Sunday, October 13, 2013

People Don't Need Church Until They Do

The following was written for the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ.

            You have heard me repeatedly say from the pulpit, "The church is not a building; it is a community."  I deeply believe these words.  If-God forbid-our church building burnt down tomorrow, we would still have a church, because we would still have our community.  This year we began a new ministry called Church Out of Bounds, where every fifth Sunday we cut out of worship early and spend some together as a congregation serving others outside the walls of our building.  I can't think of a healthier thing for a church with a building to do, because all too often church people get confused and think the church is in fact the building.  That's the problem with our religious language.  We use the same word for the building and the community that uses it.  We get confused about our identity and think it is found in brick and mortar rather than as followers of Jesus Christ.
            The vast selloff of religious real estate over the last decade speaks to the truth of our inadequate vocabulary.  Everywhere you look individual congregations and entire denominations are selling off buildings they no longer can afford.  Yet, the presence of God still resides among faithful people whether or not they own real estate.  A building is not necessary to be a church.  That wasn't the case in the first century and it remains the case among many congregations today.  There are plenty of churches with buildings that look like a church in terms of real estate but not in terms of actually being a community of love and grace.
            I can name a long list of congregations that today are upside down on their real estate, sort of the way many individuals and families are upside down on their mortgages.  There are churches who built tremendous buildings when their congregations were larger and our culture approved of going to church.  Now these same congregations cannot afford their big (and empty) buildings anymore, and they devote all their energy and money to keeping the buildings from falling down.  After all, generations of blood, sweat and tears (and building fund contributions) built those buildings.  Children were married and baptized in those buildings.  Funerals for loved ones were held in those buildings.  Faithful people experienced God in those buildings.  Letting those buildings go involves grief and pain-not to mention it feels like failure.  It's too bad however that most churches in this situation cannot make the difficult but healthy choice to let go of the buildings they can no longer afford and devote their money and energy towards something other than building preservation.
            I am thankful such is not the case at our church.  When I interviewed, I asked a lot of questions including ones about the building.  I learned about the building campaign in 2005 and the approximately half a million dollars spent on renovations.  I learned that continuing maintenance is expensive and it is difficult to find the funds to do that maintenance.  (What church with a building these days doesn't have that problem?)  Yet, I also learned that the membership of this congregation has financial means to do what it wants to do when it is challenged.  I heard what I needed to hear-namely that the building is expensive but the congregation is not in dire straits (at least not yet) when it comes to meeting those expenses.
            Furthermore, our building is an asset to ministry, because it is beautiful and situated so nicely at the intersection of 65th and Linden Streets, people are attracted to it.  We frequently have visitors who drop in out of curiosity just so they can see what goes on in this kind of building.  It is not an eyesore.  Currently, we have more space than we really use when you take into consideration the basement and top floor, but that is more a question of us using our building intentionally for ministry than an issue of having too much space.
            I believe firmly that the church is more than a building.  Without the community of people, the only thing you have is a building and nothing more.  The building, however, can be important to the community of faith and to the community outside its walls, if it is used for ministry.  In my sermon this past Sunday, I quoted from an opinion column by Amy Butler, a Baptist minister in Washington, D.C.  She states eloquently why things like a church building and a church staff matter.  The following is an excerpt from her column:

think before we do even one more church budget, we need a whole new framework for thinking about church and ministry. 

In the past we churches thought of ourselves as the backbones of society, places where good, moral and faithful people gather to pool resources so we can go out into the world and feed the homeless and convert people in order to save their souls. Keeping administrative costs as low as possible would help us to help the needy.

While many good and righteous things have come out of this view of ourselves, the truth is that that way of thinking is a pretty arrogant self-assessment borne out of a climate of popularity and ease.

With our role in society shifting, we are no longer bastions of benevolent and overflowing food pantries that we graciously bestow on the less fortunate and then return to our churches filled with other scrubbed and spiritual do-gooders to plan new ways to do ministry.

What we are now is mission outposts. We are islands in a world full of increasingly adrift people. We are places of solace and hope, community and hospitality for people who are too smart to believe in God and pretty convinced they don't need the church - until they do.

I cannot count the times people who never grew up in church stumble into worship looking for solace and discover - to their shock and amazement - liturgy, music and preaching that help them begin to connect with the tradition of the church and the message of Jesus, things they find they desperately need in their lives.

Or the inquiries I get from people looking for a nice staging area for their wedding, feeling they might vaguely enjoy some kind of traditional twist on things. After five sessions of required premarital counseling they begin to discover that maybe spiritual grounding of relationships has some merit they'd never considered.

How about the calls from the mayor's office asking for a spiritual perspective on justice issues in the city? There are plenty of people around who can offer opinions about what's most politically expedient, but it turns out that sometimes our leaders want to talk about what it would look like to do the right thing instead of just the easy thing. So they come to us.

And there are the times I get called to do a funeral, visit a hospital or intervene in a crisis for people I don't know. They call because they don't know who else to call. The church-free lives they've constructed don't offer the kind of resources they need to navigate the death of a child, the loss of a job or the break-up of a marriage.

So they come to church, and when they do they encounter grace-filled community that changes their lives.

All these things require substantial investment of resources that we have labeled as "administrative" - pastors, musicians, church staff, bulletins, air conditioning, janitorial services, capital repairs, instrument tuning - but all of these things are ministry. In fact, they're frontline, on the ground, where-the-rubber-meets-the-road kind of ministry.
How we go about being church in the world is changing radically. With that change, now more than ever, our whole life together in faith community is mission and ministry.

And we'd better start seeing it that way soon, because the call to live "Jesus' two Great Commandments" in this world is going to take a heck of a lot more than our church mission budget line. It's going to take the full engagement of everything we have.

As we go through another stewardship campaign, I hope we at CCCUCC will listen to Butler's words.  "Administrative costs" like our building and our staff matter.  When all things are working as they should, the building and the staff create space for people to find healing, discover community and experience God.  If we really believe that is what we offer in this community that is our church, then these things are worth investing in.  As you consider what you will give to this community of faith in 2014, I hope you will consider digging deep, thinking sacrificially and giving joyfully, because these costs are investments in making sure there is a church here when people discover they need one.

Grace and Peace,

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Are We Being Out-Prayed?

UPDATE: 3/2/14--When I originally wrote this blog post I was just describing my impressions after stopping by to visit International House of Prayer (IHOP) in Grandview, MO..  Although it certainly didn't appeal to me, there wasn't anything on the surface that alarmed me--at least not to any greater degree than most conservative evangelical megachurches usually alarm me.  However, after reading further press accounts about the death of Bethany Deaton along with a blog post from an ex-IHOP member who knew those involved, I think there's a lot to be alarmed about when it comes to IHOP and its leadership.  Furthermore, now there are connections between IHOP"S founding pastor and other IHOP people to the terrible anti-gay laws in Uganda which is pretty freaking horrific.  It appears there's a lot to be concerned about below the surface at the International House of Prayer--dangerous theology that is not evident from a cursory visit..

ORIGINAL POST: 10/5/14            

     This morning I found myself around the Red Bridge area so I decided to drive by the International House of Prayer. I grew up in Grandview, so it's pretty weird to drive around my old stomping grounds and see that the main economic engine in that town now is a church which continues to buy up more and more of the town's real estate. I've read a lot of stuff in the press about IHOPKC (including that they were sued by the International House of Pancakes for using the acronym IHOP, hence the KC added to it). It's difficult as an outsider to separate truth from fiction about the group. When I drove up to the strip mall on Red Bridge Road that they have converted into their headquarters, I was surprised by two things: how many cars were in the parking lot on a Friday morning and how normal it looked.
            In the strip mall, I found the church's bookstore (over half of its stock consisted of books and recordings of its pastor's teachings), the church's coffee and sandwich shop (fancy enough to rival any similar retail operation), the church's realty office (for the hundreds of people from around the country moving to Grandview to be near the church) and the church's 24/7 prayer center which claims to have had a continuous prayer service operating since 1999. Oh yeah, the folks milling around buying DVD's, drinking coffee and of course, praying, were largely young and hipster-ish. Despite all of the talk I've heard about it being a cult, it all looked pretty normal.
            I'm well aware of the controversies surrounding the church, such as the murder of IHOPKC intern Bethany Deaton and the violent apocalyptic language used by some speakers at IHOPKC conferences. Also, to the extent that I can make sense of IHOPKC's theology, there's plenty I disagree with, such as its interpretations of biblical prophecy regarding things like the Rapture and other end-time scenarios. I feel sure the church is overly dependent upon its pastor's charisma and that I wouldn't find much common ground with them in terms of hot-button social issues like sexuality, reproductive rights, feminism, etc. In sum, you don't have to worry that I'm a fan of IHOPKC-I'm not.
            I could pretty much say similar things, however, about hundreds of other Pentecostal and evangelical megachurches. Many of them, like IHOPKC, own plenty of real estate and seek to create their own empires of Bible colleges, coffee shops and ministries. Many of them also have scandals associated with them, just as pretty much every group of religious people does.  I didn't see anything at IHOPKC that was scarier than what I've seen at other megachurches around the country. In fact, IHOPKC seemed less scary in some ways, because (at least to this outsider) it lacked many of the trappings of the Religious Right so common in earlier generations of megachurches. I didn't see stacks of anti-gay literature or sign-up sheets for picketing clinics that provide abortions. Maybe they have that stuff, but it wasn't laying out for somebody like me to stumble upon.
            I went into the 24/7 prayer chapel and found rows of chairs like plenty of other bland worship spaces so common these days. Plenty of people were scattered around; some were praying and others were staring intently at their phones (prayer apps?). Onstage was a band playing ambient music with a drum machine pounding out a beat-they were quite good. A speaker praying and the band vocalists alternated between spoken word prayers and choruses. I had a seat, and I have to admit I could see the appeal. It was meditative-if you liked the music and agreed with the theology of the folks praying. During the 15 minutes I was there, I didn't hear anything I disagreed with; in fact, I heard a lot I did agree with. (Of course, two minutes after I left they could have prayed for all kinds of stuff I would abhor for all I know.) The people praying offered prayers for area high schools and the Kansas City area and asked God to provide guidance to teens without fathers and to those facing temptation. They asked God to stop sex traffickers and prevent violence. I found myself joining in and praying those same things, because I do pray for those same things all the time.
            As I said, I have no idea what other stuff IHOPKC prays for and I assume given their theological beliefs, especially about the end times, there are plenty of things they might pray for that I wouldn't agree with. But I was pleasantly surprised that they were praying for our community and asking for God's help with the violence that plagues us. It just so happens that our church has been asked to pray this weekend for our city and for solutions to the violent crime in it that seemingly has no end. All of the congregations in MORE2 (Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity) have been asked to pray this weekend and to remember Myeisha Turner and her daughter Damiah White. (I was proud to be a part of a press conference this week promoting this weekend's prayer.)
            Myeisha and her 3 year-old daughter Damiah were gunned down in their home this past August. Myeisha's 11 month-old was left alive and found crawling through the crime scene. As of today, the murders remain unsolved like so many in Kansas City. We've been asked to remember these murders especially, because many in our community believe that if this had been a Caucasian young mother and child murdered that the story would have remained in the news longer and the community outrage would be greater. Instead, their deaths have thus far largely been viewed as two more dead African Americans in a string of murdered African Americans in Kansas City. Just this past week, two more children were hit by gunfire. One of them was in Overland Park which goes to show that the gun violence in our city affects us all; moving to the suburbs does not offer us any way to hide from it. This summer a man was gunned down two blocks from where my kids go to school-as of today that homicide remains unsolved.
            During worship Sunday morning we will read together a prayer for our city that remembers Myeisha and Damiah. I have included it below, and I hope if you read this e-mail you will pause at least once this weekend and pray it as well. Prayer changes our indifferent minds and calloused hearts to feel the pain of those around us. It can also prepare us to act and work to improve our communities. Prayer is more than mere words.
            I figure that it's not too much to ask for a church like ours committed to God's Peace and Justice to pray this prayer. After all, IHOPKC has already been praying similar prayers.

Gracious God,
Author of All Divine Mercies,
Giver of All Eternal Comfort--
as we continue to mourn the deaths of
Damiah White and Myeisha Turner,
we pray for Your inspiration and wisdom.

Inspire us and all people everywhere in the metro area,
particularly in communities of faith,
with your enthusing power--
to not grow weary in well-doing,
to seek justice for little Damiah--and all other children,
to seek justice for Myeisha--and all other young mothers,
to secure the communities in which we dwell and
the homes in which we live
with righteousness and honesty and fervent care,
especially for those among us who are most vulnerable.

Grant that we may bind ourselves together
with such purpose and persuasion and bonding,
heart to heart and soul to soul,
that respect will be accorded to Damiah's memory
and honor unto Myeisha's memory,
and justice will prevail for them.

Hear our prayers, O God,
from the broken hearts of we who offer these prayers
on behalf of those who have known too much tragedy
and burdensome loss,
as we participate in the sacred quest of healing our  city's heart,
and, indeed, all cities everywhere.  AMEN. 

Grace and Peace,