Tuesday, February 26, 2013


This is exactly what I feel so passionately about with regards to being/doing church.  How might we all be the missional church?  

Credit to St Paul's Episcopal Church in Medina, OH for this picture from their Facebook page.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Must congregations die?

I have spent a lot of time in recent years spouting off about how some older and dying congregations ought to be willing to die and make way for the birth of other congregations that better meet the needs of the people attending them today.  I stand by this to a certain degree, but I was also really humbled yesterday.  

I went to hear my friend Asher preach at his teaching congregation, Salem English Lutheran, in Minneapolis yesterday.  This church is part of an interesting ministry model in which three congregations share worship space as well as education, social justice, and fellowship activities. Salem English Lutheran church shares its very old building with two other congregations, a UCC church and a Disciples of Christ church.  Three small and dying congregations combined to form a thriving new community called the Springhouse Ministry Center.   I went to the 8:30am service, along with about 20 other people, and I was the youngest in the room by at least 30 years.  The 10:30am jazz service is apparently thriving (I was not able to attend that this week) but this 8:30 service was very traditional and you could tell that the congregation had been together a very long time.  The most touching aspect for me was watching an elderly man shuffle to the back of the room and kneel on the very old kneeling rail during the confession.  This congregation was no longer meeting in the sanctuary and met in a renovated chapel in the basement (probably a meeting room at some point) and this kneeler was moved from the upstairs sanctuary to this space because this elderly parishioner, and others like him, had probably been doing that very same thing for the last 50 years or more.  Maybe he had been kneeling in this same way with a partner and children and now was alone doing the same thing.  There was so much history in that room and it matters.  This is a home.  

When we talk about whether or not congregations should die to make room for others, there are real people involved whose stories and histories and traditions matter. In a way, it is a lot like chaplaincy.  Every person, every congregation, is a world in and of themselves.  They are valid by virtue of their presence in the Body of Christ.  I feel a draw to mission redevelopment congregations and I feel a draw to chaplaincy, and I think they are in many ways the same thing.  Meeting people where they are at, engaging with the brokenness of the world, and being a non-anxious presence as a pastor.  I am thankful for that lesson yesterday.  

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Changing Ecologies in communities of faith

A few years ago a church was expected to have a website in order to be seen as credible.  It could be relatively simple, just a place to post service times, a mission statement, contact information for the staff, etc.  I still believe that a website is absolutely necessary, but I would also boldly suggest that a social media presence is fast becoming a necessity, if it is not already.  The entire world of communication has shifted from a one-sided broadcast model (such as a church sending out a newsletter to the congregation) to a transactional model (congregation members can interact online to share prayer concerns, dialogue about a sermon, etc).  Many congregations are not here yet, but the rest of the world is in this place.  This is just another way of illuminating that our model of church is no longer working.  The Social Media Revolution video dictates that it is no longer a matter of deciding whether or not you are going to participate in social media, but how you will participate.

And this is terrifying to people, primarily those who are not digital natives or naturalized citizens, which unfortunately, comprises a large number of pastors and church attendees.  There are certainly concerns about privacy, which should not be dismissed (well maybe those conspiracy theory-type fears should be thrown out), but most concerns center around the issues of Promise, Tools, and Bargain (what am I going to get out of this, how will it happen, and what is it going to cost me) as discussed by Clay Shirky in Here Comes Everybody.  Misunderstandings arise when expectations of use are not clear, and I think this is tremendously important for navigating the changing ecologies of faith communities.

The answer is not to completely prohibit social media usage, but rather to explore the reasons why you are using it and to be open to evolving needs, rules, etc.  The tide has changed, and here are some things that I have figured out about social media (some from my own mistakes, some from the mistakes of others!).

Amy's Suggestions for Social Media Use in Faith Communities:
1. If you wouldn't want your parishioner, pastor, candidacy committee, professor, congregation, etc to see it, don't post it.  It has been argued that there are specific privacy settings that allow you to post certain things for certain people.  Yes, that is true.  But it is also a ton of work and inevitably you are going to miss something.  It is easiest to control what you post before you post it.

2. Don't post pictures of other people or their children unless you have asked them first.  And even then, reconsider whether or not you should be posting it. This also applies to "checking in" functions on facebook and twitter and other social locating apps as well.  Never assume anything.

3. Make it clear that you speak only for yourself on your personal profiles.  If you also represent an organization on a social media platform, conduct yourself accordingly.

4. Social media allows life and ministry to happen in real time.  Which is great.  But it also has the potential to completely encroach on your non-virtual life.  Think about how you will respond to pastoral care crises that happen in this forum.  A long way of saying, think about your boundaries for self care and sabbath in advance of when an issue arises.

5. Have multiple layers of involvement in social media spaces.  Congregations should have a public page that provides information for visitors about service times, mission, etc, but also a backstage space to foster online community.  Think of it as a coffee hour that occurs 24 hours a day.

6. As Shirky notes, "everyone is a media outlet."  Our actions online as church leaders can have ripple effects that we are unaware of.  You never know who is reading, watching, listening, etc.   This post, by way of example, had a much greater impact than I was aware of until it blew up.  Someone who follows this blog on a RSS feed saw a new post.  This person told a person who attends this church.  Who told a few others.  Who told the pastor.  Who I was interviewing for a research project, and who called me in to her office, and very nearly refused to participate after reading this blog post.  Nothing was untruthful, but it has a different impact as a result of online permanence.  If it was mentioned in passing, it would have been quickly forgotten.  Instead, it was up on the interwebs for further review.

7. Be willing to reevaluate why and how you are doing something, and do not be afraid to change the "terms of use."

8. What happens on social media has a real world impact, particularly on interpersonal relationships.  This is a part of pastoral care and preaching.

9. Crowd-sourcing is both a blessing and a curse.  If you are posting something in social media, you are going to get people's opinions whether you want them or not.  And disabling comments is a cowardly way out.  If you don't want others to share their opinions with you, don't post it in the first place.

10.  Social media should never be a way of "getting in the young people," "growing membership," "reaching our target audience,"etc.  If you are thinking this way, you have missed the point already.  Never, EVER, use social media as a bait and switch for evangelism or a membership drive.  Social media is not a means to an end.  It is an end in and of itself.

11. Never make assumptions about a person based on their online presence.  Assume that each person has a much bigger story and then seek it out.

12. Know that the Holy Spirit works in social media too.  I have a TON of stories about this.  I think I will file that away as a future post.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Participatory Knowing

It's not all about books...
I had a mild disagreement with a fellow seminarian a couple weeks ago.  This fellow student stated that it was important for pastors to be able to tell parishioners what to think.  I remarked that while it was important to have the theological preparation to be able to respond knowledgeably to questions, it was the pastors role to determine why someone was the asking the question in the first place.  Because anyone can type a question into a search engine, they are asking their pastor a question because of the relational aspect.  This sort of "knowing in the presence of others" that happens when you are in community is a basic human need.  And this need has only been amplified with the tidal wave of information available with one click.  This need is not merely about gathering information, rather it is a desire for connection and shared meaning making.

I do not believe that participatory knowing in faith communities is anything exceptionally new.  This is what lies behind many generations of Sunday School classes, confirmation, and adult forums.  A different kind of learning takes place when you are surrounding by others.  But I do believe that participatory knowing takes on an increased level of importance when we are surrounded by information instantaneously.  We need to participate in knowing along with others to help make sense of our experience.  And in knowing along with others, we are opened up to things we might never have considered if we were sitting alone with a book or in front of a computer screen.

Part of my sense of call is to actively engage people in becoming theologians in their own right and participatory knowing is a huge part of this.  I hope to never lead an adult forum, because that sort of top-down pastoral authority is no longer something that works.  I would much rather engage people in genuine conversation in an informal setting.  This is why I LOVE theology pubs.  Also, I do not believe that text studies should be limited to those with a seminary education.  Sometimes I wish I could go back to seeing the Bible before I started studying it academically, which is why participatory knowing is important for pastors too.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

My default reaction to Christians in the media

I caught myself tonight in a familiar trap.  Every time I hear something about Christians speaking out about something in the media I automatically assume two things:

1. They are evangelical
2. I won't agree with them

But tonight I was humbled by this article in the Denver Post.  

It is titled, "Colorado evangelicals cite Bible as they embrace immigration reform" and is written by Nancy Lofholm, and I am ashamed to admit that I was bracing myself for another spouting off by Focus on the Family and their ilk.  However, I was humbled in that I actually agreed with them.  And it took me reading the entire article twice to get to that point.    

By way of a reflection on the gospel in media, I think it is really important to critically examine where we are coming from when we consume certain media pieces.  This article did a good job of critically looking at why the evangelical movement might be attempting to embrace immigration reform, primarily because the Latino/a community is the fastest growing demographic in the evangelical church.  Focus on the Family and other organizations profiled in the article state that they believe they are more fully embracing a message of the Gospel.  

While I tend to read things with a hermeneutic of suspicion, particularly given the previous roles of Focus on the Family in Colorado, as well as the highly contentious debate surrounding immigration in the state (and don't forget that Tom Tancredo is from Colorado!), I guess I am hoping to read this latest shift in position in the best possible light.  But we will see what comes of it.  

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Digital Body of Christ

Last week at Luther Seminary's convocation, I had a new experience.   I had just had breakfast with a friend of mine from Denver who was visiting for the conference.  As we were walking back to campus, he said that he wanted to introduce me to some of his friends from seminary who would also be attending the conference.  He introduced me to his friends Colin and Jeni, who said to me, "I feel like I already know you.  We follow each other on twitter."  I have definitely connected with other people by way of social media and we are friends in the digital world, but rarely have I had the opportunity to meet these friends in real life.  But now I have new friends near Fargo-Moorhead and a standing invitation to visit, not to mention two new badass pastor colleagues.

My life has been decidedly enriched by social media.  As defined by Keith Anderson and Elizabeth Drescher's book, Click2Save, I am most certainly a digital native.  I have had a blog since 2005, have been on twitter for about three years, and Facebook for seven years. I have set-up a Tumblr account, but find that it is not necessary for me at this point.  I don't even think twice about using any of these platforms.  It intuitively makes sense to me.  I was excited to read Click2Save, because my friendship with Keith also came about through social media.  He was the keynote speaker at my Synod's theological conference last year.  I can't remember who friended who on Facebook now.
When the book that he co-authored was official published I sent him a congratulatory tweet. This is absolutely unprecedented and makes for an exciting digital frontier.  Social media is a place for connection and relationship building and growing in the body of Christ.

Upon reading Click2Save from cover to cover, I wrote Keith on Facebook:

"My initial observation is that as a person just on the cusp of Gen-X/Millenial, I am very surprised at how my native context informs so much of how I view the world, take in information and put forth information. I live the world that you talk about in the the text with little or no extra effort on my part. I never thought about how much I post on various social media platforms, I just do so. I never thought about using or not using social media to connect with community, it is just a given.  I would be curious to get your impressions of how the book has been received by the baby boomer crowd and how it has informed your preaching and ministry."  

He responded (I don't want to quote a personal conversation here without his permission, so I will summarize): 

Because the prevailing demographic of congregations is older, and much of the ministry that we do is to this demographic, this book is useful in navigating generational differences and explaining what you do instinctively to an older set that does not naturally operate in this way.  

However, social media usage can also have a dark side, but that is a post for another day.

The practice of being enough

A. Hanson, Taize 2009.
Lent is one of my favorite liturgical seasons (the other being Advent).  There is something profoundly liberating about acknowledging our own mortality.  No longer having to pretend that we have it all together and our lives are bright and shiny and happy.  Lent is about living in reality.  I know that some Christian traditions have customs for what happens during Lent, in particular, the Catholic practice of "giving something up" which is usually tied to the concept that our suffering during lent makes us know the suffering that Christ experienced.  I am sorry, but the fact that you gave up chocolate or coffee or Facebook has no bearing whatsoever on the suffering of Christ.  Back in 2006, I remember hearing from a pastor at a discussion of Lent, "Christ doesn't need you to give up anything.  During Lent, why don't you incorporate some intentional spiritual practice?"  I have made an effort to ADD something to my life every year since then.  Last year I incorporated a time of Sabbath from schoolwork and social media, and instead, on friday mornings I would spend time cultivating relationships and community.  The year before I incorporated a time of contemplative prayer each day before I went to bed.

This year, I am finding myself crying out for more than just a Sabbath or a time of contemplative prayer.  Just this weekend I began to realize that there is a very good possibility that I have taken on more commitments than I can handle.  I currently have seven classes and a teaching parish in which I preach monthly and am actively involved.  My life is filled with wonderful things and wonderful people.  But I am feeling weary. I have overloaded every semester for the past year and a half, and that is getting tiresome.  My summer "vacation" was working in a trauma center.  I am tired.

So this year for my Lenten discipline I am going to embrace mediocrity.  Not in the sense that I am going to be doing life as a half-assed slacker, but realizing that I cannot do it all.  That it is okay to say no.  That I can still work hard in my classes, but have time for relationships as well.  I am going to be working to embrace the practice of being enough.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Gospel and Global Media Culture

I am taking a class at Luther Seminary this spring called Gospel and Global Media Culture.  So, consequently I am required to make weekly postings on a personal blog.  Since I have already maintained this blog for 7 1/2 years I thought that I would just use this blog for that purpose in addition to my normal writing.

If you are interested, you can follow the pace of the class on the public blog:


Sunday, February 10, 2013

Sermon on the Transfiguration

The cloud we generated tonight at worship

Grace, Peace, and Mercy are yours from the Triune God.  Amen. 
Today is the last Sunday of the season of Epiphany, and is what is known in the church year as the Feast of the Transfiguration. In just a few days we will begin the season of Lent with Ash Wednesday and it is not a coincidence that we celebrate Transfiguration Sunday prior to the start of this season of darkness.  Transfiguration means to change from one thing to another, and that is exactly what happens to Jesus on the mountain.  Prior to this, he is a worker of miracles, and some pretty incredible miracles at that, but now his real work is beginning.  The Transfiguration is an event marked by brilliant light, but this light ultimately points towards Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and his death on the cross.  The story of the transfiguration that we just heard in the reading is the point in Luke’s story of the life of Jesus in which everything begins to shift.  It comes after a series of incredible miracles like the feeding of the 5,000, but most importantly, it comes after Jesus declares that while he is the Messiah, he is going to suffer and be killed before he will be raised from the dead.  Yes, the transfiguration story points to glory, but it also points to the cross.  This is the point in the gospel where Jesus turns his face towards Jerusalem because he knows what is to come.  He has been changed.
There is a lot going on in this short little story.  In today’s gospel we have Jesus praying on top of a mountain with three of his disciples, Peter, James, and John.  The text says that in the course of Jesus’ praying, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became dazzling white.  If this incandescent Jesus wasn’t enough, then we are told that two men appear and are talking to Jesus.  Not just any men, but the great prophets Moses and Elijah. Jesus and his prophet friends were talking about his coming death that was to occur in Jerusalem.  The disciples saw and overheard some pretty incredible things, and Peter turns to Jesus and says, “It is GOOD for us to be here.  Let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  Peter wants to stay up on top of the mountain, bathed in radiant light where things seem so clear and they don’t have to worry about what is going on down the hill and what will happen in the days to come.  He wants to keep everything simple and keep Jesus and the other great Jewish prophets in nice little boxes on top of the mountain.  The disciples are acting out of the Jewish law of building tabernacles as places for the great prophets to dwell.  In their minds, they are doing exactly what they are supposed to do and they have no way to comprehend what lies ahead in Jerusalem.  They are most likely afraid of what they have seen and revert back to what is familiar to them. 
But as Peter was talking about his construction projects, a cloud came and surrounded them.  And from these clouds comes a booming voice, “This is my Son, my Chosen; Listen to him.”  The disciples are getting distracted by all that they have seen, and God wants to make sure that they are actually getting the message, so God surrounds them in a thick cloud.  When some of our senses are obscured, the rest are heightened.  I imagine this cloud as the sort of thick and dense clouds that precede a massive thunderstorm.  The kind of clouds that seem to make time stop.  In order to get the disciples to understand what is to come, God needs to stop the distractions.  The disciples are terrified, yet there is hope in this cloud. 
I’ve heard a lot of sermons about what happens up on the mountain and the importance of being close to God and then taking that “down the mountain” into ordinary life. But what if this whole story is actually about what happens in the cloud?  Yes, we hear that the disciples are terrified.  But what we often miss in this whole story is that the disciples are not alone in this cloud.  They are with one another and with Jesus, but also we hear that the voice of God comes FROM the cloud. 
This got me thinking about clouds in my own life in which I feel alone.  I’ve been here in Minnesota for a little over a month.  I still feel like I am walking around in a fog most days.  It is difficult to start over in new place, knowing exactly two people in a new city, trying to navigate not only a new school but trying not to get lost every time I drive to the grocery store.  Sometimes I think I see someone that I know, but the person that I am missing is actually a thousand miles away.  Sometimes the pain of missing all that is familiar brings tears to my eyes.  It’s really easy to get stuck in this cloud of homesickness and miss what God is saying to me.  The first time I heard what God was up to here in St Paul was through the good people here at Humble Walk at Beer and Hymns in January.  We gathered together in a bar on the coldest night of the year to banish the frigid cold and darkness with our singing.  In that was hope and the first time that I felt at home in this new place.  And I am not alone. 
What clouds might we all be experiencing right now? The heavy darkness of depression? The dread that our kids are sick for the 15th time since Thanksgiving?  The sense of hopelessness that comes with long-term unemployment or impending student loan debt? The exhaustion of burnout in our work? What clouds weigh heavy upon us? 
In a couple minutes I am going to invite you to take one of the cloud-shaped note cards that you received when you entered and come over here to the table and write down what clouds are obscuring your vision right now.  On the other card, write something that brings you hope.  Then we are going to tape them onto the big cloud (also on the table) and have all of our fears and hopes mixed together as a community.  Because we are not in this cloud alone.
For now, hear this promise.  God is in our clouds with us.  God cannot be obscured.  God loves us so much that God sent Jesus, his son, to be present with us on earth and to take our sins upon him, not because we were good or would understand why, but because we needed it so badly.  When God speaks into the clouds on top of the mountain he doesn’t say, “Watch what Jesus is doing, then trust him.”  God says, “This is my Son. Listen to him.”  The disciples are not asked to do anything.  They are asked only to listen and to trust.  They are given the promise of Christ.  The promise that Jesus is God incarnate and through the gift of faith, they will be saved.  Faith is not something that we choose to have, but rather, it is something that is given to us. 
There is a real temptation to want to allegorize this story of the transfiguration.  To make it represent something else or make it into some nice little statement about what God does for us.  I am going to suggest that instead we just let it wrap around us and strengthen us for what is to come. Because we are all journeying towards Jerusalem with Jesus, and in order to share in a resurrection like his, we must also share in a death like his.  I invite you further into the cloud.  It is disorienting and maybe frightening, but we are not alone.  Thanks be to God. 

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Something that makes me laugh...

The imposing fortress of Luther Seminary
This seminary journey seems to get crazier by the day.  But from talking to my friends who are already pastors, it doesn't get any less crazy.  It's just different.

So for all of my seminarian and pastor friends, and anyone who wonders what the hell we are doing, I humbly offer up something that brings me great joy.  The Tumblr blog:

"Every Day I'm Pastoring"