Staying and Welcoming

April has been a very busy month for this over-committed preacher/student/teacher/writer/mother/wife, so I wasn’t able to write something new for this month’s issue of “Being Church” like I had hoped. Instead, I’ve included below the text of my talk from the Sunday that the Stamford Church of Christ announced that I was going to start working there as an Assistant Ministry (July 7, 2013). This text already exists on the web at Gal328, and the audio can be heard on Stamford’s sermon player if you scroll down far enough.

I’m including it as part of this issue of Wineskins because it does begin to get at an aspect of “what it means to be church” that is important to me, which is “staying put.” It is *very* important that you understand that I am not saying that *all* people ought to stay in Churches of Christ specifically, although that is the decision I have made. I am only speaking personally: for me, being church means staying put in the tradition that raised me even though that has not always been easy. And for others, I think being church means at least listening to the voices of those who may experience church differently than you, regardless of whether you agree with them. For that reason, I think this (but more importantly, the other “voices of experience” available at Gal328), are an important part of an issue on the topic of “Being Church.”

My call to ministry has been less like a Burning Bush or a Damascus Road situation, and more like an awareness of personal skills and life situations that make a particular path a good fit. My path is made up of steps that, only in retrospect, show that God was leading me to ministry, to what turns out to be this moment. Dale has already given you a sketch, but I’d like to share more with you about a few of those formative moments.

I was raised in the Church of Christ. My parents gave me a love of church. We were there Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, Saturday youth group, summer church camp, potlucks (though we called them fellowship meals), small groups, picnics, work days…you name it, we did it. And church wasn’t just somewhere we went, it was what we did and who we were – you can go to a building, that is something you can do, but you can’t go to church ’cause the church is you – you know. My parents’ best friends were from church and my best friends were their kids. We lived in community. Churches of Christ were my people. And these were the people who gave me a love of Scripture: reading it, studying it, memorizing it, Bible Bowling it – even teaching it (to other girls and in children’s church, of course).

When I was deciding where to go for college, I only considered Church of Christ schools; I chose Rochester College (in Michigan). I started out as an English major, then became a Bible major because those were the classes I was most excited to attend. But I was intentionally “just” a Biblical Studies major, decidedly not a ministry major. My intention was to go on to get a PhD and teach college Bible courses. But even Biblical Studies majors have to take a preaching course, which I put off literally as long as I could, until my Senior year. And in that class I discovered that I loved preaching, that I was good at it even. But at this point, I didn’t think it was worth fighting over or fighting for. Upon graduation, I planned to pursue the M.Div., but, again, for the purpose of going on to a PhD and teaching college Bible courses.

For my M.Div., I chose another Church of Christ school, Abilene Christian University. This was the first time I had female classmates who wanted to minister in Churches of Christ; at Rochester the only other female Biblical Studies major was also “in it for academics” – at least at the time. So my first passion regarding gender justice in Churches of Christ was advocacy-based. It wasn’t for me; it was for my friends. Again, I put off taking the required preaching course until my last semester. Again, I found that I loved it. And again, it was confirmed that I was good at it. But this time around, I also found that I wanted to do it, that it was worth fighting for. What had started out as advocacy had turned into hope. Abilene is also where I met and married Jamey, who was planning to do a PhD and teach Bible at the college level.

These two factors led me to reconsider my long-held plan of doing a PhD: First, since it is unlikely that Jamey and I would receive tenure-track teaching positions at the same university in the same department. But second, and mostly, because I was ready to admit that my plans to teach were at least partially denial. (I was also able to teach a few undergraduate courses at ACU, and found that to be something that I enjoy and have skill in as well, so this is not to say that teaching is nowhere in my future; just that I was hiding behind it.) I was afraid that being honest, with myself and with others, about my desire to preach would open the floodgates, that it would consume my life and make it impossible for me to both be faithful to who God had made me to be and to continue to love God’s people. It turns out there was good reason for this fear. My initial steps toward speaking out for gender justice in Churches of Christ were met with anger, resentment, condemnation, judgment, disappointment, and confusion – by complete strangers and, more painfully, by some very close to me.

It was in the midst of this that we moved to Princeton for my husband’s PhD at Princeton Theological Seminary. In this time of transition, as we searched for a church home, I thought of leaving Churches of Christ so that I could more easily find work in a church. In fact many people suggested that I do just that – some suggested it to get rid of me, others suggested it out of concern for my spiritual health. I thought of it, but I never really considered it. I could no more leave Churches of Christ as I could leave my family. Just as I will always be my parents’ daughter, I will always be Church of Christ. Even if I stopped attending a Church of Christ and attended another church, Churches of Christ would not stop being my people. They are the tribe that formed me, that instilled in me the very gifts I now want to use for ministry. Although I am certainly not what my church intended or could ever have imagined, the fact remains that it made me who I am.

And, again, there’s the question of advocacy. I have other female friends who want to preach. I have nieces. I have friends with daughters. Maybe someday Jamey and I will have a daughter. There are women, young and old, many of whom I have never met, who have been silenced and ignored. If everyone who wants Churches of Christ to change leaves, what will become of them? I felt – I still feel – that as long as God gives me the strength to stay, in fact even on the days that I’m not so sure I have that strength, Churches of Christ are where I’ll be.

This commitment is what brought us here to Stamford, even though it is a two-hour drive from Princeton. I had heard about Stamford in undergrad at Rochester from my friend and fellow soccer player, Hudney Piquant, who attended here. I had heard about Stamford while at ACU, that it was one of the few Churches of Christ in the country who had welcomed women into its pulpit. I had heard about Stamford from Justin and Kat Burton, who Jamey knew in undergrad. So we visited, and we could tell from just one Sunday that things were different here. This is the type of church that we wanted to attend. In fact, this is the type of church that I wanted to work for and work with in embodying the mission of God in the world.

Those are the steps that brought me here. Like Jonah, I ran and hid and denied a little bit along the way; I’ll even admit that I have cursed my share of leafy trees. But it is clear to me looking back on my story so far that God was shaping me – through parents who modeled community life and gave me a love of church, through a community that encouraged in me a love of Scripture, through preaching classes I did not want to take, through professors and mentors, and through a hundred other people, skills, and situations – to minister to God’s people.

And it’s clear to me from Dale’s story that God was shaping you to be the kind of church that would provide space for me to minister – though it may be risky socially for all of us, though it may be costly monetarily for all of us, though it is always difficult to commit to live together in community.

So, as I stand here today, I have many emotions. I am excited. I am grateful. I’m a bit scared. But I’m confident that God will use you in this next year to shape and challenge me in ministry, and I’m hopeful that God can use me to shape and challenge you as well. I’m not exactly sure what that will look like, but I can’t wait to see what the God who clears a path through roaring waters, who reveals a way in the wilderness, who makes a stream in the dessert, and who provides a ministry position in Churches of Christ for a woman (!) will do among us in the next year.

It was hard for many to imagine this day would come. But, to the one who is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine, to God be the glory in the church – in this church, in you, and in me – to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen!

Fluid Church – Becoming More Nimble and Adaptable in a World that Requires It

One of the main words that comes to mind when reading Acts is the word “fluid”…they were on the move and they were nimble. They were adaptable…able to move and shift in necessary ways to continue being and doing the things they had been called to be and to do. When persecution broke out, they scattered. When they scattered, they took the Gospel message with them (Acts 8:1-4). It didn’t take a quarter long class in how to reach your neighbor to reach the lost. It doesn’t appear they needed that because their faith in the risen Lord was everything to them. Like the mustard plant, the kingdom reflected by the early believers, was invasive…it couldn’t be contained. It spread…and spread…and spread…just like Jesus said it would.

It didn’t spread as much by brick and mortar as it did by organic, relational outreach.

Paul vs. James
When I think of someone who was very fluid in his approach to ministry in the book of Acts, I can’t help but think of Paul. There were seasons Paul stayed put and ministered for several years, like in Ephesus and Corinth. But Paul was very much like the people of Israel in the wilderness…moving when the cloud moved and stopping where it stopped. Only with Paul, replace the cloud and the fire with the Holy Spirit, a vision of a man from Macedonia (Acts 16) or even Jesus Christ giving him direction (Acts 9 – Saul’s conversion). Paul ran into Lydia by a river and Onesimus in prison. He met people like Aquila and Priscilla who were tent makers like he was. He ran into people on boats, in synagogues and in marketplaces like in Acts 19.

Church wasn’t a place to Paul…it was a people. When you see church that way…the potential for “church” is all around us…in every single person we meet lies the inherent potential for kingdom impact and growth. When you see church that way it isn’t as institutional as it is adaptable.

This doesn’t mean everyone has to be nimble or that we should all transition from whatever ministry we are doing to be church planters. James spent his whole ministry building up the church in Jerusalem…he never followed up on the rest of Acts 1:8 (Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth) but died a martyrs death still in Jerusalem where the whole thing began. He was more static than he was fluid…and he accomplished a lot as well.

We need both, while still addressing the very real imbalance
The point is we need both. The problem is not that one is more important than the other…the problem is imbalance combined with an insufficient definition of what church is. I believe the definition of “church” of the typical Christian is far more shaped by tradition than it is by scripture. This is something we need to work on and allow the New Testament room to tell a better story of what church is all about than the definitions we arrived at while preparing our talking points against other Christian groups.

So when the vast majority of what you do is static and we no longer have enough flexibility to adjust, much less a Gospel culture that was as invasive to the world around them as it was in the first century…we need to reclaim our nimbleness…our flexibility and fluidity…not to the exclusion of those who root themselves in one place for decades but in partnership with them. Some send and some go. Some plant and others water. But we are all still serving the same God and working in the same kingdom.

So what do we do about this? One word – stretch. We need to stretch our comfort zones. We need to stretch our love for God and others. We need to stretch our knowledge of scripture and the story God is telling through its pages. We won’t become fluid and nimble until we stretch. So let’s put on an audio version of the New Testament and begin our stretching routine, starting with the next person God puts in front of us.

Updates From Wineskins

There are a few things we wanted to make you all aware of looking ahead. First is the site. Our current site is a magazine style platform that allows us compile articles and issues together in some really great ways. The downside of the way it is structured is that RSS doesn’t recognize new articles. An additional issue has been that email subscriptions only work with posts, not articles. That is why, if you have subscribed to the site, you haven’t gotten notifications of new posts.

We are working on a new layout and new post types that will allow us to keep the magazine functionality while also getting the articles to you via email/RSS. I am sorry for any inconvenience that has caused you and I am happy to say that we are aware of this and are making the necessary changes to address it in the near future with a complete site re-design that will highlight more than just the articles but also the other features we have built and continue to build for the site. Some of the things we have included in the site are:

Job board – a place for churches to post ministry openings
Forums – a place to discuss a variety of issues
Monthly issues – just like in the past, we continue to host monthly themes that we write toward.
Archive of past issues – go and read any article from past issues of Wineskins all the way back to the beginning!

And something brand new – Commentary from our writers. We are building a scripture index of all of the posts so that if you want to see what any of our writers past or present have written on a given verse you can easily look it up.
Old Testament “commentary”
New Testament “commentary”

Thank you for reading Wineskins! Let us know if you have any feedback!

Updates from Wineskins

There are a few things we wanted to make you all aware of looking ahead. First is the site. Our current site is a magazine style platform that allows us compile articles and issues together in some really great ways. The downside of the way it is structured is that RSS doesn’t recognize new articles. An additional issue has been that email subscriptions only work with posts, not articles. That is why, if you have subscribed to the site, you haven’t gotten notifications of new posts.

We are working on a new layout and new post types that will allow us to keep the magazine functionality while also getting the articles to you via email/RSS. I am sorry for any inconvenience that has caused you and I am happy to say that we are aware of this and are making the necessary changes to address it in the near future with a complete site re-design that will highlight more than just the articles but also the other features we have built and continue to build for the site. Some of the things we have included in the site are:

Job board – a place for churches to post ministry openings
Forums – a place to discuss a variety of issues
Monthly issues – just like in the past, we continue to host monthly themes that we write toward.
Archive of past issues – go and read any article from past issues of Wineskins all the way back to the beginning!

And something brand new – Commentary from our writers. We are building a scripture index of all of the posts so that if you want to see what any of our writers past or present have written on a given verse you can easily look it up.
Old Testament “commentary”
New Testament “commentary”

Thank you for reading Wineskins! Let us know if you have any feedback!

Performance Anxiety

A year ago our congregation was visited by a family of five – wife, husband, and three kids. They looked like the kind of family every church secretly covets; good-looking, educated, well-ordered, and young. From all accounts they enjoyed our fellowship. They were already familiar with several members of our church and their energy was obvious. After three weeks, I felt confident they would join our congregation and mission.

They didn’t.

After three weeks, they never came back. I can’t say why they left.I suspect that after a lengthy questioning of me after worship service, I didn’t dislike the same people they disliked and I didn’t read the Christian books they read, and I didn’t listen to the same preachers they listened to.

The same event occurred when a gentleman left our congregation because he couldn’t find the Bible I preached from, The Voice, at the local Lifeway Store. What’s more, collecting the offering before the sermon was a bridge too far for him. After all, if the sermon was good that day, he might be inclined to give a little more.

If you suspect my stories are wild outliers, sit down with your preacher or church leaders and have them share a few stories of their own.

Church can be a mixed-up, confused, and debatable entity – mostly because it means so much and can mean so many different things to different people.

Standing Ovations
For most people, church is a place where particular “performances” occur – singing, preaching, communion, and, good heavens, announcements. We don’t like to call them performances, but that’s how we think of them.

Performance – in part – is why preachers podcast, worship bands record and tour, and parishioners “join” churches they “like.” Performance-thinking has almost solely produced the contemporary imagination of the American church. From the blessings and ills of mega-churches, to the rise of celebrity pastors, to conference groupies, to small church anxieties about being “good enough,” to the revolving door of church members groping for a church where they are “fed” and “fits their learning style,” American churches are experiencing performance anxiety.

In short: If we like the performance then church is a benefit, if we don’t, we’re out. Collectively, American Christians have transformed church life into an episode of Iron Chef; let’s sample the offerings then declare a winner based solely on our taste.

But our tastes are the precise disease the church exists to cure.

When the Apostle Paul speaks of church and worship, he never speaks of performance. He doesn’t even speak of membership or joining. Paul’s language is much more gritty. Paul uses the word “body.”

In Paul’s oft-quoted, but seldom lived words about worship, the Apostle connects true worship with transformation and the renewing of the mind.

“Do not allow this world to mold you in its own image. Instead, be transformed from the inside out by renewing your mind. As a result, you will be able to discern what God wills and whatever God finds good, pleasing, and complete. ”

-Romans 12:2

Over the last 20 years or so, this connection has helped many of us understand worship as more than what happens on Sunday. We eagerly proclaim that worship is connected to all of life,the day-to-day, the routine and mundane. Yet even in this acknowledgment, we somehow manage to cut Paul off at the knees and fail to grasps the deeper, more meaningful message.

For Paul, worship is not merely connected to daily actions, it’s connected to transformation and transformation is the aim of church.

He writes,

“Because of the grace allotted to me, I can respectfully tell you not to think of yourselves as being more important than you are; devote your minds to sound judgment since God has assigned to each of us a measure of faith. For in the same way that one body has so many different parts, each with different functions; we, too—the many—are different parts that form one body in the Anointed One.  Each one of us is joined with one another, and we become together what we could not be alone.”
– Romans 12:3-5

A Church At Odds

When Paul writes to churches in Rome, he pens his letter to Christians at odds. The Jewish and Gentile believers don’t care much for one another and if it were up to them they’d just as well go their own way. Like us, they’d select a church of their own liking, one, presumably, filled with folks that looked like them, talked like them, and fit their needs.

Paul is not concerned about their needs. He’s consumed with their transformation.

And before we hoop, holler, and cheer for transformation, we need to be honest and remember that when it comes to transformation, we seldom like it. We remember well our attempts at previous transformations – losing weight, getting out of debt, beginning to take God seriously, re-imagining our marriage amid hard times, readjusting to the management of our children when required, and the like.

Transformation, by its nature, is stressful, uncomfortable, and difficult. It ask us to submit to an alternative way of being — an alternative way of being that we could not and would not choose.

This being the universal case, perhaps the worst decision we can make when contemplating our church life is choosing one we like. An overweight, out-of-shape man has already chosen how many sit-ups are appropriate: None. That’s the way he stays overweight and out-of-shape.

Choosing a church (or non-church) where we “fit,” may be the strongest guarantee that we will never be asked to change. This, I suspect, is why we do it.

In church, as in the rest of life, we don’t want transformation as much as we say we do. We’d rather have comfort.

Being Church

The best thing many of us could do is envisage church as an opportunity to embrace that which is outside of us, that which does not – at least on the surface – appeal to what we already are.

Being church requires actions and activities that we wouldn’t otherwise choose. While being church, we are placed among people we might not like to participate in activities we may not choose at a time we might find inconvenient in a manner we may not fit our style, in order to become, in the words of Paul, “what we could not be alone.”