The Lord’s Supper and Virtual Worship

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My spirit soars with particular energy whenever the people of the church spend time in the depths of authentic theological conversation. Presently, such theological conversation is happening robustly around the church’s virtualization (i.e., the church’s movement to online settings) in these days of quarantine and social distancing. It may be that the current theological searching and wrestling is part of God’s creative redemption of these difficult days.

Perhaps some of the most compelling recent theological discourse revolves around the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The driving question in much of the conversation is this: Can we celebrate the Lord’s Supper virtually? Or, to put in another way, can we share the sacramental bread and cup when we are connected online but not physically present in the same geographical space?

(Note: I address these matters as a United Methodist clergyperson, speaking from a United Methodist perspective. I will honor other denominations by allowing their voices and leaders to speak out of their own sacramental theology and tradition.)

Allow me to cut to the proverbial chase: In the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, our Bishop—Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi—has made it clear that United Methodist Churches in Western Pennsylvania are NOT to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in virtual settings. My sense is that the Bishop has issued this directive for no other reason but to guard both the theological identity and the ontological integrity of the sacrament (which is precisely what we count on our Bishop to do). I am grateful for Bishop Cynthia’s clarity and leadership in this regard.

Beyond this practical and clear directive, however, the theological conversation around the Lord’s Supper and its proper celebration continues to find compelling expression. Some have been quick to articulate their strong opposition to “virtual Holy Communion” on the grounds that such a practice would constitute the “disembodiment” of the sacrament—i.e., the removal of the sacrament from its necessary concreteness and its physical community. According to this argument, the act of virtualizing or digitalizing the Lord’s Supper would dangerously distort both the sacrament’s incarnational nature and its celebration of a fully-embodied Christ whose living presence calls for a fully-enfleshed community.

On the other side of the argument are those who believe that the Holy Spirit is hard at work to redefine and reconfigure “embodiment” in this season of crisis where disembodiment (i.e., social distancing) has become a necessary norm. According to this line of thought, the Holy Spirit’s sacramental work cannot be confined by the church’s physicality and is just as efficacious in a virtual connection as it is in physical congregation. Those who espouse this perspective are likely to suggest that prohibiting a virtual celebration of the Lord’s Supper irresponsibly elevates the physical over the metaphysical, thereby generating a truncated sacramentology in which the Holy Spirit is not given adequate space in which to usher an isolated people into a transformational communion with the real presence of Jesus and with one another.

So, here we are.

I would suspect that neither “side” in this sacramental discourse is comprehensively right, and that both perspectives (and other perspectives between them) articulate important priorities that help to illuminate what is ultimately best for the church’s practice. Wherever it is that you land in the spectrum of the discourse, I encourage you not to allow your position to become so soundproof that you fail to hear what is right or helpful from other voices.

My personal conviction is that the entire conversation is helping the church to develop and clarify what might be called its theology of embodiment. What do I mean by “theology of embodiment?” I simply mean the church’s understanding of how God coordinates the mystical territory between “essence” and “substance;” between “in-person” and “online;” between the corporeal and the virtual. In other words, a theology of embodiment wrestles with this question: “What truth and illumination does the Incarnation—the “in-the-flesh-ness” of God in Jesus—bring to our understanding of physicality, virtual connection, and the sharing of the bread and cup?”

The church’s current theology of embodiment does not permit the church to validate or sanction an online or virtual celebration of the Lord’s Supper. To put it simply, the church has a long history of interpreting the Lord’s Supper as the celebration of a living Christ who is embodied in the bread and cup, the consecration of which demands a physically gathered community whose corporeality bears witness to the very flesh that the Incarnation redeems. Will that interpretation change over time as our experience of virtual community continues to expand? Time will tell. But an altered sacramental interpretation would require a substantially reworked theology of embodiment.

Again, Bishop Cynthia’s instruction to the United Methodist Churches of Western Pennsylvania not to celebrate virtual or online communion is both clear and helpfully binding, which is essential to remember in our development of a unified sacramental approach.

If you are a pastor or church leader, I encourage you to continue to offer creative and safe ways for your people to experience connection, worship, prayer, and community. Utilize the telephone with new urgency. Livestream and record your worship where possible. Set up phone and video conferences for your meetings and Bible studies. Consecrate the chambers of cyberspace so that they might become tabernacles. Help your people to embrace the truth that not even a necessary social distancing can prevent the church from being the church.

In this temporary abstinence—or fast—from the Lord’s Supper, consider celebrating an online “Love Feast.” The Love Feast is a communal meal that has a rich history in the church. While it is not to be confused with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, it is a meaningful way for a congregation to experience a shared meal on those occasions (such as this season) when it would be inappropriate for the Lord’s Supper to be celebrated. I smile at the thought of the churches of my district and conference enjoying a small meal safely in their own homes while at the same time seeing the faces and hearing the voices of other church members with whom they are connected online.

Here is a link to a page with more information about the Love Feast and how to celebrate it as a church:

https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/the-love-feast

It hurts to be taken out of our normal practice of celebrating the Lord’s Supper, to be certain. And yet, it occurs to me that, while we are not able to share physically the bread and cup, we are finding remarkable ways to honor one of our most important eucharistic prayers:

“…Make [the bread and cup] be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we might be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.”

Through the creative ministry efforts of our churches in recent days, we may be doing our best-ever “eucharistic” work in “BEING” the redeemed body of Christ until such time as we are able to share the bread and cup once again. In a sense, the Holy Spirit is making our risky and innovative ministry into a metaphorical sacramental bread that we are breaking with our desperately hungry communities. I am encouraged by the thought of that. I hope that you are as well.

When we return to the table of the Lord’s Supper soon, we will be hungrier for the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation than we have ever been. What a celebration that will be!

Livability and Race Realities in the Steel City (and the Implications for Its Churches)

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Back in early September, my heart was pleasantly warmed by the news that my nearest city, Pittsburgh, was named the third “most livable” city in the United States by a research group entitled the Economist Intelligence Unit.

“Way to go Pittsburgh,” I thought to myself. I was grateful that my city, often maligned or undervalued by other portions of the country, received some national affirmation and recognition for its many merits.

As is so often revealed, however, beauty always resides in the eye of the beholder—or the privileged. To put it another way, the “livability” of a city will always be judged differently by those who benefit the most and the least from its services. A highly livable environment for the privileged might at the same time become a territory of toxicity for those who find themselves marginalized or disenfranchised.

Case in point: Just yesterday, a friend and colleague drew my attention to two articles, also written in September. One of the articles was written by Brentin Mock for the website “CityLab.” The article is entitled “Pittsburgh: A ‘Most Livable’ City, But Not For Black Women.

The second article, written by Sakena Jwan Washington for the Huffington Post, was a deeply personal reflection on the first article. Here is a link to the second article, entitled “My City Was Named the ‘Worst Place for Black Women to Live.’ Is That My Cue to Leave?

Mock’s article sheds important light on troubling Pittsburgh statistics, many of which point to a city in which black girls and black women suffer from birth defect rates and death rates (along with school arrest, poverty, and unemployment rates) that are significantly higher than those of white Pittsburgh residents. These rates are also significantly higher than those of black people in the majority of other comparable cities.

To put this into perspective, consider these words from University of Pittsburgh sociology professor Junia Howell (whom Mock quotes in his article):

What this means is that if Black residents got up today and left [Pittsburgh] and moved to the majority of any other cities in the U.S. … their life expectancy would go up, their income would go up, their educational opportunities for their children would go up, as well as their employment.

As I pondered the statistic that 18 out of every 1,000 pregnancies for black women end in fetal death in Pittsburgh (as compared to 9 out of every 1,000 pregnancies for white women), I found myself undone by the enormity of what those numbers represent. In a city known for its teaching hospitals and medical technology, we have nurtured an environment in which fetal death is twice as likely among black infants than it is among white infants. At the very beginning of a life’s journey in Pittsburgh, there is a stark inequity that cannot be ignored or minimized.

In her reflection on Mock’s article (which is as poignant as it is eloquent), Sakena Jwan Washington, a professional “Black woman from Pittsburgh who also happens to be the mother of a Black girl,” gives voice to her own experience of Pittsburgh and its dynamics:

I wonder if I’m living in the dark. I’m surely not ignorant to the fact that most of my friends and colleagues are white. Or that finding a Black hair salon sometimes feels like going on a scavenger hunt, or that the Shadow Lounge ― a Black-owned lounge I once frequented monthly ― closed after gentrification shuttered its doors, or that my favorite jazz lounge closed for the same reason. It’s not lost on me that when an independent film like Toni Morrison’s biopic ‘The Pieces I Am’ comes to town, it plays in one theater in the entire city. I’m aware and I grumble about my observations every day. And yet, I’m still here.

I hear in Washington’s words the echoes of a marginalization that I will never be able fully to understand as a white male Pittsburgher but that I dare not minimize. The echoes compel me to wonder about the long-term impact of an institutionalized segregation that is so thoroughly embedded in a city’s ethos and daily patterns that it is routinely accepted as normative. “I might be able to operate in this sort of segregated atmosphere,” Washington writes, “but can my daughter? Will there be educational options in Pittsburgh that are both diverse and receive the same level of resources I had access to in my predominantly white private schools?”

These are questions that hang in the philosophical air, demanding the attentiveness of any Pittsburgher who longs for a city that is committed to justice and equity for all of its citizens and families.

I traffic in the rhythms of western Pennsylvania church life (United Methodist church life, more specifically). As a clergy person in a conference that has named “Dismantling Racism” as one of its areas of focus, it is one of my responsibilities to nurture the kind of spaces (and churches) in which racism in all of its forms (personal and systemic) is recognized, named, rejected, and actively dismantled. In recent days, I have seen deeply encouraging glimpses of my tribe’s commitment to this work.

A few weeks back, for example, during a time of anti-racism training, another white pastor spoke to me about one of his newly-energized priorities: “I have spent too many years giving lip-service to dismantling racism in the churches that I have served,” he said. “I am making it a priority in 2020 to help my [predominantly white] congregation and community to experience the kinds of resources, relationships, and conversations that will deepen their understanding of racism, privilege…and the sin of complicity.” His words inspired me to reflect on my own priorities in this regard—along with my own complicity.

At the same time, resistance to the work of dismantling racism finds expression in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. I suggested to a ministry team recently that we read an article together entitled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (written by Peggy McIntosh), simply because I believed that the dynamics of white privilege were pertinent to the matters we were discussing. The body language in the room (which I have gotten fairly good at reading over the years) communicated a collective lack of hospitality to my suggestion. My interpretation of the body language was later confirmed by one of the team members, whose perspective I share with permission: “I know that racism still exists,” she said, “but when we keep fixating on it, all that we do is create resentment and enslave ourselves to the problem.”

I found the imagery of her words painfully ironic: “enslave ourselves to the problem.”

I wonder how that kind of imagery would fall upon the heart of an Asian-American or African-American pastor in Western Pennsylvania who is daily confronted by the reality of being the only person of color in the room (and in the sanctuary); or a person of color who regularly experiences both implicit and explicit racial biases that reinforce isolating and even dehumanizing presuppositions; or the black female Pittsburgher navigating the injustices and inequities illuminated by recent statistics. How can dismantling racism remain a focus when resistance to conversations about racism and a burgeoning sense of white fragility have begun to govern portions of the collective consciousness?

I suppose the dynamics that I am describing only serve to elucidate the complexity of the situation related to race. Racism is as real as it ever was, but far too many white people are tired of hearing about it. A pastor’s racial identity is still important enough to inspire a parishioner to leave a church, but the last thing that we want to hear is someone highlighting the issue of racism. The statistics related to black women in Pittsburgh are what they are, but we comfort ourselves with the manufactured belief that we have been completely delivered from our racist history.

If the United Methodist Church in western Pennsylvania is to succeed in keeping the dismantling of racism as an authentic point of focus, there are some governing convictions that white United Methodists in this region will have to embrace and guard. One of those convictions is that participating consistently in strategic conversations and training related to racism and privilege does not “enslave us to the problem” but rather generates a necessary spirit of galvanizing solidarity between the church and those for whom the problem truly is enslaving.  A second conviction would be that a condemnation of racism runs the risk of becoming anemic if it is not accompanied by a risky commitment from the privileged to utilize their voices in the fostering of expanded agency for the disenfranchised, disruptive truth-telling, and energized advocacy.

As a white male, my privilege often blinds me. I am painfully aware of that blindness, even as I type these words. It makes me all the more grateful for those souls in my journey (including my clergy colleagues) who love me enough to bring me into difficult but important conversations about race and who value me enough to hold me accountable for my ongoing participation in the relentlessly urgent work of dismantling the machinery of racism—a machinery that exists in both the hallways of our churches and the chambers of my own heart.

Sakena Jwan Washington concludes her article about Pittsburgh in this fashion:

The hard question for me is will my daughter struggle with connectedness the way I once did, and will a move to a city with a more robust Black middle class lessen her struggle? Is this a game-time decision, or must I act now?  Will I stay and be a pioneer for change, or will I leave to occupy spaces where I know, without question, my family will feel like they belong?

I hope and pray that she stays, but I know that my hopes and prayers are not enough. They must be accompanied by my commitment to the nurturing of spaces in which the kind of connectedness and belonging that Washington envisions can be pursued and experienced with integrity and hope. Only then will the “pioneers of change” get the strong sense that they are not alone in their pioneering.

Don’t GO Home, But BE at Home: A Reflection On Women In Ministry

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(Artwork: “Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well”—from Japan, unknown artist)

It was a significant moment and not in a good way.

On October 18, as part of a panel discussion at a “Truth Matters Conference” in Sun Valley, California, author and pastor John MacArthur was asked to share (in just a couple of words) his thoughts about author and preacher Beth Moore. MacArthur’s response was as stark as it was revelatory.

“Go home,” he said.

“Go home!”

MacArthur went on to clarify his response: “There is no case that can be made biblically for a woman preacher. Period. End of discussion.”

“Go home!”

In his words from that Sun Valley platform, MacArthur successfully encapsulated what countless women who are called by God to ministry have heard from many within the Body of Christ:

No! Not you! You have obviously misheard God’s voice and misunderstood God’s call on your life. The Bible is clear: Women are not to have authority over men, and we refuse to believe that Jesus and the Holy Spirit have inaugurated a new worldview in which gender-based hierarchy no longer makes sense. Turn away from this unauthorized sense of call. This ministry is not for you. Go home!

Having watched the video of MacArthur’s comments, even more troubling to me than the comments themselves is the response of the audience. It was a response of laughter, loud and energized—a dehumanizing “amen” that felt less like church and more like a shared derision pointed toward Beth Moore, a sister in Christ who was not even present at the conference.

MacArthur’s words and the audience’s response to them immediately brought to my mind the faces of many women whose leadership, preaching, and teaching has shaped and nurtured me throughout my pilgrimage. If the women preachers have to go home, then so do I, since I would not be who and what I am without those female clergypersons whose ministry has been instrumental in making me more authentically human and more holistically Christian.

My female colleagues in ministry certainly do not need my defense, nor do they need my expressions of righteous anger (especially since, as a white male, my “righteous anger” can sometimes sound like little more than patronizing rhetoric or perhaps even a superficial assuagement of a highly privileged guilt). Still, I long to speak to the hearts of my sisters and to the heart of the church.

But what might I say?

Perhaps I will simply reframe MacArthur’s language so that the vocabulary of “home” might find its proper redemption. Here goes:

Sisters in ministry, please, for the sake of the Gospel we love, do not even think about going home. Instead, in the rhythms of our fallen church’s broken ministry, BE at home!

Yes. Maybe that is what I feel most led to say. Sisters in ministry…

…BE at home!

Be at home in a church that has often been anything but hospitable to you but that desperately needs your leadership and vision.

Be at home in a deeper reading of Scripture that refuses to weaponize texts but instead interprets them through the hermeneutical lens of the Living Word.

Be at home in a post-Pentecost reality in which both sons and daughters are called and equipped to proclaim and lead.

Be at home amid your broken church’s ongoing repentance to which I add my voice and heart—a repentance in which I name my complicity (often manifested in my silence) in maintaining gender-based hierarchies and inequities.

Be at home in the renewed commitment being made by many of your male colleagues (including this one) to identify and stand against misogyny in all of its expressions.

Be at home in your divine calling that cannot be stifled and micromanaged by the machinery of patriarchy; be at home in a righteous anger that many of your brothers carry with you; be at home in a stubborn refusal to accommodate false stories and weaponized Scripture.

Male colleagues, be at home in utilizing your voice and agency in prophetic ways to dismantle patterns and practices that are unjust or distorted and to advocate for female voices that desperately need to be heard.

Female colleagues, be at home where you already are—in the heart of the church’s ministry.

Most of all, be at home in Jesus Christ, who is always a trustworthy dwelling place, even when the institutional church is not.

Be at home.

 

Bent Toward Lent

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(Artwork: “Path to the Cross” by Kate Robertson)

Those who live by the church’s way of measuring time now find themselves in the six-week season known as Lent.

The word “Lent” is a derivative of an old Anglo-Saxon word (“lencten”) which simply means “springtime.” There is nothing automatically holy about the season of Lent. When Christ-followers approach it attentively and prayerfully, however, Lent can become a spiritual journey alongside Jesus into a more intimate engagement with the Divine Heart.

Some people “give up” something for Lent in order to practice the kind of sacrifice that might inspire a fresh attentiveness to deeper things. Other people “take up” something for Lent—a new spiritual discipline or a particular act of ministry—in order to intensify their spiritual focus.

For me, Lent has always been, among other things, a time to receive more deeply the Holy Spirit’s gracious invitation to become more fully who God created me to be. The church calls this the work of repentance.

Truth be told, it saddens me when I think about how frequently I reduce repentance to drudgery—a joyless rhythm of “try and fail” that generates more dread than hope, more shame than freedom. Jesus had to have something better than that in mind when he invited us to “repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15).

Maybe Jesus is asking us to see that repentance, when understood as God’s accomplishment rather than ours, can become a beautiful rehearsal of the kind of life in which Jesus creatively reconfigures the way we relate to our various distortions.

Maybe Jesus is asking us to believe that, in the walk of repentance, he actually comes alongside us as an advocate in our places of struggle, so that he might patiently and mercifully guide us away from our self-righteous or self-indulgent fixations and toward the things he values and offers.

Such repentance is not an event but a way of life—not a solitary prayer but a liberating pilgrimage of joyful deliverance.

Lent…

…giving something up…

…taking something up…

…repenting…

…walking more watchfully alongside Jesus and being undone by his scandalous grace.

My prayer is that those of you who observe Lent will experience the next several weeks as an energizing realignment—a vibrant reawakening to the vitality of a Christwardly-surrendered life.

May it be so.

Worship: Beyond Combat to Creativity

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(Artwork: “Free, Indeed” by Laura Gentry)

Someone said to me recently that the worship wars are over.

Do you know what I mean by “worship wars”?

I mean the struggle and tension generated by what are often constructed (unfairly and unhelpfully) as liturgical dichotomies:

  • “traditional” versus “contemporary” or “modern;”
  • “high church” versus “low church”
  • “choruses” versus “hymnody;”
  • “high tech” versus “high touch;”
  • “transcendent” verses “relevant.”

Evidence of the tension that I am describing has been plentiful for many years. We find it in divisive church committee meetings and in passionate pronouncements on social media. We find it in churches’ evaluations of their clergy leadership, in clergy’s evaluation of their churches, and in lay peoples’ evaluation of their congregational worship.

As a pastor who has spent the last thirty years of his vocational life planning worship and preparing sermons, I have experienced my own spiritual schizophrenia related to the variety of perspectives on worship. In the congregations that I have served, I have heard people describe the exact same sermon series as “just what I needed to hear” and “frustratingly irrelevant.” I have heard the “modern” worship experiences that I have overseen (and sometimes spearheaded) described as both “contextually attentive” and “shamefully consumerist.” I have heard my own liturgical leadership described as both “creatively evocative” and “out of touch with the common person.”

If these “worship wars” are indeed over, then thanks be to God. In fact, God help us if we persist in warring over a spiritual discipline that has, as its primary objective, the glorification and adoration of the One who formed our lungs and breathed life into them.

And yet…

…And yet, even if the “wars” are over, there remains the difficult work of clarifying and, in some cases, configuring a theology of worship that can inform and illuminate the current practice of worship in the 21stCentury church. While I do not have the wherewithal to say all that needs to be said about this important matter, I have forged two personal convictions that have become both the primary lenses through which I view the discipline of worship and the foundational priorities upon which my own approach to worship is built. I share these two convictions here, not because I am insistent upon their rightness, and not because I am looking for debate, but because the desire of my heart is to further the church’s contemplation and practice of worshiping God.

A Conviction About Worship’s Purpose:
The Governing Purpose Of Worship Is To offer To God The Only Response That God Deserves

I am prone to subordinating worship to my own narcissism, and perhaps I am not alone in this tendency. I have learned about myself that, if I am not intentional about the way I approach worship, worship can become for me merely another means by which to gratify my own personal preferences and proclivities—like watching television or going to a concert or eating at a favorite restaurant.

Did we sing the hymns or choruses that I wanted to sing? Were my favorite singers a part of worship? Did the flow and feel of worship appeal to my artistic sensibilities? Did the sermon inspire me sufficiently? Was the preacher articulate enough and funny enough and relevant enough? Were the people around me adequately friendly?

To be sure, there is nothing inherently evil about such questions. As I have learned in my own journey, however, when these questions become the sole mechanism by which I evaluate my experience of worship, I end up approaching worship with priorities that are shaped less by doxological impulses and more by my own egocentric consumerism. The glorification of God and the offering of self are subordinated to a checklist of personal preferences.

In one of my favorite biblical calls to worship, the Psalmist tells us that we are to “enter the Lord’s gates with thanksgiving and the Lord’s courts with praise” (Psalm 100:4). Every time I read those words, it strikes me that the Psalmist does not express any interest whatsoever in the mood, temperament, or preferences of the worshiper. “But wait! What if I don’t feel like being thankful?! What if I am not in the mood to offer praise?! What if the style of worship or the nature of the liturgy doesn’t speak my heart language?!” The Psalmist does not address such matters, not because the Psalmist is blind to the realities of human preferences, but because he understands that human preferences are secondary to the fact that “the Lord is good” and that “the Lord’s steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 100:5). The Psalmist, in other words, writes under the conviction that the primary purpose of worship is not to gratify the worshiper but to glorify the Creator, so that the worshiper might “know that the Lord is God” (Psalm 100:3).

I frequently re-read Psalm 100 on days when I am headed into congregational worship. The Psalmist’s words are a powerful and important reminder to me that the most compelling and urgent question for me to ask during worship is never “What am I getting out of it?” or even “Am I being sufficiently fed?” but rather “How much more of my life am I subordinating to the transforming and trustworthy Lordship of Jesus?”

There is an objection to this conviction that I have frequently heard:

This is all very lofty. But what about the people we are trying to reach who don’t yet know that God deserves to be worshiped and who are drawn to a certain kind of presentation and experience of music? Your approach to worship seems to ignore their priorities.

Such an objection is not to be dismissed, especially since it forces us to take seriously the evangelical potential of the church’s worship. But I would offer this caution: The varied and unpredictable preferences of worshipers make a far better servant than they do a master. When worship is subordinated entirely to the personal preferences of a congregation—or to what we think a particular part of the population would find meaningful or engaging—the church runs the risk of losing the beautiful strangeness of its liturgical language. I choose to believe that it is possible to generate artistic freshness, creativity, and even relevance in worship without sacrificing a clear vision of worship’s grand and governing purpose.

A Conviction About Worship’s Content: 
The Worship Of God Demands A Mentality Of “Both/And” Rather Than “Either/Or”

I have heard an “either/or” mentality expressed many times in conversations about worship.

  • “If I were to see drums in the sanctuary, I would walk right out the door.”
  • “We don’t sing hymns in our worship because the language is too outdated.”
  • “We don’t have altar calls because that’s too ‘Baptist’”.
  • “We don’t want to hear personal testimonies in worship because they are too emotional.”
  • “We don’t sing praise choruses because they are too repetitive.”
  • “We don’t sing songs that are more than five years old because we want to be current.”
  • “We don’t need printed prayers or creeds because they are too ritualistic.”

The problem with an either/or mentality related to worship, however, is that it limits the creativity of worship to the perceived boundaries of a particular liturgical style. When the church makes the boundaries around liturgical style too rigid, it risks losing sight of of the expansiveness of a God whose grandness demands a rich diversity and flexibility in worship.

I am not suggesting that it is inappropriate to guard or honor a particular liturgical style. (After all, the acoustics of Westminster Abbey might not be conducive to the dynamics of rock and roll!) The point I am making is that perhaps too often the church has settled for a mentality of “either/or” in the worship of a God who deserves nothing less than a “both/and” creativity.

Personally, I want to be part of worship teams that are asking deeper and more creative questions. Not, “How can we create worship that stays within our particular stylistic boundaries?” but rather, “How can we create worship that best communicates the Gospel with the kind of creativity and expansiveness that God deserves?” Not, “How can we create worship that will resonate primarily with millenials and iGen?” but rather, “How can we generate the kind of creatively diverse worship in which multiple generations can find their voice?”

Am I being too naïve when I envision the theological richness of the church’s hymnody finding new musical expression in modern worship services? Am I being too unrealistic when I imagine traditional worship in which both Bach and Hillsong can be held together with both artistic and liturgical integrity? Am I being too idealistic when I picture a church where worship planning is less about what we aren’t permitted to do and more about what the themes of worship require to find their most creative treatment?

I hope not. Because that kind of worship constructs windows instead of walls, possibilities instead of rigid boundaries, and sacred bridges between that which is ancient and that which is modern. When I spend time engaging in this deeper worship, it helps me to remember that worship will always be more about obedience than it is about technique; more about a transformed heart than it is about a particular liturgical style; more about Jesus than it is about us.

When the Church Abuses: A Lament

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(Artwork: “Suffer the Children” by Janice Nabors Raiteri)

As I hold in my thoughts yesterday’s report of the grand jury’s investigation into allegations of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in six Pennsylvania dioceses, I am crying out to God with a lament that feels all-consuming.

Three hundred alleged “predator priests” in the dioceses were investigated and named in the report.

More than a thousand victims, according to the report, can be identified through church records, although many officials believe the number of victims to be much higher than what can be officially determined.

I grieve with outrage over the systematic violence that this report illuminates.

My heart breaks over vulnerable souls violated by the very leaders who had been entrusted with their spiritual and physical care.

I weep over shattered lives, devastated faith, and a broken church (of all denominations, since what happens in one part of the Body of Christ happens to the entirety of the body).

I mourn over a woefully fallen institution that has too often overlooked or even protected both perpetrators and patterns of injustice. (Again, I am speaking about the church in all of its denominations, since ecclesiastical abuse is in no way limited to Catholicism.)

Where is God in this agonizing mess?

I believe that God is where God always is.

Right here.

Right here, intimately and restoratively present with the victims, embracing them with the tenderness that they have been unfairly denied, all the while allowing divine tears to commingle with theirs.

Right here, allowing the divine heart to experience every portion of the agony and anguish of unthinkable abuse.

God is right here, graciously, attentively, and beautifully. Always has been. Always will be.

If we trust what the Bible tells us—that Jesus has the supernatural capacity to experience personally the pain of the atrocities perpetrated against “even the least of these”—then we are right to believe that Jesus was there during every abusive moment, cradling the victims in protective arms while screaming out at the perpetrators, “No! These are my beloved children, and I will not allow your violence toward them to be the end of their story!”

I add my voice to the repentance that all the church’s people must express in the aftermath of these revelations. I also implore all those connected to the church’s ministry to commit themselves both to “Safe Sanctuary” standards and practices and to an ever-deepening diligence when it comes to the care that we offer to all people, children and adults.

Lord, have mercy…

…But, please God, let it be the kind of mercy that unsettles us, brings us to our knees, and inspires us to become a better church, where all people of all ages are valued, cherished, and protected.

Lord, have mercy.

Leading With a Towel In Hand

Ethiopian orthodox art, unknown artist

(Artwork: Ethiopian Orthodox Art, unknown artist)

There are plenty of days when it becomes painfully clear to me how inadequate my leadership has been throughout the various seasons of my vocation. As a leader, my clumsiness has often eclipsed my proficiency.

Still, I spend a great deal of time thinking, reading, writing, and praying about leadership, particularly about the leadership practiced in the ministry of the church. I suspect that I am driven by the hope that I might become a better leader tomorrow than I am today.

In recent days, several convictions about leadership have resonated with particular clarity in my thinking. I share the convictions here, not because I am arguing for their absolute rightness, but because I believe that the journey toward good leadership demands the risk of articulating what one believes ABOUT leadership.

Here are some of my personal convictions in that regard, freshly illuminated by the challenges of a new season of ministry.

Healthy leadership is less about having all the right answers and more about a right engagement with the most important questions. When leaders fall into the trap of believing that leadership is primarily about having right and immediate answers, they run the risk of reducing their leadership to a narcissistic autonomy or a desperate pursuit of techniques and rhetoric. Leadership must certainly lead to some good answers. But the deepest answers come, not through authoritarian pronouncement, but through an individual and communal engagement with the pertinent questions. Such an engagement helps leaders to see themselves, not as autonomous oracles, but facilitators of a deeper and more comprehensive discernment.

Healthy leadership never fixates on a destination at the expense of the journey. Destinations are important. Leaders must have a sense of where things are headed. They must envision a bold and imaginative future. It is possible, however, for leaders to become so myopically focused on the desired destination that they begin to overlook or even ignore the relationships, conversations, and circumstances that form the day-to-day pathway upon which good leadership must travel. Granted, journeys are often messy and unpredictable. Timetables may have to change. Extra conversations may have to be scheduled. Adjustments to the course may have to be made. Even the destinations may have to be modified. Even so, paying attention to the nuances of the pathway is nothing less than essential, since healthy leadership finds its most vibrant and urgent expression, not in the arrivals at destinations, but in a dynamic attentiveness to the journey.

Healthy leadership grounds itself, not in the maintenance of an institution, but in the transformation of an institution’s culture. There is a great deal of institution-bashing these days. To be fair, however, people tend to bash institutions only in those places where the institution is not serving them or providing the things that they personally want. Healthy leadership is tasked with the responsibility of seeing institutions for what they are—broken but potential-rich instruments that groan for redemption along with the rest of the fallen world. Healthy leaders never become preoccupied with institutional maintenance, as though the institution were an altar at which to kneel. Neither do healthy leaders devote their energy to railing randomly against the institution in which they lead, as though the institution itself were nothing more than an enemy to be conquered. Rather, healthy leaders become channels for transformation through which institutions can be reimagined, reconfigured, and reborn. Healthy leaders help portions of their institutions to die with grace when the time for death has come. Likewise, healthy leaders help their institutions to thrive where their institutions are supporting the priorities of their articulated mission.

Healthy leadership does not validate entitlement but entitles that which is valid. There is a common spirit of entitlement that can lead to deep resentment. It often comes from an inflated sense of the uniqueness of one’s own gifts, viewpoints, or trajectory. It grounds itself in a strong sense of what is owed. Healthy leadership seeks to cultivate an environment in which entitlement gives way to the kind of shared covenantal commitment that subordinates self-determined privileges to grander priorities.

Healthy leadership treats vision, not as the property of a charismatic individual, but as the territory stewarded by a missional community. When vision becomes solely the product of an individual voice, the road to egocentric leadership becomes painfully short. Healthy leadership sees vision as something more complex and organic than this. More specifically, it sees vision as the progeny of a creative community seeking to live more fully into its mission. To be a healthy leader is to be an attentive listener as well as a guiding presence—a relational participant in meaningful conversations who helps the community to name, clarify, and implement the route into its best future.

Healthy leadership breathes most deeply the air of confession and repentance. For leaders to lead in healthy and holistic fashion, authentic repentance must become as natural to them as breathing and every bit as urgent. Good leaders become the voice of repentance for the many offenses perpetrated by the communities they lead. They also become vulnerable enough to name their own brokenness, their own insecurities, and their own failures. Only a spirit of consistent and expansive repentance can keep a leader’s heart appropriately attentive to the hearts of others and appropriately broken over the distortions of his or her own leadership.

Healthy leaders recognize that they are secondary characters in the story of their own leadership. Leaders are important, but they are the supporting cast. The main characters are the people they lead. For leaders who follow Jesus, the most central character of all is a Savior who equips our best leadership and who redeems our worst leadership. Remembering this helps leaders to structure their priorities rightly and to value themselves truthfully. Furthermore, a leader who lives out of a spirit of secondariness can more easily subordinate entitlement to gratitude, egotism to servanthood, and resentment to hope.