people, all in equal need of the bread and of the cup of Calvary, who have encountered Jesus, received grace, offer grace and are attempting to live as an advance party of heaven in right relationship with God, self, each other and the created world around them. The reality is, 'cool' doesn't leave much space for community, authenticity, grace, inclusion or acceptance. It is a social construct that takes it cues from film, song, television, popular culture, fashion labels, social media, and marketing. By nature it deems some people to be 'cool' and some of course to be anything but. Cool isn't found in community it's found in clicks. Cool isn't found in authenticity it's found in conformity. Cool isn't found in grace, inclusion or acceptance but rather in judgement, exclusion and rejection. Cool can only exist when things are equally deemed to be 'un-cool.' This creates some issues for the church, the body of Christ, where there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male nor female, but rather all are one in Christ.

If the local church is pursuing cool, even as a means to an end, ultimately it's a betrayal of who the church is called to be. In the midst of a 'hyper-world' the church is instead to be a down-to-earth community of authenticity that lives out a counter-culture narrative to that of consumerism, materialism, individualism and self-gratification. And at the end of the day I'm not sure that you can actually put a 'cool' spin on laying down your life, taking up your cross, looking to the interests of others, offering cups of water to the least of these. The church is a place where people find Jesus, where they drink and thirst no more, not a place that serves up sparkling evian.

A 'cool' front is only going to make it difficult for people to embrace the grounded, sleeves rolled up, gritty, down-to-earth, up-side-down, His will be done, way of Jesus that Christ followers are called to live. And it's not necessary (or I think smart, or I think biblical) if we are to learn anything from millennials disengaging or reengaging from church it's that they actually crave an authentic, messy, down-to-earth, slightly chaotic faith that is true to Jesus and true to the realities of life and of family.