the past few days at the off the map live’s born again church tour have been a whirlwind of great conversation & challenge & people & thoughts about church and faith. among all the swirling thoughts, one seems to stand out the most, it’s something i said during the “faith in a dress” session i facilitated: i will probably die frustrated. yeah, when it comes to all of the things that we long for the church to be and do, i am pretty sure i will die feeling frustrated. that it’s just a reality that in my lifetime what we dreamers hope for and somehow believe is possible won’t be completely realized. i actually do think this is a good thing, not a bad thing, because it means that we will never arrive, that as we adapt and learn and notice and discern that we are constantly in a cycle of learning and changing instead of staying stagnant. i just hope for more & more & more adapting & risk-taking and less entrenching.
i recognize that there are many churches and systems out here making some shifts, but i think where i go a little nutty is what i see is lots and lots of trying & effort & new inititatives to put some new wine into old wineskins. the structures, the hierarchy, the “basics” are exactly the same. professional ministry. seminary-educated leaders with lots and lots of student loans looking for jobs that will pay the bills and have good insurance. a lack of diversity in terms of gender, race, theology and all kinds of other dividing lines. a perpetuation of the us-them mentality where “we are the ones who have something to offer ‘those people'”. a focus on building something that is ‘viable’ based on numbers of people & outcomes instead of cultivating and nurturing relationships that are unmeasurable and difficult and will never net a leader in the traditional sense. ah, my take away is that there indeed are lots of people really wanting to make some big shifts in how they are living out their faith. hopefully there will be a freedom and empowerment to really break free from the confines of “religion” and become more loving, compassionate, caring christians. and although i am an optimist, on this one, i think it’s a far more uphill battle than we’d like to admit. the people are ready. the structures & systems aren’t.
there are too many highlights to include from the past few days, but i thought i’d pass on some of the conversations i had:
“how do i become friends with people who aren’t like me when i honestly don’t know any?” – this is such a sincere question. this is one of the biggest problems in the church, in my opinion, the segregation. we insulate ourselves in groups of people who are just like us & so people that aren’t like us would never feel safe if they ever came anyway. we expect people to come to us but are never willing to go to them. the problem comes down to one of safety and presence. how can we be perceived as safer, less judgemental people? and are we willing to live in the deep places of people’s story not on the periphery with some kind of agenda but in true-blue life on life. the only way to get there is to become less segregated. more mixed up and tangled up with others that we wouldn’t maybe normally be tangled up with.
“really, like really, some days you wake up feeling like you might be an atheist?” yes, some days i wake up with absolutely no belief. none. that maybe it’s all just a big bunch of wishful thinking. i would say that christians have done other christians a great disservice by not being more honest about how tenuous faith can be, how our doubt is part of the concoction and to not be so darn afraid of it. in the end, doubt increases my faith in Jesus instead of diminishes it.
“what if there’s absolutely no way to ever trust a church again?” no way to answer this one. i don’t know if it’s possible for some. i do believe it is possible to restore trust in God and maybe some people, too; they probably go hand in hand somehow. i know and believe strongly there are some really trustworthy beautiful christians in ministry who can be trusted personally. the systems, um, i am not so confident. i always tell people related to the refuge: i don’t expect you to fully trust us. you’ve just been too burnt in the past to really be able to. but maybe you could open a little crack and try to trust, even at a very small level, a few people to start.
“so when are pastors who are leading these churches actually going to start to talk about some of the things from the front that we are talking about here.” this question came up during the q & a after the outsiders interview on friday night involving several christians & several people considered “outsiders” to the church based on their experiences, one as a homosexual and another as a hispanic gang member. the issues of doubt & uncertainty & lack of safety surfaced during this incredible conversation. yeah, we’re a long way off on this one, folks. pastors in the average evangelical church have people who pay their bills and unfortunately lots of these folks aren’t super comfortable with some of these thoughts. they create tension that we are uncomfortable with. they challenge the status quo. they mean that doors that were typically closed now need to be open. these conversations lead to things getting messy, confusing, scary. they challenge the church “industry” (more on that later) that millions have counted on for years and years. it means potentially losing their job for being willing to make some tough decisions that promote mission & equality & diversity & change. i know there are many leaders out there taking some huge risks, but i also believe there are many more who are motivated by fear and will continue to perpetuate exclusivity, power & self-protection.
“what do you think the percentage is of women at this conference who can’t lead in their churches?” i recognize that for many mainline churches, the whole issue of gender has become a non-issue, but for the average evangelical, it’s a different story. the good news is that when it comes to leading in some capacity, many churches represented at off the map, which mainly probably have evangelical roots, have women in some form of leadership. that is cool and i am thankful for the inroads women have gained in their communities. it’s beautiful to see some true shifting in this area. yet, when it comes to actually having full access to all levels of leadership, that’s a different story. my guess (remember, it’s only a swag and i could be wrong): less than 5% of the women there actually could lead from the front, like all the way, in an equal role to a man in their churches. no matter how sick some of us are of having the conversation about gender roles in church, the harsh reality is that most power in the room is still held by men & the church still has a long way to go.
“is this what Jesus told you guys to do?” this is the core of the conversation between matt casper, an atheist and partner in church-visiting with jim henderson, a former pastor & evangelical christian from their book jim & casper go to church. after visiting churches across the country matt’s biggest question seemed to be “how could this really be what Jesus had in mind?” i couldn’t agree more. it’s messed up. church has become an industry. the exact thing that Jesus was railing against is continually perpetuated. no, this isn’t what Jesus told us to do. snappy sermons & amazing worship & sitting in seats facing forward getting a quick spiritual high was never the idea. Jesus told us to go be like him. that means in the trenches, giving our life away, coming face to face with our need for God & our need for each other, caring for the poor, learning the ways of Love.
oh there were so many more, these were just a few off the top of my head. the purpose for bringing this event to denver was to give some folks here the opportunity to engage in some of these conversations together here because we realize that very few people probably would be able to make the trip up to seattle. i am really glad we did. hanging around the off the map peeps is always good for my soul. jim henderson’s heart and ability to faciliate such great thought-provoking conversation is my favorite. it was fun working with the whole off the map gang, making some new friends, seeing in-flesh-and-blood some friends i’ve made online through the carnival blog, and witnessing all kinds of challenging conversations around the room over the course of the past several days. so much talking & dreaming & processing & wrestling. if you were at the event, i’d love to hear some of your thoughts of your experience there. and for those of you who weren’t, please share some of your responses to some of the above thoughts, your perspectives make this blog better.
the shifts happening in the kingdom are real. this restlessness is not going away. i am so thankful for the refuge and the friends i’ve met along the way in the past few years who aren’t afraid of the hard questions and living in the tension of what was and what could be, who are humble and gentle and don’t give a rip about the next latest and greatest anything. yeah, we’ll probably all die frustrated but there’s no one i’d rather be frustrated with. and the good news is my frustration could never diminish the beauty and glory i see in the here and now, stories around denver, the US, the world from you & other dear friends: lives changing, hope increasing, friends risking, the kingdom advancing.