Tag Archives: church

Spiritual Not Religious: Fact or Fiction?

One of the most popular posts on this blog is titled, “Religionless Christianity: Finding God Outside the Institutional Church.”  Many of the hits on that particular post are the result of people searching the web using these kinds of search criteria; “Leaving Christian religion finding God”, “Christianity outside the church,” and “finding God without a church.”  This tells me that many people out there are searching for something.

Over the past year, I have met an increasing number of individuals who are saying “yes” to God but “no” to the church.  Yesterday I got into an online discussion with my 33 year old cousin, Jack.  Since I am ten years older than Jack and went off to college when he was only eight, we were never really close.  However, through the magic of Facebook, Jack and I have gotten to know each other a bit more over the last year.  His facebook posts are often a bit nutty, on the edge of sanity, but lately shockingly profound.  Last night Jack blew me away with the following comments which he agreed that I could post on my blog.

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Filed under missional church, Theology

The Start of Some Beautiful New Friendships

Through the last several posts, I have been sharing insights from “Friendship at the Margins” by Chris Heuertz and Christine Pohl.  One distinction made in the book that I found helpful was that of cause verses community.  Most efforts to address the needs of those trapped in poverty are cause focused; hunger, homelessness, unemployment, substance abuse, etc.  However friendship based ministry requires a community focus and the realization that in an impoverished community you are likely to address all of the issues or causes named above.   Community focused ministries by their very nature are generalized around the many needs of a specific group of people verses specializing in one specific cause.  In a world of specializations it is often difficult to be a generalist. The key to being a good community focused ministry is learning to connect to the specialist.  The best connections are made in the context of friendships.  This week several new friendships began.

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Filed under missional church, Stories from the Street, Urban Ministry

A Search for Kingdom Churches

Every day I drive past church parking lots and admire the church buses and vans that sit collecting dust while we attempt to address the transportation crisis in our city. Across this city, congregations gather for meals that resemble a feast as I watch my urban friends scrap together a meager meal so that they can enjoy the same kind of table fellowship.  I read church bulletins about the upcoming missions trips and the thousands of dollars being raised to help send members to the other side of the world for a one week experience while our local urban missionaries fail to find the support and encouragement they need to transform our own backyard.  We currently have four desks crammed into one office and two team members per desk while many inner city churches sit empty all week.  I get letters from churches asking for funds to support their next mega-building campaign while I watch families become homeless because they do not have the $200 they need to maintain their housing.  When we approach churches about using what should be God’s resources to advance God’s Kingdom or care for God’s children, we hear the following:

“We can’t use our van to help you take inner city kids to the park because of “liability” issues.”

“We can’t host your fellowship event because our people are just too busy.”

“Members of our church really like going away to foreign countries to do missions.”

“Our policy is to only use our building for “church-sponsored” activities.”

“We only provide financial support for “members” who are in crisis.”

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Filed under missional church, Stories from the Street, Top Post's of All Time, Urban Ministry

Healing the Wounds of the Bible Belt

I grew up un-churched in the heart of the Bible belt.  I become a Christian in my late twenties after a series of miscarriages launched me on a spiritual journey.  Even though I have been a part of the local church for more than 15 years, I still approach the church with the eyes of an outsider and a heart for those who, for whatever reason, have not found a home within the walls of the church.  I am particularly drawn to those who feel unwelcome and judged by the church.

I think this sensitivity toward the outcast is the result of a traumatic event that occurred in 1977 when I was only ten years old.  Douglas Miiller was my favorite uncle, we called him “funny Doug”.  He always had a way of making me laugh.  I will never forget getting my first bicycle.  I could not figure out how to ride it so my uncle Doug decided to show me.  He looked so funny on that tiny bike with his knees up around his shoulders.  He went riding down our drive way, lost control and crashed my brand new bike into a tree…that was not so funny.  Thankfully Uncle Doug was fine but the impact bent the front tire of my bike.  My uncle, whom I know was not a wealthy man, immediately went out and purchased me an even better bike, this one had a basket on the front and ribbons on the handle bars.  I loved my uncle Doug.

Sadly, as a young man, Douglas Miiller was drafted into the army and has served a tour of duty in Vietnam.  He never talked about his days in the army but I overheard the adults saying that “it messed him up.”  I never really knew what they meant but in 1977, when he decided to end his life, this part of his past seemed to be the key to understanding why he had lived such a tortured life.  I also gleaned from my keen ability to ease drop on adult conversations, that my uncle had a drinking problem which only contributed to his pain.

He was the first person I can remember losing to death.  Dealing with death is never easy, especially for a ten year old, but adding suicide to that equation makes it even more difficult.  As I mentioned, my family did not attend church so the only images of God available to me were those shared by family and friends who claimed to be Christians.  I will never forget hearing the words, “Your uncle is going to go to hell for what he did.”, spoken by a child I thought was my friend.  This was the message the Church gave me during my time of grief.  These words wounded me so deeply that it was more than twenty years before I was willing to step foot in a church.

My call to create safe spaces for spiritual seekers grows out of this very early wounding by the messages of judgment that I heard as a child.  In my book, “From the Sanctuary to the Streets”, I have captured the stories of many people, who like my Uncle Doug, never found a home in the church walls but whose lives have enriched my own.  My prayer is that my book will bring honor to the lives of those who feel shut out, judged and cast off.  For those are the very people Jesus chose to identify with and spend time with.  It is in the presence of the “least of these” where I have seen the real “Church” come alive.

I know that my experience is unique.  Millions of people find hope, comfort and healing within the walls of the institutional church, so please do not think I am being critical of the local church.  My prayer is that through the stories of those who do not feel welcome in the church with walls, pulpits and steeples, we will begin to see that the Church Universal is far bigger than the structures built by human hands.  It exists in the very people who seek to be Christ in the world and in the faces of those Christ identified with in Matthew 25; those who hunger and thirst, the stranger, the sick and those who are imprisoned.

How has your early experiences with church shaped your faith?  What images of God do you think your children have been taught?  What images of God do we show the world through our words and actions?

I choose the image of the Vietnam memorial for this post to honor both those who have died in battle this memorial day weekend, but also those whom like my uncle had their lives shattered by war.  The lasting effects of the horrors of war continue on for generations.  In some ways, I myself am a victim both through the loss of my uncle and the effects that my uncle’s suicide had on my family, in particular my father who lost his youngest brother.

I pray for peace for all the families across the world who suffer due to war and I lift up a prayer for peace for all the nations.  May your memorial day be peaceful and blessed.

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Filed under Book Related, missional church, Personal Reflection, Theology, Top Post's of All Time, Urban Ministry

I Support the Separation of Church and Hate

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Today my daughters and I attended the Veg Fest, a vegetarian food festival.  Two of my daughters are now professing vegetarians.  As you would expect there were a number of animal rights groups, and books on how to be a vegan, and tie died banners with peace symbols…you get the feel.

In addition to lots of tofu dishes, there were also a number of non-profits; the one that caught my eye was Big Brothers Big Sisters.  I was thrilled to see someone who valued the lives of children as much as the lives of animals.  I found it ironic that of all the human services agencies in the city that this particular agency was present.    

You see, last night we had dinner with friends who had just attended a conference on the need for paternal involvement in the lives of young people in our city.  The statistics for Richmond city of young people growing up without a father are staggering:  Non-marital births in Richmond City are nearly twice that of the United States or Virginia at large currently at 63% with the white rate at 24% and the black rate at 84%.

Below is a quote from The Virginia Department of Health:

Fatherless Children are:

  • 5 times more likely to be poor
  • 2 times more likely to drop out of school
  • 150% more likely to experience teen pregnancy
  • 70% of juveniles in state institutions grew up in fatherless homes
  • 72% of adolescent murderers grew up without their fathers

None of these stats were surprising to me.  The statistics within RRHA public housing, where many of our clients reside, are even more depressing with close to 95% of families being single parent households. 

When my friend suggested I start going to the meetings around this issue, I got a bit irritated.  I have sat in meeting after meeting with folks spouting statistics and calling for change but never see anyone put forth a plan or take action to help the young girls and boys who are caught in this vicious cycle.  I ended my dinner with my friend asking “So what can we do about it?  What is the solution?”

Then today, there they were:  Big Brothers Big Sisters!  Amid homeless dogs and multi colored cauliflower sprouts, they were a shining beacon of sanity….someone I could relate to as a carnivore.  I rushed to the table eager to learn about their program.  The volunteer behind the table was very helpful explaining that their program pairs at-risk youth with caring adults in a one on one mentoring relationship.  I then asked her what the greatest need was and she said, “Caring adults, we currently have 400 children on the waiting list.” 

That broke my heart, 400 kids eager to have a meaningful relationship with an adult and no adults willing to invest in those children.  I then shared with her that I ran a non-profit called Embrace Richmond and surprisingly she knew all about us.  I shared that we had lots of congregational partners and that we were targeting three high risk communities where many of our clients lived and would love to explore partnering with their program. 

Then she dropped the bomb on what I thought was a God ordained meeting, she said “Oh Church people do not make good mentors, we have had really bad luck working with them.  College students are far better mentors.”  I was a bit shocked.  Jesus loved little children, he was the one who said “Let the little children come to me.” 

I inquired as to why they had had such a negative experience with Christians and she said “They always have a hidden agenda, they don’t do this out of a desire to love the kids, they are only interested in ‘saving their soul’ but have little interest in developing lasting relationships.   A desire to ‘convert’ someone to your way of thinking is not a healthy basis for a lasting relationship.  My heart sunk to the floor.  I knew what she was saying was true; it is the number one challenge we face in recruiting “encouragers” for our adults.  It is so hard to find Christians who just want to love people; Christians who are willing to leave the ‘saving’ up to the Holy Spirit; Christians who just want to be like Christ and love like Christ, unconditionally. 

With this blow, I convinced my daughter it was time for us to go.  As we were walking out there was a car parked next to us with a bumper sticker that read “I support the separation of Church and Hate.”  It reminded me of a recent conversation I had with my daughter.  She said, “Mom, I don’t want to be called a ‘Christian’.”  I asked her why and she said “Because everyone thinks Christians are judgmental, closed minded, arrogant people.”  I thought to myself, “If that what Christian means, I don’t want to be one either.”

Micah 6:8 says “What does the Lord require of you?  To do justice and love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.”   I think the church needs to rediscover biblical teachings on humility.   My greatest frustration with the church is the level of spiritual arrogance; arrogance that keeps us from working together and arrogance that causes the world to see us as hateful people.  Lord grant us humility!  Help us all support the separation of Church and Hate!

Tomorrow is Father’s Day, I ask you all to say a special prayer for all the children in our city who are growing up without a father.  Pray for Big Brothers Big Sisters and the work they are doing in raising up caring adults to help these young people avoid become just another statistic.  Pray for the adults called to be big brothers and big sisters who are out there but who don’t know how to connect.   Also pray for all the fathers out there who need to be reconciled with their families. Lastly, pray for a movement to spread across this nation reversing the current trend toward single headed households.   May God raise up fathers both biological and spiritual!

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Unity in Diversity: The Church Emerging

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There is something wonderfully exciting happening across the globe.  This past weekend I attended the Emerging Church Conference hosted by the Center for Action and Contemplation.  While the conference did not answer all my questions about the Emerging Church, I realized why I still have so many questions.  As one speaker suggested, it would be better to describe what is happening as “the church emerging” since this conversation is simply trying to articulate what is happening around the globe.  It is something that is happening as we speak, not something that can be well defined and described.

Let me set the stage.  The conference as organized by a Catholic group that stresses the contemplative life and a life devoted to social justice.  The speakers included Evangelicals, Episcopalians and Catholics.  The conference sold out with nearly 1,000 in attendance and was webcast around the world.  There was every age, every denomination, and every state along with friends from around the world.  This is the picture of the church Emerging.  It is a church beyond denominational affiliation.  I personally attended the conference with a seventy year old Roman Catholic friend who has contributed significantly to my spirituality over the years.    As Shane Claiborne (one of my favorite authors) said, “The goal is to harmonize not homogenize.”  There was such beauty in our diversity and the entire conference celebrated the beauty that each tradition has contributed to Christianity.  The tree in the photo was the backdrop on the stage throughout the conference and it beautifully illustrates our kinship. 

 I think this image is particularly powerful for me because of the journey that has shaped me.  I grew up un-churched, came to faith in Christ in an ELCA Lutheran Church at the age of 26, served on the staff of a non-denominational Evangelical church for many years, went to a Baptist Seminary, am a member of a Methodist church and have received much of my spiritual direction and formation from Catholic Saints both living and deceased.  I am the product of this new way of experiencing the faith and I see the beauty in every tradition. 

What I learned from the conference is that the Christian churches can be divided into roughly four quadrants; Evangelical, liturgical, social action, and Charismatic/Pentecostal.  All of these ways of doing church have value and each contributes to our faith formation, but God is far bigger than our human constructs.  No faith or combination of faith traditions can fully grasp the mystery of God.  God is far bigger than our dogmas and doctrines.  This conversation is not seeking to build a new “denomination” but is simply recognizing that our old denominational boxes have been expanded because we have come to see that all Christian traditions have value.  We heard from an Evangelical who has rediscovered the richness of the monastic tradition and has started an intentional community built on this understanding.  I met an Episcopal priest who does bible studies in bars in her city because she recognizes the hunger people have for a deeper understanding of God.  I met a Roman Catholic woman who sounded more like an evangelical in her call to connect young people to the gospel through on-line communities.  What I saw in all these participants is the same spirit that gave birth to Embrace; a willingness to carry the message beyond the walls of the church into the lives of people outside the walls. 

Before this conference I was not sure how Embrace could be a part of this conversation.  However, I found that one of the four foundational practices being championed through this conversation is social justice and in particular “care of the poor”.  I have no desire to “start” an emerging church.  However, I do feel called to help the church in Richmond “emerge” from behind the walls and simply live the gospel by living as Christ did; among the poor and oppressed in our world and to do so by uniting the entire body around that mission.

The one thing that was echoed in every one of our sessions was the need to return to Jesus as the center of our faith; to stop worshipping dotrinal formulas, the church, or even the bible.  The goal is not to grow “the church” but advance the Kingdom and the Kingdom is now, on this earth, as we seek to bring heaven to our deeply broken humanity.  We do this as we seek to follow God’s will through prayer and contemplation, as we share the teachings of Christ,  as we build true authentic communities where all are welcome and loved, and as we fight for justice in the world.  Those four foundational practices with the person of Jesus Christ found in the four gospels as our guide is the foundation of the Emerging Church conversation as it was explained to me.

There are many voices making contributions to this conversation and as would be expected, others are adding to and taking away from this understanding but from what I saw this week, the vast majority of people engaged in this conversation are simply seeking to live in a way that is consistent with their understanding of the Christ we find in the gospels.   For many, this looks much like the Acts 2 church with a return to small gatherings of followers as a means of living out the faith in community.   My prayer is that I too will be free to live in this simple way and will find fellow Christians who truly seek to live the incarnation in radical and simple ways.  I am not sure where this desire will lead me personally but professionally I was encouraged and affirmed by the sisters and brothers I met on this journey.  I felt at home for the first time in a long time.  It was a beautiful experience to realize that all over this world the church is emerging!

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one”  John 17:20-22

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What is the Emerging Church?

Next week I am headed to New Mexico to an Emerging Church Conference hosted by the Center for Action and Contemplation.  I posted this fact on my facebook page and one of my friends asked “What is the emerging church?”  I have been following the emerging church conversation off and on for about seven years and I honestly still do not know how to answer that question.  It has come to mean a lot of things to a lot of people but I think the one consistent theme I have seen is a type of deconstruction of the Christian faith that is causing many to ask new questions.  It is a conversation that is asking, “What is the fundamental core of who we are as Christians?  When you strip all the non-essentials away, what is left?” At least that is what the conversation has been like for me.  As I said, it means a lot of things to a lot of people.  The cool thing is that no one owns this conversation and there is no “right” answer to this question.

In this search for the essence of what it means to be Christian in today’s postmodern culture, I have found my personal understanding of the Christian faith being echoed in the Missional Church Movement.  This movement has been shaped by the emerging church conversation but I believe it adds a very distinctive voice to the conversation.  Within the Missional Church movement you tend to find small gatherings of Christians seeking to live in an authentic way, not mega clusters of luke warm believers content to warm the pews.  Those dedicated to missional movement tend to be Christians who are committed to Christian growth and maturity, not simply for the sake of growing in understanding but because they believe that to truly follow Christ demands that they be in service to the poor and oppressed in our community.  Missional Churches take seriously Jesus words in Luke 4:18

  “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
      because he has anointed me
      to preach good news to the poor.
   He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
      and recovery of sight for the blind,
   to release the oppressed,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

In the past several years, I have met a number of individuals who believe that to truly be a Christ follower, you must be willing to leave the comfort of your own community and follow Jesus into the margins of society.  Granted they are few and far between, but they are among the most fascinating, real, alive people I know.  The amazing thing is that when you are willing to follow Christ into places of darkness, you find that the Holy Spirit is there to meet you in mysterious ways.  You find that Christ truly does dwell more powerfully with the poor than with the rich and you discovery the mystery of Matthew 25:40; the very real tangible presence of Christ in the least.  I do not believe we are called to care for the poor solely for their sake but that we are called to care for the poor because in so doing we are transformed and we come to know Christ in a way that only the poor can reveal to us. 

 I believe until we are willing to do this, we will continue to fill our churches with bench warmers who see the church as just another consumer driven activity, jumping from church to church, seeking the best program, the best preaching, or the best youth ministry.  The role of the church is not “to meet our needs” but to prepare us, strengthen us, and equip us to be bearers of hope in a broken world.  It is in the very act of hope bearing that we find the hope that we seek. 

Shane Claiborne in his incredible book “Irresistible Revolution” writes “It looked like some time back we had stopped living Christianity and just started studying it.”  For some Christians the faith is all about biblical knowledge, for others it is about inner peace and healing, but for those who take seriously the call to be a blessing to the world, the core message of the faith is that God became flesh and lived among us and through the giving of the Holy Spirit we become Christ incarnate in this world.  We are to live our faith, not study it, worship it, or stand on it. The missional movement is a wake up call to all Christians who believe that the Christian faith is more than an hour on Sunday, it is more than giving of our tithes and offerings, it is more than bible studies, Sunday School classes and small groups; it is about making a very real tangible difference in the lives of people and in our community. 

It is about transforming the world that exists today in all its brokenness into the likeness of the kingdom to come.  For this reason Jesus taught us to pray “They kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”    Christ is alive redeeming the world, healing the brokenness, and comforting the afflicted through believers who by the power of the Holy Spirit follow after him and believe in Jesus words in John 14:12 “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.”  I pray some day, I will be counted among the faithful who had the courage to follow Jesus with my whole heart.

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