May 14, 2021

Weekend Listening: World Smasher - Free

What are you going to be listening to this weekend? I've been listening to the latest EP from World Smasher, Big Head on Forever Never Ends Records. Check out the track "Free" below:

Support musicians! A great way to do this is on Bandcamp. Take a look at what I'm discovering their. You can find all my weekend listening tracks on the playlists I've created on Spotify and YouTube.

May 11, 2021

The Way of Love (redux)

This summer was to be the 80th General Convention of the Episcopal Church. This is a meeting every three years at which clergy and congregational representatives from across the tradition convene for 10 days. It's a family reunion of sorts. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the next convention has been postponed until next summer. The last convention was held in Austin, TX. During the convention Presiding Bishop Michael Curry announced a project called, "The Way of Love." It was presented as an invitation to simple practices that nurture a "Jesus-centered life."

There are 7 practices:
  1. Turn: Pause, listen and choose to follow Jesus
  2. Learn: Reflect on Scripture, especially on Jesus' life and teaching
  3. Pray: Dwell intentionally with God
  4. Worship: Gather in community to thank, praise, and dwell with God
  5. Bless: Share faith, unselfishly give and serve
  6. Go: Cross boundaries, listen deeply and live like Jesus
  7. Rest: Receive the gift of God's grace, peace and restoration
I think this method has potential to be a tool for starting new communities. I mentioned this a few years ago, but never completed my thought on it. Here's a quick run down and I will expand on future posts.

One reason why I like this is its simplicity. It offers a basic, action-oriented pattern to follow. Anyone can do this. The second reason why I like this is related; it engenders discipleship. This approach does not require a semester long course on each discipline. In a video for "The Way of Love" Bishop Curry teaches how to practice each of these in just a few words. The discipleship through this will happen as these are practiced. The third reason why I like this is that they seem culturally appropriate for our current era. What I mean by this is that these practices exude a Christ-centered "contemplative action" approach. Considering the increasing popularity of practices such as meditation for health and performance, it seems appropriate to approach these as practices that can be taught to others that are spiritually hungry.

The most counter-cultural aspect of this model is its focus on Jesus. The image appears to begin with "Learn" which would make sense to Episcopalians since this tends to be an over-educated tribe. Yet, when Bishop Curry describes this model (see video linked to above), he starts with "Turn." The whole model hinges on a Christological center. Whether speaking of person-to-person discipleship or starting new faith communities, the Way of Christ, the life and teachings of Jesus are the critical component. I'm going to work on that being assumed. So, let's get more specific about how this is useful for starting a new community.

In my mind, there are three stages for making this useful for starting a new community that after cycling through and beginning a community, become the rhythms of that faith community: pre-engagement, engagement, gathering.

Stage 1: Pre-engagement
Before engaging the context a small group of people are going start a new faith community within, they begin gathering around 4 practices:

Turn, learn, pray and worship.

An assumption: there are no lone rangers. We should also go into mission together. There are so many reasons why. Jesus sent people out together. In some contexts, its for safety. And there's always accountability in numbers. Nevertheless, whether 2 or 12 or however many you start with, your small group of people planning to start a new faith community ought to gather around and regularly engage these 4 practices. They are critical components for getting your "launch team," "core group," or whatever this is called in your tradition to having the necessary center to what a faith community is. It's easy to get sucked into new ideas, tools, promotion, etc. These practices will appropriately anchor your conversation and planning.

Stage 2: Engagement
Rooted in the 4 initial practices will inform how you will go into a context and seek to bless it. They shape how engage others. This stage has two simple practices: Bless and Go. These are shaped by the previous stage. This ensures that you go into your ministry context as a community, rather than as individuals and with an imagination of what a new faith community will look and feel like (because you have already begun experiencing it in some fashion). Additionally, there is no bait and switch in starting a new community this way. It is about genuinely befriending and blessing neighbors. This engenders trust which is so critical in an era where there is increasing public examples why not to Christian communities.

Stage 3: Gathering
That's right, there's only one more practice in Bishop Curry's model. What if rest was your first invitation into Christian community? Second only to the Jesus-centeredness of this model, rest may be the most counter-cultural aspect of this model. We do not participate in a culture that believes in Scripture-rooted understanding of rest. Certainly leisure but not rest. What if your first manner of gathering people into new community was through an invitation into a Sabbath-informed way of collective rest and restoration? What would that look like in your context? Would it be respite for underpaid and overworked neighbors or single moms? Would it be a lavish Shabbat/family-styled meal where people are encouraged to linger? Would it be planting trees, nature walks ... the one thing I would say is that it should not be decided upon before the first two stages, which will plug you into whatever God is up to and what your neighbors long for.

4 ... 2 ... 1 ... Repeat.

What do you think about this? What would you change? Would you try this out?

As mentioned above, I'll write in more detail about each of the practices in further posts.

Michael Frost encourages 5 practices in his book Surprise the World with some similarity.
This post was adapted from a previous post.

May 10, 2021

Scenario Thinking pt. 2

In a post last week, I wrote about "scenario thinking" referencing the work of Steven Weber and Arik Ben-Zvi. I would argue that for most faith communities, one of the best ways to start looking towards the future is to first look to the past.

Here's what I mean.

Throughout the pandemic, congregations of all shapes and sizes overcame challenges they would have imagined possible just months before. For example, the number of congregations that were able to transition their programming to a digital format—including worship, giving, formation, etc.—in a short amount of time is astounding when you consider that most congregations in the States were not using Internet tools to their full capacity prior to to the pandemic. In many cases, congregations made this adjustment within a few short weeks. If you had gone to the leaders of these congregations 18 months before the pandemic and asked them if they thought it possible for their faith community to move all programming online in 2 weeks most would have said it impossible. And, yet, most were able to do this.

What this tells me is that we are often more resilient, more capable of change than we give ourselves credit for. We don't recognize this because we don't take the time to reflect on the challenges we have overcome and how this might apply to future challenges. I would recommend that as congregations begin to go back to some semblance of normalcy that they take time to reflect on the challenges they have overcome with their leaders:

  • Whose participation did it require?
  • How long did it take?
  • What kind of resources did it require?
  • How were those resources obtained? 

A simple analysis of past challenges overcome will give you a sense of what the next "impossible" challenge will require.

With these tools in hand, let's return to what Weber and Ben-Zvi discuss in "scenario thinking." In an example they offer, four scenarios are offered. They come to these by identifying two independent variable. These are, as they write:

a) Very important to defining what the future will look like; and

b) Very uncertain and thus difficult to predict

I don't know that Weber and Ben-Zvi would recommend using their concepts in this way, but I wonder if there are two important post-covid questions, for church plants in particular, to consider. The first is this:

Is this new faith community sustainable?

The answer to this is not merely a yes/no, pass/fail response. A response might be, "No, but we hope to be" or "Yes, but we're not sure it should be." In any case, another question that needs to be addressed as well:

Does this new faith community need to exist for a season?

Not all faith communities need to exist for an extended amount of time. One study found that only 68% of new churches still remained in their fourth year. It's important to recognize that a faith community existing for a short season does not need to be understood as failure. Considering how transient many populations are, it's completely logical that some communities would rise and fall with the changes of populations in certain areas. Coming to terms with this allows us to end well, to discern the lessons to be learned for others in the future, etc.

Whether a community is to be sustainable or seasonal, another question remains:

To what scale?

Faith communities come in all shapes and sizes. Some faith communities exist comfortably at—for example—6, 60 and 160 participants. The hard question is not the size so much as whether we're willing to live with what is possible at different sizes. Does a community of 6 need a full time person? No. Does 60? Maybe, maybe not. Does 160? Probably.

COVID-19 has had, and will have, a hard impact on our congregations. What's even more important is to recognize the deep impact it has had, and will have, on the communities surrounding each congregation. Addressing some of these questions might resolve some of our questions about our own survivability so that we might be prepared to meet our neighbors clear on what we have to offer to whatever lies ahead. 

You can find the first post on "scenario thinking" here.

May 8, 2021

Weekend Listening: Marker - Identification of a Woman

I am a product of the 80's. I love the fact that so many current bands are drawing from that era of music. Marker is one of them. Their 2017 release Marker (MR-072) on Medical Records takes me back to those synth-layered new wave records I was discovering at a young age. It's perfect music for a cool, quiet and cloudy morning. Check it out:

 You can find all my weekend listening tracks on the playlists I've created on Spotify and YouTube.

Support musicians! A great way to do this is on Bandcamp. Take a look at what I'm discovering their.