microchurch

This is the paradox.   Neither Jesus nor Christian faith is going out of style.  Not really.  I’m going by memory, but as I recall, people such as the Pew Trust, sociologist Christian Smith, and even the Gallup folks all tell us people do believe in God, do want to know what God and the scriptures to do with their lives.

The problem is that how we go about those things and to whom do we turn that is changing.

Specifically, denominationalism and corporate denominations are less and less important to faith.  I, for one, experience it most everyday as a denominational minister.  I am 35 and I’ve known the church that helped raise me and shape my view of God and the world be in decline all of my life.  My personal research helped me understand that officially, membership in my church in the U.S. began declining in 1980.  The trend remains in a downhill slope since.

By Namaska on Flickr

By Namaska on Flickr

Church-going practices actually started changing decades before.  Many babyboomers were baptized in the churches their parents brought them to, but huge percentages didn’t remain actively involved.  The 1960’s, the crisis of social and moral authority of churches in the sexual revolution and Vietnam War, all contributed to radical questioning about the real importance of churches as institutions.  We live in the wake of those questions today.

Alot more could be said.  But I want to cut to the chase.

As a minister, I’m not ultimately interested in saving the institutional church.   Institutions are important.   In the end, they can and serve the purpose of church.  But, I don’t confuse the gospel for institutional religiosity.

By kwerfeldein on Flickr

By kwerfeldein on Flickr

I do, however, believe in community.  I’m with the bible on this one.  I believe in the inseparable union of faith and human community.  It’s a biblical thing.  God and the Gospel go together, just like faith, salvation, and your present relationships.  I know God is real because of, not in spite of, our relationships with others.  Without relationships, Jesus’ call to discipleship and everything he says about enemies, peace, and love are just metaphysical niceities, religious ideas that go well on embroidered pillows and wall hangings.

I don’t believe the essential importance of Christ’s call to faith and spiritual community is not ultimately being threatened right now.  What is being threatened is the way we go about it.  Institutional denominations, corporate denominationalism, even Sunday Morning service are no longer the spiritual anchors they used to be.  Jobs, family, financial demands, and civics demand alot more flexibility from the church.  Churches, right or wrong, have to compete.  And, while this cultural shift may be a significant loss for America’s churches – they ultimately don’t have to be.  Think about it.  The opportunity we face is staggering.  We have the opportunity to see God unleashed into new forms, new spiritual practices, and new ways of gathering.

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” – Matthew 18:20

One of the struggles we seem to have as “church folks” is how to break out of the church model.  How do we break out of the idea that God is more than a Sunday thing?  How do we take church with us wherever we go?…put it in our pockets?…and make the blessings of our faith community available everyday?

I want to make a small contribution to solving this problem.  It’s a small idea.  A humble offering.  But, ultimately I think its just as much as part of discipleship as bible study and Sunday Morning.  I call it microchurch.

Microchurch is easy.  You can do it in 5 minutes, even less.  You can do microchurch on twitter, on facebook, at work, or between classes.  All you need in another person.  Microchurch gives you a chance to breathe a minute (Spirit means “breath”), remember who blessed us with our day, and let faith put things in perspective.

Microchurch is two or three people doing these four things.

1.  Gather.  Make your congregation of two or three.  Find a microchurch partner.  Meet in the hall between classes or do it over lunch.  If no one’s around, do it with who follows you on twitter.

By G. & A.Jimenez on Flickr

By G. & A.Jimenez on Flickr

2.  Rejoice or Release. Then, rejoice in a God-moment or release a burden.   This is like the “Good News” and “Prayer concerns” part of your service.  But, it’s simpler.  Tell about something or someone in whom you saw the living Christ today or since you last met.   Maybe it was in the sunrise, or a kind word between strangers.   Whatever.  Just, rejoice about something.  Or, release.  Release a burden you’re caring.  It doesn’t have to be a mountain.  Molehills are fine.  Something small, or something big.  Maybe you’re worried about the way something you said came across.  Maybe you’re having relationship trouble, or a friend is really depressed.  Whatever it is, release it.  Bear your burden with another.   Rejoice or release.  Do it whenever you can.   Faith is exercised in community.  Do it everyday.

2.  Pray. Next, pray.  Lift up the burden you released or thank God for your day.  Force yourself to make God’s Spirit a part of your mindset.  Talk to God.  Even if it is for 30 seconds or a moment of silence.   Talk and listen.  Remember the One who created you, gave you this moment, and Who is the hope of all things.

3.  Resolve.  Finally, resolve to commit an act of discipleship!  Resolve to do something for the Kingdom that day.  Jesus preached about his Father’s business.  The Kingdom is hidden in little acts of faith.  Think about your relationships.  Really consider forgiving someone.  “Forgive us as we forgive others.”  (Matthew 6:12)   Or, break the mold and hang out with the bruised, broken-hearted, or outcast.   Sit with someone new at lunch.     Vow to do something for the environment.   Sacrifice a coffee and make a small donation.  In short, live your discipleship in some small way that day.  Tell your microchurch partner what you’re going to do.  They are your accountability partner for the day.  Faith without actions is empty!  (James 2:17)  Resolve to do something for Christ.  If you want, at your next microchurch, you can tell what happened.  You’ve got something to “rejoice!”

So there it is:   Rejoice/Release, Pray, Resolve.  5 minutes.

It doesn’t matter what order you do it in.  Just do it.  It can take just 5 minutes.   You can do it on twitter.   When you do, you’re doing church.  You’re living your faith.  You’re growing in discipleship.  You’re doing something terribly biblical:  putting together faith and life together.

Microchurch won’t replace bible study, praise & worship, or breaking bread together.  But, it’ll let you have church wherever, whenever, every day.

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” – Matthew 18:20

Sign of the Times

I have this feeling – a kind of prophetic sense, if you will – that the world is turning upside-down and inside-out.   It’s not that anything is strange.  It’s just the way the world works.  The race is on.  It’s always on.  But there’s no clear start or finish line.   Someone, one day, just started running to get ahead.  Now we all have to keep up.

No one asks why anymore.  No one says, “um…where is the world going?”   Or, better, “Why am I trying to keep up?”   There’s no time.  Even churches have stopped asking.   No one has a good answer.

Liberals don’t have the answer because including everyone and everyone’s opinions makes finding an answer either impossible or inefficient.  The answers of yesteryear have given way to committees and processes.  That means spiritual questions like “what are we doing!?” either go unanswered or the answers gets stuck in committee.

Conservatives fair a little better.  But only because they keep pounding traditional answers to spiritual questions fewer and fewer people are asking.   It’s a scary world that keeps turning upside down and inside out.  There’s real appeal in the feeling like you’ve got all the answers to the life’s true questions.  Certainty is an easy sell.  It’s comforting.   So, if the bible says it, then it must be God’s law.  Now you have everything you need to either deny the harder questions or judge anyone asking them.

Fishy.

Elementary schools are saddled with the job to make sure kids keep up, today.  Teachers, students…they’re all under pressure to measure up.   Social studies, art, and literature are pushed to the side to prioritize math and science.   Probably because social studies, art, and literature are the fields that usually deal with those gooey inconvenient questions, like “Why?”, “What is it all for?” and “Where are we going?”

Instead, kids are driven to take tests and learn math and science.  Not for their own sake, but for the sake of keeping up.  Kids, schools, medicine…all have to keep up with the cult of “the new,” especially technology.   We want to live longer, find ways to text and drive at the same time, fly a missile through some terrorist’s front door, eat what we want and not worry about cancer.    This is America.  This….this  is freedom!  To protect it takes mastering the instrumental logic of science and the fruit of its mastery –  technology.  It means exacting control.  Finding ways to improve.   Remember, someone started running one day, just to get ahead.  Now, it’s global.  We have to keep up with our enemies, so we have an arms race.   Someone else’s 2nd grader is getting all A’s and reading chapter books, so we push our kids to do more.

We do it to ourselves.

Why?  The answer is on TV and our local supermarket.  In a market economy, everyone must compete.   It’s become the logic of our society.  You, me, the kids.  We gotta keep up, keep things moving.  There are winners and losers in everything – even in dieting.

Sports is our true spirituality.  It’s rituals convey true religion.  Our true beliefs.  Think about it.  It’s all about the game.  You’re either making a living playing the game, beating the clock, competing, getting ahead or just getting through it.  Or, you watch.   Some are in the game 9-5, 2-10, even 7-11.   They watch clock or the scoreboard.  Sales reports, the S&P or Dow Jones, our credit limit.  Then, go home.   Work, leisure, and back again.   This world has a rhythm.  Some work it hard to get ahead.  Some have more toys and vacation better than others.

What’s the point?

That’s one of those inconvenient ooey-goey artsy-fartsy abstract spiritual questions.  Why ask questions about something over which you have no control?

Most people think having faith is making plans, doing your best, and hoping things works out.    And, to some degree, it is.  There are winners and losers.  Some lose more than others, but not because they are losers.  It’s because the rules of the game aren’t fair and not everyone can keep up.  Some just can’t get ahead.

It’s the signs of the times.

With things spinning out of control, true faith isn’t letting go.  It’s not giving up.  It’s stopping, sabotaging the game, and asking “where’s all this going?”  “Who started this game?”  “Why must there be winners and losers?”  “What happens to those who can’t keep up?”

Jesus had no strategic plan.   Though we like to read the bible with the idea that Jesus had great determination and control, in the end Jesus just chose not to compete.  He didn’t keep up.  He did he give up.   He had something else in mind.   He hung out with the losers, the unpicked, the rejects and bench warmers.   He was criticized by high-minded spectators.   Why?  He didn’t play the game, and yet they knew he was the only game in town.

Revolutionary Road: Hopeless Emptiness

I saw Revolutionary Road yesterday.   I am sorry it took me this long to see the movie.   I found it exceptional because it hit so close to home.

I read the movie as a profound social commentary on American life.  I took me beyond my normal feelings to the edge of despair.    The movie opens us up to the madness that lives just below the surface of the American dream.  It reveals it in existential categories.

The passage of the American family is told from the perspective of a couple, the Wheelers (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet).  It moves from their late youth, where they met over liquor at a post-WWII party, to adulthood.  The passage moves from the hope of youth and young love to disillusionment, and eventually a level of helplessness and emptiness that teeters on being able to be put into words.   The Wheelers are trapped in the same world we are, between powerful social pressures and personal expectations, where sanity lives on the surface and is decided by what people are willing to say and hear.  The whole story is too real for too many people I know.  The tag line of Revolutionary Road says it well, “How do you break free without breaking apart?”

By the end of the movie, its point gets lost if you find peace by pointing blame on either of the characters.    And, this is not incidental.  Pointing blame, of course, is the trap sustaining the illusion of American life.  Whether in a failed relationship, upside down in a house you can’t afford, or politically claiming the moral high ground in a questionable war – a relentless sense of entitlement is ultimately American.   I hope moviegoers don’t escape the power of this moving by going there.   You’ll miss its profound point if you try to escape its despair by putting responsibility for that empty feeling on someone or something else.

If you’ve not seen the movie, Revolutionary Road is the story of a couple, the Wheelers, trying to make sense of their suburban life in the 1950’s.   After saving enough money to risk living their dreams, they plan to move Europe.   From this point, the adventure to find a life worth living – where a man can spend his time doing what he loves and a woman is free to work, if she wants to – begins to crumble.   After redeeming their love for life by seizing the opportunity, Winslet’s character, April Wheeler, reveals that she’s pregnant.  DiCaprio’s character, Frank Wheeler, a hollow man grasping for meaning in an affair while working in the company his father worked for 20 years, is given the chance to take the promotion of a lifetime.   The dream to truly live and move to Europe slowly gives way to insecurities, the insecurities of actually living out their dreams.   Pressures, both personal and social, begin to reveal the fragility of their trust, both in each other and their happiness.  The tragedy unfolds through their relationship, which increasingly fractures with each attempt to salvage it.

I believe the inner structure of the movie is revealed in the character of John Givings (Michael Shannon), a neighbor’s adult son who is purported to be mentally unstable.   John’s mother, Helen Givings (Kathy Bates), is desperate over her son’s condition.  Popping in one day, Helen asks the Wheelers to have a visit with her son, John.   The doctor’s believe it might “do him some good.”  His PhD in Mathematics and the fact that he’s on leave from the local psychiatric hospital indicate something of how brilliance coincides with insanity.    John’s character depicts the simultaneity of both reason and absurdity.  This tension sustains the drama of the movie.

On John’s and his parents’ first visit, the exceptionalism of the Wheelers comes through in the grace with which they interact with John.  John’s insanity, if it is truly insane, is his brutal indiscretion with the norms of decency.  Entering the Wheeler’s home, he makes a quip about being a lunatic.   John may be mentally ill by standards, but he’s profoundly aware of the situation he is in.   Given up on appearences, it isn’t long before John begins asking invasive personal questions.  His mother’s attempt to control him bounce off John in his obvious hatred for his mother.  You begin to wonder whether John is a victim of this world, which won’t accept the unacceptable, or he simply understands the absurdity of appearing acceptable.  There are hints that John’s true sin is that he is a prophet of the obvious, a prophet in a mad world that hides its insanity in institutions.    (Michel Foucault!)   What makes the whole scene work is that it’s hard to tell whether John’s psyche has really been torn apart by a toxic mix of his intelligence and his mother’s embarrassment, or by the electroshock therapy he’s received, or whether he simply lacks the skill to to separate what he should and should not say.  It’s undecideable whether he is legitimately mentally deficient because of his inability to sustain social interaction, or whether he is warped by his circumstance…or whether he is the only sane one among them.

The most telling dialogue in the movie happens during a walk in the woods outside the Wheeler’s home.   It is John’s first visit to the Wheelers.   Accompanied by his parents, in a moment of awkwardness Frank suggests they get some “fresh air.”  In their walk, John tears into Frank and April about their plans to go to Europe.   The answer develops into a moment of awkward honesty.  Frank admits the “hopeless emptiness” they are trying to escape.   John’s demeanor immediately becomes less manic, as if he’s stumbled onto a moment of clarity.    It is a moment that haunts the rest of the  movie. 

“And what’s in Paris?” John asks as they walk.

“A different way of life,” April responds.

“So maybe we are running… We’re running from the hopeless emptiness of the whole life here.”  Frank concedes.

John pauses.  “The hopeless emptiness? Now, you’ve said it.  Plenty of people are on to the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness… Wow.”

John continues walking.  Frank and April watch him go.

This scene launches the tragedy that unfolds throughout the rest of the movie.  John seems the only enlightened one.  He possesses both the courage and the knowledge of hopelessness.   And, he keeps going….right back to the psychiatric hospital.   The rest of the movie tells the tragic tale of the road more traveled.  Frank and April go back home.  They never go to Europe.

To say any more would spoil the movie.  I’d rather you watch the movie yourself.

Of course, there are those who won’t see Revolutionary Road as the tragic tail of middle class Americana I do.   It tells it in existential proportions.   This is obvious in the end of the movie, which speaks for itself.   For those who find peace by faulting one of the characters in the movie – either in Frank’s extra-marital affairs and inability to get a grip on his sense of self, or April’s childish fantasies – they, I think, have missed the point.