Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The future of worship in United Methodism

I recently spent a Saturday morning presenting at a workshop geared towards helping congregations provide more meaningful worship expereinces. I lead a session on using Media with and for aged and aging congregations, which is about 80% of UM congregations btw :). The gist of my presentation was that if you are wishing to use media in your old congregation, be wise and be aware of context. The committee that provided the event and also provides these resources, is well meaning and even gifted, but only gifted in reaching the current constituency (50+). The committee, or team, to sound Post-Modern, designs sets that can be transported to churches to provide visual aids in worship, i.e Women at the well set, Renewing you Baptism Set, The burning Bush Set, etc. The sets are beautiful, but they're also old, stuffy and dull....at least if you're under 50. I don't mean to be rude or discouraging, but critical...in a positive way.

The sets offer more of the same things, lace, wreathes, fountains, pics of white Jesus and more. These things are great when you're trying to attract old people, but young folks, which I myself would be considered at least in my denomination (I'm under 35), don't like lace, wreathes, fountains, and pics of white Jesus. Our denomination needs to work with churches to exposes them to worship sets that attract and inspire young people. So whats that look like?  Well it does not include lace, wreathes, fountains, and pics of white Jesus.

There's various schools of though of course. Some believe that an "ancient-futre" form of worship is more appealing to young people. Nadia Boltz-Weber at the House for All Sinners and Saints, in Denver, CO uses this model and she does very well with it. The more ancient the better in her case. She attracts and reaches a very specific group of people that the church has allowed to slip though the cracks for years. Her church is not "big" so to speak, only about 75-100 a week, so it's the size of most Main-line Protestant churches in America. Size, in this case, really doesn't matter. What we are looking for in a worship experience is vitality and her church is just that....it's vital. She also manages to pack about 10,000 words worth of info into a 15 minute sermon. She is gifted beyond most clergy and the form of worship she uses and she is successful at, is very skill oriented. Most churches that are thriving, that are reaching the un-churced and young families are using media, lights, video, even social media, i.e twitter and Facebook in worship services. They provide music that young people can identify with and that they like. In the UMC most of our churches provide a very poor quality of music. Old, nearly deaf and blind ladies playing the organ with hymns at a meter that can only be described as "funeral drudge", pastor who speak at length in a monotone voice,  about topics that have no relevance in anyones practical life, and worship structures that provide very little sustained "worship: just simply are not making the cut with young people. So what's a church to do?

As United Methodist a good place to start is to engage denominations and professionals who do worship well and who engage young people and families on a weekly basis. We ought to be asking worship ministry professionals and pastors from denominations who regularly reach young people, "how do you do it?" I recently came across a worship professional named Kurt Johnson who is on staff at First Assembly of God Kalamazoo, a.k.a "Kfirst." He does worship and worship set design at a very high level of professionalism. I hope to engage him in my own ministry and in the ministry of the district and even our conference. We can learn a lot from people like him and we can grow as a denomination in worship effectiveness if you listen to them. I know having trendy and multi-media focused worship will not automatically fix all our UM woes, but it's a good start and since it's hard to find people within our own denomination who create worship environments that are geared towards young people at a high level of professionalism we need to be willing to partner with those who can.

Below is a link to Kurt' blog entitled "stage design". It's a step-by-step  process as he prepares to design worship within his ministry setting.


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Do we really need church?: A response to Tara Woodard-Lehman

Recently The Rev'd Tara Woodard-Lehman wrote a post for the Huffington blog site entitled, "Do we really need Church?" She, like myself and others employed by the church, said yes we do. The question was posed by a young college student who pointed out all the social and communal stuff that the church use to be so good at providing, i.e mens groups, women's groups, youth groups, concerts, plays, dinners and so on, are now offered by and even done much better by other organization and agencies outside the church. Why do we need the church for fellowship? I have my friends and our dinner parties and back yard grill-outs. Why do I need the church for meditation? I have yoga, which is part meditation, part exercise. Why do I need the church to make business contacts? I have Facebook, linkendin and other forms of social media. Why do I need to go to church to hear music or be entertained? There are small community theaters, neighborhood coffee shops and local bars who have great performers and bands!! WOW...when you put it that way...we really don't need the church!

Woodard-Lehman's response to all this was her bad memory. She stated that she and other Christians, need the church because it's easy to forget God's epic story of redmption. Essentially we go to church to tell the story and to be renewed and re-focused on what matters in our lives, but does that help with un-churced, "spiritually-minded" young adults who don't necessarily care about the Christian story of Gods redeeming acts?

I think Woodard-Lehman's response is a stereotypical main-line protestant response to a very serious question and problem that plagues all of God's main-line protestant churches. Just because we, "Love to tell the story for those who know it best." doesn't mean those who don't know it want to listen. Perhaps our inability to remember the great exploits of God is the very reason why young adults could care less.

I was pleased to read Woodard-Lehman's excitement and energy when it came to the work of Jesus Christ. She said several time that Jesus was the savior for our world...I like that!! There are a lot of PCUSA ministers who would argue with that, but that's not enough, and neither is getting together on Sunday just to hear "The Old, Old Story".... told again!

Church is important, not as a place to socialize, or to meet girls, or to hangout with friends. These are important things, but it's not what's gonna keep people coming, especially young adults...college kids. The college aged kid she spoke to in her article called himself "spiritual", but non-religious. Jesus was kind of a spiritual but non-religious guy too. Most church people are the opposite, i.e religious but non-spiritual. Jesus said that "God is Spirit and is to be worshiped in Spirit". Also he said "The Spirit moves like the wind, where ever it pleases." Jesus had some issues with the religious non spiritual people of his day, so the young adults who have issues with the church are in good company. The only reason people are going to come to church is because they believe there is something at church that cannot be obtained anywhere else, but in order to make that "thing" which is relationship with God, obvious we must heed the words of John the Baptist, "I must decrease so that he might increase." The "I" in this equation is the religious, self-righteous and institutional church...(it always seems to get in the way!!) We must optimize our spirituality and decrease our religiosity, than young people will be interested

What can the church do to optimize it's spirituality and decrease it's religious institutionalism? If you know the answer to that, then you will know the answer to the question, "Do we really need church?"This has nothing to do with worship styles, polity, or doctrine. What it really has to do with is authenticity, honestly and holiness. If a "church" experience is going to be meaningful and worth while, a church must posses all three.

I'm glad hearing the story helps Tara Woodard-Lehman and I'm glad it helps many others, but it's not the reason we need church. We need church because we need a relationship with God and this the risen body of christ is the only place we can find one.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Fundamentalism swings both ways: An Open critique of fundamental liberalism.

I have been critical of conservative fundamentalist over the past decade or so. Growing up one I have reason to be. There is a lot of negative and destructive God talk that come out of the "Fundie Right" and not much of it really has anything to do with Jesus or his teachings.

I am a self professed post-modern Evangelical and Neo-Orthodox Wesleyan guy. Some might not think so, but you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who believes more in the saving power of Jesus Christ than I. JESUS IS THE ONLY WAY TO THE FATHER. There...I said it. Now I ought to qualify it, but that's not what this article is about, so maybe next week:)

I recently went to visit my cousin Chris, who means the world to me. I love him and his family dearly and we have a great time when we are together. On Sunday we went to the Faith Community Church of Greenville, WI. It's a United Methodist Church with Evangelical/Brethren Heritage. We went to the contemporary service. It was nice, it was small due to the Labor Day weekend, but nice. After the service I spoke to the man who preached and he was not the pastor of the church. He was an older gentle man, maybe in late his 50's. I asked is if he were a Retired Elder filling in for the pastor, or maybe a Local licensed pastor or lay preacher. He was neither. He proceeded to tell me about how he was taking courses at Asbury Theological Seminary, probably the most evangelical and Wesleyan Seminary in the nation, so that he could become and Ordained Elder. He then told me that he was no longer taking those classes because his District Committee on Ministry (DCoM) had told him "no, not ever" on ministry. He was given the kiss of death, the black ball of ministry in the UMC, he was given a flat out no! Many times DCoM's will give a potential candidate a "not yet". Which means, "You're not ready. Think about it and come back next year." But this guy got and absolute NO!

I immediately thought maybe he failed his background check or maybe he was a pastor in another denomination and was dishonorably removed from ministry, but neither of those were right. As it turns out he was told know because he was "to conservative." As I spoke more with him I found out that his beliefs about God and Holy Scripture were the same beliefs that I shared and that Mr. Wesley shared and that, through the Book of Discipline (BOD), the United Methodist Church shared. When did we stop affirming the supremacy of scripture? When did we stop believing and teaching that Jesus is the only way to the Father and that the faith is the "most excellent way"? When did all that stop? I'm not sure that it has, in fact since the last General Conference was so impotent, I know they didn't make any land mark changes like this!

This fellow was the victim of a fundamentally liberal DCoM in a fundamentally liberal Conference. When did we start saying no to people who disagreed with us? What happened to Open minds, Open hearts and Open doors? The hallmark of Fundamentalist, liberal and conservative, is closed minds, closed hearts, closed doors. We are a non-confessional movement for a reason, and that non-confessional door ought to swing both ways. Liberals and conservatives alike should be welcomed in our church and in the ministry. It's amazing that the Wisconsin Annual Conference and it's various DCoM's and most likely it's Board of Ordained Ministry (BoOM) is willing to violate the Discipline and encourage the breach of sacred covenant by allowing openly gay men and women in the ministry as well as allowing the solemnization of same sex marriages with in it's boundaries, but because some one believes in the supremacy of scripture and the exclusive claims of christ they are to conservative and unfit for ministry!!

I support the full inclusion of LGBTQI persons in the church, I supported the legalization of Gay marriage. I'm not sure how one can whole heartedly believe that Jesus is who he says he is and affirm the teachings of Jesus and not! But  liberal fundamentalism is wrong, just as wrong as conservative fundamentalism. Jesus was not a fundamentalist, an exclusionist, and he was far from Orthodox, at least the traditional orthodoxy of his day. Neither conservative nor liberal fundamentalist embody the heart of Jesus. I hope new leadership arises in the Wisconsin Annual Conference and other Annual Conferences were liberal fundamentalism is rampant and that this new leadership brings these beloved back to the center, which is Christ Jesus.

Grace and peace,
Josh Blanchard