A few weeks back Rob and I set up a table at TaylorFest, an ASU Downtown event meant to introduce incoming freshmen to the Downtown Phoenix community. There were restaurants, coffee shops, , music venues, and of course, churches represented there. We took a sign and some business cards and, in a last ditch effort to come up with something to differentiate us from other churches, a six foot chalkboard I made for use in worship.
See, when you’re trying hard not to be a soundbite church, it’s hard to say who you are when you only have a soundbite’s worth of time with a person. “We’re not like other churches,” or, “we’re relevant for a younger generation,” ring hollow to a generation of young people who have grown up hearing these mantras. On the other hand, “we’re a faith community striving to recognize where God is already at work in the creative, diverse, emerging community of Downtown Phoenix, honor that work among believers and non-believers alike, and invite all people within the community into an intentional spiritual journey to become more and more who God created us to be,” just doesn’t capture the imagination of college freshmen living away from home for the first time and rushing between hip vendors vying for their attention and tables giving out free goodies.
So, a chalk board. It allowed interaction, an opportunity for students to voice their own opinions, and a chance to move beyond words into creativity. We wrote, “God Looks Like…” at the top of the board and invited folk to draw, write, or express in anyway they cared to what God looked like to them. We got some good responses, but the folk who opted in were by and large folk who were already comfortable with “God” talk. “Jesus” was the first answer put on the board and, while I can appreciate that response, it most likely came from someone comfortable with church. Sandwiched between the new mega church in town and the campus evangelical group, we were talking to the same insiders churches always talk to at public events like this. We knew we had to do something different.
When the board was filled we took a pic, erased it, and replaced the prompt at the top with, “Church Sucks Because…”. We immediately sensed a shift. The mega church to our right wasn’t sure how to react. Students who had been avoiding the “church row” area of the event began taking notice, stopping to read comments or just pointing the prompt out to their friends. Some folk made a B-line for the chalk and began writing their thoughts while several others stood back, contemplating the question. When people asked us who we were or what this was all about we told them that we were a new faith community in town looking for honest conversation about church and how we might strip away the institutional barriers between our community and the work of Christ in the world. Some folk hated it and let us know. Some thanked us for our honesty, for allowing them a voice, and for creating space for a conversation they were having in their heads or with their friends that seemed to separate them from the churches they grew up in.
And that’s it. That’s the point. Some folk are happy with their church just the way it is and that’s great! We’re glad they’ve found a place that offers them the salvific love and grace of Jesus Christ. But some folk have not and they don’t know how to tell us that. Some folk desperately want a connection to God but are no longer willing to check their brains, or creativity, or discerning pallets, or friends at the door. Others have given up the notion that there might be a place in a church or even in the kin(g)dom of God for them because they can’t accept the teachings, are bored in worship, or feel that people are disingenuous in the churches they grew up in. These folk are our neighbors, our friends, our family, and they’re having these conversation whether we’re a part of them or not.
So let’s take away the stigma. Church doesn’t always suck, but sometimes it does and no one should be surprised by that. Let’s not make other people say it first. Let’s not let our institutions become such idols that we put their reverence above offering God’s grace and love to the world.
Because that would suck.
The word means “good news” but in the minds of many folk, followers of Christ and others, it’s anything but good news.
At City Square we recently asked a group of leaders, some who have been in churches their whole lives and some who are relatively new to this Christian faith walk, what they thought of when they heard the word evangelism.
“People shouting on the street corner about going to hell.”
“People knocking on my front door warning me about impending gloom and doom.”
“Saying whatever it takes to sell people on what you believe.”
None of this sounds like good news.
The struggle with much of traditional Christian evangelism is that in order to get to good news, we first have to convince you of bad news.
“Sorry, but you’re going to hell. Scared? Well, you should be, but don’t worry, cause I’ve got the cure!”
Progressive Christians, who generally are excepting of a variety of beliefs and unbeliefs have a different sort of evangelical conundrum. Without coercion or the threat of hell, what is the good news we have to share with the world? If folk don’t believe they need to be saved then what is the point of the church?
The truth of the matter is, you don’t need to believe in hell to be effected by the brokenness of the world around us. While I may not fear my sin leading to eternal damnation, I know the pain of the Apostle Paul when he writes, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15)
I don’t believe that the pain and suffering I see in the world around me is the way the world is intended to function. I do not believe that the powers that lift some up at the expense of others is the way we our communities were intended to function. And I don not believe that my own short-comings, that keep me from being the man I want to be, the man I could be, is the way I was intended to function.
I believe that something is broken.
But I believe that there’s good news: The brokenness of the world doesn’t have the last word! I believe in a God who created and is still creating.
I believe in the kin(g)dom of God, a kin(g)dom of love, justice, health and wholeness that is available to us right now, and that is still on its way, breaking into the world each and every day.
I believe in a savior who came to reconcile me to my creator and free me from the death dealing powers of fear, scarcity, greed, and a hunger for power over others. I believe in a Christ who came to offer me instead security, abundance, love, and a spirit of peace in the face of the fleeting power of the world.
And I believe in a Spirit that works within me, helping me to grow into the person I was created to be , the person I want to be, and the person I could be still. I believe in the Holy Spirit which celebrates with me in my victories and supports me in the midst of my struggles.
In short, I believe that there’s hope for the world, for our communities, and for each of us, not just after death, but right here and right now.
Now that’s good news.
Tonight, below the window of my 1st Ave. and Adams apartment I overheard two people shouting at each other. That happens sometime, the (additional) price you pay for living in the heart of downtown, but tonight I heard words that alarmed me: hit, scared, get away, don’t touch me. Now, I’m not the kind of guy who thinks he’s tough enough to step into any situation, but I couldn’t ignore this one so I pulled up the non-emergency police number on my phone and I headed downstairs.
It was ugly. A man and a woman, close to each other and off to one side of the sidewalk, like folk only get when they know they’re being inappropriately intimate or aggressive with each other in public. Their voices were low and angry, escalating into shouting then self-consciously dropping back down into strained, hushed tones. From the street I heard another word that put the whole scene into context for me: drunk. She was drunk. He was drunk. They were clearly drunk.
I’ve worked with enough hard-living folk to know better than to engage people when they’re drunk but I also know that sometimes drawing a private moment of anger out into public can embarrass even drunk folk into deescalation. I asked them if everything was okay.
“Yes, everything’s fine.” Him.
“No, it’s not okay.” Her.
“Do you need me to call the cops?” Me.
“Yeah, go ahead.” Her.
For the moment we were all in agreement. I called the cops and then hung out for about 10 minutes waiting for them to show. He’s feeling pretty smug. She punched him in the face and he’s going to find witnesses. He rides off and she tells me he has her keys and she’s afraid to go home, and by the way, she needs a shot if I’m drinking tonight. I’m not. He comes back. They fight about who’s house it is that he has the keys to. She pays the bills. He buys food. She bought the dog. He pays for it with love. I’m not judging. He rides off again. She asks about nearby bars. I express sympathy for what appears to be a bad night. He comes back and claims not to have her keys anymore. She stomps off toward home. He stays and smugly tells me he’ll wait for the cops. He gets bored, tells me his name and says he’s going home. He rides off. I walk to the corner and can no longer see either of them.
I stepped out of my house and into other people’s business so I could try to keep a bad situation from getting worse and in the end I accomplished absolutely nothing. They’re both still drunk and angry, only now they’ve presumably gone home to fight rather than doing it where someone my be able to intercede. I feel… awful.
So what do I do? I walk back to my apartment, head swimming with all the ways I’ll intervene more effectively next time (“If you’re scared he’ll come to your house do you have a safe place you could go instead?” “If you think this is all because she’s drunk, do you have a place you can go tonight until you both sleep it off?” The list goes on) and I do the only thing I know to do when I’ve failed. I pray.
Believe me, I’m not the kind of guy who asks God to step in so I don’t have to. I’m not a passive pray-er. I am a roll-my-sleeves-up-and-get-in-the-mess kind of guy but I’ve been doing this long enough to know that more often than I’d care to admit their comes a point where I have to recognize my own inability to effect change in a situation. I hate it, but there it is, none the less. I am infinitely fallible.
If you have ideas about how I could have handled the situation better, I do too. I’d love to hear yours. Also, if you’re in an unhealthy situation in your home and need some support please contact our friends at Sojourner Center (www.sojournercenter.org). They’re fantastic and they’re ready to help. But if you’re just like me and you regularly find yourself in situations where you come face to face with your own limitations, know you’re not alone. I’m right there with you, along with every other social worker, nurse, chaplain, paramedic, teacher and anyone else who cares enough to help all the way up to that point where they can’t help anymore. And God is with you too.
It’s a humbling experience, but it’s pretty good company to keep.
I really don’t want to write right now.
It’s not that I don’t have anything to say (those of you who know me know that I always have something to say), it’s just that I don’t feel like saying it right now. Or, more to the point, I don’t feel like writing it right now. I’d much rather invite you over for a beer and a chat, or get up and share my thoughts in front of a group of people. It’s the writing that feels like a chore. I want to be a writer, and as a pastor without an office of a faith community without a building, writing is an important part of how I do what I do. I know this. I just don’t feel… inspired. Which is precisely why I’m sitting down to write before the end of my Thursday deadline instead of moving into the other room to watch the end of the Wichita State game (go Shockers!). I’m working to develop a discipline.
Discipline. Whenever I hear the word I think of nuns with rulers (whoa, where did that come from? I don’t think I’ve ever even met a ruler-wielding nun!). I think of coercion and harshness and outside expectations and control, all of which I give me hives. perhaps that’s why I’ve pushed back my whole life on being a disciplined person.
The problem is, I want to grow. I am at an age in my life where, though I like who I am, I’d like to learn new things and improve on the things I do now. And, I’m beyond the age where new things seem to come naturally to me. The truth of my life these days is this: it is not too late for me to grow, but it’s going to take work.
It’s going to take discipline. Not the coercive kind, but the kind that involves intentional, methodical practice. That kind that involves developing practices that I do even when I don’t feel like it. Like getting up early to run. Some mornings I feel energized and all I want to do is hit the pavement, but more often than not I wake up feeling groggy and stiff. True physical transformation will only come through running when I really feel like it and when I really don’t.
True transformation takes discipline.
That’s true whether we’re cultivating a skill, like writing or a physical attribute, like fitness. It is also true of cultivating a spiritual life.
Whether it is daily prayer and meditation, weekly participation in a spiritual community, regular service of others, sharing what we have as a reminder that people are more important than things, or sharing our joy and enlightenment with others, cultivating a spiritual life takes regular practice and commitment. If we want to grow beyond where we are right now it requires discipline.
So where are the places you’d like to grow in your life? Are you content with where you are on your spiritual journey or do you believe that there is more out there for you to discover, encounter, become? What practices might stretch you and strengthen you? What disciplines might help grow you into the person you’d like to be?
I hope you’ll share your reflections with us, and consider joining us as we search for the disciplines that are meaningful to our community. I’m excited to see who we might become.
Before I ever went into professional ministry, my degree and my vocation were in Social Work.
I often joke that having a Bachelor’s of Social Work (BSW) is a lot like knowing CPR: you know just enough to understand how bad a situation is and how much worse you could make it by trying to help.
There’s a lot of truth to that statement, But the fact is I learned a great deal in my time as a Social Worker that continues to inform my work as a pastor, including the notion of cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance occurs when our actions are not in keeping with our understanding of who we are. For example, a woman who thinks of herself as kind while recognizing that all of her friends live in fear of her constant ridicule, or a man who thinks of himself as loyal even though he is cheating on his partner are folk living with cognitive dissonance.
As a minister, I often hear one of the most common criticism leveled at church folk – hypocrisy – as an issue of cognitive dissonance. Folk hear the church talking about love and forgiveness while they see it practicing active discrimination and condemnation. Folk hear the church talking about care for those who suffer while we spend most of our time and our resources serving our own members and servicing our own buildings. As a representative of the church I recognize these critiques as valid and well founded. We have a lot of work to do in order to live into the church God is calling us to be.
As Rob and I have gotten to know the vibrant, creative, life-giving community of Downtown Phoenix we have also encountered cognitive dissonance. Every day we meet generous people who care deeply about the service organization in their community but who don’t donate money or volunteer their time. Every day we meet deeply spiritual people who have no spiritual practice, no spiritual community, or no understanding of spirituality that challenges them to grow and thrive. This cognitive dissonance doesn’t make these people any less vibrant, creative, or life-giving – IT DOESN’T MAKE THEM BAD PEOPLE – it just means that they are not living fully into who they want to be in the world.
Think about that for a moment. Are you living fully into who you want to be in the world?
If this resonates with you there’s good news: as a people of faith we believe that it is never too late to grow into who you are called to be. Even better, City Square wants to help you do just that!
See folks, the church has been struggling for centuries with the cognitive dissonance that exists between the ideal God calls us to and the imperfect people we are and, while we’ve yet to get it right, we have gained a great deal of wisdom about what it means to live in this tension that might be useful to you in your own journey.
So if you’re a thinking person think about it, and if you’re a praying person pray about it. Who are you? Are you a kind person? A loving person? A brave person? Are you a person who takes time to care for others? Are you a person who takes time to care for yourself? Are you generous? Are you spiritual? Are you a leader? Are you a person of peace? Would the people around you recognize those things about you? What do you do each and every day to become a little more the person you want to be?
As you wrestle with these questions I hope you’ll share your reflections with us and help us hold a mirror up to ourselves so that, together, we can become more intentional about growing into who we are called to be as a community.
Welcome to the journey. Welcome to City Square Church.