Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Millennials and Mission: A Moratorium

I'm ready to stop talking about Millennials. I couldn't even tell you how long it's lasted, but for years now, every week, I see at least one blog post with "6 Reasons The Young People Are Leaving Your Church" or something like that. Everyone shares it, and we ministers read it and wonder whether we need to start scrambling to adjust our church culture/worship style/social media strategy to the winning approach that is supposedly going to fix this problem, and get younger people filling our buildings.

I'm beginning to wonder if the the big problem with Millennials is not that they haven't accepted our values, but precisely that they have. At least, they've accepted the implicit ones. With our words we said God is important, while our actions often taught otherwise. The message has come through loud and clear that when it comes to personal fulfillment/success/achievement/acceptance, these are essentials without which your life won't mean anything. God is good, but God can wait. In walking away from church, the next generation has simply done what many of the previous generation implied they ought to. But enough about Millennials. Really.

I want us to think about the actual directions these conversations have tended to move churches. When we are in a constant state of pandering to any people group, we are operating from a position of scarcity, and our primary goal is the survival of our institutions. We talk about gloom and doom. We despair over how the church can survive at all if it isn't the majority, controlling the economy and politics of our nation, and we forget Jesus' own language about the church being a narrow path that only a few would find. When churches are caught up in a panic about institutional survival, they hoard money and resources, they make desperate pleas for people to stick around (though they are unable to verbalize why anyone ought to), and above all, they don't take risks. The focus turns totally inward, and it can easily become a hotbed for accusations and tensions, because it eases our consciences if we can find someone to be at fault for what threatens us. We have far too many conversations about who we are trying to attract and hang on to, and far too few conversations about why it is we need them in the first place.

Let's remember the kind of God we serve. Our God was, is, and will always be a God of hope and action. God delights in releasing people from what enslaves them, and healing the wounded. Jesus explained the focus of his ministry by referring to Isaiah 61, that captives would be set free, that the poor would receive good news, and that a time of the Lord's favor would be proclaimed. As Jesus ascended to the Father's right hand, having risen from the dead, he established a mission, that good news would be proclaimed to the ends of the earth, that people aren't stuck in their plight, and that God is at work in redeeming people's lives, even now. We participate in this mission by leading people to faith and baptism, sharing with them the teachings of Jesus, and teaching them how to walk in his footsteps as disciples.

In general, I think we would do well to get away from using language about God "establishing the church." Before the church, there first came the mission, and the commissioning of the church was to fulfill that mission. Wherever the people of God are, because of their willingness to be available to God and God's purposes, good things should start to happen. In the way that salt seasons and preserves, Christians enhance and solidify the best parts of a community. In a way that light shines in the darkness, Christians live so passionately into God's mission that their loving presence is conspicuous. Christ's promise was that we would have abundant life, and the scope of that promise is as much about the present as it is about the future. We are in the work of saving souls, but we are just as interested in redeeming lives. In fact, the two concepts are really inseparable. We prepare best for the next life when we embody in this life the values and ideals by which we intend to live in the presence of God. In other words, "On earth as it is in heaven."

Rather than get caught up in counting our attendance, or fretting so much about what is going to "get more young people in here," what if we started making note of places within our communities, schools, and occupations where there is brokenness, hopelessness, or injustice? Who near your church building is working a dead-end, minimum-wage job, with no options? What if you got to know them, and tried to really understand what life is like for them? What if we committed ourselves to serious efforts to help the lost find hope and better life, regardless of whether they gave us some sort of allegiance in return? What if we undertook such large efforts to partner with God in redeeming what is broken in our world that the only way we could fulfill this mission would be to invite others to help us in the endeavor? What if we started including people to help us in our efforts who don't even know the Lord yet, so that they can learn through their experiences along side us what it means to be a follower of Jesus? Would they finally start to think about eternity when they can see it living within our hearts and overflowing into our actions?

I don't doubt I'll continue to be mindful of how churches can best connect with Millennials, or whatever generation it is that we are supposed to panic about next. I don't pretend that I'll quit noticing things like attendance and contribution at church. But I really hope that first and foremost, we will get completely caught up in the things that God can do if we make ourselves available for his use. If that results in new Christians--and I know it can--then terrific! But let's stop doing things simply because of a desire to placate a certain type of person or to save our institutions. God isn't going away, nor is the mission for which he created his church. God will finish what he has started, and we glorify him best when we do our part to help bring his work into fruition. If we're going to attract anyone to our churches, let's let it be because we have such a large vision for the good of the people around us that we need the extra help. Let's let it be that God's love in our lives is too evident to ignore, and they can't help but wonder what's making us the way that we are. Let's be so committed to the mission that we continue to pursue it, whether or not they show up. We love people because God has loved us, and not because of what we hope to get in return from them.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Review of From Cloisters to Cubicles: Spiritual Disciplines for the Not-So-Monastic Life by David Srygley

My friend David Srygley has a new book out on spiritual disciplines. As one committed to the importance of these practices, I was excited to read it, and I'd like to review it here.

Srygley, David. From Cloisters to Cubicles: Spiritual Disciplines for the No-So-Monastic Life. Bloomington, Indiana: Westbow Press, 2014. 161 pages.

Dr. David Srygley is the pulpit minister for the Arlington Heights Church of Christ in Corpus Christi, Texas. His book, From Cloisters to Cubicles (hereafter CtoC) developed as a result of his doctoral research for his Doctor of Educational Ministry at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Some doctoral dissertations, when developed into books, can be too technical for an average reader to be able to read with much benefit. I was pleased that Srygley avoided this pitfall. He has included two appendices at the end of the book that contain more of the theological and pedagogical paradigms he is trying to underscore in his project. So for leaders and thinkers, the brainier stuff is still there, but he made a good decision by putting these resources in the back, rather than making them the introduction.

CtoC contains a helpful introduction to the study, and is followed by thirteen chapters that describe different spiritual disciplines. With each chapter, his goal is to bring a practice from merely an activity in isolation--as if within a monastic cloister--to the regular, daily activities of the person implementing the practice--more like a workplace cubicle. The disciplines he covers are: prayer, study, meditation, fasting, simplicity, solitude and silence, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance, and celebration.

What makes Srygley's approach unique is that he takes a decidedly missional slant on the role and purpose of the spiritual disciplines. He states in his first chapter, "Spiritual disciplines are not for escaping the world; they are for engaging it!" (emphasis his.) I was pleased that Srygley never steps outside of this framework from chapter to chapter, consistently urging the practice of the disciplines in ways that can be integrated into one's daily routines, balancing internal and external focuses.

Srygley's material draws from a series of classes he presented at Arlington Heights as part of his research, and is written in a way that is intended to be used by the average church member. All chapters end with both discussion questions and journaling suggestions, which is an interesting way to integrate the ideas. Srygley acknowledges his indebtedness to Foster and Willard in particular for the "toolbox" and "textbook" on spiritual disciplines from which he draws. He engages their ideas, but CtoC is not merely a regurgitation of what Foster, Willard, and others have already done. Srygley makes a valuable contribution by encouraging a holistic use of the disciplines that, while interested in helping Christians connect with the divine, does not lose sight of our engagement with the world around us.

The book has few shortcomings, but there are a couple of areas I would humbly suggest. The chapters are all well-written, but fairly brief, and some leave the reader wishing for a bit more. Having said that, because his goal is to engage people who are new to the disciplines, it was important to keep things simple and digestible, even if a bit too brief at points. The book will make a fine starting point, but someone wanting to go further will need to continue seeking more resources. Also, one small point on style: Srygley is an enthusiastic public presenter. Sometimes for energetic speakers, in their effort to write enthusiastically they overuse exclamation points, which I felt occurred a few times. (My own tendency to do this makes me aware of it.) Happily, neither of these things is significant enough to diminish the book's usefulness.

In the future, I would like to see Srygley share more about his experiences in trying to help his congregation implement these practices. He has a passion for the importance of living an intentionally Christ-centered life, with a heart both for bringing the lost into the fold, and helping Christians to mature. I'm excited about what he's already done, and I believe he will continue contributing to this valuable conversation.

In summary, From Cloisters to Cubicles is a great first step for someone who (1) is completely new to spiritual disciplines and wants to have them explained in simple terms, (2) has some working knowledge of the disciplines and is looking for ways to integrate spiritual disciplines into daily routines, or (3) is looking for material to use about spiritual disciplines in a church class setting. I'm grateful to David both for his friendship, and for the good resource he has created in writing this book.