Friday, April 8, 2011

A (not so) Modest Proposal

Today, in a coffee induced frenzy, during my devotional time, I scribbled down somethoughts that have been stirring in me for some time. What does it mean to be the church? What does it mean to be a healthy church? What does that look like in the 21st century? What does it look like for Friends? Why does it seem impossible to get there?

My confession is that I have grown tired lately of talk, of vision statements, of platitudes, of teaching, of conferences, of meetings, of my own sermons... It's one thing to preach about something and everyone says, nice sermon. It's quite another to begin mobilizing around and organizing around something radical, challenging, something that will shake up the world...I'm also tired of reading church vision statements or statements of faith that say a lot without actually saying anything. It's like they exist to not offend the most people. Another confession is that I am a hopeless idealist who is better at dreaming and talking than actually doing. I lack the consistency and courage to stick to my convictions. I need Friends to join in the journey with...

But here goes anyway....

Brad's Top Ten List of Proposals

1. Christ-Centered: This one might not seem very controversial, but just try really teaching and living out Christ's teachings in your faith communities without sugar coating it. Jesus is a radical. Obeying his teachings takes trust, courage, hope, and love. Also, I believe that we must understand the rest of scripture in light of Christ's life and teaching. When there is an apparent tension, I go with what Jesus said about it.

2. Courage in Leadership: Leadership is an emotional, relational process of transformation toward a desired change. People say that change is hard. I agree and disagree. I think change happens whether we like it or not. Things are changing all the time. What worked and made sense in 1958 doesn't necessarily work in 2011. Change. More to the point, change takes courage. Leadership that is non-anxious when everyone else is freaking out, that can stay calm in the midst of hostility that models, encourages, organizes around vision and strength, that inspires, and challenges is essential for carrying out the mission of the church. Leadership should also work like an immune system against toxic elements that are reactive, fearful, or intent on sabotaging the transformation process. This is what Friedman calls a non-anxious, paradoxical, challenging presence.

3. Creativity in Worship and Service: The creative process can be life-giving, fresh, and soul-satisfying. However, for creativity to be unleashed and affirmed and to "work" a community must have an open, non-anxious, non-judgmental attitude. These communities will be expectant for the Spirit to move but will not have expectations as to how that has to look. These communities must be okay with things not going perfect, not being professional, even things failing. This is the creative process. The fear and pressure of failing will thwart 90% of the good ideas and best intentions of creative individuals in the church. Early Friends experimented with different kinds of worship and service and didn't feel confined to traditional expressions.

4. Contemplative Spirituality: A deep listening to the Spirit will lead us in profound, centered, and unexpected directions as a Christian community. Early Friends differentiated themselves from other radical dissenting organizations from their uncompromising conviction that Christ is present, intimate, available. This mystical union with Christ through the Spirit, empowered, guided, and sustained this community while other groups died out. Friends through the centuries have believes so strongly in the immediacy of Christ that they have organized their meetings for worship and for business around silence and listening to Christ's speaking and promptings.

5. Compassionate Ministry: Jesus says, "I desire mercy not sacrifice." Friends desire to be an instrument of God's healing and help for the poor and oppressed. We believe that Jesus stands in solidarity with the "least of these" and is actually present in and among these people. We will need to create space and support for these local and global opportunities in all spheres of the church - financial, structural, leadership, ministry, time, communication.

6. Consistency in Words and Actions: This is a big one. It is easy to say things that sound good and might stimulate generic support or mental ascent, but it is much more challenging to realign and orient an organization around core convictions. This will most likely require systemic change. We all know that adding one more thing to an already busy personal or church schedule just doesn't work. Their will need to be a reshuffling of priorities that will require courageous leadership and a community that does not feel entitled to their personal tastes and preferences. Having integrity in our churches means that we insist on asking the difficult questions like, Are our vision statement, mission statement and core values reflected in our budget? In the way our paid staff spends their time? In the kinds of structures we create? In the church calender? In the time we spend discussing in our meetings. In the emotional energy we spend? In how we measure success?

7. Community: When the Friends movement began they created a different religious category that scandalized England - friends. Friends of God, friends of one another, even friends of truth. These relationships were built on mutual love, trust, and respect. Equality was a guiding principle that had transforming effects on a global scale. To organize around relationships instead of institutions isn't always easy but it is our best hope for authentic community. These are communities that learn from one another as they participate in the ministry of listening, sharing, studying, and teaching. These are also communities that take seriously the reality of the diversity of gifts. They organize and mobilize based on these gifts and callings. In community, healthy structures are created to assist people in living out their interests, passions, callings, and giftings in their various contexts. In institutional churches staff are paid to lead and teach. In institutional churches the church is a meeting and a building. In institutional churches people are chosen to serve on prescribed committees and programs that may or may not fit their calling or gifting. They are asked to fill seats, pay dues (tithes), serve on committees.

8. Counter-Cultural
: Consumerism, commercialism, materialism - these are all values of Western culture that the church has (mostly) bought into. Friends communities practice values of simplicity, silence, plainness, peace, justice that stand in defiance of cultural norms. When everyone around us is calling for revenge, we call for understanding and love. When everyone around us is yelling more, bigger, faster - we whisper less, smaller, slower.

9. Critical:
As Friends we are no longer satisfied with our churches being "vendors of religious goods and services." We want to be active, engaged, participants of transformation. One of the necessary components to built into a community that desires transformative change is a reflective ecclesiology (theology of the church). The queries are a great way to ask the hard questions as a part of our daily, weekly, monthly rhythms together. To the degree that we are removing the plank from our own eyes, we may have the right and perhaps duty to speak a prophetic word to the Church and to our Culture. Early friends did not shy away from confronting institutions of power - church, military, government, royalty, corporations. The suffering and persecution that they experienced was expected, relished in, and galvanize their commitment resolve. Many of their critiques were made without saying a word. They refused to give "hat honor" to those in higher social classes. They were beaten and imprisoned for it. They called everyone thee and thou to demonstrate their conviction that everyone is equal.

10. Collaboration: I propose that Friends should look for more ways to collaborate with other organizations that are already doing good work in their communities and world. This will help us to free up our organizational and overhead costs and energies so that we can concentrate on the work. Also, these are great opportunities to work side by side with a diverse group of people. This kind of mission as participation is a great way to build relationships with others that we can learn from and dialogue with. We ought not look at service organizations, Christians organizations, other Friends organizations as competition but as potential collaborative partners. Within our churches, collaboration creates an atmosphere of equality and makes room for new ideas and new leadership. Instead of saying, "We want you to cooperate with us," we say, "We want to collaborate together as creative partners to see what God has for us as we move forward together."

Final Thoughts... Don't worry, I am an idealist but I know all the reasons why this won't work - Younger people are too flaky, older people don't get it, we're all too comfortable and complacent, it requires too much sacrifice, people will sabotage it, people will call you an insensitive troublemaker, church leaders will be afraid of losing members, members will say to themselves this isn't what I signed up for , attenders will call it too works based, elders will say, "be patient," fringers will flee, seekers will seek elsewhere, our measures of success won't fit the new (ancient)paradigm,(the more I hear, that numbers don't really matter, the more I am convinced that numbers really do matter for that group).

And yet... is it possible that this kind of vision is stirring in the hearts of a people tender to Jesus' message. Are there any deep, compassionate, radical, committed Friends out their who are foolhardy enough to hope for a new kind of church? A new kind of humanity. A new way of being Friends in this world?

(And yes...I am a sucker for both alliteration and the magic number ten.)