Friday, May 11, 2012

Church: The Final Frontier

I step into ministerial leadership with a strange excitement and a distinct terror.  The two really aren't competing but at this particular moment the terror is quite a bit more ... vocal.  In this chaos of fear and discernment, both the present process and its two-year milieu, I find myself coming to some interesting conclusions.

First, I have felt a distinct lack in my church community for some time now.  I have addressed this lack by regularly attending and serving in recovery ministry, by organizing my own "Covenant Meetings" and small groups, and by collaboratively facilitating a monthly prayer service.  I think these activities are appropriate regardless as to whether they are motivated by a lack or an abundance in church, but something has grown increasingly disturbing to me, particularly as I have sought to hear and understand God's call.

But I can't put my finger on what it is.

The greatest source of my discomfiture seems to be this: I experience in recovery ministry something that I don't experience in church.  Never has this been so painfully obvious than in considering church leadership or any kind of pastoral ministry.

You see, I have given countless hours to services, meetings, worship, leadership activities and responsibilities, small groups and one-on-one discipleship as a part of recovery ministry without even a qualm.  In recovery, I believe in what we do.  I find it fundamentally Christian and surprisingly thorough.  I had a basic education in scripture and a lifetime in church, and it was in a recovery meeting that the two finally started to come together in a real way.  A Christian recovery meeting doesn't look completely different from a church service, but it has something vital that church just doesn't seem to have, frankly.  And so I am equipped to lead music, to preach, to share my testimony, to lead small groups or to give extra time to sponsoring in and to this broken community because here I am filled, here I am transformed, here I have hope, and I know with every fiber of my being that God is working and we are doing what is good and right and substantive, what is meaningful.

John Wesley apparently felt the same way; when I began learning about his "methodism" I discovered that I was practicing it in recovery.

It's not based on the music, its style, performance, or volume.

It's not based on whether the sermon, message, or testimony is particularly good, ground-breaking, or skilled.

It is not based on how organized, professional, or smooth the service is.  Nor is it even based on the mutuality, healthiness, or the depth of the sharing during small groups.

How is it that none of these things seem to make or break?

The only answer that I have is a story, the story of a people called out of slavery, led through the desert, and instructed to take the land.  This is the narrative I find in recovery, a narrative that does not seem particularly meaningful to church life.  We don't talk about our slavery in church; we hide it from ourselves and others.  If we do talk about it, we talk about only other people's slavery, bondage, and sin.  We have created a culture in which we are not even taught how to examine ourselves so that we can talk about these things.  Inventory is something that is done at work once or twice a year; it has nothing to do with confession, repentance, forgiveness, amends, or Christianity, let alone holiness, righteousness, and the kingdom of God.  In fact, rarely do I hear about forgiveness and repentance, let alone confession and amends in church.  Rarely do I hear (let alone witness) the instructions and practices for taking the land, building a kingdom.

I hear and see echoes of them in liturgies and traditions, in the occasional sermon illustration or overused colloquialism.  I hear whispers of them in communion, in prayer, in serving the poor and I rejoice over them when I hear them.  I praise God for the recent experience of a church community that practices confession as a part of their communal worship! But if this is the only place where confession is taught, modeled and practiced, it is a whisper, a call to us, a melody on the wind inviting us to come and taste a symphony, to come and dance and sing.  It is not the main course, it is the appetizer, or the dessert, or ... soup.  The point is, the bridegroom has laid out a feast and we are chewing on hors d'oeuvres.

So what do I do with that as a member of a church, as a leader, a minister, a pastor?

Well, apparently I experience distress over it.

Which puts me in mind of the process through which I undoubtedly go every time I prepare to share my testimony in a recovery service.  It is distressing to have to go through one's story, to relive painful memories, to synthesize experiences again and again.  It is painful to walk through the process of articulating for others that which is deeply personal, fundamentally vulnerable, and overwhelmingly complex.  It is scary as hell to consider the very nature of laying bare one's story, one's weaknesses, one's journey, one's hopes and failures and fears.  It is an anxiety-provoking process for me every single year, and every year I get bent out of shape as I do it.

"Why share this?" I ask.  "Why expose myself to others?  Why dredge all of this up?  Why articulate that which is inadequate?  Why am I doing this?"

And every year the answer is the same.

I am doing it because it is a part of my own recovery.  It is part of the process.  It works something in me that I cannot do for myself.  If I am the worst orator in the universe and my story turns out to be utterly pointless, if everyone who hears walks away having gained nothing, I am working out my own salvation with fear and trembling.  I am remembering. I am submitting.  I am being obedient.  I am practicing humility.

I am taking the land.

And the truth is, if one person, just one person, has the opportunity to hear one thing in my story that speaks to their own, that grants insight, understanding, or permission to work the principles of the Christian faith, then I have spoken freedom and hope into the bondage of another human being.  I have accomplished a work toward the establishment of a kingdom.  I have revealed a truth and I have asserted a norm to self-examine, confess, and serve in humility and obedience and honesty.  I have offered a competing narrative to make sense of the world, a verse in God's symphony.

And I do it because I must: It is the 12th step.  I cannot work my steps without completing this final one!

There is no lose in this scenario.  I am always victorious.

And perhaps therein lies my path within the church.  Church is a form of sharing my testimony.  Perhaps I do it because it works something in me that I cannot do for myself.  Perhaps I do it because it works out my salvation with fear and trembling.  In church I am remembering. In church I am submitting. In church am being obedient. I am practicing humility.

Perhaps I can do it knowing that if one person has the opportunity to experience one thing that speaks to their heart, grants the insight of the Holy Spirit, understanding, or permission to work the principles of the Christian faith, then I have spoken freedom and hope into the bondage of another human being.  I have accomplished a work toward the establishment of the kingdom and, at the very least, established a norm to worship, to recite the scriptures and the story of Christ...


I have to confess that I do not want to testify to or establish the norms of the church - norms like poor boundaries, lack of self awareness, and failed accountability.  In recovery, we know what we can expect from one another and we know how we can hold one another accountable.  This just does not seem to be the case in church - or worse, the expectations, if clear, are destructive.  

Take church leadership, for example.  The model is a pastor and his family who do not confess their vulnerabilities, failures, or struggles to anyone. They do not meet regularly with a support network inside or outside the church.  They "serve" in isolation.  They are tasked with "running a church" and their success is based on numbers, income, and other materialistic measures.  They often live duplicitous lives, practicing in the dark that which they would never want discussed in the light - usually right up until the point that the darkness overcomes the light and their hidden sin is exposed.  If they are not thrown out, they get burned out by this insanity.

This is not every pastor, but this is the model and the fruit it produces, IMHO.

In recovery, a leader must have recognized and confessed his failures and vulnerabilities and struggles to himself, to God, and to at least one other person.  A leader has to have developed accountability and support networks.  A leader has to be engaged in constant self evaluation and promptly admit when he is wrong.  He leads through humility and weakness, through expertise in the practices of living a Christian life and knowledge that is born of Christian formation, and through the wisdom and discernment that is developed in him as a part of that process.  And he serves from this place of transformation.

In recovery, we accept the language and practices of the Christian faith.  In church, it often seems we obscure the language and practices of the Christian faith.  It's like, in church we're 'playing church.'  In recovery, we're doing church - teaching people how to be the church, because church in that context flows out of the transformation that Christ accomplishes in us as we give ourselves to him in the specific ways he has instructed.

I think the conclusion to this, for now, is that church, for me, shall be a place of service and testimony rather than, well, church. I will look to plant the seeds of church ... in church.

Some people move to foreign countries and enter into the culture, slowly introducing, as they do, the gospel of Christ to those who are in need, to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.  It seems my foreign country ... is church.

1 comment:

  1. What you are speaking of is true leadership. I really believe that. It is rare though.
    The cool thing about taking the land, is that in some way it helps others around me as well. It has that byproduct of safety and freedom and yet still a place to dwell all at the same time, for others. In the end, I think I get more fun out of that, than anything I myself received.



Thank you for your thoughts!