Monday, June 27, 2011

Week 18 - Evangelical Free and Evangelically Disillusioned

evangelical-free-churchThis was a nice church visit. Everything you would hope to expect when you visit a traditional Christian church.

  • Easy, accessible parking for visitors
  • Friendly greeters
  • Comprehensive bulletin
  • Smiling pastor
  • Church pews
  • Blend of contemporary songs and meaningful hymns
  • Announcement of weekly activities
  • Mention of significant events – birthdays, anniversaries, weddings
  • Offering, with mention of a special project
  • Seven point sermon
  • Salvation prayer
  • Cookies in the fellowship hall following the service
  • All in 1.5 hours.

The experience was pleasant, yet unremarkable; cozy, but not life-changing; cheerful, but that was the deepest emotion to surface. It was like a Thanksgiving meal that had all of the expected food on the dining room table, but upon eating it finding there is very little spice and hardly any flavor. Nobody goes back for seconds. The leftovers stay in the fridge until they go bad.

My criticism this week is not directed at the EFCA or even this particular church. It is with what “going to church” appears to have evolved to in our culture. Maybe the following examples will help explain my frustration:

On Sunday, six people stood on the front of the stage, microphone in hand, leading the song service for the congregation. None of the songs were new or unfamiliar; we are talking about the standard easy-listening church fare. Just in case someone in the congregation didn’t know the hymns, the words were projected on the screen behind the pulpit. But surprisingly (or not) the singers all had a similar crutch. Each of them had a music stand with all the song sheets. Most of the time each of the singers’ gaze was fastened to the papers that they didn’t need. It may sound petty, but it really bothered me. I was certain that I could have walked forward and gathered the stands, the sheets, and the microphones and we could have had a more meaningful song service. It just felt like we were going through the expected motions.

The sermon too was standard fare – all scriptural, all sweet, all encouraging. The pastor broke down the message into seven points, but it appeared that he was making the passage fit the delivery, not the other way around. Of course in the bulletin we were provided a sheet with sermon notes, with each of the seven points listed, minus a key word or two so that we could fill in the blanks as we paid attention. Certainly the goal is to put memory aids in front of the congregation so they have more than just one touch point with the sermon, but when did spiritual growth ever equate to filling in the empty spaces with the preferred answer? As it was, I felt like I got a passing grade that morning by filling in all the correct words in the blanks, but learning didn’t happen, life-change didn’t occur. I can’t picture Jesus testing the disciples knowledge of him or the Kingdom in quite this way…

Honestly I was more challenged spiritually and encouraged in my faith last week when I went to the New Age congregation than I did this Sunday. At least last week we broke up into small groups and discussed what was going on in our souls and how various spiritual disciplines can help us grow and connect with God. This week was more like watching a rerun of an old TV sitcom. We know the jokes, we’ve memorized the words, we know the characters and their expressions. We understand the theology and creeds as they have been provided, but we are bored with the experience, it isn’t helping, and joining with the laugh track just makes us feel phony.

I’d love to visit these very friendly people again absent of their music stands, song sheets, and fill-in-the-blank handouts. It felt like their expression of church got trapped with the trappings and the building stopped when they got stuck in the building.

Or maybe it is just me.

But I’m afraid others may feel this way too… A few weeks ago I overheard a conversation at a high school sporting event. One soccer mom was asking another what they did with the Easter weekend.

Well, this may sound awful, but we stayed home from church this year.”

“You did?”

“Ya, I don’t really like the big crowd on Easter Sunday and the struggle to find a parking spot.” She paused, unsure if she should really say her next thought out loud. “Plus, I already know that story…”

I don’t think the mom was dissing Jesus or the significance of his resurrection. What she was trying to verbalize was that what her local church was offering on Sunday morning, even on Easter Sunday, wasn’t necessarily helping her along in her spiritual growth and development. She had no appetite for what they were serving.

She isn’t alone.

I don’t think this week was about connecting with the very fine EFCA folks. I think it was connecting with those in my neighborhood who are so disillusioned with the current form and function of church gatherings that they just don’t want to do it the same any longer.

Week 18 Preview–Evangelical Free

evangelical-free-church-of-americaThe Evangelical Free Church Association is a part of the National Association of Evangelicals, so don’t let the name fool you, this denomination is not free of Evangelicals. The word Free in the Church's name actually refers to its system for church governance. The EFCA local churches are all independent and autonomous. The governing body for the denomination is made up of delegates from these churches, both clergy and laity.

This denomination has only been around since 1950, and is the product of merging Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish church groups. They currently have nearly 1,500 churches in the United States, including one just a few blocks down from my house.

After reading their Statement of Faith, I’m not expecting anything too crazy when I visit. This group seems to have navigated itself safely in the middle of the road on the straight and narrow path. It was difficult to find much controversy with this denomination—one blogger does refer to the EFCA as “A Smorgasbord of Heresy,” and its most well known pastor Charles Swindoll as having a "résumé of heresy." I personally think that blogger needs a new hobby and a vacation.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Week 17 – Eckankar

Finding Value in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe

eckankarThe Eckankar Center that I visited wasn’t a large one and it wasn’t very easy to locate. I drove around the block a couple of times before I spied street numbers on the local merchants’ buildings that clued me in to my destination. I arrived a few minutes late and missed whatever opening greeting may have occurred. When I reached for the door handle a lady quietly turned it from the other side and motioned for me to enter. She whispered to me that they had just finished their opening chant and were now in quiet meditation. I attempted to make it to the back row of chairs in the next room without being any more of a disturbance to the force that I already had created.

I took the time of solitude to get centered myself. I hate being late, I hadn’t wanted to draw attention to myself, and I was right in the middle of a New Age meeting that I grew up being warned about. I felt frazzled. I reminded myself that I wasn’t here to check out the religion, I was here to find out more about my neighbors and see if I could find a common place of relating to them, perhaps even caring about them.

Harold_KlempI looked around my surroundings. Up on the wall was a picture of the current ECK Master by the name of Harold Klemp. He looks like Mr. Rogers, who I remember was very interested in his neighborhood as well. I don’t know what was going through the minds of the other participants during mediation, but I sat there inwardly singing “Let’s make the most of this beautiful day, Since we're together, we might as well say, Would you be mine? Could you be mine? Won't you be my neighbor?

At the end of the quiet the service coordinator led us in the “Creative Arts” portion of the meeting. She played a ukulele and we sang a simple song. If I understood it right it was to be directed to the Mahanta, a title to describe the highest state of God Consciousness on Earth. I couldn’t begin to picture Fred Rogers and his Land of Make-Believe as very spiritual, so I just focused on singing to Jesus.

We then broke into small groups where we spent a half hour discussing the topic for the day, “The Creative Power of the Soul.” Everyone in the group shared one thing or the other, but they didn’t go around in a circle and I didn’t feel pressured to share. I did ask some follow up questions to what people were sharing about their spiritual journeys. Three things stood out to me that I found of significant value.

  • One woman shared how the spiritual disciples she participates in Eckankar differ from what she grew up practicing. When I asked her for an example she explained that her prayer life used to be made up of petitions, of trying to speak to God. These days she does far more quieting herself so she can listen to God. I’ll be honest; I think she is on to something simple, yet important. In my religious circles we sure do a lot of talking during prayer, and though we discuss listening (which is sort of an oxymoron), I’ve very rarely ever experienced it modeled in a Christian setting.
  • Another man shared that when he wakes up each morning he immediately looks out the window and mediates for 20 minutes about the gift that this new day is. He says it sets the stage for him to anticipate and respond in healthier and positive ways than if he just jumps up and rushes headlong into life. It makes sense. When I sleep till the last possible minute and then caffeinate myself though my first several deadlines, the day can taste chaotic.
  • And together as a group we discussed how decision making is an amazingly creative process. It is easy enough to react to the circumstances around us like we are preprogrammed machines, but it is quite another process to realize that we have thousands of choices to make throughout the day. What if we learned to use these choices as opportunities to be guided by the Holy Spirit into life affirming behaviors and responses?

The discussion ended too soon for my liking and they went back to singing their “HU” which they believe to be an ancient name for God. They would only sing the syllable as they were breathing out and as their voices joined it was a beautiful sound. There is a sweetness about being together in harmony that wasn’t lost on me as I listened.

During the fellowship time after the service I explained to the group that I was getting to know my community and was appreciative of their hospitality and their openness to my visit. They didn’t pressure me to join, but did give me more materials so that I could understand them better. I left with a much better understanding of this group. I may not agree on some of their beliefs and visions, but I do respect the way they are trying to live, and I really do find some value in some of the spiritual disciples that they practice.

Have you ever considered adopting a spiritual discipline that isn’t traditionally a part of your religious background?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Week 17 Preview - Eckankar

eckankarMost of the institutions I’ve visited during the project this year have been from the Christian perspective or have been major world religions. This week I visit a religious movement that many would describe as an American cult.

The site Religion Facts explains the following about Eckankar:

Eckankar is a new religious movement based on a 19th-century Indian tradition called Sant Mat, which centers around surat shabd yoga, "yoga of the sound current." Eckankar focuses on spritual exercises enabling practitioners to experience "the Light and Sound of God."

Founded: 1965 in Las Vegas, USA

Founder: John Paul Twitchell

Adherents: Estimated at 50,000

Headquarters: Chanhassen, Minnesota

Text: Shariyat-Ki-Sugmad ("Way of the Eternal")

Beliefs: Divine Spirit called "ECK"; salvation through God-realization; reincarnation

Practices: Spiritual Exercises including mantras, meditation, and dreams

Worship Services consist of readings, singing "HU" (a mantra of what they believe to be an ancient name for God, and is considered a love song to God.), silent contemplation and an open discussion. This weekend’s discussion is about “the creative power of the soul.”

From their website it appears that Eckankar is developed around the desire of experiencing God each day through spiritual exercises, techniques for experiencing spiritual experiences, and study that will serve as a guide towards spiritual fulfillment.

Do you have an Eckankar center in your neighborhood?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Week 16 – Going Home

I’ve recently been contemplating my spiritual DNA, processing the strands of church history that contribute to my faith as well as the genetic flaws from my church background.

I have a lot to be grateful for. I may not have been raised as financially privileged, but my family made sure I attended good churches and Christian schools the first two decades of my life. I had a stream of very committed people who invested in me, spent time with me, and showed that they cared about me. Being that I’m a nostalgic person I frequently look back over my shoulder feeling that my journey forward is enhanced by understanding where I’ve been.

The church that I visited this weekend I never, ever intended to leave. I would still be there today if I had had my way. Unfortunately, as can happen in any man-made ministry, the Kingdom can take a back seat to vision. And when vision is at the wheel, there can be a lot of casualties on the road. I watched a terrible wreck, several years ago, that I believed was very unnecessary. And even though by that time I was on staff at my childhood church, when I spoke up about this needless damage it wasn’t well received. And I didn’t receive it well that it wasn’t received well. And well, I ended up tending my resignation, and it created a political nightmare for the church administration. And then I was made to look bad so that church vision and visionaries wouldn’t be questioned. And then I felt hurt that I was made to look bad. And then I shook the dust off my feet as I left for the last time as I thought it was within my rights to react when I was convinced I had been right and had been wronged for it.

That was almost 18 years ago. I’ve been back for a baby dedication and a surprise party for one of my friends but other than that I’ve never darkened the doors of this space that used to be so sacred to me.

I’ve wrestled this year whether or not to include this church on my visitation list. It is on the border of my neighborhood’s 50-church circle and I could easily make an excuse about leaving them off the agenda. But this project is supposed to be about facing my fears and going where I don’t necessarily feel comfortable or welcome. This church really fits that bill. So this week when one of the people on staff at the church contacted me about getting together to discuss a missions project I knew I had a perfect excuse—to go.

Timing is everything. And this time I didn’t approach the thought of going back through the lens of a victim. I went hopeful that it would be a healing experience. What I saw as I approached the church made me laugh. A woman was standing out on the street in front of the church waving a sign and dancing back and forth like she was selling Little Caesar’s Pizza. The scene was ridiculous till I took in her sign. The two big words in the middle of her white poster board were COME HOME.

“Is that for me, God?”

“Do you want it to be for you?”

“Yes. No. I don’t know…”

“Rest in my peace.”

I parked my van and entered the church. I recognized the woman handing out the bulletins and her eyes caught mine but I bolted for the sanctuary before she figured out what to say. I made my way through a few more doors and down an aisle and found a spot on the end of a pew where I thought I could go unnoticed. I was feeling very emotional and wanted to get my bearings and steady myself before being faced with a lot of interaction.

The music started and I stood up with the others for the time of worship. I noticed the changes. The carpet was a different color and the pews have been reupholstered. All the crimson reds have been exchanged for emerald greens, but it is still all rather garish. The piano is now located on the east side of the stage and the choir has been replaced by a modern band. Their previous worship leader, who was a close friend of mine, has been swapped for her daughter. The change in music styles has affected the seating arrangement; the older generation now sits in the back half of the sanctuary, most likely because of the noise level, and the younger people are now positioned towards the front of the room where they worship with exuberance.

I took in the baptismal, where I dedicated my life to God, the platform where I had performed so many holiday church plays, and the pulpit from behind where I’d preached in school chapel services and to this church congregation. I close my eyes to remember the view from the stage and I remember the day when I watched my bride come down the aisle as we were married in front of more people in this room than are at this service today. I tear up, and figure the people around me must think that it is just the worship song.

After announcements they asked all the high school graduates and their families to come forward so the congregation could honor them and pray over them. I see a couple of the parents who had been pregnant alongside my wife and I head to the front. I realize this would have been my daughter’s celebration had we stayed.

When they paused in the service to greet the visitors my anonymity was up. Even though I’ve changed a lot over the years I now look too much like my dad, who was much loved in this church. Several people made their way over to me to kindly reconnect and ask about my family. I started to relax.

The staff pastor who had the preaching assignment this Sunday took us on a trip down memory lane to discuss the spiritual DNA and history of this church. He talked about days that took place before he was born but are vivid memories for me. Most people in my neighborhood would consider these the glory days of this church because they had been running three services each Sunday morning in order to get everyone a seat. The overflow was full, the balcony was packed, the air was electric, and the Kingdom seemed to have touched down. Of course on this Sunday morning the staff pastor was pumping up the congregation to not only get back to that place in attendance, but to overtake it. He used a passage out of Haggai chapter 2 - ‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house.’ And of course all the people in the congregation gave a hearty ‘Amen;’ especially the young people who hadn’t lived through those days and perhaps saw this charge as a competition.

But what brought me peace as a child was listening to my former pastor teach about a God who loved us. This pastor would get so overwhelmed trying to describe it that sometimes he’d get weepy, and sometimes he’d get loud, and sometimes he’d be really hushed. And I believed him. And it registered deep within my DNA. And today I needed to come home for a little reminder that being loved by God and learning to love others are the two most important aspects of church life.

There were other gifts during this little homecoming. One of the deacons, who was kind to me and my family when we chose to leave the church, saw me and hugged me. He wouldn’t let go and I didn’t want him to. And the woman who was my children’s pastor so many years ago was back in town visiting her old stomping ground as well. She told me I look more and more like my dad.

The service was long, over two hours. Finally I caught up with my friend who has remained on staff all these years. Over lunch at a local restaurant she and her husband asked me about how it felt to return. I shared some of my experiences from the past couple of hours.

“I couldn’t believe you guys have a dancing sign lady out on the highway.”

“What do you mean?”

“The middle aged woman who was dancing around with the ‘Come Home” sign in front of the church.”

She smiled at me. “I don’t know of any ‘sign lady,’ at least nobody else on staff has discussed this with me.”

We just looked at each other a moment, then she laughed, “But it wouldn’t surprise me at all if there was an angel out front of the driveway this morning.”

And as I consider what I know of the Kingdom, and of a God who so enthusiastically loves me that he uses sign boards and memories to speak to my heart, that I’m overwhelmed trying to describe what it was like to safely return to a place that once was a spiritual home for me. All I can whisper is, ‘His peace!’

Have you ever returned to your childhood church? What did you experience?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Year of Church Visitation – 2nd Quarter

tissington_church_window_1 There is a difference between going to a religious meeting and being a part of the Body of Christ. The first is about attendance and the second is about belonging. The former can become about performance where the latter is about relationship.

I am enjoying this project of visiting the local religious institutions in my neighborhood, but at its heart it is a relational endeavor for me not one that is driven by the calendar. Recently I’ve had some weekends that were full of family events and gatherings with friends that superseded my visitation schedule. While I’m thankful for this project and grateful for what I’m learning, I’m also glad to know where it fits in the priority of my life. My wife, children, and friends are not worth sacrificing for the sake of this blog. Also, the people in the places I’m visiting are worth more than just a quick nod as I rush by them to meet a deadline.

I was glad to see that as I took a few weeks off I really missed the church visitations. Although it is not always comfortable being the new guy, the benefits of getting to know and understand my neighbors are greater than the fears I face in these religious institutions.

As I start this 2nd quarter I’m going to begin with the church where I grew up. I have a lot of great memories here - 18 years of them, but it didn’t end well and it has been almost another 18 years since I’ve been back for a service.

Here we go!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Week 15 – Jewish Orthodox

Spending Easter, Looking for Jesus, Amongst the Jews

chabad I showed up at the Chabad Lubavitch a few minutes before the published start time. The doors were still locked. I walked around the building but didn’t find any other open entrance. I wondered if they were celebrating different this weekend because of Passover.

I sat in my truck and brought up their website on my smart phone. I couldn’t find any special announcements about this weekend other than they weren’t planning to have the normal meal after the service.

Next to the Chabad center is a Starbucks. I kept watching people drive up, park their vehicles and head to the coffee shop. I was wondering how the attendance in the local churches compares to that in the coffee shops over the weekend. That is when I saw the Rabbi walk up with his two small sons. I waited a few minutes and more vehicles began to arrive with people seeking Shabbat instead of Frappuccinos.

The room was split with a divider and the men and women were already taking their places on the proper sides. I felt conscious of my lack of head covering and looked to see if there were any Kippahs available for visitors. I didn’t find any, but the Rabbi did hand me the prayer book we would use. I had arrived for the Shacharit, the traditional Jewish service for morning prayers. It was over an hour long, all in Hebrew, and I was glad for the English translation so I could follow along silently while the others read and recited in Hebrew. The Rabbi took a prayer shawl, called a Tallit, off the shelf and went through a specific ritual of draping it over his head and shoulders. The Tallit was edged with Tzitzit, twined and knotted fringes that were handled like Catholic prayer beads at various times during the prayers. We faced an open window to the East, right into the sun. I couldn’t help but wonder how Christian worship services would feel different if the bands and singers faced away from the congregation instead of fronting them. Maybe we’d have less performance issues. I had no less sense of being led by the Rabbi, even though I was watching his back. There were no instruments during this prayer and Psalm singing, but the Rabbi’s two boys would tap out rhythms on the window seal and the wooden pulpit.

This is Easter weekend, and I’m normally at a Christian church for a sunrise service and worship celebration. I know this congregation is in the middle of celebrating Passover, but I’ve come with expectancy to hear about the Resurrection regardless. I found it as we read Psalm 30. It was originally a Psalm of David that was sung at the dedication of the temple. To me it reads as an Easter morning song that has specific, prophetic nods to Jesus’ death and time in the grave.

30:1 I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up
and have not let my foes rejoice over me.
2 O Lord my God, I cried to you for help,
and you have healed me.
3 O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol;
you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.

4 Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints,
and give thanks to his holy name.
5 For his anger is but for a moment,
and his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may tarry for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.

6 As for me, I said in my prosperity,
“I shall never be moved.”
7 By your favor, O Lord,
you made my mountain stand strong;
you hid your face;
I was dismayed.

8 To you, O Lord, I cry,
and to the Lord I plead for mercy:
9 “What profit is there in my death,
if I go down to the pit?
Will the dust praise you?
Will it tell of your faithfulness?
10 Hear, O Lord, and be merciful to me!
O Lord, be my helper!”

11 You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
you have loosed my sackcloth
and clothed me with gladness,
12 that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever!

I also found great significance from the Rabbi’s teaching. We discussed the passage in Exodus where Moses crafts a second set of stones for God to inscribe the 10 commandments after Moses had broken the fist set. The Rabbi was full of interesting perspectives about the passage and filled in historical commentary that I’ve never heard. He shared things that were definitely worth considering and applying in my own life. I appreciated this teaching time because there was dialog back and for the between the congregation and the Rabbi. We weren’t just being taught at, we were given the opportunity to share and encouraged to ask questions. I found I have things to learn, about life and loving God, from the Orthodox Jews.

It is easy, I think, for some Christians to dismiss Judaism and their traditions.

It is easier, I’ve seen, for other Christians to make too much of it.

The hard part, but what may easily be the most rewarding, is to join into relationship and worship with them.