Beyond the Possible: 50 Years of Creating Radical Change at a Community Called Glide. HarperOne
A few months ago, Stephen Marsh, my fellow pastor, and I walked into Chief’s Tavern on the east side of Madison, Wis., ordered a couple pints, sat on a pair of stools and discussed an idea that would eventually have a massive impact on the congregation we serve together. In specifics, we wondered whether we could spark a ministry by fusing two of our most treasured Lutheran traditions: beers and hymns.
The budding idea, which originated from some creative faith communities in other parts of the country, was to find a local tavern willing to host a monthly one-hour session of hymn-inspired evening fellowship. Within a few minutes of our conversation, we were joined by Brian Mason (owner of Chief’s Tavern), and what followed was a ground-breaking partnership between parish and pub. The first Beers & Hymns event was scheduled, and as the date drew closer, our collective thoughts and prayers moved back and forth between “Thanks be to God” and “Lord, have mercy”!
Editor’s Note: As we continue reporting on the important topic of sexual abuse and violence, Sojourners has opened up the Sexual Violence and the Church blog series for submissions. This piece is one such submission. If you are interested in submitting a post for the series, please email the Web Editor HERE.
"From the beginning …" began my pastor, rising slowly from his armchair. With his next words, he broke my world apart. From the beginning, he had been attracted to me as a woman. From the beginning, his interest in me had been personal. He told me the reasons why, and then he said these words: "If we were both single, and if I weren't your pastor, we'd be going out to dinner." He paused a long beat. “And we’d see where it went from there."
Were my pastor's words an act of sexual violence?
When we hear the words "sexual violence," we may envision a forcible rape or a sexual act with a person incapable of consent. Many of us would consider unwanted groping or uninvited embraces to be acts of sexual violence. Some of us would include "consensual" sex between persons of different rank, because we understand that power disparity makes meaningful consent impossible. But what about the manipulative behavior that gives rise to the delusion of consent? Was my pastor's not-quite-a-proposition an act of sexual violence? Could a lingering handshake, a compliment on spiritual gifts, or an offer of pastoral support be acts of sexual violence? Most of us would say no. And most of us would be missing the boat.
Mumford and Sons opened with a little introit called "Sigh No More" then a call to worship, "Roll Away Your Stone" and so we did. Understated and, dare I say it, reverent. Polished and yet still "honest" (this is a hipster liturgy, after all), the boys did a great job offering their work to us. They spoke with the audience. Marcus jumped off stage to give a beer to a woman celebrating her 21st birthday and then led the crowd in singing "Happy Birthday" to her. Welcome to a living room that seats 8,500.
The band played most of their published stuff, took a bow, and walked off stage. The encore set is what took it home for me. The stepped away from their usual set-up, unplugged their instruments, stood around a condenser mic and then sang. They dragged us back into devotion. Springsteen's "I'm On Fire" followed by "Sister" sung a cappella did me in. A benediction? Perhaps I'm reaching.
They closed the night with "The Cave" which had people jumping and singing along. You can find a set list here.
After the concert, my Facebook feed lit up with "it was just like church" or "that was church" by several people including some ordained church types in attendance last night. The Vineyard background has not been wasted, not by any stretch. It has been given a new venue, a new form, a venue where the truth can be sung in quiet tones, where no name is taken in vain or otherwise, where wild passion is replaced with festal devotion.
I have spent much time blogging out of frustration with the church, gnashing my teeth over the church’s shortcomings. Some have called this negativity. Some have asked me to be more specific about what I want the church to do. I could not do this before. First, I needed to pinpoint my frustrations and disassemble my previous understanding of church. Out of the rubble of my own disillusionment a vision of something new is beginning to emerge. It is time to share this vision however blurry it may be.
This something new looks like congregations so committed to following Jesus by loving all of God's children that they will pour over their current budget and activities to see what can be altered to make room for greater service to the poor and the outcast. Such churches might come to the conclusion it is unconscionable to pay for the upkeep of a building for the sake of its use a few times a week.
This is a tension-filled topic. As Bergthal made public their intent to disassemble and ultimately tear down their building, many could not understand. For some, there is such a deep attachment to our church building, we would rather it be turned into a house or a barn or just anything as long as it can be saved. I have read the upcoming generation is not as sentimental when it comes to material things. I think this is a good and necessary movement but is sure to bring some tension. Finally, we must realize the church is not about buildings, but about people.
Religious historians say that every 500 years, Christianity goes through a “massive transition,” as noted religion writer Phyllis Tickle puts it.
Around 500 A.D., “barbarians” sought to subjugate Rome by wiping out its underlying religion. Christianity went underground. In abbeys like Iona, monks painstakingly copied Scripture and civilization’s great writings, in effect saving Western civilization itself.
Around 1000 A.D. came the “Great Schism,” when the Western church based in Rome and the Eastern church based in Constantinople fought over creeds and doctrine, political power and cultural hegemony. That split endures to this day between Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism.
Around 1500 A.D. came the Protestant Reformation, when nationalism born of exploration in the New World and new commercial wealth demanded an end to Rome’s domination of European life. That split, too, endures.
Now comes a new millennium, and Christianity wears so many different faces that it’s difficult to speak of a single “Christian movement.”
On April 5-12, the University of Tennessee hosted “Sex Week,” organized by the student organization Sexual Empowerment and Awareness in Tennessee. The week’s activities, ranging from discussions on virginity to workshops on oral sex and a search for a golden condom, sparked the concern of easily provoked and immensely quotable State Rep. Stacey Campfield (he of “Don’t Say Gay” bill fame).
With apologies to Campfield’s ever-vigilant protection of Christian sensibilities, the real problem here is not that mandatory student fees are being used to promote sexual education and awareness. The problem is that our tithes aren’t.
Imagine with me, if you will, what would happen if “Sex Week” came to First Baptist Church . . .
If local congregations joined together to dedicate a week to the promotion and exploration of Christian ethics expressed through sexuality, gender, and embodiment, what might the offerings look like? Perhaps these would be a good start.
Making an ultimatum about church attendance to a sleep-deprived teenager may be my own version of hell on earth.
“We are leaving for church in 10 minutes,” I said, summoning my most authoritative voice before the lifeless lump under the covers.
My seven-year old Annie Sky watched the tense exchange between me and my 14-year old daughter Maya, who made periodic moans from the top bunk. With furrowed brow, my first grader sat on the couch, as if observing a tiebreaker at Wimbledon with no clear victor in sight.
For a moment, I wondered why I had drawn the line in the Sabbath sand, announcing earlier in the week that Maya would have to go to church that Sunday morning after an all-day trip to Dollywood with the middle school band. Somehow I didn’t want Dolly Parton’s amusement park to sabotage our family time in church. (The logic seemed rational at the time).
When Maya lifted the covers, I glimpsed the circles under her eyes and sunburn on her skin. But I repeated my command, with an undertone of panic, since I wasn’t sure if I could uphold the ultimatum.
When she finally got into the car, I breathed deeply and turned to our family balm, the tonic of 104.3 FM with its top 40 songs that we sing in unison. As the drama settled, I realized one reason why I made my teenager go to church: I want my daughters to know that we can recover from yelling at each other (which we had) and disagreeing. We can move on, and a quiet, sacred space is a good place to start.
Life is difficult. It can knock you down. Sometimes, an entire nation gets knocked down.
First it was Boston. Some mad man (or men) lays waste to one of America’s most hallowed sporting events — the Boston Marathon. Sidewalks that should have been covered with confetti were covered in blood.
Then it was the quintessential small Texas town of West. Populated by hearty Czech immigrants, folks in West worked hard in their shops, bakeries, and fertilizer plant until the plant exploded. A magnitude-2.1 on the Richter scale, witnesses compared it to a nuclear bomb. Dozens are feared dead.
In the nation’s capital, we had the bitter realization that something is broken that will not be easily repaired. A commonsense proposal that emerged from the Newtown, Conn., tragedy, background checks to prevent convicted felons and the seriously mentally ill from purchasing guns online or at gun shows, fell prey to Washington gridlock. None of the Newtown proposals — the ban on assault weapons, limits on the number of bullets a gun can hold or expanded background checks — could garner the 60 votes necessary to overcome a Senate filibuster.
Finally, there were the ricin-laced letters sent to a Republican senator and the president.
We have a group at our church that does a weekly sandwich ministry together. Though we already had a group that makes sandwiches each week for a local shelter, another team realized some folks don’t go to shelters, and that they might be missing out on a real opportunity to connect with different folks in our community if they didn’t go out to where the people are.
So now, every week, they walk the streets of downtown Portland and hand out upwards of 100 sandwiches. As they’ve met folks who live outside, they’ve identified other needs some have, such as socks, new underwear, rain gear, flashlights, and batteries. Each week, they come back with a list of needs, and each week our congregation helps fill those needs.
To me, this kind of ministry is exemplary of what missional church is about. We don’t simply wait behind the walls for people to come ask for something; we go out, meet people face-to-face and get to know them. Yes, we offer them a meal, but we also share stories, learn a bit of their history, and they come to know that there actually are flesh-and-blood people behind all those steeples and stone facades.
When it comes to running, America often looks like a country divided between apostles and apostates.
For true believers like Olympian Ryan Hall, marathons assume an almost-biblical importance.
“I have heard stories and had personal experiences in my own running when I felt very strongly that God was involved,” Hall, an evangelical Christian, has said.
Other Americans — athletic atheists, you might call them — roll their eyes and see marathons as a painful waste of a perfectly nice day.
In the Church of Running, I sit somewhere in the back pew.
HOUSTON — Sunday mornings at Houston Oasis may look and feel of a church, but there’s no cross, Bible, hymnal, or stained glass depictions of Jesus. There’s also nary a trace of doctrine, dogma, or theology.
But the 80 or so attendees at this new weekly gathering for nonbelievers come for many of the same reasons that others pack churches in this heavily Christian corner of the Bible Belt — a sense of community and an uplifting message that will help them tackle the challenges of the coming week, and, maybe, the rest of their lives.
“Just because you don’t believe in God does not mean you do not need to get together in community and draw strength from that,” said Mike Aus, a onetime Lutheran pastor who is now an atheist and founder of Houston Oasis.
“We are open to any message about life as long as no dogmatic claims are made.”
Fifty years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. challenged white church leaders to confront racism, an ecumenical network has responded to his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
“We proclaim that, while our context today is different, the call is the same as in 1963 — for followers of Christ to stand together, to work together, and to struggle together for justice,” declared Christian Churches Together in the USA in a 20-page document.
The statement, which is linked to an April 14-15 ecumenical gathering in Birmingham, Ala., includes confessions from church bodies about their silence and slow pace in addressing racial injustice.
“The church must lead rather than follow in the march toward justice,” it says.
As has happened many times after I have given a talk about the Body of Christ’s responsibility to care for their brothers and sisters experiencing impoverished and dehumanizing conditions, I was asked to answerthose questions — the ones in my experience that are always the first to be asked the moment I stop speaking.
“How will I know I have given enough? How does the church balance financial responsibility with service to the poor? Where do we draw the line?”
These questions always come, sometimes spoken in a curious tone by a person whose heart is being convicted, sometimes in an angry accusing tone insinuating I must hate prosperity, sometimes privately as a whisper in my ear or in a personal email filled with insinuations about my sanity. What a preposterous proposal, that the Body of Christ in any particular location should be the first resource to its own community for spiritual, physical, and emotional well being! Don’t I know that such a mission is naïve and impossible to achieve? Most recently it was phrased like this: “I love this idea, but it is difficult to see benevolence funds go towards someone's electric bill when they smell like they smoked five packs of cigs before meeting with us; what do we do?”
Church is being reinvented. So are technology and education. And all for the same reasons.
Facebook just started moving Google’s cheese with its launch of Home. An army of upstarts in Silicon Valley is challenging the hegemony of Microsoft. Nothing is staying the same; disruption is the path to prosperity.
The reason: the marketplace is highly dynamic. New needs emerge. New products stimulate new needs. New entrants want to make a difference right away. Problems and opportunities multiply faster than bureaucratic pillars can respond.