What Are We Doing Here?: Missional Youth Ministry (Super Serial Post #5)

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We’ve established what it means to be missional. Now the time has come to drill down even further and focus on two areas that are close to my heart: youth and young adult ministry. This post will focus on understanding missional youth ministry, while the next post will wade into the murky waters of blog posts about young adult ministry.

The first thing that we need to decide is the purpose of youth ministry. Youth ministry emerged shortly after the idea of adolescence and the teenage years became a cultural norm around the time of the Industrial Revolution. Prior to that, you were a child or you were an adult.

With the standardization of schooling and the protection of children from unfair labor practices, a new category emerged. Suddenly there was this group of young people: not children and not yet adults, with free time and closely drawn social circles.

Fast forward to the middle of the 20th century, when churches sought to offer an alternative to the “secular youth culture” that was seen as a corrupting force in the world. Churches created equally attractive events and groups that would draw youth away from sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and towards Christ.

Quick, get inside before the culture gets on you.

Quick, get inside before the secular culture gets on you.

The goal was to convince the youth that Jesus is their friend.

This model continued, fairly unchecked, for decades.

Growing up in southern Alabama, I remember the evangelical youth group members passing out flyers at school for events that featured free tacos, free video games, moon bounces, and any other gimmick that would draw our attention.

Moonbounce...for Jesus?

Moonbounce…for Jesus?

I would often ask, “What are we doing here?”, as I played Nintendo, ate tacos, and talked to the cute Baptist girls.

The youth group I attended at the local Episcopal Church never offered video games or nights centered around free tacos. There were never flyers to hand out or gimmicks advertised.

Instead, 15-20 of my closest friends gathered together once a week for an hour. We played a goofy game, discussed the Bible and Christ’s love, and grew in community. We would also do a lot of community service.

I remember thinking, “What are we doing here?” as we picked up trash along the beach or painted the walls of the local thrift store.

These two examples show the two most prominent forms of youth ministry that I have seen.

The first focuses on numbers. The goal is to bring as many youth as possible in the door. What happens once they are inside the doors can change week-to-week, as long as a lot of youth are present. The thinking is that the more youth you bring, the more youth you can bring to Christ, and the bigger impact you can have.

The second model focuses on community. The goal is to have a close-knit group of youth, with little focus given to the size of the group. This is the predominant model in the Episcopal Churches that I have seen. The group gathers at the church, plays some games, eats dinner (usually spaghetti or pizza), and does some sort of activity.

These models are not inherently wrong.

They have worked for many years and reached many people. I was formed by my Episcopal youth group and youth minister as a middle school and high school student.

The problem is that they are both built on the attractional model of church. Programs (or tacos) bring the youth into the church building where they are entertained for an hour once a week.

If the goal of our youth ministry is entertainment, it is no wonder that fewer and fewer students are coming. If we are trying to entertain we will have to compete with social media, video games, Netflix, and the myriad of other extracurricular activities that are vying for our youth’s time.

We have lost sight of the primary reason for gathering a youth group and why youth group is important. Until we recover and articulate our purpose and importance of youth group, the other extracurricular activities will always win out. Parents can clearly explain why a young person needs to participate in their soccer team or band, but can they as clearly articulate why it is important to go to youth group?

Can we clearly articulate why youth group is important? Do we even believe that youth group is important?

In the book As You Go: Creating a Missional Culture of Gospel-Centered Students, Kenda Creasy Dean says, “We are doing an exceedingly good job of teaching youth what we really believe. Namely, that Christianity is not a big deal, that God requires little, and the church is a helpful social institution filled with nice people primarly focused on ‘folks like us’….”(pg. 59).

We have lost sight of the true purpose of the church and, therefore, we have lost sight of the true goal of youth ministry.

Before I go any further I should note that I am not anti-fun. I don’t think that youth group should be a lecture or another church service. That being said, if the only reason the youth gather together at church is to play games and eat pizza, why are they at church?

What makes the church different is that it is first and foremost about the mission of God, who is reconciling the world through Jesus Christ.

Youth group is so much more than a refuge from the secular world or a social club. Youth group can be a place where youth are taught the Christian story and spiritually fed so that they can go out into the world and preach the Gospel with their lives and with their words.

Another trend over the past decades is the postponing of perceived maturation in the church. People automatically assume that the youth group can’t understand weighty theological topics or can’t assume leadership positions in the church. Or even worse, many adult leaders assume youth are apathetic and don’t care about the church.

There are many churches and Dioceses that are exceptions to this trend. Many places treat youth with the respect they deserve and include youth voices in the life of the community.

However, there are also many churches that see the youth group as babysitting and the youth as wild animals that would flip over cars if left unattended.

Missional youth ministry’s first goal is not entertainment. It is also not babysitting by another name.

Missional youth ministry is about raising up youth to lead in their congregations and communities. It is about equipping youth so that they can go out into the world with a passion for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

It is about getting to know the youth in the community and their actual (not perceived or assumed) needs.

It is less about one youth minister or youth worker serving as the Pied Piper of the youth and more about a group of adults investing in the lives of the youth of their faith community.

It is less about one big youth event that attracts a large number of youth and more about a small number of youth sent out to encounter and influence their world.

Paul talks about the difference between spiritual milk and spiritual meat (1 Corinthians 3). We give our youth spiritual milk from birth until they go off to college and wonder why many of them don’t come back.

What we need is a reframing of our understanding of youth ministry.

Less entertainment, more equipping. 

Less babysitters, more mentors. 

Less gimmicks, more Gospel. 

Youth can handle more than the baby food we have been serving them. The youth that I have encountered are hungry for the Gospel to be preached and are ready for the responsibility that we often withhold.

They are used to being told what they cannot do (or should not do) by all the adults in their lives.

What they are not used to hearing is what they can do or what they have been called to do by God.

What is the answer? What are the five steps to an effective, missional youth ministry?

Unfortunately, there is no easy way to do any of this. It takes the long, hard work of relationship. Each church’s youth have different needs. Each ministry context has unique challenges.

One thing is clear – it is time to put some meat on the bones of youth ministry. Many, many churches and youth leaders are doing amazing things. Many people have given their whole lives to the service of the youth of the church.

There are so many amazing youth workers that live out their calling working tirelessly behind the scenes, building lasting relationships and effective ministries.

It’s time for the rest of the church to wake up and give youth the respect they want and deserve.

When youth ask “What are we doing here?”, we should be prepared to give them more than pizza and a moonbounce or even fellowship and community service.

The church has something to offer youth and it is something they are desperately looking for. The church has Jesus Christ and through Christ, we have real meaning. We have the answer to the meta-question, “What are we doing here?”

A missional youth group is a place where youth figure out their God-given gifts, experience what it is like to live in community, and learn the story of redemption through Christ.

A missional youth group is a place where youth learn that they matter and they have meaning. It is a place where they are affirmed. It is a place where they learn what it means to be a Christian. It is a place where they find their calling.

“What are we doing here?” 

I’m not sure, but come to youth group this week and we’ll figure it out together. 

Stay tuned for next week’s post all about missional young adult ministry.

Don’t Call It A Comeback: What Missional Anglicanism Has To Offer (Super Serial Post #4)

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Happy Easter and welcome back to everyone following along on this serial blog journey. The goal of this series is to understand what we talk about when we talk about being missional. I’ve established that it is not just another church growth slogan. I’ve established that it is not just about bringing in more church members. I’ve given some backbone to the term using the work of Lesslie Newbigin.

Now, I am drilling down deeper and becoming more specific to my own denomination/tradition: The Episcopal Church.

My hope is that by the end of today’s post, you will see that the missional conversation is nothing new to the Episcopal Church or broader Anglican tradition. We may have lost our way on the missional journey, but it is nothing new to us.

Or as the great Church historian, LL Cool J, said, “Don’t call it a comeback, I’ve been here for years.”

The man, the myth, the kangol

The man, the myth, the kangol hat

My source for most of the information in this post is the great work of Dwight Zscheile, whose books People of the Way: Renewing Episcopal Identity and The Agile Church: Spirit-Led Innovation in an Uncertain Age serve as an unofficial playbook for many churches that are exploring the missional landscape.

The missional conversation seems foreign to many Episcopalians because it is fundamentally anti-“Establishment church” and the Episcopal Church has been, in the eyes of many, the quintessential “Establishment church” for two centuries. In The People of the Way, Zscheile comments that the Episcopal Church began as the Established church in the colonies and then shifted to be the church of the Establishment. “The Anglican Church in America…remained favored by many of its socioeconomic elite. As long as the Episcopal Church tended to uphold the status quo of a stratified economic system and a rationalistic faith, it failed to attract and retain wider swaths of the American populace”(pg. 22).

This establishment mindset stayed with the Episcopal Church throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century. A great example of this mindset can be seen in the decision to build The Washington National Cathedral in Washington D.C.. This mindset can also be seen in the missionary style of the Episcopal Church, where any effort was primarily focused on outreach, social ministry, and education, with little emphasis given to evangelism. Dwight Zscheile says, “…the predominant establishmentarian ethos fostered approaches to mission in which confessing the faith was implicit rather than explicit” (pg. 25).

Only the Episcopal Church would call their cathedral "The National Cathedral"

Zscheile says, only the Episcopal Church would call their cathedral “The National Cathedral”

Now that establishment Christianity is fading away and a new reality is emerging in the United States, we are learning that this focus on implicit mission largely failed. The idea that Christian education and evangelism would somehow work via osmosis now seems obviously misguided.

There are now generations of people who grew up going to church every Sunday, but do not know or understand the Christian story. There are also many people who attend church regularly, but could not clearly articulate why they attend or why their faith is important to them. In many mainline churches, there has been a massive failure in giving people the language to share their faith and the Christian story in favor of the “implicit” model of evangelism.

In previous posts I have written about the “attractional” model of church, which involves a bricks-and-mortar building filled with religious goods and services for those who come to the building. This is a fundamentally establishment mindset that has been the modus operandi for most Episcopal churches. Therefore, it might be hard for Episcopalians to break out of the attractional mindset. For many of us, our faith is tied to physical places: the church we grew up in, the church we were confirmed in, the church our grandparents attended, etc. I am not immune from this type of thinking.

Fear not! Being missional does not mean tearing down churches, it simply means changing our focus. In the missional mindset, churches move from the focus of all activity to an outpost or hub for mission work. Church becomes a place to be refueled and renewed to go back into the world, rather than a place of refuge and escape from the world.

The Episcopal Church is at an important crossroads. We can chose to remain the way we are and seek to bring more people into our established churches. This seems logical and safe, but I am afraid that it will lead to the shrinking and closing of many more churches. The Episcopal Church is currently organized to stay in this model and could do so easily. We could easily reorganize our internal governing bodies to be more efficient, while we paint our doors a brighter shade of red and continue to wonder why people aren’t showing up.

The second path will be much harder and much less clear. It will mean going back to our foundation and building completely new structures and processes. It will mean choosing to close some churches so that we are not forced to close all of our churches. It will mean leaving our offices and parish halls to go out into the community. It will require some grieving as things pass away so that new things can come into being. It will mean welcoming new and different people that might make us nervous. It will mean being uncomfortable and uncertain. It will mean the slow work of relationship and community building instead of the quick work of church growth strategies.

The second path will mean returning to our Anglican roots and being missional. Dwight Zscheile says that the Anglicanism has many gifts to offer this time and place. “Far too many times, I have heard Episcopalians describe themselves by what they are not – not fundamentalist, not Roman Catholic, etc. Now is the time to claim what we do have to offer” (pg. 100).

The first gift missional Anglicanism has to offer is cultural translation. “Anglicanism…engages, reflects, and adapts to the particular cultural and social settings in which it finds itself….[It] has a great degree of freedom to change dynamically as the context changes” (pg. 100). This explains why Anglicanism has exploded in various contexts around the world. This ability to shift and change is woven into Anglicanism’s DNA.

“…[O]ur liturgies and common life must continue to be adapted and translated as the languages and cultures in our nation change….[This] also applies to younger generations and newcomers who need expressions of Episcopal worship and life that resonate with their native ways of speaking and being together” (pg.101).

The Incarnation is God’s own cultural translation and it shows that adapting to a given culture is not something to be feared. The Episcopalian aversion to change is almost as well-known as our liturgy, but that doesn’t mean that we have to live up to that reputation. The missional conversation is a logical fit for the Episcopal Church as the expression of Anglican tradition in 21st-century America.

The second gift of Anglicanism is liturgical worship in an image-based age. Cultural translation does not mean cultural conformity and being missional does not mean sacrificing tradition. The traditional liturgy of the Episcopal Church provides a welcome reprieve from the primarily image-based media of modern culture, but it does not swing so far in the other direction as some of the more heavily word-based denominations. Evangelical churches tend to master new media more quickly and more effectively than other denominations, but Anglicanism offers worship that is not primarily word-based. Instead, Anglican worship puts deep meaning to the images, symbols, and words. Zscheile says, “Worship in our churches tends to value multiple means of artistic expression – the drama of the liturgy, colorful vestments and church decorations, icons, paintings, candles, movement, music, the tangible experience of sharing in the bread and wine, even incense” (pg. 103).

Many evangelicals are moving to liturgical expressions of Christianity, especially the Episcopal Church. This is due, in part, to the holistic approach to worship (involving the whole body and the whole of human experience) and also because of the rich tradition that undergirds the liturgy. That being said, there must be a balance between celebrating the best of our tradition and falling into traditionalism. This dangerous traditionalism is clear in the “…churches resist adapting and opening up the riches of their traditions to new generations and populations as a way of reacting to cultural changes they cannot control” (pg. 103).

The third gift of missional Anglicanism is theological breadth and diversity. “The historic Anglican tolerance for complexity and ambiguity is a gift in a postmodern world, where paradox, ambiguity, and mystery are valued, not explained away” (pg. 104). In the last century, as progress in society made unclear many of those things that were once thought to be absolute, many branches of Christianity ran in the opposite direction towards unshakable (and unattainable) certainty. This is most evident in the rise of fundamentalism, but it can also be seen in more recent events in many denominations. Historic denominations, including the Episcopal Church, that once celebrated their “big tent” have been bitterly divided by the desire of some to have a firm grasp on the truth.

More and more, people are desperate for black and white answers in an incredibly diverse, multicolored world. This is why megachurches with celebrity pastors grow so quickly. In a time when so many voices are making so many truth claims, to have one charismatic person stand on stage and declare absolutes is very attractive to many people.

Anglicanism has rarely offered celebrity pastors with all the answers. What we do offer is a “framework of the historic creeds, the Prayer Book, and an ordered ministry” all seen through the lens of Scripture and our own experience. The focus of most Episcopal Churches is the altar, not the pulpit, because we primarily seek Christ in the mystery of the Eucharist and not only in the definite words of the preacher.

Admittedly, this freedom has led to disintegration of Christian identity in some individuals and churches, but it more commonly leads to a beautiful diversity and richness of Christian expression.

These are just three of the ways that the Episcopal Church has the necessary roots to sustain new growth as a missional church. Anglicanism is open to new cultural expressions and a diversity of theology while remaining within the embrace of tradition. So as we go out into the world and join in God’s mission, we can rest knowing that this is nothing new to us as Anglicans and it is definitely nothing new to Christianity.

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For more on this topic, read Zscheile’s two books mentioned above. Also, check out the Anglican Communion’s Five Marks of Mission.

 

Stay tuned for the next two posts. I will go more in depth and talk about missional youth and young adult ministry in the Episcopal Church.

 

Newbigin-ing at the Beginning (Super Serial Post #3)

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Y’all.

It has been a while, hasn’t it?

Between my week on retreat and spring break, I’ve been away from the blog-realm for two whole weeks. But the world spins on and so do my posts on the Missional Church.

This week’s post is all about Lesslie Newbigin. Who is Lesslie Newbigin? Great question, keep reading.

This regal looking fellow is Lesslie Newbigin.

This regal looking fellow is a young Lesslie Newbigin.

A little disclaimer: I know that Lesslie Newbigin is not the only mission-minded theologian in Christendom. I also know that this short post could not do justice to the incredibly dense volume of work that Newbigin produced in his lifetime. I even know that this post may be seen by some to be like one brick compared to the Great Wall of China.

My hope is that this will give you enough information to spark a fire in you to go do some research on your own. If it doesn’t, hopefully it will give you enough information to understanding more fully that I am not just making this stuff up.

The Missional Church is not an invention of the church growth advisors and it is not a fad.

Unlike juicing, the Missional Church is not another fad.

Unlike juicing, the Missional Church is not another fad.

So let’s learn more about Lesslie Newbigin.

Newbigin was born in England in 1909. His father, a businessman, sent him to a Quaker boarding school at 12 because of their committed pacifism. He went to Queens’ College  in 1928. He became involved with the Student Christian Movement and had a conversion experience while leading a camping trip for underprivileged men.  He soon articulated his call to ordained ministry and set out to become a missionary.

In 1936, he and his wife set out for India as missionaries. Newbigin worked for many years in India and eventually helped to establish a large network of Christian communities across the country. He would train “mission agents” and send them out into smaller villages to teach and baptize. Newbigin eventually became the Bishop in the Church of South India.

He “retired” in 1974 and went on to teach at Selly Oaks College in Birmingham, UK. He turned down an offer to become the Assistant Bishop of the Diocese of Birmingham and instead became the pastor of a small, inner-city Reformed congregation.

Throughout his whole career, Newbigin was a prolific writer, with 17 books published prior to retirement. During his “retirement” period, he would publish 15 more books.

Newbigin was an incredible writer and was extremely passionate about sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He spent the bulk of his career abroad, but when he returned to Europe he was shocked to find that secularization had spread rapidly. On their journey home from India, the Newbigin family had to worship by themselves while in Cappadocia because they couldn’t find a church or group of Christians to worship with. This forever changed the way Newbigin viewed Western culture because he saw just how quickly a once firmly Christian city could abandon the faith.

Newbigin’s work formed part of the foundation for the modern Missional Church. Below are several quotes from Newbigin’s book, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, that can help Western Christians understand the position we are in and where we must go from here.

“In many contexts a ‘mission church’ was the second-class institution in the downtown quarter of the city….In some forms of ecclesiastical vernacular, a ‘missionary diocese’ was a diocese that had not yet graduated to the full status of a diocese without qualification. Theological faculties might have provided a place for ‘missions’ as a branch of practical theology, but it had no place in the central teaching of Christian doctrine. To put it briefly, the church approved of ‘missions’ but was not itself the mission.” (pg. 2)

“If God is indeed the true missionary…our business is not to promote the mission of the church, but to get out into the world, find out ‘what God is doing in the world’, and join forces with him.” (pg. 18)

Missionis faith in action. It is the acting out by proclamation and by endurance, through all the events of history, of the faith that the kingdom of God has drawn near. It is the acting out of the central prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to use: ‘Father, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as in heaven.'” (pg. 39)

[Mission] is not the property of the church. It is not domesticated within the church. Mission is not simply the self-propagation of the church by putting forth the power that inheres in its life….On the contrary, the active agent of mission is a power that rules, guides, and goes before the church: the free, sovereign, living power of the Spirit of God. Mission is not just something the church does; it is something that is done by the Spirit, who is himself the witness, who changes both the world and the church, who always goes before the church in its missionary journey.” (pg. 56)

“At this point the church has to keep silence. It is not in control of the mission. Another is in control, and his fresh works will repeatedly surprise the church, compelling it to stop talking and to listen.” (pg. 61)

I would have quoted the entire book if copyright law and the average reader’s attention span would allow it. Hopefully this post has given you a taste of the huge body of work that makes up the foundation of the Missional Church.

The main take away is that “mission is not the property of the church”; it is not just a new way of getting people into the pews. The mission is God’s. The church can take part in God’s mission by taking our hands off the wheel and following Christ.

"Jesus, take the wheel."

“Jesus, take the wheel.”

It may seem that I am beating a dead horse by constantly reiterating what missional means and that God’s mission is not fundamentally about the church. I am emphasizing it so heavily because it is my experience that people don’t really accept it. Many church folks seem to say, “Yeah, yeah. Being missional is not about church membership and church growth” while they wink and keep hoping that it is just that.

I’ll leave you with some closing words from the end of The Open Secret:

“The mystery of the gospel is not entrusted to the church to be buried in the ground. It is entrusted to the church to be risked in the change and interchange of the spiritual commerce of humanity. It belongs not to the church but to the one who is both head of the church and head of the cosmos. It is within his power and grace to bring to its full completion that long-hidden purpose, the secret of which has been entrusted to the church in order that it may become the open manifestation of the truth to all the nations.” (pg. 189)

We have now drilled down a little more to the true meaning of the missional church. The next blog posts will drill down even further to explore missional Anglicanism and what the missional Episcopal Church might look like. From there, we will look at missional youth and young adult ministry in particular.

Stay tuned.

A.A. Milne

Being Sent: What the Missional Church Actually Is (Super Serial Post #2)

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In the last post I told you what the missional church is not.

This brings us to the next question: if being missional is not a movement, fad, or church growth scheme, what is it?

There are several different answers to that question and, like most things in the church, it depends on who you ask.

It is worth noting that the missional conversation gained attention as the church entered into a membership crisis. Numbers sharply declined, relevance waned, and people starting to look to the “experts” for answers. Missiologist David Bosch argues that this crisis is a good thing:

“Strictly speaking one ought to say that the Church is always in a state of crisis and that its greatest shortcoming is that it is only occasionally aware of it….This ought to be the case because of the abiding tension between the church’s essential nature and its empirical condition….And if the atmosphere of crisislessness still lingers on in many parts of the West, this is simply the result of a dangerous delusion. Let us also know that to encounter crisis is to encounter the possibility of truly being the Church.”

Brian McLaren spoke at Virginia Theological Seminary yesterday about the future of the church and the problems that face the world. At one point he drew a wonderful diagram on the chalkboard to explain how the world works. The basic idea is that three “gears” run the world: prosperity, security, and equity. These gears are driven by a narrative. For centuries, religion provided the narrative that drove the world, but in the last two centuries the narrative has shifted. In McLaren’s words, “Science has had a better story to tell.”

At some point, McLaren said, the Church shifted inward and the focus of our narrative became our own survival as an institution. Instead of developing a narrative that showed how the God of the Church is the God of science, we developed an “Us vs. Them” narrative of the Church versus the new, modern world.

We’ve grown comfortable telling our story only to ourselves with little concern for whether anyone else is hearing it, so new narratives have emerged to fill the void.

I’m sorry to start with some seemingly bad news, but it’s important that we start with a good understanding of where we actually are. Many of our churches exist without a clear mission. This is especially true in the mainline denominations and the Episcopal Church.

Some churches are focused on being inclusive for all people, some focus on serving the most needy in the community. Some parishes have great family programs, others have thriving young adult groups. Some churches have beautiful buildings, others use rented space.

For many of the churches that I have encountered, the stated goal or objective is different but the underlying mission is the same: to get more people in the door.

We are inclusive so that people will come to our church. We wear our church T-shirt when we volunteer so that people will come to our church. We put a witty slogan on our sign so that people will come to our church.

This is obviously a huge generalization. There are plenty of well-meaning and pure-intentioned people running programs throughout the church. However, it does generally seem that “success” for a church is often taken to mean increased membership or larger pledges.

This is where the missional conversation comes in. Being missional is about shifting from a defensive posture to an outward focused posture. It is a change in focus from getting people in the doors of the church to taking the church out to the people.

It is the shift from church-centered mission to God-centered mission. It is about being sent out rather than attracting folks to a building.

Stock photography wins again.

Stock photography wins again.

Darrell Guder, professor of Missional Theology at Princeton, says, “We have come to see that mission is not merely an activity of the church. Rather mission is the result of God’s initiative, rooted in God’s purposes to restore and heal creation.”

The attractional model of church is so ingrained that any talk of a different way is seen as an attack on the very nature of the church. This shift in thinking is not an attack, but a way of thinking and telling our story that is even deeper in our tradition and history than the attractional model.

It would be very easy to keep things going the way they are. It would require very little effort to stay in the attractional model and not challenge the status quo. That is not to say that being a pastor is easy in the attractional model, but there is much more certainty and a lot less risk in that way of doing things.

Alan Hirsch calls this the “missional impulse” which is an “outwardly bound movement from one community or individual to another. It is the outward thrust rooted in God’s mission that compels the church to reach a lost world.”

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It is about sending rather than attracting.

Being missional involves letting go of a lot of preconceived notions and moving forward in faith. It requires a tolerance for messy processes and many new relationships. It requires patience.

In his book Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood, Alan Roxburgh gives a list of rules to guide the missional work of local churches based on the words of Jesus in Luke 10. These rules are practical and a couple of them can help us clarify the ideas/principles behind the missional effort:

1. Go Local: “…[T]he focus must be on the ordinary lives of the people of a local congregation through which the Spirit is shaping a new future…” and “…on the local contexts as the venues for discerning and engaging that future.”

2. Leave Your Baggage at Home: “More than anything else this is a gospel plea for the humanization of our relationships with others, rather than seeing the people of our neighborhoods as potential objects for our church marketing strategies (often called evangelism or outreach).”

3. Don’t Move from House to House: “….settle into the neighborhood, bloom where you’re planted, and stop imagining there’s a better place or the grass is greener on the other side of the fence….stay where you are and be present to the people among whom you live in your neighborhood.”

4. Eat What Is Set Before You: “[This]…is about our readiness to enter into the world of the other on his or her terms rather than our own….This rule calls us to a different way of being with people. It involves a readiness to be present with someone else in ways that meet them in their context and environment.”

5. Become Poets of the Ordinary: “As we enter the local, stay in that place, and learn to eat what is set before us, we find ourselves entering the stories and hearing the music of the other in ways we could never do if we relied on programs or the calculation of where someone is on a scale of readiness for the gospel.”

Roxburgh adds five more rules to the list, which I commend to you. These first five should give us a good idea of what a missional church looks like – which is to say, that it will look messy and confusing and complicated.

mmb

There is plenty of resistance from those who like things just the way they are.

Personally, I avoid things that are messy and confusing and complicated like the plaque, which may explain why I avoided this missional conversation for so long. It is so much easier to dismiss something as just another buzzword or passing fad than to actually engage with complicated ideas.

This work is hard and time consuming.

There is nothing efficient about being missional.

The next post in this series aims to put some theological meat on the bones outlined above. Using missiologists David Bosch and Leslie Newbigin, I’ll give some background and support for the ideas put forward by folks like Roxburgh, Hirsch, and McLaren.

There will be a short break in posts due to a personal retreat and spring break, but fear not! I will return.

Stay tuned.

What the Missional Movement is Not (Super Serial Post #1)

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It may seem strange to start a series of posts on the missional movement by describing what it is NOT, but there is precedent in theological studies for taking the via negativa approach and it seems like the best way to cut through the fog surrounding this topic.

First things first, the missional movement is not a movement.

I know, I know – I have referred to it as such in the lines above and the introductory post to this series. If you’ll forgive me, that was a bit of a straw man.

As I mentioned in my original post on the missional church, there is a tendency to lump missional attitudes into the same category as many of the church growth trends that have come along in the past. It is very easy to write it off as another way consultants are trying to fill the pews of shrinking or empty churches.

“Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and there are only two people…”

The truth is that being missional is not a trend but is, instead, the true nature of the church.

In his book Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood, Alan Roxburgh tells a modern day parable about three old friends (pg. 31). These friends grew up together, spending endless hours together at play, at school, and everywhere in between. The three friends went to college together and spent many evening discussing their hopes and dreams late into the night. Through the many years they spent together, the three friends developed a relationship that was deeper than words. Each of their identities was formed and shaped by this rich relationship.

Over time, however, their relationship grew distant. The three kept in touch through social media and the occasional call. Every few years, the three would get together for a weekend to catch up and renew their connection.

One day, out of the blue and after several years without contact, the two friends received an email from the third inviting them to his house in California for several nights. The two made their plans to travel to the West Coast and when they arrived, their host sat them down for a feast.

Isn’t stock photography great?

The friends laughed and caught up with each other throughout the first night, but at some point in the evening the mood changed. The two friends sensed a heavy awkwardness had settled around the table as the host began to do most of the talking. He talked about his life, his questions, and his needs. Every question he asked was only so that he could further focus on his own interests. He seemed only interested in making himself seem more successful.

At the end of the night the two friends made their way back to their hotel and the host went to bed feeling great about the conversation and the evening as a whole.

So, what is the point of this parable?

According to Roxburgh, the three friends in the parable are Scripture, Church, and Culture. The first two friends are Scripture and Culture, while the third friend who hosted the other two for the reunion is the Church.

Being missional is not a movement because it is not about the church. Most blog posts and magazine pieces make the missional conversation solely about the church and what the church can do to grow itself. Too often we are like the third friend: inviting Scripture and Culture into the conversation only to further our own interests.

Church movements exist for the church – to increase their size or influence or relevance or whatever it may be. Being missional is not just another movement because it is about returning the three friends to their original relationship.

Roxburgh argues that the focus of the missional conversation is three-fold: Scripture, Church, and Culture. For too long we have pretending that the church has a monopoly on the Good News, as though we are the only way that God works in the world. The missional conversation starts with the assumption that God is already at work in the world, within and without the church.

Later in his book, Roxburgh says that the church has taken itself into a cul-de-sac with this inward focus. He says, “Church questions are at the forefront of our thinking, so we default to questions about what the church should be doing and what the church should look like.” We are wrong to think that a new movement or program will fix what ails the church in this time. Roxburgh goes on to say, “This is not something that can be ‘fixed’ with programs or discussions on church health or by appending the word missional to old habits.” (pg. 54).

Being missional is not about growing your church membership.

Being missional is not about growing your church membership.

So we have established that the missional church is not a trend or new fad, but is a return to the original calling and nature of the church. This should let you in on the fact that this series will not give you the three easy steps to become a “missional” church. This whole conversation is about changing our thinking and our view of the church. If becoming missionally focused brings more people to your parish or community, great. If you enter this conversation with the motivation of increasing church membership (or relevance or whatever), you are missing the point. The point is to stay true to our calling as Christians in the world.

Stay tuned for the next post, in which I will explore what this calling actually is.

Cliffhanger

“Go ye into all the world”: The Missional Church Movement (A Super Serial Set of Posts)

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“Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel.”

This inscription was written above the Great Commission window in the original 1881 chapel at Virginia Theological Seminary. The phrase, from Mark’s Gospel, inspired generations of seminarians and continues to be embedded in the culture of the seminary. It is our fundamental mission as Christians.

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I wrote a blog post a few months ago about the Missional Church movement and how it is more than a trend or church-growth plan. I tried to go beneath the catch phrases and sound bytes to show a bit of the theology and ecclesiology that undergirds the Missional movement.

Since writing that post I have accepted the call to serve as the Canon Missioner for Youth and Young Adults in the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia, beginning in June. The Diocese of Southwestern Virginia is a great group of Christians who have taken on this Missional conversation, thanks in part to their Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Mark Bourlakas.

The Diocese is very focused on shifting the Episcopal Church in Southwestern Virginia from an “attractional” stance to a Missional orientation while equipping the people and parishes of the Diocese to be missionaries and ambassadors of the Gospel in their communities.

I have the unique gift of being able to accept a call while still deep in my last semester of seminary. Because of this, I have developed an Independent Study (under the guidance of Dr. Lisa Kimball) that will explore the Missional movement as it relates to Episcopal youth and young adult ministry. I will study the history of the Missional movement and how it has been applied to the Anglican/Episcopal context. From there I will develop resources for Missional youth and young adult ministries that will available for use by parishes and Dioceses across the Episcopal Church.

This is the first of six blog posts that will cover these topics (hence the “serial” in the title). I’ve chosen blog posts over an academic research paper to make this information accessible for more people who can (hopefully) benefit from this conversation.

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I do hope that readers will leave comments, ask questions, and give suggestions for what you would like to see in this series. While primarily for my own edification, I want this work to help as many people as possible to see the what this Missional conversation is all about so that we can more effectively preach the Gospel to the whole world.

This post is brought to you by MailChimp*

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*MailChimp is not actually a sponsor.

The (Missional) Episcopal Church and why it’s more than just a catchphrase.

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The level of snark present on a seminary campus is fairly overwhelming. This trend seems to hold true with many Episcopal clergy, especially on social media. New church fads and movements are skewered in class and at the lunch table. Some groups bring this on themselves, for instance this church that gave away assault rifles at a revival. But many church movements or ideas get shot down (pun intended) in conversation before they are even understood or investigated.

Some ‘trendy’ models of church have been thoroughly investigated and have been found lacking in certain areas. The seeker-sensitive movement came across as watering down doctrine and tradition for the sake of membership numbers. The emergent movement, at times, drifted out of the lines of Christian orthodoxy.

One movement, though not new at all, has been the topic of many conversations at the seminary recently. When you say the word ‘missional’ you usually get one of two reactions. First, a person may respond positively without knowing too much about what it means to be missional. Second, a person may respond with disdain for another church growth fad and dismiss missional ecclesiology…also without knowing too much about what it actually means.

I’m hoping this blog post will be informative about what it truly means to have a missional understanding of the church, but my true goal for this post is that it be a starting point for conversations (with minimal snark) about the future of the Episcopal Church and the future of the Church as a whole.

Being missional is first and foremost about relationship: Relationship with oneself, with the worshiping community, with the community/neighborhood/area as a whole, and especially with God. The primary goal of a missional church is not increasing membership numbers or average Sunday attendance. The focus is not the capital campaign or getting more folks to come to the annual chili cook-off fundraiser. A missional church is primarily concerned with its member’s relationships with each other and the church’s relationship with the broader community. This is not a very popular answer to the ‘problem’ of decline in the Episcopal Church. It seems that people want the five easy steps or the perfectly crafted program that will magically draw people to the empty Episcopal Churches across the country. This brings me to the second characteristic of missional churches.

Missional churches reject the purely attractional model of church. The attractional model has dominated Christianity in America for a very long time. The basic idea behind this model is that you start at the physical church building and draw people in the doors. You draw them with worship services, educational programs, entertainment, prayer groups, etc. The attractional model church presents the people in the community with a menu of religious goods and services in hopes that something will catch their eye and bring them to the building. It is a sign of the consumer understanding of religion.

This model is not working in most of the country. It is not a bad model and it has served us very well for a long time, but it would seem that it is no longer serving the needs of the church or many communities.

There are some hot spots of church activity in major cities/suburbs, but for the most part every denomination is struggling to maintain and especially to increase membership. No matter how many new programs or church growth consultants they bring in, people are just not coming to church.

Missional churches doesn’t see the question as ‘How do we get people to come to church?’ but ‘How do we get the church to the people?’

I recently attended Common Place, a gathering of young adults and young adult ministers hosted by the Diocese of Washington D.C. The weekend was filled with conversations and stories about young adult ministry success and failure. The Rev. Mike Angell, the Young Adult Missioner for the Episcopal Church, spoke about the current trends in young adult ministry in the church.

At one point in his talk, Mike said, “When I give talks or presentations, people tend to ask, ‘Where are all the young adults?’ to which I respond, ‘I don’t know. Let’s go find them together.'”

That is the missional church; one that goes out into the world and interacts with the people who would otherwise never interact with the church.

The Five Marks of Mission is a list of the characteristics of the church’s mission that was adopted by the General Convention in 2009. Since that time, the Five Marks of Mission have been engaged (and not engaged) differently in each Diocese.

The Five Marks of Mission are:

~ To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
~ To teach, baptize and nurture new believers
~ To respond to human need by loving service
~ To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation
~ To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth
This is the mission of Christ and, by extension, the mission of the church. The Episcopal Church, in my experience, is really good at the last three Marks. We’ve got the service, peace/reconciliation, and sustainability issues fairly well covered. The Episcopal Church, again in my experience, has a hard time with the first two. It seems that we have lost our voice when it comes to proclaiming the Good News and teaching new believers. In our reaction to the incredible growth and influence of the conservative Evangelical branches of Christianity we have forfeited all talk about the Gospel, salvation, and sin, just so we won’t be associated with the more extreme members of the Christian family. It is as if we hope that we can just do works of service for people and the Gospel will somehow seep into them. Call it osmosis evangelism.
The third characteristic of the missional church is that it knows its own story and can tell others about it easily. A missional church knows what Jesus Christ means in its life and wants to tell the world. A missional church can articulate the key points of the Christian faith when asked. 1 Peter 3:15 tells us that we are to always be ready to explain the hope that is within us, the hope that comes from God. The Episcopal Church must also reclaim its identity as Anglicans. As the recognized Anglican church in North America, the Episcopal Church has access to a great Anglican tradition of reform and renewal. The fighting and legal battles of the past decade have zapped a lot of energy from the Episcopal Church, but the same hope that we have in Christ is the hope that propels us forward. This leads into the fourth characteristic:
Missional churches are hopeful. With some of the talk above and with much of the talk around the blogosphere and social media, it is easy to become discouraged about the future of the church. It would be easy to see the declining numbers and shrinking budgets and resign ourselves to keep everything as it is and go down with the ship. The missional church isn’t discouraged by the projections and numbers. Sure, it’s sad that our numbers are lower than they were at one time and it is always sad to see a church close its doors. That being said, there is a lot of room for hope.
God is doing something new in the Episcopal Church and in the Church around the world. With the influence of Pope Francis spreading around the world and the spotlight of American culture fading on conservative Evangelicalism, the Episcopal Church is in a great position to renew itself. The type of renewal that we need is much more than reforming the Executive Council or the General Convention rules of order. We need a grassroots renewal of our identity and understanding of ourselves. This process can begin right now in whatever context you find yourself or your church. Go outside and get to know the neighborhood. Figure out what is important to the people in your church and in your community. Don’t immediately jump to a new bible study or bar event – singing hymns while drinking beer will not solve our problems, although it can be fun.
This may be frustrating to some folks. This process is time-consuming and labor-intensive. Forming authentic relationships takes a long time and a lot of work, but it is the best way for the Episcopal Church to move forward in faith and hope for the future. Being missional is much more than a church growth trick or new ecclesiological fad – it is a return our roots and the roots of the Church. If we are to be ‘fishers of people’, the days of the huge, industrial fishing fleets is over. We must return to the days of individuals casting small nets on the shore, where it all began.
This is by no means an exhaustive explanation of the missional movement. For more in depth study of missional ecclesiology I recommend this book and this book, which is directed specifically at the Episcopal Church. Start this conversation with those around you and see what the Holy Spirit is doing in your church. Please, please, please don’t just bury your head in the sand and hope that things will turn around if we just wait long enough. The world is in desperate need of the Good News of Christ and the Episcopal Church can be the voice that proclaims it if we start renewing our vision and reviving our mission.

 

 

ReimagineTEC Churchwide Meeting – Some Thoughts

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This past Thursday night I had the great pleasure of attending the Task force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church’s (TREC) Churchwide meeting at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. The meeting was billed as a chance to hear from the TREC members and a chance for folks to voice concerns and ask questions.

The schedule was packed with great speakers (The Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, The Rev. Dr. Dwight Zscheile, The Rev. Miguelina Howell, and a few others) who talked about the theological, historical, organizational, and cultural context for TREC’s forthcoming proposals.

It was an informative meeting with great information from the scheduled speakers and some great questions/comments from the crowd. I walked away from the meeting with two main thoughts:

1.) Towards the end of the event I asked a question about youth and young adult participation in the “reimagining” process. My wording was not perfect, but it received a solid answer from the Rt. Rev. Sean Rowe. Bishop Rowe commented that he has spent a majority of his time in the Episcopacy as a “young adult”. (There is some dispute as to where the cut off age for young adult membership is. Some say 35, other 40. Bishop Rowe falls into the latter camp.) Bishop Rowe also mentioned that there are several members under the age of 40 on the Task Force. TREC’s official Twitter quickly responded to my question and the House of Deputies Twitter responded with the ages of the under 40 members in 2012, when the Task Force was formed (19, 22, 25, 32, 33, 35, 35, 37, 38, 39).

I appreciated the answers from all three sources. It is incredibly important to include young adults and people under 40 in this process. Three folks under 30 is HUGE.

That being said, my question was less about how many young adults are on the Task Force and more about the practical ways that Young Adults are being included in the “reimagining” process. How are the concerns of the young people of the church being considered? There were many comments made about the structural change at General Convention, the national church office (“815”), and the Executive Council, but no comments made about how young people will fit into this new vision for the church.

Bishop Rowe also said in his response that the church sometimes idealizes the young at the cost of ignoring the broad range of ages in the church. He said that every church wants more young people but he is more concerned with “the people God is sending”. Good point. My first (overly snarky) thought was that the Gospels seem to portray Jesus as someone who idealizes the young. My second (more rational) thought was that it is true that many churches proclaim they want to attract young people without really knowing why. Many churches seem to think that the mere presence of young people will revitalize a stagnant community. The truth is that some churches need to figure out what their community is all about before they can start to attract any new members, let alone young members.

However, if our strategy is to sit in the sanctuary and wait for the people who God sends to our churches we may end up sitting alone. We have operated for too long under the assumption that people will just automatically come to church. This was possibly true at one point in the South…in the 1950s, but church has never been a given in many parts of the country. Church is currently not a given in most places in the country.

I tend to think that God is less concerned with sending people into our churches and more concerned with sending us out of our churches. The only way that we are going to reach out and spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our “weird Anglican way” is by going outside and telling somebody.

At the beginning of the TREC event a young man stood up and told his story of being a seeker who found his connection to God in the Episcopal Church. He emotionally told of how his generation (and my generation) are looking for spirituality and connection to God, but they don’t know where to look. If this is true (which I believe it is), the Episcopal Church would be doing a disservice to this generation and to the Gospel by staying in our churches and waiting for folks to show up.

My question also included youth and their role in this process. Bishop Rowe said that TREC has heard the voices of many youth, which is a really good thing. I would love to see a youth advisory group for TREC, a survey for all Episcopal youth, or some way for the youngest members of our church to have a say in the future of the church. There is a common phrase that always gets under my skin: “Youth are the future of the church”.

False. Youth are real members of the church. Youth are the church. The current youth in the Episcopal Church are the ones who will have to deal with whatever changes we make right now to the church. They are the ones who will be “reimagining” the reimagined church that emerges from the next General Convention.

It is worth noting again that I truly appreciated Bishop Rowe’s answer. He was gracious and gave a good response to my question. I think a more thorough discussion of youth and young adults in this process is still called for.

This brings me to my second thought:

2.) A majority of the talk at this meeting was about reforming current structures of church governance and polity. Some folks talked as if the courageous and radical thing to do is to change the structure of the Executive Council or limit the amount of resolutions at General Convention (both good things). No one talked about the underlying question in this whole discussion: Do we want to change the structure of the church so that it will continue to look like it does right now or are we willing to let some structures go entirely for the sake of renewal and revival?

The roof is on fire; maybe we should let it burn.

Are we ready to accept that perhaps God is calling us out into the wilderness in order to lead us to the promised land?

I hope that we have decided that the some of the golden calves that we think give us security and safety need to go (another good thing) but it sometimes seems like we’ve decided to replace them with smaller, more efficient calves.

If the Episcopal Church is going to survive the turmoil of the next decades, we are going to have to let go of a lot of things. The good news is that we don’t have to let go of our Anglican identity and we don’t have to worry about God letting go of us. There are ways to change and grow that do not sacrifice our core beliefs and our core identity. We need to continue having the really tough conversations that many people don’t want to have.

I know, this point is fairly vague about the actual structures that may need to go. The vagueness corresponds to the vagueness at the churchwide meeting and other suggestions at this point in the reimagining process. It seems that we are in the phase of discussion that focuses primarily on broad ideas and less on specific actions. My comment here is more an indicator of my hope that TREC will keep this in mind as they continue to meet and decide their formal recommendations.

I am so grateful to the members of TREC and all of the incredible work they have been doing for the sake of the church. The meeting on Thursday was good and helpful. I think I am joined by many Episcopalians when I say that I am very much looking forward to their final proposals. They are the ones having the hard conversations that will hopefully lead to productive and positive changes for the future of the church.

The real test will come when the actual proposals are presented. It will take a lot of humility and courage in the House of Deputies (and the House of Bishops) to make the changes that are surely needed if the Episcopal Church has any chance of being a force for the Gospel of Christ and the love of God into the future.

We must be proactive and positive. We must not accept the outcome predicted by our critics. We can change the fate of our church and continue our work towards the Kingdom of God. It will be tough. There will be a lot of grief in this process, but grief has a way of breaking us open to more blessing and love than we thought possible.

Thank you to the members of TREC and all the people who tuned in and came to the churchwide meeting this week. It gives me great hope for the future and for the work that is to come.

4 Myths about Young Adults and Church

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It seems like the heat has died down somewhat around Millennials and Young Adults. There was a stretch last year where it seemed like every blog post or magazine article had something to do with my beloved generation. We were either too lazy and self-centered or incredibly altruistic and compassionate. We were, at the same time, coddled by our parents and forced to fend for ourselves in a economic recession. Each blog post offered the secrets to tapping into this ‘market’ for companies, employers, and anyone else who stood to profit off any insights into the largest generation in America.

Church blogs were no different. Posts offered the new tips and tricks to get Millennials/Young Adults through the red doors of the church. Contemporary music, ancient hymns, bible studies in a bar, no church building, huge cathedrals. The tips and trick were legion. And they were oftentimes wrong.

They were wrong because of the premise with which they started. The idea that any large group of people can be boiled down to a blog post listing of characteristics and traits is foolish (I recognize the irony in that statement as I write a blog post listing). Millennials are the largest generation in America; there is no way that a blog post can sum up their collective interests or common attitudes.

To help spur this conversation on, I have complied a list of the most common myths that I have seen or heard about Millenials and Young Adults, especially when it comes to church:

1. Millennials are monolithic. As I mentioned above, there is no way to succinctly say what every Millennial wants or cares about and anyone who says that they know “what Millennials want” is a)lying or b)trying to sell you something. In the same way that no one can speak for every retiree or every baby boomer, no one can speak for every young adult. What this means for the church is that there is not one solution to the “young adult” problem. There is not one magic program or secret bible study curriculum or perfect liturgy that is going to have young adults flocking to your church.

2. Millennials aren’t interested in organized religion. The Emergent Church movement capitalized on the myth that the “church of the future” wouldn’t look anything like the institutional church that we all know. I contend that the Emergent Church movement blew up in popularity because of baby boomers and Gen X-ers, not Millennials. Many of the young adults I have talked to about the institutional church are fully aware of the sins of the past and the blunders of the recent decades, and yet, they are interested in being a part of the community and bringing about positive change from within the church. Organized religion is not going to suddenly disappear because young people aren’t interested. If anything, organized religion will disappear because it has lost sight of its original purpose and lost its soul. This is especially true of Christianity in America. The “Great Decline” could be linked to the  mainline churches losing their ‘saltiness’. Jesus warns that we (the Church) are the salt of the earth, but if we lose our saltiness we can never get it back and we will be thrown away. Millennials, for the most part, aren’t opposed to the institutional church, they just wish that we would embrace our saltiness. They are drawn to Jesus but they can’t seem to find the same attractive, “Other-ness” of Christ in the average church.

3. Millennials all want to hang out in bars. The newest trend in the mainline churches is to host bible studies or hymn-sings in local bars. “Theology on Tap”, started by the Catholic Church, was the first organized effort to take the church into the saloon. It seems to have all the things that the mainline churches love: alcohol, community, and a very clear way of saying that we are NOT like those other, prudish Christians. We’re cool. We’re hip. We can pray and drink at the same time. The issue is that not every single young adult loves hanging out in bars. Alcoholism is a problem for young adults, just like it is a problem for every other age group. In fact, many young adults come out of college with an extremely unhealthy relationship with alcohol. There are many young adults who are alcohol dependent, but have no idea that their drinking isn’t normal because of the current zeitgeist around alcohol. There are also young adults who just don’t like to drink or hang out in bars. Some think that the Church should be different from the culture, not just a copycat. How many folks, not just young adults, are automatically excluded from church events because they are held in bars or because alcohol is the underlying theme? An article in the June issue of Christianity Today calls on churches to reconsider their relationship with alcohol in light of the commandment to “love our neighbor”. If your neighbor (or parishioner or young adult seeker) is struggling with alcoholism, how loving is it to host a bible study in a bar? At what point do we recognize that we are sacrificing inclusion of all people for the sake of being ‘relevant’ and ‘cool’. If you are a young adult (or anyone) who thinks they might have a problem with alcohol, please follow this link.

4. Millennials can be attracted, if only we have the right [liturgy, programming, leadership, whatever]. The moment that the Church stops seeing Millennials as a group to be attracted is the moment that Millennials will feel comfortable in church. It feels wrong to talk about tricking people into coming to church, but that is essentially what churches do when they pretend to be something they are not to attract young adults. By adding programming and other things that are out of character for the local church, we become salespeople who are trying to repackage Jesus so that he is more palatable. The truth is this: Jesus doesn’t need our help attracting people. The Word of God has been calling folks to himself since the beginning, with or without the exciting new programs the Church has invented. Young Adults are not the target audience for a new marketing campaign, they are people who need the love and peace of God like everyone else. We cannot afford to be reductionist about the people in our churches, because the mission of the church is far bigger than Millennials – it is about the holy, ordinary people of God…of all ages. The source of most sin is disunity, which may be why on of Jesus’s last commandments is a call to unity. If we focus on the wide variety of people in our churches, of all ages and stages in life, perhaps we will see our unity and our saltiness return.

Why the Church Needs a High Camp-ology (Part II)

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A few months ago I published a little post on why I love Episcopal Summer Camps. The post took off quickly as people identified with the need for a high “camp-ology” and began to share it through their various circles.

This summer I am working at Shrine Mont Summer Camp in the Diocese of Virginia as the Chaplain to the Staff. My primary task is the spiritual formation and care of the ~75 college-aged counselors who have chosen to spend their summer here on the mountain. I participate in camp meals, games, activities, and worship. I get to spend time talking about the struggles of daily life, the ups and downs of faith, and the realities of following Christ in 2014 – all in a safe and uplifting community.

We have just passed the half-way point for the summer, which seems like as good a time as any to reflect on my previous post and see how it plays out in the real world of camp. Theology (and camp-ology) is pointless unless it is lived out. Here are my thoughts from the road, using my previous four criteria:

4. Camp is the only place in the church where older folks, young adults, and youth all willingly sign-up to be together. I was scheduled to preach at All-Camp Worship (a weekly Eucharist featuring every camp currently on the mountain) a few weeks ago. As I was preparing my notes I thought of the folks in the “congregation”. Who would I be talking to? What ages would be present? After some thought I realized that most of the campers would be from ages 8-13.

Easy enough, right?

Then I realized that the “Boomer Camp” would also be there, with campers from ages 22-70. There would also be the counselors: a wonderful and wildly smart group of college-aged folks.

On top of all of that, Bishop Ted Gulick (Assistant Bishop of Virginia) would be serving as the Chaplain for St. George’s camp and would also be present.

In one service there were children, young adults, “middle” adults, “upper” adults, and an Episcopal authority figure, all eager and willing to be there. They all sang together, prayed together, and participated in the Eucharist together. All of the inter-camp differences (age, activities, etc.) dissipated for one hour on a Sunday evening. And best of all…it was downright fun!

3. Benefits to staff. The amazing staff that I have the honor of working with this summer have proven this point over and over again. There have already been several blog posts on the Shrine Mont Camp blog about individual staff members going above and beyond in their roles as leaders, guides, and mentors to campers. Even though they are working for very little and giving up their entire summer, these staff members are proving that summer camp counselor is not always the easiest job in the world – but it is the best job in the world.

2. There is a lot of peer pressure… to be yourself. During the first sessions of MAD (Music and Drama) Camp and St. Sebastian’s (Sports) Camp, I found myself observing a joint-camp dance party. Held in the HAPPY Pavilion, the camps came together in goofy costumes and danced to loud pop music for what seemed like hours. At one point in the evening, a young camper came up to me where I was standing on the side of the dance floor.

“Come dance!”, she said enthusiastically.

“I’m not sure if I have any moves.”, I explained.

“It doesn’t matter! It’s not like anyone is going to judge you!”, she said (as if this was the most common sense idea in the world).

A camper who did not know me, except that I was not fully included in the fun, invited me to participate in the party. She took a chance because she wanted me to be a part of the group – no matter how silly my dancing was.

At the same dance, one of the session chaplains came up to me dressed in a long, blue dress and blonde wig. We talked for a few moments before he insisted on getting back on the dance floor. As he walked away, dress and wig swaying to the music, I realized how utterly different and absolutely beautiful this crazy dance was.

That dance was just a small sign of the culture of summer camps – where it is okay to be different as long as you are being you.

1. Camp is a rehearsal for the Kingdom of God. My job as Chaplain to the Staff means that I get to have a foot in each camp on the mountain. I get to eat breakfast with St. George’s camp, spend the morning with Sports Camp, eat lunch with MAD Camp, and worship in the evening with SHYC (Senior High Youth Conference). I get to see the joy and laughter and excitement that comes with each camp. I get to see the struggles and pain that some campers (and staff) overcome while at camp. In short, I get to see the Kingdom of God played out in real time, everyday.

Last night we had All-Camp Worship with Explorer’s Camp, St. George’s Camp, and SHYC. As I stood at the front of the Cathedral Shrine of the Transfiguration and gave each camper and staff member the Bread that is the Body of Christ, I saw the hands of God.

Let me explain:

Some hands were very dirty, covered in the colorful residue of a day of fun at camp.

Some hands were experienced and had seen many summers on this mountain.

Some hands were connected to bodies that were wearing funny costumes.

Some hands were connected to bodies that carried a new, growing life inside of it.

Some hands were small.

Some hands were big.

Some hands were young.

Some hands were old(er).

Some hands had carried heavy burdens to this mountain.

Some hands had found freedom from those burdens in this place.

Some hands were carrying others.

Some hands were being carried.

All of the hands were holy.

All of the hands were sacred.

And as I placed the Bread of Life into each of the hands, I saw the hands of God in front of me.

I still have a high camp-ology and I will forever be changed by what I’ve experienced in my time at summer camps.

For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, all I can say is “Come and see.” Come to this place or a summer camp like it. Experience the love and joy and peace that comes with a community that knows who it is and whose it is.

As Jacob said in the Lectionary readings from Sunday, “Surely God is in this place!”