Category Archives: Evangelism

Medieval Church Perception

Medieval Church Perception

I really shouldn’t watch popular media set in the early medieval period or the medieval period generally. By this time of life, I should realize that doing so will only annoy me–but somehow I never learn…

The latest example confirming this occurred when I saw a review video of the Arthurian-ish Netflix show “Cursed.” Cancelled after a single season, this show apparently–and I say apparently because I’ve only seen the above video, the first episode, and read a brief synopsis–features as antagonists the Red Paladins, a group under the auspices of the Holy Roman Empire and directed by the Pope, who conduct a murderous campaign against the magic-wielding pagan protagonists and their fey allies.

The idea of a militant group from the Holy Roman Empire ordered around by the pope slaughtering folks in Arthurian England is so strangely anachronistic to boggle the mind. A reasonable equivalent would be a tv show about the American Revolution where the Battle of Bunker Hill is won by Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders with their laser rifles at the behest of the United Nations.

Here’s the thing…

Anyone watching the latter would question what was going on there. It’s not probable, not believable. The inaccuracies are too great compared to what the viewers know. However, the writers of “Cursed” assumed their viewers would accept the first as quite believable. Why is that?

There’s a lot that could be said here. I could talk about the historical basics–why are the aspects of this presentation so mind-bendingly wrong. I could talk about historical education–how to fix the knowledge gaps. But I’d rather identify the evangelism angle. The reality is that in this matter the historical actualities are irrelevant.

I’d wager the target audience of the show–teens and young adults–would find this portrayal of the church as a vast, powerful institution that uses force to achieve its political and social ends compelling. That’s because this show isn’t interested in getting the history right; rather the writers are taking their contemporary experience of their perspective of Christianity and retrojecting it into their fantasy-medieval past. It’s not hard at all to see the conflict as the show sets it up (at least in the initial bits I saw) as a modern parable about the social conservative campaign against all things lgbt+.

Furthermore, these sorts of portrayals inform a vicious cycle.

Americans learn their history from media. I have no doubt that many viewers could and would easily assume this is an accurate portrayal of what “the Church” is actually like. Or at least it’s a scenario they would see as plausible. And who would want to be a part of a thing like that?

Sometimes I see the challenges of modern evangelism constructed as faith vs. science or faith vs. capitalism with the chief struggle being about belief. But I sometimes wonder if a major issue might not be faith, or God, or Christ, but the perception of the Church itself.

Brief Random Thought

I think I’ve thought this out loud before, but it’s worth saying and pondering again…

We have to recognize the reality that the church in America finds itself in.

At the same time that mainline membership is dropping, we get the attendance anomaly reading between the lines of the last big Pew Research study.

  • Only 33% of mainline Christians say that they attend church weekly. But…
  • 54% of mainline Christians say they pray daily and, if you add in those who pray weekly (23%), you get 78%.

Let’s face it—we all know people who are turned off by organized religion. I know people who say they are Christians yet don’t darken church doors because the services don’t occur at convenient times, they feel that people would judge them, or because they feel unworthy/guilty (thinking particularly of some veterans I know). While I’m firmly in the camp that says that Christianity is a team sport and we need to gather together for important spiritual and theological reasons, we also have to ask ourselves about the pastoral and spiritual care of Christian non-attenders.

What can or should churches/dioceses/denominations/people who care/etc. be doing to extend resources to people who want and need them? How do we enable daily prayer or prayer practices to touch, inform, and form non-attending Christians? Sure, it’s be great if they also joined themselves to communities—but if they continue to choose not to, how do we nurture even a nebulous kind of community to support their faith?

Counting Christians

Bishop Martins has a good post up on Covenant about ecclesiometry: how we count the people in churches and what these mean for us as a church. Do read his article as he makes several good points about why and how we measure.

A central point that he makes is that we have to wrestle with the new realities of a post-Constantinian age. That is, in previous decades, we could assume that most of the people we were working with were baptized believers who knew the Christian story and what we were doing was inviting them into our version. That will no longer be the case in a post-Constantinian world and, as a result, a crucial metric will be adult baptisms.

I totally agree with that.

That having been said, I’ve been thinking something slightly different around this same issue… I completely agree with the ideas around the post-Constantinian age and also about the criticality of adult baptism—no argument at all from me on those points.

However, I don’t think we’re there yet. We’re on the cusp of a post-Constantinian age and not yet fully inhabiting it. Instead, I’d suggest that before we come to a true post-Constantinianism, we are currently inhabiting—and have been for the past couple of decades—an intense reshuffling of American Christianity in a Church Marketplace. Denominational loyalty used to be a real thing: you were what your family was. With the collapse of grand narratives and joining patterns, that paradigm fell apart.

The biggest movement was, of course, out altogether. Having less social pressure to stay in churches, many people left. Some, because they never really believed to begin with and felt more comfortable saying that; others, because they had other commitments, other demands, and church didn’t seem that valuable.

I’d argue that the other important movement besides the movement out was the movement across: the reshuffling of people into other denominations based on preference or fit. And, given the heavily political polarization of American Christianity since the rise of the Religious Right in the ’80s, those decisions have been as much political as theological.

I’d love to know if we have been keeping records on receiving and confirming people into the Episcopal Church.

Both M and I were received and from different church bodies at that. Many of my IRL and online Episcopal friends also came from somewhere else. Many are former Roman Catholics who came to a place where women could be ordained; others were Evangelicals or Fundamentalists who came to a place where their sexual orientation was not a matter of continual attack.

The combination of these two movements—movements out and movements across—I imagine that at this point we have the lowest percentage of Cradle Episcopalians (i.e., adult members raised from childhood in the Episcopal Church) that we have ever had.

This matters in a lot of different ways. In the context of ecclesiometrics, it means another important stat to keep our eye on. But—perhaps just as or more important—this feeds into the current identity crisis and the anxiety of identity that I contend is driving so many of our contentious issues right now including the debates around Communion Before Baptism and Prayer Book Revision.

Modern Myths

Continuing the thoughts on engaging a secularized society from the previous post but one, I approach the issue of a secular age from a slightly different direction. Rather than starting from secularity, I start by looking for myth and go from there. If the principal tenet of 20th century secularity thought is that a grown-up society doesn’t need myths and superstitions, then it seems to me that modern society has decisively proven this to be false. The chief refutation is the veritable explosion of the genres of speculative fiction in the past century, and in particular in pop culture in the last fifty or so years.

Speculative fiction is the formal label for genres like Science Fiction, Fantasy, and various blendings of the two.

Once considered the provenance of nerds, geeks, and misfits, the American Entertainment juggernaut has moved them mainstream over the last half century. Whether they have created a market or found one is, no doubt, a matter for debate, that it has become so is not really up for debate. Think about it: Star Trek, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, the Marvel universe, the DC universe, Dr. Who, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Game of Thrones—the list can go on as these are only some of the major players in America… The embrace of these myth cycles and the obsession of their respective fandoms is telling.

Humans need myth. We need stories that speak to our deep desires around power, around what makes us human, around the true nature of reality and how that truth confirms, denies, or transcends our quotidian experience of the material world.

I’d even go a step further and suggest that these various modern myth cycles have a built-in liturgical component. If we understand liturgy in its broadest possible terms—an engaging experience where we are intellectually and emotionally connected with the myth and its thought world—then the movies, video games, and tv shows that transmit these (even moreso than the books or graphic novels from which they may have been born) should be seen as the liturgical underpinnings of these modern myths.

Now—there are a whole lot of directions we could go in from here. However, let me make just one point… When we consider these modern “secular” myths in relation to something like Christianity, a major distinguishing factor is that the barrier to entry and the myth’s demands on the person are much less.

By “barrier to entry” I’m referring to the faith-claim necessary; it’s much lower for these. No one asks whether Star Wars or Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings “happened,” whether they are historically true. Rational people accept that they are works of fiction—albeit ones that engage in discussion of things that can be both deep and true despite their obvious lack in the historicity department. Likewise, as in the polytheistic pluralism that marked much of the Greco-Roman world, enjoying one does not mean foreswearing all of the others.  There is less to believe, and that belief does not have to be exclusive.

Too, these various fandoms do not require the kind of personal transformation that a religion with a weighty ethical component demands of its adherents. Sure, you can choose to hold certain beliefs inculcated by the various thought-worlds, emulate the deeds of certain core characters, but nothing requires that.

As I said—much more could be and probably should be said around this topic, but this is all I have time for now. I suppose the bottom line for me is this: we may live in a modern age, but I seriously question the degree to which it is secular. We still live in a deeply mythic world because that is the nature and character of the human imagination. The question is how we use that to reflect upon, embody, and proclaim the Gospel.

Thinking about the Secular Age and Church Futures

One of the things I find myself thinking about more and more these days is interacting with a culture and society not engaged with the church and does not see the church as a useful source for answers (or even questions!) about ultimate meaning.

This past week I ran across an interesting DMin thesis by Jeffrey Seaton, a minister in the United Church of Canada, who did his studies at Duke. The thesis (available here) is entitled “Who’s Minding the Story?: The United Church of Canada Meets A Secular Age.” I know about the United Church of Canada, but not a whole lot; that’s ok, because he spends some time getting his readers up to speed. Essentially this union of a variety of Methodist and Reformed bodies chose to take a left-turn in the Sixties and consciously embrace both a national identity and a self-understanding rooted in social justice ministry.  I see many parallels to a large swath of the Episcopal Church in the movement that he describes. He connects a lot of the energy and ideas in this turn to the work of John A. T. Robinson (Honest to God) and Harvey Cox (The Secular City) and to some deliberate engagement the UCC conducted with some secularist thinkers at the time. All of this sounds quite familiar.

However, he finds an interesting foil to these thought patterns with Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age.

Taking lessons and categories from Taylor, he looks at two major figures in modern church growth/relevance circles in the UCC who have extended the secularizing premises in enthusiastic but different ways (think Spong-style folks and, indeed, Spong puts in a brief appearance…) , and who offer their strategies as possible futures for the UCC. And, speaking demographically, the current extrapolated future for the collapse of the UCC is just as bleak as that for the Episcopal Church—if not more so.

His fundamental critique—as I read it—is that both of these thinkers fundamentally mistake what is baby and what is bathwater in their attempt to jettison the un-useful parts of Christianity and to retain what they see as useful for a modern, secular age. In particular, both make the error of buying into the maturity model of religious development. That is, one of the ways of understanding how patterns of belief (primarily in the Western World) have changed over the centuries/millennia is to place it in parallel with how children mature intellectually into adults.  Taylor, and Seaton following Taylor, reject this notion: that religion and religious belief are a primitive, infantile stage that a “grown-up” intellectual society “out-grows.”

At the end of the work, Seaton offers a different model of engaging with secular society. Instead of—essentially—a model of capitulation to the culture shown by the two other alternatives he explores, he suggests a model of “progressive orthodoxy.” It is progressive in that it retains strong commitments to social justice work broadly understood, but orthodox in that it holds strongly to the church’s classic belief in the divinity of Jesus. It understands its social justice commitments as neither apart from or parallel with its theological beliefs, but as flowing strongly out of an orthodox understanding of both Christ and the Trinity. While the old model suggested in Cox’s Secular City saw the church as engaging in kerygma (proclamation), diakonia (service), and koinonia (modeling an alternative way of being), the model Seaton recommends adds two more factors, leitourgia (worship and sacraments) and didache (teaching discipleship according to the Way of Christ).

While the last section couldn’t go into details and left me with some unanswered questions about some specific points of engagement between the church and secular culture, I found this a fascinating read. In particular, it reminded me a a lot of the things I have heard out of the Acts 8 Movement and others like that who are committed to growth in the Episcopal Church grounded in solid creedal theology.

There’s a lot of different directions that could be gone in from  here, but—if you are interested in the church’s conversation with secular culture and the missionary enterprise, this work may give you some very interesting fodder for thought!

Church as Resource 1

I saw two things yesterday that made me remember a third and that tapped into something that I’ve been thinking quite seriously about for a while now.

The first was Kyle Oliver’s post on Formation with Young Adults. Do read the whole thing, but these are some of the lines that jumped out at me:

Young adults – those in their 20s and 30s, often called Millennials – seem to be everywhere, except, of course, in church. If we truly believe that the church needs millennials, and that millennials need the church, what is the way forward? . . . 

The challenges are real: Pew Research reports that only 18 percent of Millenials say they attend religious services “nearly every week” or more, as of the late ’00s. Religion may well become more important to the Millennials as they age, but slight upward trends do not change the experience of church for the young adults who are currently attending, where the young adult experience can be one of isolation and alienation. It is often difficult to form a critical mass for young adult fellowship or programs. . . .

What no denomination can afford to continue is the habit of trading on denominational loyalty alone. For example, in the Episcopal Church, campus ministries flounder when they say “We’ll be a home for all the Episcopalians on campus.” Many Episcopalians aren’t looking for such a home, and many more don’t particularly care if the Episcopal shield is on the sign out front.

A post-denominational approach acknowledges that the broader Christian tradition is much more important than the way denominations slice and dice that tradition. Denominational identities can help us form distinctive, authentic Christian communities that don’t assume a membership model of the past (“every Methodist will join our group”).

Gathering around a common Christian identity – core teachings of the faith, patterns of common worship and fellowship, a desire to grow and live in integrity – is more engaging than denominational differences. . . .

Online spaces are a primary outlet for all kinds of authentic expression, including religious expression. We shouldn’t assume that young adults demand that all of our faith formation practices have an online component, but strategic efforts can lead to additional “faith touches” and a sense of ongoing connection and belonging amid busy young-adult lives.

I was reminded of this later yesterday evening when I heard a report on Marketplace that has been excerpted for this article on the growth of the fitness industry into a $3 billion business.  Here’s the section that caught my attention in particular:

What is the “mind and body” part here? There is this quasi-religious, sometimes cult-y thing going on.

Well, it is a symptom of our times in many ways. We are an anxiety-ridden, stressed out people here, especially in the urban centers of the United States…. You know, there have been a lot of studies around millennials, especially not going to a lot of organized religion, but they are finding a lot of community in their social groups. And a lot of those social groups are manifesting around fitness boutiques, running clubs, cycling clubs. And part of it is, people feel better after they exercise. It calms them down, and there’s a lot of science around that. You know, you go for a run you clear your head … you feel like you can deal with your life a little better.

The irony, of course, was that I had just dropped off G at ballet and was on my way to the gym to work out…

I totally identify with this because I’m part of it. Furthermore, at least a couple of clergy have said to me that if they weren’t clergy serving parishes, they’d much rather spend nice Sunday mornings out for a run or bike with friends. And—Sunday mornings are precisely when people my age and younger gather to run and bike, and the majority of races are held then. Despite this, M and I have noticed that many of the runners we know are quite religious, most of them Christian (and Saturday vigil masses are very popular among the Roman Catholics for obvious reasons…).

The key limiting resource for people like me—middle-aged(!), middle-class/affluent, educated, white people—is time. Yeah, we may be cash strapped too, but the time pinch sometimes hurts worse than the money pinch (and those two are interconnected in ways that are better saved for another conversation…). If we are going to spend the coin of our time, then we’d better be certain that we’re getting a good return on investment.

If I choose to go for a run on Sunday morning, I can see some very clear, very immediate results that also point towards long-term benefits. It gives me an opportunity to be social by hanging out with my running friends (and there’s nothing like a twenty-miler to spark long soul-baring conversations that can lead to good friendships), I feel better, I can see the benefits on the scale and in my increased level of fitness. Too, I can feel confident that the benefits of this run will keep on going. It helps me stay in a healthy (and fun) habit that will keep me active longer and reduce medical bills in the future.

The goal of the Christian faith is to live the reconciliation with God effected through Jesus Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit. It’s about living a life that is deeply in touch with reality and that strives to point to the principles of love, justice, compassion, and mercy that we believe have been woven into the fabric of everything by our good God.  My belief is that living this way should and can have a number of practical everyday benefits.

However, we as the institutional church have failed at drawing a clear connection for our current society regarding how sacrificing a Sunday morning that could be spent doing other beneficial things helps us achieve this goal and this life.

Furthermore, the institutional church has, in some cases, actively assisted in alienating people from the Sunday morning experience—even those who continue to identify as Christians. This is where the first two pieces also got me thinking about the third piece, one from Tony Clavier last year on the “Dones.”

Easter Sunday brought with it the usual railing from clergy and churchfolk about the C&E crowd: those who only darken our doors at Christmas and Easter. Some clergy heap scorn on them. I don’t feel scornful, but I have been frustrated with them in the past. Undoubtedly some of these are P3s (People with Pious Parents) who have no connection or desire for a connection to a religious life. But others are people who do self-identify as Christians and who do feel some obligation to show up occasionally. My frustration as a member of the institutional church is driven by the knowledge that if we all acted this way, the institution itself would collapse on itself and leave them no where to g for their occasionally fixes of public worship.

Now—what I’ve done here is set up some thoughts around people who don’t show up at church for a variety of reasons yet who may well have leanings in that direction.

I could go in a lot of directions from this point. This is what the question that’s been rattling around in my head for a while, though…

Based on the 2015 Pew Study on the Religious Landscape of America, 40% of Roman Catholics say they attend church between two times a month to a few times a year; 20% say they attend “seldom/never.” Likewise, 43% of Mainline Protestants say they attend two times a month to a few times a year, and 24% attend “seldom/never.” And yet, despite “Unaffiliated” being the category with the greatest numerical growth, these infrequent attenders choose to identify with a faith group rather than be called a “None”.

Now—this next part boggles my mind… Working from a related drilldown question on frequency of prayer correlated with church (non)attendance, 50% of the twice a month to a few times a year folks report that they pray daily; of the “seldom/nevers,” 27% say that they pray daily. (This data is displayed on the same page linked to above, just lower down.)

If we believe what these numbers are saying, there’s a whole lot of prayer going on from the C&E crowd or people who never do darken our doors.

What do we do about this?

From where I sit, clergy have a stake in institutional survival. They have to if they intend to get paid to do their thing and to have a stable place in which to do their thing. Thus, they have a vested interest in getting people in the door.  Personally, I think the faith thing works a hell of a lot better when people are coming in the doors and are doing things together because, properly done,  Christianity is a team sport (i.e., see any of the passages where the Body of Christ is discussed particularly those by Paul…).

However, what is the church doing (i.e., what are we doing…) to serve as resources or to provide resources for those who choose not to be involved in our Sunday morning activities, yet who still acknowledge some sort of faith pull to the degree that they would tell a surveyor that they pray daily?

I’m reminded too of comments from readers here who tell me straight-up that they don’t attend anymore or do so infrequently yet are still attracted by and/or participate within the church’s patterns of prayer.

Consider once more the fitness crowd. Here is a body of people who—whether they’re actually regular about it or not—believe in the value of disciplined, long-term activity for personal growth/benefit.

What can we be doing to make the connection here that hasn’t happened?

(And I’ve got no answers, just questions…)

Songs of Absence

[This was first published during Holy Week 2014]

My daughters, 10 and 8, are approaching the end of their first year at a Christian school. It’s been a bit of a shift for us, moving from the public school system. One of the chief things we’ve been adjusting to is contemporary Christian culture. While the school is non-denominational and has a roughly even blend of Roman Catholics and Protestants (and, yes, both are equally puzzled by the appearance of our Anglo-Catholic girls who don’t fit any of their paradigms!), there is a general embrace of the evangelical-flavored Christian subculture.

When my younger daughter arrived in her second grade class, she was quickly asked whether she preferred TobyMac or Justin Bieber. It was a culture question: do you participate in “Christian culture” or “secular culture”? Predictably for her, she said, “Neither one,” messing with their simplistic paradigm. (I still don’t know who TobyMac is…)

I do understand the desire behind the construction of a distinctly Christian subculture. Parents who choose to go in this direction can feel secure knowing that their religious values will be reinforced by the culture their children consume. It represents a way to conform externally to the same kinds of entertainment as the broader culture, but without the culture’s more problematic content. That’s their choice; that’s not the road that we have taken.

While there can be something very comforting about a “safe” Christian subculture, in the end I find its intention to insulate Christian culture from the broader culture misguided and ultimately dangerous. Yes, there are philosophies and attitudes antithetical to Christianity and Christian living in modern culture, especially in pop culture. Yes, there are songs and movies and such that I don’t let my girls listen to and watch. But ignoring them won’t make them go away; attempting to hide your children from them is not a tenable long-term strategy. We regularly discuss the lyrics of the songs on the pop station in the car on the way to ballet, and I model for them what it looks like to listen and critique, noting what is both positive and negative.

More generally, though, we do a disservice to our work of evangelism, and to our own deep wrestling if we ignore what the culture is saying generally, and in particular what it is saying about and to the church.

I drove the girls to school in my wife’s car this morning. The radio was on, and, in an attempt to avoid the disc jockeys’ gossip about the latest pop princess, I switched over to the CD. I didn’t know what Meredith had in there; as a result, the soundtrack for our drive to school was Suicide Commandos’ “Plastic Christ”:

Do you believe,
Praying to a plastic Christ,
Do you believe,
That God will hear your cry?
Do you believe
In eternal life?
Do you believe
That you will never die?
Do you believe,
Praying to a plastic Christ,
Do you believe
That God will save your life?

The name of the band might tip you off to the fact that this is not a Christian group; half the moms in the second grade class would probably freak if they even suspected its presence in our car. However, there is no doubt that the lyrics wrestle with fundamentally religious questions.

My wife and I have never been into pop music. For my part, I find most of it musically and philosophically anemic. I much prefer the Goth and Heavy Metal from my youth, and, these days, much of the new music I listen to is best characterized as Industrial.

Industrial and its related genres like EBM (Electronic Body Music) aren’t all that common here in the US; it tends to be a more European and continental phenomenon. Nine Inch Nails is probably the best-known American representative of the genre. Like metal, it’s best listened to at loud volumes; like Goth, it tends to wrestle with emotion, meaning, and aesthetics. Characterized by a heavy use of electronic instrumentation, sampling, and computer manipulation, as a genre it investigates the philosophical hole at the center of industrialized society in a post-certainty world. That is, in the aftermath of the 20th century when we saw the two great pillars of the Western social contract, the state and the church, fail humanity in dramatic fashion, where do we turn now for certainty, authority, and meaning? One possible answer is a Nietzschian nihilism trending towards hedonism as exemplified in the lyrics of folks like Marilyn Manson and Thrill Kill Kult. And yet, there are also much more articulate and nuanced approaches that explore humanism, spirituality, and post-Constantinian faith. Particular standouts for me are Assemblage 23 and VNV Nation.

While I’m sure some of the parents at my children’s school would be scandalized by our choice of music, I see it asking some deep and important questions that the church needs to both hear and be able to answer. The lyrics to “Plastic Christ” can be read in at least two ways. One interpretation can see it as straightforward mockery of a simplistic faith. A better interpretation, I think, reads it as deeply ambiguous. The act of posing the question—rather than simply making an assertion—invites the listener into the question itself. Do you believe this, or don’t you? It invites soul searching. My answer is, naturally, “yes”—but the act of investigating the question, seeing how I qualify and interpret it, is an exercise worth conducting.

At its root, I see this song as participating in a body of songs in this genre that grapple with the question of the presence and/or absence of God. Depeche Mode’s “Blasphemous Rumours” and VNV Nation’s “Gratitude” spring quickly to mind as other examples. We can, like the Christian subculture, try to duck the question. Or, as people of faith in but not of the world, we can listen to the question with integrity and attempt to respond to it in kind.

Indeed, I find this season of the year, as we walk through the last days of Lent and move towards the cross in Holy Week, the question of the presence or absence of God in the midst of suffering to have a particular poignancy.

Assemblage 23, brain-child of Seattle-based Tom Shear, confronts listeners directly in the catalogue of his own deeply personal struggles with this issue in “God Is A Strangely Absent Father”:

Depend on me
And I will let you down
You’d think you’d have learned by now
In your hour of need
I’m nowhere to be found
And while you bleed
I’m indifferent

[Chorus] God is a strangely absent father
His back is turned perpetually
All the orphaned sons and daughters
Abide in their suffering

That is the first verse and the chorus; there are two additional verses in the same vein.

What do we do with this? Some would simply write it off as modern impiety. But is that the best we can do? I’m a grown-up—I’ve heard blasphemy and impiety, but what I’m hearing here is pain. I’m hearing someone who has looked to God for solace and hasn’t found it.

First, I choose to treat this song as an honest question that people—particularly seekers—bear in with them through our doors (if they make it that far). Do we have an honest answer for them? If Tom Shear walked into your parish, sat next to you in your pew, and asked you point-blank questions about where God was in the world and in our lives, would you be able to give him an answer that doesn’t sound glib in the face of personal pain?

Second, hearing his lyrics remind me of others. Try on these:

[God,] Take your affliction from me;
I am worn down by the blows of your hand.
With rebukes for sin you punish us;
like a moth you eat away all that is dear to us;
truly, everyone is but a puff of wind.

Hear my prayer, O Lord,
and give ear to my cry;
hold not your peace at my tears.

For I am but a sojourner with you,
a wayfarer, as all my forebears were.
Turn your gaze from me, that I may be glad again,
before I go my way and am no more.

Or, perhaps, there’s this set:

Lord, why have you rejected me?
why have you hidden your face from me?
Ever since my youth, I have been wretched and at the
point of death;
I have borne your terrors with a troubled mind.
Your blazing anger has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me;

They surround me all day long like a flood;
they encompass me on every side.
My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me,
and darkness is my only companion.

Recognize them yet? If not, here’s your final clue:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
and are so far from my cry
and from the words of my distress?
O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer;
by night as well, but I find no rest.

These impious lyrics, these words which Jesus uttered from his own lips in his last moments, are all from the Psalms. That’s Psalm 39, 88, and 22 respectively. Usually psalms of lament will have sections like this, then make a turn that praise and thank God for his presence and salvation. Psalm 22 does this, and the end speaks of the vindication of the sufferer.

But Psalms 39 and 88 lack this completely. The sections I’ve excerpted contain the ends of both psalms. There is no happy turn. Psalm 88 literarily leaves us alone and in darkness.

Hearing “God is a Strangely Absent Father” gives me new ears to hear these psalms again. It helps me to be confronted and challenged by these scriptural words which confess the experience of divine absence spoken by unknown Israelites sometime over 2,500 years ago. It reminds me that our tradition made the deliberate choice to include and retain these psalms as words to be heard for posterity. These psalms give us no glib or easy answers, and they take on new poignancy as words from the cross itself, words spoken by the dying Christ.

In turn, the psalms lead me back again to the song, and ask me how I would hear it if it appeared under the rubric “psalm of lament”? Does it really sound so foreign alongside the words of the psalms? The psalms remind me that this is no new song—songs of absence have been sung by believers and non-believers alike throughout recorded religious history.

How often are we guilty of trying to shelter the church from the difficult words of Scripture and, in so doing, lose hold of the very passages where we see our forebearers—and our Lord himself—wrestling with these same hard questions that do not resolve themselves with easy answers?

If we were to cut ourselves off from the music and the art (and—dare I say it—the Scripture?) that asks us the difficult questions, does that makes us safer or more complacent and ultimately more afraid to face the hard questions ourselves?

As we enter the last days of Lent and the period of Holy Week, Jesus calls us into a place of suffering. It’s a suffering very much experienced in the world around us—as well as in our selves. Sometimes we are blessed by the power and presence of God in these moments.

Sometimes we’re not.

Sometimes we need to ask with Jesus “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Sometimes we need to hear it and take it seriously from the lips of those around us.


Honestly Be Who You Are

Two things have caught my eye over the past couple of days that are well worth underlining.

The first was a bit from The Lead on the Church of England’s growth study. Of the 8 things ennumerated as things linked to growth, one was: “Being intentional in chosen style of worship”

I thought this was fascinating in light of the whole “worship wars” context. Had this been five or ten years ago, I would heartily have expected to see “use [XX instrument] in worship” where the XX was either guitar/drums or else organ.

This is so much better—it’s about being clear about who you are (actually making a choice), and choosing to stick with it.

The second bit is from Robert Hendrickson and his presentation on ministering to young adults. Here’s a fragment:

This is the trap of many churches – we have a great story – but we don’t live into it in such a way that our essential qualities are readily apparent and evident.  Gen Y, hyper-marketed to and attuned to falsity, can sense intuitively when they are being sold a false bill of goods.

So how do we make sure that our congregations are places of powerful honesty?  We have to live it out.

Honest to our self:  Who is your parish?  What is it facing now that it is challenging with radical honesty?  Whatever your parish’s core identity is, there is nothing so precious, in terms of communication and evangelism, than living into it with integrity.  If you are an evangelical parish then live into it.  If you are an Anglo-Catholic parish, then live into it.  If you are a parish focused on social justice, then live into it.  Lean into your strengths and allow them not simply to be a story that you tell but a way of being that defines those who are part of your parish.

It’s not hard to connect the dots…

Honesty, integrity, and intentionality. These are key ways to live and proclaim the Gospel.


I’ve been thinking a bit about the whole Spiritual-But-Not-Religious (SBNR) classification. Folks tell us it’s growing; anecdotally, I’ve got a number of Facebook friends who identify this way. As the Church writ broadly looks at mission/evangelism/formation, this is the group that looms largest. Have we done a decent job of asking who they are, what they want, and what will be necessary to communicate the gospel to them?

Since some exchanges at the Cafe a few days ago, I’ve been pondering exactly what the relevant subcategories are of this rather amorphous mass, because I think that we’ll make some serious mistakes if we try to treat “them” as uniform. I’ve come up with a few, but I’m sure there are quite a number to be identified. Here are some that I can think of personally (and these are cartoony caricatures, not nuanced psychologically informed portraits):

Spiritual-But-Not-Disciplined (SBND)

In my experience, this is the most common sort. The SBND are those who are attracted to spiritual things but hate the idea of someone telling them what to do. These are the folks who like to make it up as they go along—then change it all (or drop it all together) on a monthly basis. Thus, the “spiritual” part affirms that they think spiritual things are good; the “not religious” part affirms that neither a community or tradition can have authority over what they want to do and when they want to do it.

Spiritual-But-Not-Integrated (SBNI)

These are folks who may be highly spiritual but tend to experience spiritual practice as a “collect-’em-all” kind of enterprise. Yoga on Mondays, Kabbalah on Tuesdays, Centering Prayer on Wednesdays, Drum Circle on Thursdays…you get the picture. Related—maybe even overlapping—with the SBNDs, the differentiation here is not necessarily on a level of discipline or follow-through, but a lack of a big-picture framework that makes sense of the individual pieces. Thus, the “spiritual” part affirms that they think spiritual things are good; the “not religious” part affirms that they don’t see a single religious tradition that enables them to hold all the things together that they want to embrace.

Spiritual-But-Not-Bigoted (SBNB)

These are folks who tend to have a high regard for ideological purity. They may or may not be inclined towards spiritual practices, but they’re certainly not going to affiliate with a religious institution with nasty baggage. These are the people who like to remind everyone about the Crusades, the Phelpses, and abortion clinic bombings whenever the topic of religion comes up. They couldn’t possibly be part of something that promotes so much hatred. Their default stance tends to be that all religion is unreasoning fundamentalist religion and that therefore only unreasoning fundamentalists would be interested in religion. (Interestingly, I’ve seen this stance preached in some sci-fi books that my SBNR brother-in-law has loaned me recently…; a new missionary method for the New Atheism?) Thus, the “spiritual” part affirms that they may accept that there’s more to life than the flatly material; the “not religious” part affirms that they won’t have anything to do with a religious tradition that doesn’t pass their purity requirements.

Spiritual-But-Not-Committed (SBNC)

These are the folks who tend to affiliate with particular lines of thought and may even self-identify with a religious group but for whatever reason just don’t get there. It may be a plea of busyness on account of the kids and their activities or it may be that they prefer bagels & the Times on a Sunday morning than dragging themselves to church. Thus, the “spiritual” part affirms that they think spiritual things are good and they may even connect with a tradition; the “not religious” part affirms that they don’t or can’t commit to the actual obligations of a religious community.

Spiritual-But-Not-Satisfied (SBNS)

These are folks who also self-identify with a religion, maybe even a specific denomination, but are not satisfied with any of the local communities. They’re too high or too low or too stiff or too loose or whatever… In some cases, a lack of “fit” is a genuine reason, in others it may be an excuse–to others or even to themselves–that hides a more genuine reason. Thus, the “spiritual” part affirms that they think spiritual things are good and they may even connect with a tradition; the “not religious” part affirms that the religious communities on offer don’t meet their needs on the points they want meeting.

I see here that I’ve floated into the “‘Religious’ But Not Attending” realm as well, but I think that there’s sufficient relation between them that it makes sense to include them as well.

Looking across these groups (and imagining that there are more that I haven’t identified here) I can’t imagine that one strategy fits all. My hunch is that the SBNI are the ones who are most willing to have contact with a religious community or who would be most open to having a friend invite them to a religious “thing.” But trying to appeal to the SBNB the same way as the SBNI doesn’t strike me as likely to be effective…

I don’t know—what are your thoughts?

Guerilla Evangelism!

I’m back from vacation and am now behind in every single facet of my life. It’ll take a while to fight back to the surface.

To keep you all occupied until then, I think it’s time that we take the bull by the horns. Given the slashing of the evangelism budget by General Convention, it really is up to us (kinda like it always has been…).

You have until July 31st to complete our first exercise in Guerilla Evangelism which is to create an evangelism tract to welcome any and all to the Episcopal Church—or whichever church you happen to belong to. Put it up on your site and I’ll link to it or send it on to me and I’ll stick it up here.