Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Seven Myths of Contemporary Worship

I began to preside over what is commonly called contemporary worship while serving as pastor of the Kaohsiung Community Church in Taiwan in 1994.  In New Jersey,  I worked with Messiah Lutheran in Oakland, to start their first contemporary service in 1999.   At Holy Cross we only have this type of worship.  Probably the only things these experiences actually have in common is the lack of a pipe organ, the absence of hymnals, and the projection of lyrics on a screen.     The earlier forms were keyboard based with larger groups of singers and often called worship and praise. Then it moved on to styles that had a more melodic pop song style (think Michael W. Smith),  later percussion and driving bass moved in heavily influenced by U2,  these days country, southern rock, folk and roots music have also come into the picture.   At Holy Cross today our songs come from artists such as Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, and Hillsong.   Songs that are very different than the Twilla Paris songs of the 1980's.   This type of worship is always in flux as new styles come into being.   As I attend our synod gatherings and meet with pastors I have always seen there there are lots of misunderstandings about this phenomenon.  I will try to offer a clarification of the attitudes I commonly read and hear of.

1.  The lyrics are bad theology

This is the number one insult I hear and read of,  and frankly, it comes across to me as a merely an unreflective, dismissive, and disrespectful attitude used to justify one's own comfort with their prefered style. Many songs written in today's popular styles have wonderful and moving lyrics. A large portion of these songs such as Petra's We want to see Jesus Lifted High are just reworkings of the lyrics of traditional hymns (ie. Lift High the Cross) made fresh for a new generation.   Often the artists are trying to combine their own love of a great old hymn with the newer forms of music they like to make.   Chris Tomlin's Amazing Grace/ My Chains are Gone and When I Survey the Wondrous Cross/ the Wonderful Cross are great examples from a few years back.

The fact is that lots of traditional hymns and songs have bad theology as well.  So are there contemporary, or rock based worship songs with bad lyrics? Of course! Just as there are bad lyrics in medieval, baroque, victorian, gospel and other organ based hymnody.  When one examines ancient Israel's songbook, the Psalms, one can also find words that one should not base doctrine upon. Don't believe me?  Check out Psalm 137:9  imagine a congregation singing this.   Hymns and Songs in my view are more akin to prayer than teaching and reveal the longings and yearnings of the community.

2.  The music is simplistic

At Holy Cross where I serve now, our Music Minister must work to get 4-7 instrumentalists to work in concert together every week.  All songs are worked out to have multiple dynamics to to include the the entire worship team and better lead the congregation in song. The guitarists, keyboardists,  percussionists, and others must come to rehearsal prepared in advance or else it does not work.   I have been a member of various traditional choirs and choruses in my life and I can detect no difference in the amount of work involved to make good music whatever the style.   Do some churches take short cuts?  Yes they do, but lots of traditional church choirs just show up on Sunday morning and wing it too.  Excellence is excellence, and it always takes work.

3.  Less people are engaged in leading worship

Sometimes in the summer you will come to Holy Cross and only see three people up on the altar leading the worship songs.  However, there are always two more on the balcony, one running the sound board another operating the media software.    Right now most Sundays we have 4-5 on the balcony and 5-7 up on the altar, so that is 9-12 people every Sunday.  We also have a scripture leader,  a prayer leader, a person to lead announcements, and 5 people to help with communion distribution.  Like most churches we also have a couple of ushers to help with the offering.  Doing the math that is is 19-21 people in addition to the pastor engaged to help make worship happen for a mid sized Lutheran congregation.    Engagement of a good percentage of people to help lead worship is not dependent on a particular style but on the intention of the pastor and church leadership.

4.  It is hard to find people to help lead the songs

My experience over the years has been that it is harder to find effective traditional music ministers than effective contemporary worship leaders.   I have found that it is relatively easy to find competent guitar players from within the congregation.   One can often find keyboard players relatively quickly as well.  The most difficult to find have been effective percussionists.  In every congregation I have served we have had someone who played in a rock band, or had learned guitar or drums and was able to come forward and share their gifts. These people are in our congregations right now with these gifts untapped, it would be sad if we couldn't find ways to engage them.

Contemporary worship works best when it is firmly grounded in the congregation.   When people from within the congregation are raised up to help lead the songs and make worship music, then the worship will have an authentic voice for the congregation.   It will be "the work of the people" or a genuine liturgy.    Any worship style brought in from the outside or imposed from above by arbitrary authority will work against this. Great worship works best from the bottom up,  the congregation brings its best to the glory of God,  if a traditional style does that for you,  praise God!

5. Contemporary worship is not Lutheran (or any other
mainline tradition)

There is no legitimate reason why contemporary worship songs should be arbitrarily excluded from a Lutheran order of service.   The grounding actions of our worship are proclaiming of the Word of God and administering the Sacraments.   In the seventh article of the Augsburg Confession we read
 For the true unity of the church it is enough to agree concerning the teaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments. It is not necessary that human traditions or rites and ceremonies, instituted by men, should be alike everywhere.¹
The contemporary worship services in Lutheran congregations I have served all have had weekly communion.  We have always had a weekly rite of corporate confession, we confess the Apostle's Creed, proclaim the Great Thanksgiving, use the time honored Words of Institution. They may not be in the same order as they were in  the 1970's but the pieces of our tradition are all there.   

The format we use allows for an expanded time to proclaim the Word through the sermon. We have also tried to use technology including electronic presentations (PowerPoint & MediaShout), film clips, podcasts, and streaming video to enhance our proclamation of the Gospel.   It helps us reinforce the message to those attending, reach those virtually who are unable to attend physically, and help both dig deeper by having the sermon on record for review.

One of the things I really enjoy about contemporary worship music is that it more closely resembles the music I listen to for fun.    Our current music minister leads our team in a style that resembles the alternative music I might hear on WFUV or WXPN (alt-rock radio stations in my area).  This serves a useful purpose for me; it helps bridge the gap between secular and sacred in my own life.   It helps me to see that all of my life is holy.   This should not be an alien idea to Lutherans (or other Christians).  Luther himself used popular forms of music as tools to write hymns to help lead congregations in song.   Ulrich Leupold writes in the introductory section of Luther's Works Vol.  53.
The German folk song was the good earth from which all of Luther’s hymns sprang. Its style textually and musically is evident everywhere, and its patterns are often clearly recognizable. The very first hymn by Luther, “A New Song Here Shall Be Begun,” is modeled after the folk ballads, which told the stories of important events and personalities. Characteristic stock phrases and melodic turns of the folk song are found in all of Luther’s hymns.²
Luther translated the Mass into the vernacular,  he made the Bible available to the people in the plain German language spoken at the time, and he used popular music to enhance worship.  I would argue that those who endeavor to use popular and contemporary forms of music are trying to do some of these same things that Luther did himself.  So there is no reason why would can not have faithful Lutheran contemporary worship. 

6. Contemporary worship is attractive only to young people

In fact, some young people actually prefer traditional worship and old style hymns, on the other hand,  we have had people in their 70's specifically come to Holy Cross because we have contemporary worship music.   The early baby boomers are approaching their 70's and many of that generation were instrumental in leading the church to embrace these more contemporary forms.  At Holy Cross we have a wide variety of ages that embrace our style,  just as in the churches with traditional formats have wide varieties of ages embracing theirs.

7. Contemporary worship will lead to an increase in attendance 

This is patently false.   Churches that are alive and vibrant communities centered on the Gospel will have a worship that resonates and reflects the community gathered on Sunday.   Many vibrant churches will use traditional forms, others will use contemporary ones.   The keys for vibrancy are:  passion for the worship the congregation currently provides,  an intention to include all gathered in the worship in some way, a commitment to excellence (all giving their best for God), and most of all a grounding in the liberating Word of God.  I am an advocate for contemporary worship because I believe that many congregations who are struggling to bring new life to their communities may actually find that they can present a more contemporary style better than they can their current one.   The question for a congregation to decide is which forms best allow for excellence in worship for their community.

Worship Ought to Be Worship 

In conclusion I would say that I long for the day when modifiers like contemporary, traditional, relevant, emerging, ethnic and liturgical are simply omitted when speaking about  the worship we bring.  One of the things we do other people to degrade their dignity is to make judgements about them and place them in categories of our own creation.   Call me crazy, (some have) but I believe really great worship ought to be contemporary and traditional, relevant and timeless,  ethnic and universal, emergent and liturgical,  profound and joyful all at the same time.   Impossible you say? Well I don't think so.   When a diverse people gather together at the foot of the cross of Christ and have an encounter with God, amazing things can happen with new things and old.  Whatever worship style or tools you advocate, may they be blessings for you to help reach people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

¹-Theodore G. Tappert, The Augsburg Confession : Translated from the Latin (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2000, c1959), 32.

²-Martin Luther, vol. 53, Luther's Works, Vol. 53 : Liturgy and Hymns, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann, Luther's Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999, c1965), 53:196.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Technology and Resurrection

Artificial Intelligence (AI) & Immortality 

I am sure by now you are aware that all types of data is being collected on each person everyday.    The news is rife with stories of privacy issues, data breaches and eavesdropping.  Every time you visit a website, purchase products online (or just with a credit card in a store),  rate or write a review of something, or click that harmless looking thumbs up button on Facebook or Pandora that data goes somewhere.  On top of that wearable tech such as Google Glass and the Samsung Dick Tracy watch are in their prototype stages.     Will these be collecting other types of data?  Could they be used to capture emotions and reactions to events and record them with the images the camera is collecting while tracking your location?   If so, could someone then collect all his or her data and use it to create a realistic profile of her or himself.    Could that profile then be combined with a process of artificial intelligence to create a newly regenerated virtual person?   Can this person then be downloaded into a piece of tech that can communicate and interact with the world?  If the answer to these questions is yes, have human beings found a way to be immortal through their own devices?

Not yet, but people are actually working on these very types of things.


The whole problem with this is, that if we can construct an immortal life through our own efforts we would be simply carrying our broken pasts into a dark future.   The traumas lived through would be carried on into eternity.  There would still be pain, there would still be loss,  there would still be evil.   These experiences of our sinfulness wear us down and tinge our lives with sorrow.   As we carry these burdens forward, time itself would loose all meaning,  there will be no urgency to do anything, experience would pile upon experience.   We would find that we were not damned to hell, but that we had created it ourselves for all eternity.   It is the reason why the Bible portrays God as expelling Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden. (Genesis 3:22) Then the LORD God said, "See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever"--  (NRSV)  This was not done out of spite or punishment, but as an act of grace so that no person would be condemned to unending suffering.

Forgiveness and Hope

While we may know the hope we have from a life of faith is an eventual eternal life,  it is not the first hope we have.  For the hope we have in Jesus Christ is first and foremost grounded in forgiveness.   Forgiveness breaks the cycle of evil that has been built up in our lives over time.   It heals the relationships we have with God, others, and the division within our own hearts.   If not forgiven, we can not be healed, if not healed we are not prepared for eternal life.   It is why when God sent Christ to the Cross it was first and foremost and act of forgiveness.   Jesus would show his wounds to his disciples to prove that he had forgiven them.   That the pain of Good Friday could be reconciled, proved that God can reconcile any division imaginable.   If you don't think that one really needs forgiveness to live eternally,  do this experiment.   Review the major news stories of the last week,  count how many are tragic or even evil.   Then take that number and multiply it by 52 and get an idea of how much pain just one year exists in an broken world.  Then think about that going on year after year with out end.   Unless the cycle is broken there will be no hope; it is the ultimate blessing for us that God has chosen to break the cycle of sin with the cross of Christ.

Living out that hope in tangible ways is what we call discipleship.  True disciples don't wait for the forgiveness to appear in some distant future, they work on it now.   By advocating for the vulnerable, feeding the poor,  encouraging the downtrodden, we provide signs of hope that point people to a God who wants to heal, restore, and forgive.  In a life of Christian discipleship the best way to use technology going forward will be to use it as a tool of discipleship to do Jesus' work of being there for the least of the world.

Isaiah and the LORD's Mountain

One of the earliest references to resurrection in Scripture is comes from  the prophet Isaiah.   He gave us this vision of hope:  (Isaiah 25:6-8) On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.  (NRSV)  Notice that God does not just give the eternal life alone.   The promise is for the removal of tears (pain) and disgrace (shame).   Before these gifts are mentioned, Isaiah destroying the shroud.   The removal of the shroud or sheet is the removal of the division between God and people, it is this removal that makes a blessed eternal life possible.  It is forgiveness that gives us hope.    So as we live out the greatest three days in history, perhaps it is most healthy to move beyond a childlike desire to merely live forever to mature faith that hopes for forgiveness.

May all have a happy and blessed Easter

Pastor J. David Knecht

Friday, January 31, 2014

Thanks, Atheists!

This post comes from colleague Linda Thurston originally posted on her blog January 24, 2014 you can find this and her other posts here

I recently read an obituary for a wonderful, faithful woman. It spoke of her love for her family and detailed her work with a variety of community organizations; it outlined her volunteer commitments and the career she made working on behalf of the disadvantaged. But for the mention of Vacation Bible School and other church commitments and the fact that her husband was a minister, however, a reader might never have guessed that her life of service derived from her faith in Jesus. There was no mention of God or Jesus anywhere in the obituary – not even a God-invoking euphemism for death or a mention of Jesus among the things that she loved.

This struck me because I’ve been thinking lately about how we Christians talk (or don’t talk) about God.

Perhaps you’ve heard about this new movement out of the UK called Sunday Assembly, which one of its founders described as, “all the best bits of church, but with no religion and awesome pop songs.”

As a recent NPR story put it, “There’s little God talk at Sunday Assembly.”

The movement’s website puts it this way: “The Sunday Assembly is a godless congregation that celebrate life. Our motto: live better, help often, wonder more. Our mission: to help everyone find and fulfill their full potential. Our vision: a godless congregation in every town, city and village that wants one.” 

The oxymoron-ish idea of a “godless congregation” and the photos of earnest non-worshippers, singing Rolling Stones tunes together hands in the air, make Sunday Assembly seem ripe for ridicule. News of a recent schism in the New York assembly will, no doubt, only increase the urge for parody among believers and non-believers alike. (See, it really is just like church!!)

 But I’m not interested in making fun of Sunday Assembly. Rather, I’d like to thank them for the opportunity to open some conversation about what it means to be church. You see, it seems like these atheists have a better understanding of what church is about than some church people I know.

One of the founders of Sunday Assembly started the movement because she wondered, “is it possible to have all the wonderful things that church does, like create community and help others and encourage thinking about the world, yourself and improvement, but without the God bit?”

 One commentator described what those attracted to the movement like about church – “”They miss the community, they miss the music, they miss the multi-generational coming together with people that you might not otherwise be hanging out with.”

 So often, when church people talk about why they go to church or what they love about their particular congregation, it is these things that they talk about – the music and the community and the opportunities to help others. At least in the Protestant mainline where I hang out, people seem much less likely to mention God or Jesus.

Now it could be that for many people church really is about all these other things more than “the God bit,” and perhaps these folks really would be just as happy at a Sunday Assembly as at their local Christian church. But it could also be that we leaders of the church haven’t done a very good job with the God-talk – both talking the talk ourselves and teaching and equipping people in our congregations to talk it.

When we don’t do the God-talk, to the outside world many of our congregations seem indistinguishable from other local community organizations that help people “live better, help often, or wonder more.” How is the church different from the Kiwanis or the Girl Scouts or even a health club that collects toys for impoverished kids at Christmas?

The folks at Sunday Assembly, at least, understand what makes church different from all these other organizations including their own. It’s not the ethical teaching; it’s not the service to our neighbors; it’s not the pastoral care; it’s not even the collective singing or the intergenerational fellowship (although these are harder and harder to find in our society). It’s the God-talk. Period.

While sometimes the problem may be that we’re simply lacking any God-talk at all, sometimes the problem is that the God-talk in various congregations doesn’t sound like very good news. Our God-talk should be the “best bit about church,” the most “wonderful thing that church does.” 

 The church exists to proclaim the good news of God in Jesus Christ, to “preach the damn Gospel” in the immortal words of Dr. Timothy Wengert, to tell people that God knows them and loves them anyway, that they are beloved children of God, created with meaning and purpose and called to help do God’s work in the world.

This is what makes us distinctive. This is what we have to offer the world. When our singing and our potlucks and our good deeds overshadow our God-talk, then we stop being the church and just become one more Sunday Assembly. So thanks, atheists and other non-believers for this important reminder of what makes the church the church.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

How do We Talk About Jesus and the Cross?

Who do we really promote? 

The theme of one of Albert Schweitzer's most famous works of theology was that portraits of the historical Jesus often revealed more about the author than they really did about Jesus.   Often how we talk about about Jesus in our congregations may in fact do the exact same thing.    There are many images of Jesus in the New Testament,  there are many more words used to describe him,  there are even more when one takes into account hymns, prayers. and even motion pictures that have been compiled in the time since the writers of the New Testament left us their own witness to Jesus.   The ways to describe Jesus are so rich and varied that we inevitably make choices about which words and images we use to describe him.   What I am asking you to consider is, are you intentional about the choices you make to communicate Jesus to others?   If not, how do you know whom you are really promoting?    He may be named Jesus, but is the person we are describing  simply be the reflection of our own biases and preferences, rather than who he really is? How do avoid falling into this trap?  


In my experience, the first part of the way to avoid the pitfalls is to make sure we are always focused on the cross and resurrection.   This time of year I often dust off my old copy of Gustav Aulen's Chritus Victor (Macmillan: NY, 1951), which deals with the very question of how do we talk about the work of God in Jesus Christ.  The ideas below are all his,  I will try to show how these affect our witness today.   Aulen looks at how people have described God's work through the cross in history.  He charts three main threads of speaking about the work of Christ. The term we use for this effort is the Atonement, which specifically deals with how Christ has resolved the problem of human sin through the action of the cross. Please know that faithful Christians hold each of these views;  they may sometimes hold all three simultaneously.  So while I have my own preference, I will try to treat each with respect, because all have their roots in Scripture and the experiences of the faithful.

Pleasing an Angry God

The view of the Atonement that may be most prevalent in many American churches both Evangelical and Catholic focuses on the idea that because humans have sinned they must make amends.  The strength of this view is it's condemnation of evil and commitment to setting things right.   The scales of justice must balance out.  Since we are so sinful, we need a perfect person to take our place to satisfy God, otherwise we are subject to God's wrath.  Jesus because of his perfection, has an infinite amount of extra credit built built up, which he gives to sinners to rescue them from the judgement of God.   The sinless human Jesus satisfied God's need for Justice.  Catholics access Jesus' extra credit through penitential rites, Protestants through accepting Jesus into their heart and having strong faith thereafter.

A version of this view particularly popular in the United States is known as penal substitution theory.   We deserved the punishment, Jesus takes our place, we get off scot-free.  This view has its biblical roots in the sacrificial system described in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the book of Hebrews in the New Testament.   This view is commonly known in theological circles as the "objective" view of the Atonement.   God is the object of the sacrifice of the cross.  This view was developed in the middle ages and became the basis for the medieval church to sell indulgences, which were basically notes of moral credit accumulated by Christ and some really good people who somehow had a positive balance.   The medieval church, through a narrow interpretation of Jesus' words to Peter about the keys of the kingdom, believed that they had the power to issue these divine bank notes to get folk into heaven.    This led to the Reformation which realized that this was a corruption of the original intent of the Gospel.

In Christians today I see this view played out in a number of ways.   One way is that is that when bad things happen they beat themselves up and say "If only I believed more, God would not have sent me all this hardship."   Prosperity and Self-Help preachers will describe struggles such as a loss of a job, depression, natural disasters as a result loss of faith. The argument goes, we are just getting our deserved punishment for being sinners; what do we have to complain about?  It places the focus of the cross exclusively upon the individual sinner.  Another weakness of this view is that it sets up a duality between Jesus and God the Father.   It is the human Jesus alone who is able to atone for us in this view, so it also devalues the gift of the incarnation.  Finally it may distort our picture of God, setting up a distant, angry, and scary god (lack of capitalization intentional).

Fixing the Broken Person 

There have always been Christians who have been uncomfortable in speaking about the work of Jesus in the terms mentioned above.   They saw the weaknesses of the "objective" view and argued that their fellow Christians had it all backwards.   God is the prime actor through the cross to heal and restore people.   This view is known as the "subjective" view, because God is the subject who does the action and people are the objects of God's redeeming work.   This view began to rise to prominence during the enlightenment and reached it's zenith in the liberal theological movement of the nineteenth century.   God loves human beings so God will restore them through the sign of the cross.    God, in this view, at all times only acts benevolently and graciously.   The atonement therefore is not so much a work that does something, but a symbol of God's love for us.   The sacrifice of the cross gets us to recognize our need to make amends, we give our faith over to God, we are born again and then are healed.  There is much in the New Testament to justify this.  The strength of this view is that it does restore some of the focus back to God and the act of love on the cross.   It does not take God for granted and does guard against an entitlement mentality that can spring up in an un-reflective person with the objective view.

This view has been popular for many modern Christians.  It has some very enticing aspects.  We become the objects of God's love, evil is really explainable as an illness that can be corrected,  God is safe.   However the things that make this view attractive betray its weakness.   First, it does a poor job of dealing with the reality of evil.  Those who experience great evils like poverty, war, crime and abuse will find this explanation wanting.  Secondly, it feeds into our narcissism, it seems to communicate that God just has to love us.  This takes away God's free will and choice.  Finally, by reducing the cross to a mere symbol it proclaims the powerless god (lack of capitalization intentional).   Evil can not be assuaged by this god, people can only be persuaded to change.   It is therefore easy to see how this can lead one who holds this view into either despair or apathy.   It may soothe people in the short term, but once bad times come folks will see no need with the I'm OK, your'e OK vision of the subjective view of the Atonement.

The Good Story

Both the above ways of talking about the atonement can help Christians in their faith life in certain situations.   They both developed historically to help proclaim the Gospel to people of a particular place and time.   That the views have weaknesses should not betray that both views have much truth embedded in them.  God is committed to truth and justice,  God is loving, that love has been demonstrated by Jesus.   Luckily for us we do not have to choose between the subjective and objective views. We can choose what works in our situation to best be there for our Christian brothers and sisters, and thankfully there indeed is a third way.  It is the story of the Gospel itself which should keep us all grounded.

The Dramatic View

Aulen calls the final view the  "dramatic view" of the atonement.  Its focus is the Gospel itself brought home in its fullness with a powerful view of the biblical imagery in all its colors.   It is also called the "classic" view in that it was formulated during the classical period not long after the writing of the New Testament.   In this view the drama is this: people are captured and bound by sin, death, and the devil.   Sin as in the writings of Paul, is a power that binds us, corrupts us, and most importantly is beyond our control to remove without the work of God.    God sends Jesus on a special ops infiltration raid to rescue God's children from their prison to the three demonic powers mentioned above.   (Luther, who also held this view speaks of God deceiving or tricking the devil).   In this view, the cross sets off an explosion that establishes a complete new reality.   The temple curtain torn in two,  graves opened (in Matthew) earthquakes, black skies etc.   In this view all the Biblical actions of God in the Gospel demonstrate their remarkable consistency.  God sends Jesus as a human in the incarnation to deal with sin death and the devil,  God defeats these on the cross (atonement),  and finally God validates the redeemed by inviting them into a new freedom in life in communion with Jesus Christ (justification).   God is loving, but also does not tolerate evil.    Sin and evil are real powers that can hurt both morally pure and impure alike, but are never insurmountable by God.   God is sovereign, powerful, and cosmic in this view, not limited to dealing with only personal concerns.   This view has always been with us and has been promoted by many of the giants of the faith,  Luther, Bonhoeffer, Barth etc.

The rise of the other two views happened because people sought to explain in rational terms how the cross worked.   So in the other two views the most vivid imagery of the Bible is often discarded because it can't be explained.  It may even be that in trying to explain Biblical imagery, people were led to see things they really did not want to see.  This is because these remind us of our own powerlessness in confronting sin, death and evil when they plague our world.    The truth is that Jesus is God,  God is bigger than our words.  All our efforts to explain what God does will always be incomplete.   That is why I like the idea of accessing the truth of God's action through the Story.   Everyone loves a good story,  no matter your theological persuasion,  your world-view, or your politics you can be moved by the Story of the Gospel to a new reality. We love stories because they usually work better in communicating deep truths than our efforts at explanation.   Jesus taught us this himself as he used stories to teach about God's kingdom.    Looking at the they way speak about Jesus, and critically examining how if our description may coincide, or deviate from the story will be helpful in our calling to be humble disciples.  So to be intentional about speaking about Jesus, and to avoid the problem that we might only be promoting ourselves, we will need to tend to the story of the Gospel and let it speak.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Why Churches Fail

My BA is in economics and from time to time I still like to read and think about it. I have recently been Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson. It is a work of historical economics that uses history to formulate a hypothesis of why some countries like our own are prosperous and others fail to deliver even basic needs to vast numbers of their citizens. I found that much of the book was resonating with my experience in serving communities much smaller than nations, churches. While sociologists and economists would have to do a formal study to see if there are indeed parallels with micro-communities, the principles of Why Nations Fail seem to correspond nicely to my own theological orientation.  This is merely an exercise of making connections, understand I could be totally off base.  I am the kind of guy that is often excited about the last thing I read.
reading the book

Extractive Communities

The authors' premise is pretty straight forward. Societies where an elite sets up the rules so that they alone can reap the benefits of its resources are doomed to a reinforcing cycle of poverty and zero sum conflict that will lead the nation to fail at some point. The authors call these extractive societies. The goal of those in power is get the resources out of the ground in any way possible and then to keep all proceeds of the resources for themselves. Even some of the poorest societies around the world have an tiny elite that is fabulously wealthy by global standards. The late Kim Il Sung of North Korea, where millions are repeatedly affected by famine, spent $800,000 per year on cognac alone. The reason for this is that society is set up exclusively for their benefit. The point the authors want to make is that without people working together to build up society for the common benefit of all, a country can only tolerate all this extraction for so long before it collapses.

This leads me to the introspective question about our congregations. Can churches become extractive? Are some set up for the benefit of a few insiders? Are things in others organized to give the pastor or key families the majority of benefits of the fruits of the congregation's life?

I am sure each of you has in mind a case where a pastor built a cult of personality around her or himself in some mega church somewhere. The ministry is set up around the pastor's life and becomes synonymous with it. Sometimes the pastorate is passed on to the children like in a monarchy. The worst cases are where the congregation becomes playground of predator. Remember Jesus's words against the religious leaders who devoured the property of the vulnerable.(Mark 12:20) Perhaps even more common, especially in smaller churches, is when an oligarchy of insider families take control of a faith community and set things up so that they are real power brokers and the majority of the congregation is on the margins with no real say.  In both of these cases the congregations would be less resilient than healthier communities.

In congregations where people have the choice to go and worship elsewhere, people will not tolerate being used and abused by others for very long.  Even those who may stay around and worship become less engaged, often volunteering and giving less.   Is some of the decline in church participation witnessed in recent years due to the fact that too many churches are set up to be extractive for the benefit of a few?   The argument of Why Nations Fail states that communities can grow for a while under extractive conditions, but they will always end up collapsing at some point.  When religious observance is more socially valued perhaps extracive congregations can hang on much longer.   When the prestige is ripped away how healthy the church is will really matter.

Inclusive Communities

The argument in "Why Nations Fail" continues that societies that are prosperous and resilient tend to be inclusive.   By inclusive the authors mean that a diverse group of people has a stake in society;  many can participate in the decision making process.   Rights and obligations are well defined and respected.  There is a clear rule of law and no one is above it.  Particularly important for the authors argument is that their property rights are respected.  All of this provides a stable environment where people will invest in the local economy, innovate new products and work hard to improve their lives.   This tide raises the standard of living in the society.

If you think about what the authors mean by inclusivity,  you will see is something deeper and more powerful than using the correct pronouns or having the right pictures in your brochure.   At their core, inclusive communities protect the dignity and worth of all the community's members.  In economies that dignity is symbolized by private property.   It is a tangible measure of how a particular society values the dignity of its citizens.  Notice that even in our own society, which is inclusive by world and historical standards,  the poor are more likely to have their property rights abridged than the wealthy.  Just think about how interstate highways are built,  wealthy towns can usually get them diverted or even canceled, like what happened with the continuation of 1-95 in New Jersey.  Poorer communities will not have as much of a say unless they can mobilize a broader support base to make their case.  It is a blessing to live in a relatively inclusive society where this can happen.    This does not mean our society is always just, but we do have tools to do something about it, unlike those living in many places around the world.    

Each and every Christian should realize that inclusivity is a core virtue of the Gospel Message of Jesus Christ. The church of the New Testament was a radically inclusive community by the standards of any time.  The first Jerusalem church found in Acts 2-4, the types of communities Paul is trying to build as seen in his letters, and perhaps most importantly the church of Antioch, which we find in the heart of  the book of Acts demonstrate a biblical view that places a high value on inclusivity.

Building an inclusive congregation is hard work and takes intentional effort.  In micro-communities like churches, we do not have a  reference like property rights that can quickly symbolize dignity, so we have to work harder to maintain it.   It congregations dignity is maintained by being intentional about communication, extending trust, giving permission to follow one's true gifts , respecting differences. and most importantly active listening.   Active listening and responding graciously to the people of our communities is how we show we value the dignity of those who comprise it.

Another key toward inclusivity is paradoxical.  A certain degree of centralization is necessary for societies to become inclusive.   People need a common bond in which to engage the community.   In congregations that common bond is maintained by the twin pillars of mission and message.   The message will be how the community uniquely proclaims the Gospel to its service area,  the mission will be how it lives out the Gospel by serving the people where they are located.   It is critical that both are in sync, right belief is right action.  If our congregations are not clear about these two areas it will be hard for them to become inclusive because their members will be unsure of how to engage them.

Healthy Institutions

Acemoglu and Robinson argue that institutions matter for the health of society. Societies are less likely to turn extractive where institutions set limits on the exercise of power, protect private property, appropriately value labor, and most importantly allow for broad base of people to engage in making decisions.  Good institutions are set up to promote inclusivity.

In reality this is really all about appropriate boundary setting, and healthy boundaries and limits are important for communities of any size. In congregations where boundaries are fuzzy bad things are more likely to happen, because those who wish to abuse power have nothing to stop them. So while we may at times lament that our structures and boundaries may give us some extra work, calling meetings, making reports, having one more conversation about an issue that was already settled, these actually help keep a wider group of people engaged in our congregation.  The work of good boundaries in a congregation can be fruitful when they are constructed to draw out the ideas and contributions of the widest possible extent of the community's membership.

Fear of Creative Destruction

The real Aha! moment of the book for me was the premise that in extractive societies the leaders will always resist change and innovation for fear that it will upset the current power relationship and the leaders will will be less able to exploit the society.   There is a fear of creative destruction.  A dictator will not allow land reform because if the citizens had property rights, it would limit the power of the leader.   A labor saving device like a back hoe would throw hundreds of peasants out of work.  They would then have nothing to do except advocate for change which would threaten the dictator's hold on power.    Extractive societies are set up for zero sum power struggles over resources, therefore any change is a threat.

In many congregations fear of creative destruction is palpable.  When wanting to widen the circle of the community often some things have to die, and new things have to take their place.   If a local congregation does not let those things which fail to reach the outside world die they risk stagnation and decline.   Often people in churches participate because of the sense of empowerment.   This is a good thing generally,  but when the feeling of empowerment overrides the unifying mission the congregation will resist change because it will bring some destruction as well as new life.   As Christians we should realize this, when the temple curtain was torn in two at the death of Jesus it was God's act of creative destruction.   Replacing something that had become exclusive with a new reality that is inclusive.

In the end churches will fail when they are no longer able to that which they were created by God to do for Lutherans like myself that is to preach the gospel, administer the sacraments and provide a place for people to mutually care and support one another.