Thursday, February 25, 2010

I saw the sign, and it opened up my eyes…

I remember that song, “The Sign” by the Swedish band Ace of Base. It got almost incessant radio play when I was in seventh grade. I remember annoying my friends and family by singing it whenever I saw any type of sign—billboard, traffic, you name it. “I saw the sign, and it opened up my eyes. I saw the sign!”

At church, we recently put up a sign. It had been a few years in the making, but now it help clarify where to go on our church property. It’s another step in being more intentionally welcoming. Our congregation is blessed with wonderful property, but the buildings are set back a bit from the road. I’ve heard of people wondering if the church were a convent or some sort of David Koresh-like compound. Also, with multiple buildings, it’s sometimes unclear as to which building to go to. We’ve had deliveries come to the worship space, and worship visitors become confused on Sunday mornings.

We can now follow the arrows and know where to go. “I saw the sign, and it opened up my eyes. I saw the sign!”

Monday, February 22, 2010

The church and gay youth

The congregation where I served my seminary internship was featured this past weekend on Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly, a show on PBS. It was part of a story on churches and gay youth, focusing on a gay seminarian, a congregation with a shelter for homeless LGBT youth, and the leader of an ex-gay ministry.

You can watch online or read a transcript of the segment here:

Watching Lucky Severson’s report, I was a bit homesick for my time on internship, which was so formative in shaping my pastoral identity. It was refreshing to be reminded of Trinity’s beautiful witness of what I really think church should be—God’s people proclaiming welcome and love for all people.

I found it helpful to include footage from the afterschool program, reminding me that Trinity isn’t a “one issue” congregation. While very passionate about issues of sexuality, Trinity also has very strong ministry with immigrants and young children. There is a wide understanding of “loving your neighbor.”

I must admit that throughout college and even into seminary, I didn’t pay that much attention to homosexuality. I didn’t think that it was my issue. I knew that organizations like Lutherans Concerned were working for the rights of gay people in the church, (I didn’t even think about lesbian, bisexual or transgender then) and that some congregations had voted to be called Reconciling in Christ, meaning they welcome people of all sexual orientations.

But I didn’t think I needed to worry about it. I’m the straight, white guy from Iowa. I’m not gay, so all this controversy in the Church doesn’t concern me.

How wrong I was.

The first time I visited the shelter for homeless LGBT youth, someone asked me, “Are you trans?” Shocked, I responded, “Um, no.” “Well, you must be gay.” “Um, I’m not gay, either.” “Then why are you here?” The young person couldn’t believe that I, as a straight person, would care about the needs of LGBT youth.

Dr. King has famously said that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

I am so thankful that I grew up in a non-shouting church. As an ELCA Lutheran, I have been loved and welcomed, nurtured and fed, by faithful people full of God’s love. I want everyone to be able to feel welcomed like that, regardless of our human labels.

Too many people have been shunned and excluded by church folk for far too long. Churches have been much of the problem. It is time for churches to be part of the solution. Thanks be to God for Trinity!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

It's Lent

“No cattle past this point” was the sign at the San Antonio Rodeo and Stock Show.

This sign reminds me of the start of Lent, as many Christians use Ash Wednesday as a time to start giving up something, like meat, to remember Christ’s sacrifices. Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday,” functioned as a time to celebrate and party before beginning the more penitential season of Lent. As a grace-oriented Lutheran Christian, I know I don’t have to give anything up for Lent, but can use Lent as a time for being more intentional about my Christian identity.

The season of Lent started as a time of preparation for Baptism. From the earliest centuries of Christianity, people were welcomed into the Church through baptism. Usually baptisms were only performed at one time in the church year—Easter. At the service of the Easter Vigil, followers of Jesus gathered around a fire all night and into the morning, remembering and retelling stories from the Bible of God’s saving deeds. Persons new to Christianity—called catechumens—were baptized at the Easter Vigil and welcomed into the faith. In preparation for Baptism, the catechumens would have a period of preparation, usually involving prayer, fasting, and acts of charity. Other Christians in solidarity with those new to the faith, would join in these preparatory activities. This time of prayer and reflection evolved into the season of Lent.

Lent should not become another chance to fall back into “shouting church” mentality where we strictly force you to do something. Rather, it is an invitation to be intentional. Maybe you will give something up, but maybe you’ll take something on, like prayer, scripture reading, or giving to the needy. Like a sign at the rodeo, Lent is a boundary for us. It tells us we are coming into something new and different.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Coffee evangelism?

This video has been floating around the internet for a while, and it's food for thought. As somebody who regularly "starbucks" his sermons by writing at the coffee place, this video resonates with me. As someone who tries to be intentional about welcome and hospitality, it makes me cringe at less than welcoming church practices.

I know that as church, we have lots of insider language. I’ve tried to be intentional about eliminating some, being sensitive to visitors who may not know every liturgical nuance. I try to say “green hymnal” instead of “LBW,” and “dip the bread into the cup” instead of “intinction.”

Practicing hospitality is a fine balance. What might feel loving and welcoming for some might be overwhelming or aloof for others. I remember the time I visited a congregation, and during the announcements, the pastor said, “It looks like we have a visitor in the house! Stand up and introduce yourself.” As I was talking, the entire choir processed towards me, singing, “Greet someone in the name of Jesus. Greet someone in the name of Jesus. Greet someone today!” At that instant, I was surrounded in a group hug by the entire choir. Yes, I was a bit overwhelmed.

I know that some congregations have made formal statements of welcome. At Amazing Grace, we haven’t officially done that, but it might be something to think about in the future. I especially like this one, this one, and this one.

How do you feel welcomed? What makes you feel like church is home? How might a non-shouting church practice hospitality?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Youth ministry

I came across an article from the Christian Century's blog about youth ministry. Kate Murphy writes: Theolog: Is youth ministry killing the church?

She poses a good question. Murphy argues that small congregations that involve youth heavily in parish life might, in the long run, be better than congregations with lots of "programs."

In their book, The Godbearing Life, Kenda Creassy Dean and Ron Foster describe “the one-eared Mickey Mouse” as a common model for congregational youth ministry. The youth is something associated with, but not totally a part of the congregation. We sequester youth’s involvement in church to “Youth Sunday” once a year.

We could extrapolate this model to make an extreme—what I would call the “Vincent Van Gogh.” The youth group becomes completely cut off from the rest, wounded and bloody on the floor. I don't mean to be morbid, but I hope no congregation ever becomes like this.

What Kate Murphy describes, and what I hope for, is something more integrated. Youth are not the future of the church, but a vital part of it today.