Hope for the future of the church in the United States…

I just began re-reading David Fitch‘s excellent book “The Great Giveway:  Reclaiming the mission of the church…” yesterday.  It’s been awhile since I’ve picked this book up, but the timing seemed right again, and I wanted to be reminded of Fitch’s strong critiques and hopes expressed for the church again.  I remembered being captivated by his chapter titles (listed following) when I first picked the book up:

Ch 1   Our Definition of Success
When going from ten to a thousand members in five years is the sign of a sick church
Ch 2  Evangelism
Saving souls beyond modernity; how evangelism can save the church and make it relevant again
Ch 3  Leadership
When evangelical pastors end up in moral failure: the missing link between the pastorate and the virtues
Ch 4 The Production of Experience
Why worship takes practice: toward a worship that forms truthful minds and faithful experience (not merely reinforces the ones we walked in with)
Ch 5 The Preaching of the Word
The myth of expository preaching:  why we must do more than wear scrolls on our foreheads
Ch 6 Justice (our understanding of)
Practicing redeemed economics:  Christian community in but not of Capitalism

As you could imagine from the chapter titles, David brings a strong critique of the church in our society.  Because I’m more of a contrarian by nature, I picked this book up about five years back for $1.25 in a seminary book sale.  Because I’ve evolved to be less of a contrarian, desiring more to hear constructing (building) comments, and more suspicious of works that claim a “revolutionary” or “dangerous” message for the status quo, I often flip to the back of those books to see if the authors offer a hopeful way forward in addition to their critique.   I inserted a church bulletin into the back of the book about four years ago in the exact place that David offers his hopeful way forward, and I was greatly encouraged to read it again today.

David’s words sharing his hopes bear repeating here in my personal space because I value many of the same things David values when it comes to church.  In addition, I believe David and I share those values NOT because they come natural or seem common sense to us, but because we’ve submitted to a process of discipleship in the way of Jesus that sometimes confirms, sometimes alters, and sometimes destroys what previously seemed natural or common sense to us.  It is a commitment to the Lordship of Jesus rather than the Lordship of Me. 

Unlike other “manifesto”-type writings which seem to ramble all over the place, David Fitch’s thoughts have an internal consistency that help to focus thought and action. David’s desires for the church follow:

“I imagine our congregations becoming smaller, not bigger, yet teeming with the life of (Jesus’) body.  And I hope there are more of them, so many of them, in fact, that they become the alternative to the Starbucks of our day.

I hope our churches become known for servanthood in the neighborhoods and warm hospitality that invites strangers into our homes.

I pray that the home of every evangelical person becomes an incubator of evangelism, inviting strangers to the gospel out of their lostness and into the love and grace of life in our Lord Jesus Christ.

I imagine real fellowship in our congregations, the kind that shares joys and sufferings and potluck meals.

I pray our leaders take on the form of humble servants who sit, listen, and suffer with real people through many years of leading them through this life in Jesus Christ.

I hope we leave behind the CEO models of leadership.

I look for our worship services to become liturgical places that form our people into faithful participants in the life of God.  May we renew the sense of God’s mystery, beauty, and transcendence in our worship services through the rehearsal of his great work in Jesus Christ.  In the process, may many postmodern wanderers be drawn into his life by his majestic wonder and the compelling story of the forgiveness and new life made possible by the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I hope our congregations look more diverse both economically and racially.

Dare I imagine that each member’s bank account becomes submitted to the King and to each other through some symbolic act as we gather around the Table of our Lord?

I long for the day we become model communities for a new politics that spreads God’s redeeming justice to the poor and the racially divided.

I hope we see small groups that renew the monastic practices of confession, repentance, reading Scripture, and prayer for our day.

And most of all, may our churches become communities that nurture and care for children in the way we conduct catechesis communally, adopt the “unplanned” children, and invite all children into everyday life with God.

To me this all sounds like a truly amazing way of life.”


Jesus, help us live in peace

Jesus, help us live in peace.
From our blindness set us free.
Fill us with your healing love.
Help us live in unity.

Many times we don’t agree
on what’s right or wrong to do.
It’s so hard to really see
from the other’s point of view.

Jesus, help us live in peace.

I stumbled through singing this simple song in the Common Prayer book this morning.  I suspect the stumbling helped me to connect with the words in a more visceral way.   I had an opportunity to speak in the worship gathering of our church family yesterday, and one of the elements of my talk was to emphasize that when we, from different walks of life and economic circumstances and family backgrounds and emotional types and personality types get smushed together in communities of relative intimacy, we quickly find that we don’t have the tools to be in healthy relationship.

There are cultural reasons for that.
Our impatience and aversion to deeper relationships that make us beholden to others, for one.
There are human reasons for that.
It’s scary to risk deeper relationship.
It’s an act of vulnerable trust that so many of us have been burned by.

Whatever our reasons, Christian communities, upon realizing in desperation that deeper relationship brings terrible complexity and can bring out the worst in us, probably have the best tools at our disposal to navigate relational intimacy.  I think I connect to the simple words of the song the most because those tools, while deeply helpful, don’t make the process less messy.  In some very real ways, when I commit to deeper, more vulnerable relationship with my church family, I must crack open my shell to allow God and others to examine my motives, my desires.  I cannot simply sit back and let others do the work of vulnerability and present to them my projection of myself that keeps me coolly detached.

Whatever the reflections might be, which can be endless, we’re in the midst of a discernment process in our congregation, with some weighty decisions to make.  Some of those are more obvious and clear (We must address this crumbling building), and other aren’t so obvious (How do we best relate to our neighborhood, our place? What practices does God desire us to mold that give us a sense of purposeful identity?).   In a very real sense, the answers that emerge from the latter, not so obvious, decisions determine the more obvious ones.

It is for that very reason above that I am so deeply thankful for how Tom and Karen Wuest have set up our discernment process, and so deeply pained that many people haven’t been present in the early stages.  Our discernment is following the church calendar; in Lent we devote ourselves to the practices of lament and confession, in the season of Easter we devote ourselves to the practice of speaking hope and redemption, in the Pentecost kick-off of ordinary time we root ourselves that story of how God took terrible complexity and brought the miracle of understanding, and in ordinary time we devote ourselves to meaningful conversation involving open conflict, soft ears, and working toward consensus.

The Wuests understood something vitally important; in order to do the work of conflict and conversation well, people must cultivate an openness to God and one another.  An extended period of time devoted to that openness delivers us from practical atheism and the tyranny of personal opinion that so often wins the day in Christian communities.  I was slow to come around as they laid out the vision (one could quibble about the length of time to prepare our hearts for conversation), but I have benefitted in such an important way from the spaces of silence, of listening, of confession, of hearing brothers and sisters beginning to crack open their hearts and reveal their longings, their pain, their hope.

If we had blasted straight into hard conversations, I do believe we would have inflicted some significant collateral damage on one another.  We have slowly been transitioning from a commitment to open listening to God and halting small confessions to more direct expressions of lament, more sharp confessions.  This evolution enables a more natural process to take place, a sort of “slow boil” that forces us to face God, ourselves, and others.

Whoever is not participating in this process for various reasons (this is namby-pamby gushy stuff, or it’s not important enough until the later stuff, or this community is vastly secondary to my “more important” other priorities) is missing out on a very essential process.  As a result, we’re going to need to have some harder conversations with others who plow into the mix of what they think is “really important” (post-Pentecost conversations) without having traveled with their brothers and sisters through the earlier process.  Some painful collateral damage will result from their abstaining.  Shoot, some painful collateral damage is bound to happen no matter what when conflict-averse people have to engage in conflict; but God is doing important softening work right now.  I, for example, am not the Nathan I was five weeks ago.  In particular, Janet McNeel’s reading of a meaningful Scripture lanced through every wall I have erected to “keep it together.” Janet, in allowing herself to be undone, participated in my undoing.

My practical atheism and opinions have taken a back seat……slowly……..painfully……..their cry is not as raucous and all-consuming as before.

Through all of this, the simple words of this song anchor me;

Jesus, help us live in peace.
From our blindness set us free.
Fill us with your healing love.
Help us live in unity.

Many times we don’t agree
on what’s right or wrong to do.
It’s so hard to really see
from the other’s point of view.

Jesus, help us live in peace.

Challenging the Critiques of Emergent


I would be a jerkheadface if I didn’t direct you toward the recent blog posts of my friend Josh Brown and his recent thoughts attacking the massive elephant of criticism of Emergent (Remember the old adage; “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time”). Josh is biting some chunks off (and taking some serious hits for his courage); please join the conversation if you have something constructive to add…

And please, please, knowing that it’s been proven that, psychologically speaking, we tend to overlook the things we agree with and focus on the things we don’t, go out of your way in reading to be encouraging with areas that you and Josh may be flowing in the same direction and generous in listening and speaking where you’re butting heads.

Here’s the links:


A White Man’s World

A Trend/Flash in the Pan that will settle for Denomination

A Public Service Announcement on Friendship

Attention to process…


As I make the journey from idealistic-yet-not-willing-to-do-the-hard-work-to-be-change twenty-something to something more in touch with reality, I’m noticing something really big;

Change does not take place typically in one big-fell-swoop moment.  Change comes from consistent attention to both the big-picture and the details, with constant readjustment and moments of needing to take account of failures and successes.  In short, change is a relationship, just as being in relationship brings change. 

 My grandfather told me about two years ago, “Nate, ten years from now, people aren’t going to remember the words of your sermon or even what you preached about, but they will remember the times you came to visit, and times you cared enough to listen to them.”  Those were wise words I needed to hear at the time, because I had the naive view that pastors would be remembered for the way they presented themselves and how compelling their sermons were to those participating in worship with them.  And this is true, but my grandfather was calling me to an even deeper reality; they’ll remember you more because of how much you invest in relationship with them.  This is such a compelling thought, and has come back to me time and again since he said that; sometimes it is comforting to me, sometimes a bit challenging, sometimes shoves a metaphorical knife in my ribs in my failures, but always calls me beyond the temptation to think that as a pastor, I will be defined by what I do “up front” of our church family. 

 I thought about it yesterday when I had maybe the biggest challenge yet of me being a pastor.  A 17-year old young woman named Amy Caracofe was tragically killed in a car accident last Thursday, one that is the second of the year for Fort Defiance High School.  The other was senior Travis Williamson.  I was given a tremendous responsibility by the family to give the message at the memorial, which I wrestled with and wrestled with and wrestled with before I had to prepare something to say.  There were 600 people there seated all over the church; from the main sanctuary to side fellowship halls with only speakers to follow along with to people sitting in rows in the nursery with one small speaker to people sitting in the courtyard looking in the windows.  That certainly didn’t help my nervousness, but Amy’s mother was so encouraging with her eyes even in the midst of her deep sorrow, and I heard from many that they had prayed for the memorial service, with some going to the extent of fasting, and I sensed that I was being carried through this challenging time; along with a deep sense that God can work far above and beyond my words in that time.

 So, given that I’m writing this post in light of my grandfather’s wisdom, was my leadership during the memorial important?  Of course it was; people were there yesterday that needed to hear something that could help shape them (along with me) to live for what they’ve been created for.  They needed something that could hold the power to transcend the surface of the tragedy to go beyond.  That’s the power of spoken language in times of crisis like this memorial service.  

The above being said, is the message at the memorial the most important thing in the crisis and beyond?  With all my heart, I believe, “No“!  It will be the commitment to walking beside Doug and Angie (Amy’s parents), speaking when needed, and silently being with them when silence is needed.  Because almost anyone can come up with something to say (even something deeply compelling) at a time like the memorial, but the real challenge is whether I (others in my church family, and others surrounding the Caracofes) have the guts, the patience, the trust, and the room for Doug and Angie to show the wide range of emotions that will take place; all of this within the context of consistent relationship.  

For those reading this who have different roles in life, I believe that my grandfather’s wisdom applies across a spectrum of roles, though, far beyond “pastoring.”  It applies to coaching, dating and marital relationships, work relationships, friendships, public service roles, and a variety of others.  Effective leaders don’t have to be the ones “leading from the front,” but can be in the most obscure of roles, and through their attention to long-term vision and details can transform the relationships of those surrounding them; in more situations than not these persons can bring about positive change much more than the person who’s supposedly the one leading…the one everyone sees.

I guess I would like to say that I don’t ever want to be defined by Nate the “pastor.”  I could talk for hours about how unhealthy it is to take one spiritual gifting, yank it out of the context of the church family, make it a professional role, and impose persons on church families who supposedly “know what they’re doing” who don’t know the slightest thing about the unique personality of the group.  But that’s not the point I’m trying to make.  If you check out the link to the message (also above halfway down the post), you’ll find that I emphasize that every single one of us through the basic act of living influences our reality in ways we could never even conceive of.  Every thought, prayer, speech, and action that flows from our life out has a ripple effect out from our most immediate relationships and beyond, helping to shape the world in ways that benefit it or destroy it. A simple look at Genesis reminds us that we have been called to cherish the world the way God does in all its fullness and astonishing variety.  This sounds like business leadership gobbledy-gook, but I do believe it is true.  We are all connected in relationship with the rest of the world in obvious and deeply mysterious ways whether we’re intentional or not; I intend to do my best to maintain consistent attention to who I am in relationship with others.

On myself as one of Taylor Mali’s examples…and a small recovery

  I’m not sure if you’re familiar with white-bred, incisive beat poet Taylor Mali, but I’ll embed a video of his after these introductory thoughts.  What makes Taylor so funny to many people is how he handles the “likes” and “justs” and “you knows” that interrupt the flow of our thoughts and make us, in his words, “the most aggressively inarticulate generation since, like, you know, a long time ago!”  What makes him so incisive is the last 40 seconds of his following appearance on a comedy show, where he says, “it is not enough simply to question authority, you’ve gotta speak with it too.”

I have several reasons for posting this video, with one being my thoughts above; but I found it so incisive because I can fall into that trap of “aggressive inarticulatism” (if you allow me to use his thoughts to invent a term).  In the last two weeks, I’ve had my local news 15 minutes of fame (or, more accurately, probably 4 min), when two local news channels stopped by to interview members of our church family for our thoughts on the new sanctuary, which included me.  

I’m sorry I can’t post the video from the NBC 29 interview of me, because it’s a perfect example for Taylor.  Here’s the link; to the story, where you can catch a glimpse of what I said, but I think my quote in full was, 

“It’ll be good to, kind of, be back in an area that feels like, you know, a home?  I feel kind of conflicted, because I would really hope that this would just be kind of a gathering place where we have a chance to really learn what it means to be the church.”

I was mortified when I watched it on the news, and that was before I knew about Taylor Mali.

Then, I got a bit of redemption yesterday when TV3 came by, but just a bit, because I still threw in a couple “justs.” Argh! Part of the reason I even said “just” several times yesterday was because my mind was whirring so hard while being interviewed to not say “kind of” or some other inarticulate grunt.  Here’s the link to the TV3 article with embedded video.

And the local newspaper’s (The Daily News Leader) article was great. I really am proud of the work our church family has done together; though by no means is the work done…in some ways, it’s just beginning, as we move away from a focus on the building to using the building as a gathering place for us doing the real work of discipleship.

Tony Jones responding to charges of Emergent heresy…

tonyYou’ve heard it before just like I have if you’ve ever had a conversation with someone about “emerging” forms of church; they’re relativistic, they’re heretical, they don’t know what they believe in, they never challenge one another, they’re pluralistic, etc etc. Tony Jones presented a paper at Wheaton College at a conference that, while pretentious in its vocabulary, holds the potential to be a groundbreaking investigation of what it means to be church, what the people of God believe, and how the people of God act. You may not be interested in this subject, but I’ll post what I think is the most important section of his paper precisely because his thoughts are so incisive. Here you go.

“If I may borrow from the syntax of the Savior, let me now circle back to the emergent church and attempt to solidify our approach to orthodoxy and answer the question; Whence hermeneutical authority?

You have heard it said that the emergent church values orthopraxy over orthodoxy, but I say to you, if orthodoxy is an event, then another veil has been torn. There is no difference between the two. Orthoparadoxy, as my friend Dwight Friesen calls it, is the dialectical tension in which these two poles stand. Let me put it more boldly: there is no orthodoxy without orthopraxy. It doesn’t exist. People may talk about it, but they also talk about unicorns.

You have heard it said that the emergent church is run by relativists, but I say to you that we are all relativists. We walk into the Christian bookstore and choose a Bible off the shelf, one that’s been translated by a particular group of people with a particular theological bias. You choose that Bible relative to all the other choices in front of you. And you make a relative choice about where you go to church, what college you attend, and whom you marry. Like the umpire who has to call out “Ball!” or “Strike!” a split second after the ball hits the catcher’s mitt, some calls are easy: right down the heart of the biblical plate. But others are tougher, painting the outside corner. We make the best call we can, and live with the consequences.

You have heard it said that emergent churches abandon individual salvation for the sake of communal life, but I say to you that our communities of faith are made up of individual rational actors who have chosen to enter communities of orthoparadoxy, communities where, together, we are figuring out exactly where the strike zone is.

You have heard it said that emergent churches disparage biblical models of pastoral leadership and opted for egalitarian communities, but I say to you that leadership comes in many forms. Some charge that by opening up the Bible, even opening up the sermon, for many voices (including the marginalized) to speak, we are in danger of heterodoxy because we have forsaken strong biblical teaching. But history is clear: the danger of heterodoxy, even of cults, is far more acute when biblical interpretation is solely the purview of on leader or an oligarchy. Let’s put it this way, Jim Jones and David Koresh weren’t asking people to talk openly during the sermon about what they agreed and disagreed with.

And you have heard it said that the emergent church doesn’t stand under the hermeneutical weight of church history, but I say to you that we are more true to the church fathers because they are part of our dialogue. No, they do not rule over us, but they do enter into our event of orthodoxy with an authoritative voice. Have you looked at Luther’s 95 Theses? They’re not about systematic theology, they’re about the very specific issues of his day. Have you read Augustine’s treatises? They are confronting the Pelagianism of his day. And Aquinas? The Islamic Aristotelianism of his day. This is orthodoxy: an ongoing conversation asking; who is God?, who are we?, and what’s the relationship between us?”


*Update* The links to the paper and the accompanying powerpoint presentation are here, in the post on the top of the page.

The most clearly laid-out reality that every movement (or revolution) must become an institution; or die

From Brian P (who I do not know), comment #7 on this site.

Before you read it, which I highly, highly recommend, I should tell you that I italicized some parts myself for emphasis, the first two quoted sections are Brian responding to the site owner, when Brian says “IC” he’s referring to the “Institutional Church,” and if you want some great reflections from Scot McKnight related to Barna’s insights in Revolution that go beyond his more surface findings, listen to this podcast. I yield the floor to Brian;

“I’ve come to a point where I’m at peace where I am, and I enjoy being with ICers, nonIcers etc etc.”

I’m very happy for you!

” It’s just enjoying life and walking with Jesus, no labels”

Heh heh.

That works as long as it’s just you by yourself.

When it will fall apart is when you get together with your fellow Revolutionaries to do something together. Especially if they start having kids. When the blessed moment arrives, everyone in the church will be happy. But then the questions start coming:

So do we baptize the baby now, or wait until he/she is older?
If/when we baptize, do we do it by sprinkling, or by physically dunking people in water?
What exactly are we going to teach this child? Will we use a formal list of teaching points?
And of course now it’s time for Junior’s first communion. How often does that happen anyway? Once a week? Once a month? And what exactly is Junior drinking, anyway?
Wine? Grape juice? From little dixie cups or from one big communal cup?

I’m just getting started.

Think this stuff is trivial? Well, yes, yes it is. But you’re going to find that, in this and in so many other decisions, you have to make choices as to what you will and will not do together. And when you do, sure as sunrise, you’re going to have a small, offended minority who will walk out, convinced that you’ve fallen into error.

Eventually you’ve got a “way things are done”.

And after the first few times you have guest speakers come in who tear that order apart, you’re going to start making sure anyone who gets in your pulpit (or whatever) has the proper education in the way things are done, AND in the Bible. That means your own seminaries.

Until the day you wake up in about thirty or forty years with your own seminaries, your own governing structure, your own specific doctrine… and you realize that you’re a denomination in all but name. But of course you don’t call yourself a denomination. You call yourself “the community who seeks after God”.

Just like all the other denominations :). You’d be surprised at how many of them insist that they are *the* true church, usually started by rebels not much different from yourself.

And then in the second generation your kids start noticing all the flaws in the edifice you and your fellow revolutionaries have built. They make a noise, and pretty soon THEY are starting a revolution against YOU and complaining about the IC (or whatever the cool buzzword is) and how it ‘doesn’t get it’. And the cycle starts anew.

I say this, because I’m from a country that was started by just such religious movements. Ever hear of the Puritans? The word originally meant those who wanted to ‘purify’ the Church of England from what they considered it’s idolatrous practices … to make a clean church that would just follow Jesus without all the baggage. When they were run out of England, they came to America to build this ‘perfect church’ from the ground up.

The end result of that, four hundred years later, is places like Church O. How well would you say the experiment worked?

I’m not saying that a new denomination is necessarily bad. Very often, the IC *doesn’t* get it. I am banned from my parent denomination’s most prestigious university because I speak in tongues. A new denomination can very well be a move of God to prod the church *as a whole* in a new direction.

What I am saying is that what you and your fellow revolutionaries are doing has been done before many, many times in the history of the church. It can be a very good thing, as long as you don’t expect too much.

After all, what alternative do you have ? Quit associating with Christians altogether and go totally solo? That, IMO, is the biggest mistake of all.

Why? Because the fundamental lesson of Jesus is *love*. Love means learning to live with people who are very different from you. Church — revolutionary or not — is a perfect laboratory for this, because you find all kinds of rude, arrogant people whom you would otherwise have nothing to do with. Learning to function with such people in love is as good a lesson in being Christlike as anything else I can think of.


Brian P.