Friday, July 28, 2017

Why the Church Doesn't Get "Total Member Involvement"

I knew it was bad when they chose the acronym "TMI."  Actually, that may be all the illustration we need for what's wrong in our midst.

The idea is a good one--who could object to total member involvement?* Who doesn't want every hand possible being used to reach our world for God? But when you're willing to call your program TMI, and you either don't know or don't care that it means something else, there's a problem.

I have bad news for the church.  No matter how much our publications push that acronym, it will always mean "too much information" (as in, "please stop") to the younger demographics.

And the saddest part is that I don't really think this issue failed to come up when the title was being vetted.  My guess is that it just didn't matter enough to those who made the choice.  They figured we would adapt.

This is exactly the problem.  Our church is very willing to use everyone, if it can fit them into our blueprint.  Women are welcomed, as long as you stick to potlucks and teaching children.  Young people are welcomed, as long as you can help us do what we've always done.  And we are bewildered if you bring us a talent or a plan we're not used to.

TMI may have some success--I genuinely hope it does. Please don't get me wrong. I want members to be able to contribute in meaningful ways.  I want the world to hear about the love of God. I certainly wouldn't ask a program to fail in these worthy goals because it was badly titled.

But even so, the name and its needlessly distracting acronym are always going to be a symbol that someone up there doesn't "get" young (or even young-for-church-people) adults.  And if we can't understand and adapt to young people, we will never get total involvement.  If we cannot handle women with the gifts of leadership (except maybe as head deaconess), we're going to limp along crippled into eternity.

(These, by the way, are cupcakes decorated for a birthday party.)

Since I'm in the middle of packing for a move, I'll conclude this blog with a field trip of sorts, so I can avoid the usual "homework."  This is a script I wrote for a short skit we used with a sermon on using everyone's gifts for God.  I call it . . .


A panel of 3 judges sits behind a table, holding clipboards and looking official and important. A sign leaning against the table says “Church Talent Show Auditions.” Judge 1 is our kindly “front face” of the operation, Judge 2 is a little more stiff and proper, and Judge 3 is a bit goofy.

A young woman named Mary is auditioning.

Judge 1 (standing): Next!

Mary walks onto stage and stands in front of them.

Judge 1: Welcome to our try-outs (reads from a clipboard) Mary Smith—right, that's your name? I do have the right person?

Mary: Yes, that's me!

Judge 1: Very well, you may begin.

Mary: All right. [strikes a pose and looks into the middle distance] Hey everybody, good to see you here tonight, looking so good. You know, I almost didn't make it. I was having an interpersonal conflict. Yeah, me, the red light, and the traffic cop just didn't see eye to eye. I suggested mediation--

Judge 2—Wait, stop! What are you doing?

Judge 1—Is this your opening illustration? Are you giving a Bible study on law and grace? I don't get it.

Mary—No. No, I'm doing a comedy routine. That's—that's my first joke.

Judge 3—I didn't get it.

Judge 2—We DO NOT do comedy here.

Mary—But this is a talent show. That's my talent.

Judge 1—No, no. This is a CHURCH talent show. We're looking for church talents. Do you have any church talents young lady?

Mary—But I prepared my whole routine. You want me to come up with another talent? What's a church talent, anyway?

Judge 2—You know, churchy things. Can you give a Bible study? I still think that story could be about law and grace . . .

Mary—But it isn't. And I can't do Bible studies. How do you even do a Bible study in a talent show, anyway? Isn't a talent show supposed to be about entertainment?

Judge 2 (shocked)--Not around here!

Judge 1—What we are trying to say is, do you have any talents that are church talents? Of course you don't have to give Bible studies. We need more than one kind of talent in the church, after all, don't we? [Looking at other judges who nod and smile encouragingly]

Mary—I can ride a unicycle.

Judge 3—Blindfolded?

Judge 1—No, no—church talents. Can you sing? That can be a church talent.

Judge 2—As long as you don't sing too fast or too loud.

Judge 3—And as long as you don't do that funny thing where your adam's apple goes up and down.

Mary—I don't sing. I can play the harmonica.

Judge 1—We do take instruments, as long as you can lead the singing with them. Piano works, or guitar. Sometimes stringed or wind instruments for backup.

Mary—Harmonica is a wind instrument, isn't it?

Judge 1 (flipping to another page on clipboard and looking)--I'm afraid it's not on our list.

Mary—You have a list of “church instruments”?

Judge 2—Well, of course! How else can you remember?

Judge 1, (trying to cut in and redirect the conversation)—Okay, so no music, but I'm sure you're very talented. Can you teach children?

Mary—On stage? For a talent show?

Judge 3--”Church talent” show

Mary—Okay, so what you're saying is that if my talent isn't on your list, then I can't use it here?

Judge 1—No, no, of course not! The church needs all kinds of talents. After all, God created all of us with talents to use! The church needs all our talent to get by. How do you look in a Bible costume?

Mary (annoyed)—I look fine, but that's not my talent.

Judge 3—Oh, and we need someone to mow the lawn! The last guy who did that is moving away.

Mary—Are you serious?

Judge 2—Organize a potluck?

Mary (throwing up hands)—I give up! [Walks off stage]

Judge 1 (looking at the others)—Well, that was too bad. She seemed like a bright, talented young lady.

Judge 2—It's kind of sad the way young people don't want to serve the church these days.

Judge 3 (shrugging)—I blame those smartphones.

Judge 1 (looks at his list)—Next!

Next person walks on stage holding a bagpipe.

All three judges exchange a glance.

Judges 1, 2, and 3 (in unison)—Next!!

[If you would like to use this skit in your church or local setting, please feel welcome to the script.  I only ask that you keep my name attached to it, and send others to this site rather than distributing copies of the script outside your own cast.]

*Except, of course, when the program becomes an excuse not to encourage women to pursue ministry.  As in, "Look, you don't have to be ordained to work for God.  We have ways to use you as a volunteer instead."

Friday, July 21, 2017

Ode to Campmeeting

This week, we're doing Campmeeting. For the first time ever, I'm working for the adult meetings.  I've never actually gone to adult meetings before--I've never been drawn by the allure of fine imported preachers.  Campmeeting was always about something else.

I remember Campmeeting.  I remember standing in line for snow cones.  I remember roving the campground in kid packs.  I remember making crafts with wood pieces and googly eyes, some of which my father can still embarrass me by digging out of a box.  I remember the color of the sunlight, as evening sidled closer, filtering through leaves on the blacktop broken by tree-roots, hundreds of sandaled feet drifting in random patterns past.  I remember the sound of voices on outdoor speakers.

I grew up with the Best Campmeeting Ever,* in Gladstone, Oregon.  It lasted 10 days, and boasted a mini grocery store among the services on campus.  We stayed in a tent that was a wood and canvas hybrid, and had bunk beds, a table, and shelves built in.  I could get a three-scoop cone of frozen yogurt in the snack shop, but I loved the lemon-lime snow cones best.

A hundred things happened at Campmeeting.  I remember losing a tooth, and falling flat on my face just after I got a cast off my leg.  And walking all around campus with the first boy that ever asked me out (and then changing my mind and avoiding him like piranha-water).

The year I was nine I was baptized at Campmeeting, down in the front of the adult meeting.  I was probably an illustration for some giving campaign or evangelism initiative.  I didn't care.  It was my baptism, and it had happened at my favorite place on earth.

And then things changed.  The villain usually blamed was the fire marshal.  One fateful year we had to cancel, and have a "convocation" in a venue in the city.  I was appalled--there was no leaf-dappled sunlight or tents, and worst of all, no snow cones. Just a ton of people in church clothes listening to sermons. Who goes to Campmeeting for sermons?

When the dust settled from all of this, Campmeeting was shorter, the hybrid tents were gone, and I was a teen, and had to work in the summer. And Campmeeting as an adult isn't the same as it was.  The magic never looks the same, when you're part of making it.

Campmeetings are changing all over. WE are changing, so it can't be helped. The church is thinner, and older, and it lives in a world that doesn't pause enough.  Furthermore, Campmeeting is peopled by two populations now.  There are those who come for the sermons, and those who come for the snow cones (or the pronto pups, if that be your ilk.)

 But those who come for the sermons are getting fewer.  The people who dress in their Sabbath best and drive out of town to pick their way across brambled fields for parking and listen to sermons in the summer heat are not the youngest set in the church.

Today sermons can be had for free in the comfort of my own wifi.  But community is a desperate commodity. Belonging to something--something alive, and family-friendly, and where people connect over things that really matter--is a treasure that can't be priced.

If and when our Campmeetings fail, and come to an end, it isn't the messages we will miss out on. This media-filled age will never lack for messages, even the ones with a three-angelic flavor.  I will not pine for the hours on metal benches listening for familiar ideas in fresh language (or fresh ideas in old rhetoric).  I will reminisce over snow cones, and packs of kids playing in the summer-dry dirt.  I will miss the buzz of music, and the scent of pronto pups. I will pine for the familiar faces.

So today, if you have a community, if you have a Campmeeting, if you have someplace to belong, make the most of it. Go eat a snow cone.  Go talk to someone you barely remember from school. Close your eyes and feel the music.  Today, if you are part of something bigger than your local church, embrace it.  Make memories.

These traditions of ours are relics--they began in the days before we were a denomination.  And as the world changes, they may not be with us forever.

 Oh, the church can live without Campmeeting.  There is more than one way to pursue community.  The point is only that we have to pursue it. Unlike the grace of God, it doesn't come without our asking. So whatever chance you have for community, whatever chance you have to belong, I say take it.  Make it count.  Enjoy it.

I'm going to.  Hope to see you at Campmeeting!

*Sorry, this designation is not up for debate.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Dancing in Church

I do most of my dancing in church.  That's when I engage most with music.  Otherwise, my dancing consists of rocking out to end-credit music after a kids movie at home (sometimes the kids dance with me, and sometimes they're just barely tolerating my shenanigans), and the very, very rare wedding dance.

I'm not good at dancing, don't get me wrong.  I am at least orthodox enough in my Adventism to have no experience and little rhythm. In fact, if you watched me in church, you probably wouldn't call it dancing.  It's kind of a sway, with a little bounce.

There's a secret to it, too.  If you want to get away with dancing in church, hold a child.  Babies are best.  They always need soothing, and motion is soothing, so moving in time with the music makes sense.  When they get past toddlerhood, it's trickier. My twins are 4 years old, and A still wants to be held while we sing.  The excuse there is that, with the swaying, I'm engaging her in the worship singing, even though she's not singing along yet. I'm not sure what I'm going to do when she stops wanting to be held.

You may guess, we go to a church (at present) with energetic worship music. The volume on the drums is usually turned down too far for my taste, but the music is joyful, and the song leaders sing like they mean it. Moving a little to the music feels natural.

Last week, however, I visited a former church of ours, one where all the songs were sung from a hymnal.  Of course, the worshipers here are just as real about their worship.  But the young people can remember leading the songs when I preached there.  I used to sit on the platform behind them and sing each phrase marginally faster than the congregation, impatient.

This time, the new pianist kept a time I couldn't reasonably argue with, but that didn't mean I couldn't get in trouble.  Someone had a slideshow from her mission trip, and played a song I loved with it. I wanted to sing it so badly--I lip-synched, and I may have been doing a sitting-down version of the sway-and-bounce thing. About a minute in, I realized I might be embarrassing my friends.  I leaned back against the pew and restricted my motion to my feet, out of sight.

Dancing in church is biblical. If there's one idea about dancing you can prove from the Bible, it's that is was used for worship.  All worship, the good and the bad. There's a bit of dancing as a performance,* and apparently no social dancing. If it happened in their time, the Bible doesn't comment on it, so we'll have to use our own judgment.

Music and dancing and worship (whether it's Christian or pagan), all go together for a simple reason.  They involve feeling things.  Music makes us feel things.  Worship may make us feel things (and feeling things may prompt us to worship).  Dancing, like singing, is a way to express feelings--all kinds of feelings, both the light and the dark.  And if we cannot ever dance to worship, we have relegated dancing to the dark.**

I don't think I'm ever going to get past the sway-with-a-bounce mode of church dancing, just in case anyone was alarmed with where this is going.  And when my daughter outgrows this stage, or when I no longer have the same church music, I may be losing even that.  I can live with it.

 Dancing in church is no more required than it is forbidden, Social comfort is a thing, and it effects our worship experience, too.  Some churches, like some people, are more comfortable moving to the music than others.  What I want is to be free to admit that it's not bad.

I'm not writing today in the hope that all of you will start dancing in church. Instead, what I hope is that you feel the things that make me want to dance.  I hope your worship moves you.  I wish for you, not only to understand God's greatness, or his grace, but to feel it, to experience it in a way that reaches all the way down to your toes.  And if your toes respond to that feeling, well it's all good.

*Salome dancing for Herod. And if all, or even many men responded as stupidly as he did to a woman's dancing, I guess you could make the a case against dancing as entertainment.  As it is, Herod's rash stupidity seems to be an outlier.

**Okay, we can also dance to express non-worship-related joy, but then we're excluding the things we should be most joyful about.

Friday, July 7, 2017

How to Leave a Church Family

In 2004 I stood on the porch of a strange house, waiting for someone to answer the bell.  I remember looking through the glass panels at the a potted plants, hanging from macrame webs to catch the sunlight.  Someone made those webs, maybe decades before.  This was a house that was lived in a long time.  The kind grown children brought their own children to visit, and showed them their childhood bedrooms.This was a home where the details were assembled by time and familiarity.  And the people who lived here knew every detail, and loved it, because it was right.

It was all foreign to me.

We were there because my husband had a pastoral interview at this church, and this family had offered us lodging to spare the Conference the expense of a hotel.  I stood on that porch, waiting to meet the strangers who lived there, people whose lives we were proposing to join. It felt strangely like trying on someone else's clothing.  It wasn't made for me, it hadn't been stretched or worn to my shape.  But I was going to wear it, whether it fit or not.

In 2014 I hurried through the back halls of a church building I ought to know, flashes of recognition from the color of the carpet, or the layout of the hall, trying not to be late.  I had been a member when this building was built, nearly two decades before. I had left as a college student, and now I was proposing to return, married to their new pastor.

The clash of the familiar and the foreign was giving me a headache.  I remember looking at the table full of elders, wondering which of them I was supposed to know. I remember marveling at how very surreal it was to be interviewing--once again--for a job for which I wasn't the one applying.

They like to call it--joking--the "Great Advent Movement," and a fellow pastor pointed out we are the denomination that invests in our own moving trucks. I've read the stories, about the decades long ago, when a pastor might come to town for 18 months, and spend it in an extended evangelistic meeting. Change is in our DNA.  Leaving is our heritage.

So why doesn't it get easier?

I remember one night, perhaps a month into our time in a new church, coming home from a member's house, and realizing I knew the route without the GPS.  I didn't like it. What was worse, I had enjoyed my time with the ladies there, and I wasn't ready to make new friends.  I was still deep in mourning for the friends I had left behind.

A former professor said it takes about two years in a new place to feel like you belong. He might be right.  I never could pinpoint the moment.precisely.  Sometimes I think you don't really belong to a place until it's time to leave.  That's the time I see most clearly, I feel most deeply.

As I write this, it's time to leave again.  Last week I went to church and faced the friends who had read the announcement email two days before.  It was the usual mix of sadness, interest, and recrimination.

Leaving a church is not like any other kind of leaving.  It's because a church family is not like any other community.  We are meant to be more to each other than neighbors, or even partners in a common purpose.  We are supposed to belong to one another.  Church is about relationships. Leaving isn't meant to be normal.

But of course it's doubly complicated for the pastor.  As accepted as the change is, it's even less natural.  It's because leadership isn't a position.  It's not even entirely a skill.  It's a relationship. Trusting open relationships are the only way for a pastor to do their job, but they are not tools to use.  Members in our churches are not a means to an end.  They are an end in themselves.  What we develop and nurture and grow in the years of ministry are not systems, but human beings.

And that is why we cannot get used to leaving.

To my church family--to all of my church families--to everyone I have had to leave:  I want you to know that you have never been easy to let go.  I wish you could see the indelible marks you make in me.  I probably joked about fitting you into my suitcase, but I do actually carry you with me. And I have accepted the fate that I will never be at home any one place, because none of them will have all of you at once.  I want you to know most of all that it was real--not a job, or a role, but a relationship.  It still is.

In a little while, I'll be facing another reality--another front porch, another garment pre-made, ready to try on.  The alterations, it turns out, aren't made to the garment.  They're made to me. Because change may not be natural, but it's still inevitable.

 And I promise not to get any better at it.

Last river baptism--gathering for prayer afterward