Category Archives: Re-imagining Church

Review of David Lose’s Preaching at the Crossroads

preaching at crossroads

PREACHING AT THE CROSSROADS HOW THE WORLD AND OUR PREACHING IS CHANGING, by David J. Lose. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013. Pp.112. (paperback)

Postmodernity, Secularism and Pluralism are three topics often discussed in relation to understanding the changes that have taken place in society and the lives of individuals in the last half of a century but they are rarely brought together. David Lose provides an incredibly useful introduction to three of the major influences that are shaping the world of the people both inside and outside of congregations and in a brief and helpful way illuminates the impact of these three massive shifts in the way the world is viewed and identity is constructed. In addition to being a descriptive book, where the nature of a postmodern, secular and pluralistic world is described, the book is also suggestive in responding to how a preacher might constructively engage each of the challenges and opportunities presented by our changing world.

Dr. Lose’s proposal in this book is that rather than looking at preaching through a list of problems that are described and solutions that are prescribed to look at the mystery of preaching and the questions of our age.  He invites the reader to enter into, “an ongoing, curious, and lively engagement with the questions that people living at particular times are asking” and then enter into the questions of the current age and understand those questions so as to speak from the mystery and wisdom of faith to those questions in a way that is helpful. (6) The structure of Preaching at the Crossroads deals with each of the three topics with two chapters, one descriptive and one suggestive. In each descriptive chapter the author describes the way each influence is seen in our daily lives and how it impacts the way the church has been able to interact with the world and the second chapter he presents some hopeful suggestions for the road ahead.

Postmodernity is the subject of the first two chapters of the book and in a very quick manner David Lose describes both postmodernity and its predecessor modernity (since postmodernity is a deconstruction of modernity). Modernity depended on rational verifiability as the standard of truth in an ordered world that was searching for certainty in rising scientific and technological revolutions that spanned several centuries. Postmodernism emerges from the disappointment with the costs of the modern age and as a skepticism about the ability of humanity to solve the crises of the world through reason, science, industry and technology. Where modernity sought some unified truth, postmodernity would say there is no unified reality or truth but rather truth has often been the values of the dominant culture. Postmodernity view language and culture are not merely descriptive of reality but are forces that are utilized in the construction of reality and instead of Francis Bacon’s famous dictum “knowledge is power” the postmodern philosopher Michael Foucault reverses this to “power is knowledge.” (18) In a postmodern world where all truth is at best penultimate and that the foundations which our truth and knowledge is based upon may need to be revised in the light of a more plausible alternative. The postmodern world is one of competing stories and narratives of which the Christian story is merely one possible narrative whose validity must be proven through interface with the hearer’s experiences and contact with other competing narratives. In a world where the certainties that humanity can save itself through continued progress and development are stripped away it calls for a different preaching that is willing to courageously wager about God’s engagement of the world and to see how that narrative is received in the experience of the postmodern hearer. Following Paul Ricoeur’s move of employing a hermeneutic of suspicion and trust simultaneously David Lose invites the preacher to consider a centered, communal, and humble approach to preaching.

Secularism is dealt with in chapters three and four of Preaching at the Crossroads. While postmodernity questions modernity’s assumption that humanity can save itself secularism represents a loss of confidence in the divine to allow humanity to escape from its crises. It is a world where the immanent has triumphed over the transcendent and the religious stories that once helped individuals look outward for their sources of meaning no longer have the same power forcing people to turn inward on their quest for meaning and identity. Where postmodernity presented the Christian faith with a crisis of authority secularism present that same faith a crisis of relevance. Many feel that with the triumph of the immanent that the transcendent no longer has a role to play in their lives. The triumph of the immanent over the transcendent has come at a high personal cost leading many to despair at the loss of meaning in their lives. This is where David Lose sees opportunity in the secularism that has come to dominate so many people’s lives, faith gains its relevance when it responds to the secular crisis of hope. In a world full of meaningless stories we are the bearers of an incredible story that does have the audacity to speak hope into hopelessness. Secularism has heightened our awareness of the mundane and ordinariness of life but particularly speaking from the perspective of vocation we have the ability to speak of the transcendent God who is present in the day to day tasks. Rather than restricting God’s activity to the realm of the church, Dr. Lose argues this frees us to point to the places God is at work in the lives of the people we encounter beyond the congregational walls.

Pluralism is the final topic tackled in the final two chapters of Preaching at the Crossroads. With pluralism the place of Christianity is no longer privileged as the one dominant story but is rather placed along with countless competing narratives: some religious, others may be centered on nationality, wealth, ethnicity or even the narratives used in advertising to place a product. This has been heightened by the rise of the digital age where a more robust variety of stories are instantly available at any one time. In light of the near unending choices available the culture has shifted from one of obligation to discretion. Now the center of identity is no longer inherited but rather constructed by the choices of what one affiliates with and which stories one values. We no longer live in a culture that values tradition but rather experience is the touchstone of value in this age. As with the previous shifts, David Lose points to the opportunity in this movement as well. In an age where identity is constructed we have the ability to ask the questions of how to “meet their deepest needs, construct meaningful identities and experience the living God”.(93) In a time where Christianity no longer benefits from the society reinforcing our story it is a chance to help people find themselves in the story again and to tell our story in a way that helps people make sense of their lives. David Lose ends these chapters with some suggestive ideas of how participatory preaching might provide a space for people to make sense of their lives in light of the biblical story.

David Lose’s book is a wonderful introduction to the interconnected movements of postmodernity, secularism and pluralism. It is a concise and quick summary that is helpful both for the preacher who has studied and lived with these swirling movements and for the student learning about preaching and wanting to understand the world that is changing around them. This was a book I wished I had years earlier but I am glad to have found as a helpful resource for today.


Church in a Risky Environment

Unstable environment

I had the privilege to be a part of a pair of lectures by Diana Butler Bass last weekend at my synod convention which really helped me get a better view of the spiritual climate change going on within the country. There has been a lot of press given to the decline of the mainline denominations, which includes the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America which I am a pastor within, and there have been a number of ‘self-help’ approaches to the problem trying to create better programming, better worship experiences, better outreach, better stewardship and the list can go on and on. It is not that the people doing ministry today are less skilled than people doing ministry in the 1950s and 1960s when many congregations were experiencing their peaks, but the reality is that they are trying to be church in a risky and changing environment. This first post will deal with some of the more depressing information, but be patient-I actually found a lot of hope in the midst of what I learned.

Over the past five decades the percentage of the population that identifies itself as Christian has gone from 97% to 73% with the largest drop being among white Protestant Christians, which have dropped from 66% of the population to 48% between 1960 and 2012. Most people would assume that when you split the Protestants into Mainline Protestants (typically more moderate to liberal including the United Methodist Church (UMC), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), Episcopal Church, American Baptist Church, the United Church of Christ (UCC), Disciples of Christ and the Reformed Church USA) and into Evangelical Protestants (which are too numerous to mention but for the purposes of study included groups that identified as Evangelical, Fundamentalist, and Charismatic) were declining at the same rate. This seems counterintuitive since there are most mega-churches are evangelical in their leaning, but the reality is that they are predominantly absorbing members from other congregations. Another surprise was the fastest declining denomination was the Southern Baptists, which in the current culture should not be surprising, but nobody has been talking about the Evangelical decline until fairly recently. Catholics are holding steady, primarily because of immigration and black or Hispanic communities of faith are either holding their own or growing as a percentage of the population. This has also been the time where the ‘nones’ which include atheists, agnostics, nothing in particular and spiritual but not religious went from registering as roughly 1% of the population to 20%, 1 in 5.

One of the most common reactions to changes in the environment around any person or group is fear, and fear has definitely been a driving force for many Christian groups in the recent years. There is almost a militant reaction against the current culture by some of the more conservative religious organizations and individuals. Especially after the last Presidential Election Campaign was complete there was a lot of evidence (which I will share in the next presentation) that they no longer were the decisive block that could determine who would remain in power, and as they look at the manner in which their cohort is aging the news gets worse. Sometimes this has even turned to rhetoric claiming that they are being oppressed for their religious viewpoints because not everyone will concede that their viewpoint is correct, when the reality is that they are now one within a much more varied religious landscape where there is no clear majority and no one group has a monopoly on defining religion and spirituality within the current culture. For some people what I have shared today is incredibly bad news, as will be some of the information I share in some upcoming posts, but it also represents an incredible possibility to re-imagine the way we are church in a changing culture and how we have a dialogue about issues of faith in our culture.

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Are we willing to ask the difficult questions?


As the world continues to change at a dynamic pace and the church continues to attempt to minister faithfully in that changing world it will force us to ask difficult questions, questions that reach right to the heart of our identity. One of the earliest questions we learn as toddlers is “why?” and I think that as the church continues to evaluate what we are called to do going forward we need to be willing to go back and ask that question of why are we doing the things we are doing. Do we even understand why we do many of the actions and say many of the things we do? I am convinced that there is a lot of wisdom in the actions that have been passed down from generation to generation-but if we are unable to ask the why questions what was passed down as a tradition, which to use Jaroslav Pelikan’s famous way of talking about it is the living faith of the dead, can calcify into traditionalism, which Pelikan referred to as the dead faith of the living. Our actions do have meanings but if we find ourselves going through the motions do we have a dead faith? What is the end that we are seeking?
Even Protestant Christians rested for a long time on Cyprian of Carthage’s( a 3rd Century Catholic Bishop) famous dictum “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus” (No salvation outside the church) if not in theology in practice. People came to church because it was a way of earning their salvation (and what people mean by salvation may differ widely, but that is a topic for another time). Attendance in worship was something that people were expected to do, now certainly not everyone attended all the time but there was a societal expectation to attend worship. I remember one of my instructors in Marriage and Family Dynamics at the University of Central Oklahoma whose father had been a minister and who had members of the mob in his community who were at worship every Sunday. That expectation is no longer there in society, and officially in most protestant churches it has not been theologically there since the time of Luther, and so in a time of change maybe we need to be willing to ask the difficult questions of what are people getting out of the time they spend in worship. Reggie McNeal, who I have referred to in other posts, tells of a time when he had to confront the question:

I remember it as if it were yesterday, even though it was over twenty years ago. We had just comleted a midweek leader luncheon at the two-year-old church where I served as founding pastor. Everyone else had left the building. I sat alone in the fellowship hall And the Lord spoke to me. It was in the form of a question: “Are people better off for being a part of this church, or are they just tireder and poorer?” …The question bothered me. A lot. Not only did I not know the answer, I feared knowing! (McNeal 2009, 89)
I am convinced that worship has meaning, that the church as an organization has a purpose and meaning, that we have a mission and things that God calls us to be a part of in the world. Yet, I am also aware that sometimes it is so easy to become distracted by things that are not important. Working my way through Jeremiah, like I am currently, you can’t help but see the disconnect between the cultic practice of the people of Jerusalem in Jeremiah’s time and the ways in which they were not living out of God’s vision of shalom (peace, harmony). If we are merely coming to worship out of a sense of duty, doing the same things we have always done then perhaps we are just tireder and poorer, perhaps it is a traditionalism, a dead faith of the living and God is doing what God does in the midst of death. God is creating new life!
There is meaning in the things that we do, the words that we say, but ultimately our work should be an expression of love. The two great commandments, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” should be at least one of the ends of our worship-to help us to learn to love. In a world where spirituality and our religious lives have become one segment of our increasingly busy lives perhaps we as church leaders and members need to be asking questions on how our worship and our investment of time and resources are helping us integrate who we are as people of faith into the rest of our lives. It will not be an easy transition, but the bible itself is concerned with life much more than it is with afterlife. We may be the people who to use Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s language from his Letters and Papers from Prison are keeping the archane disciplines-these ancient practices that help us make sense of our faith and our lives-in a world that has come of age. As faithful people and congregations we will continue to wrestle with the difficult questions of how to be faithful in our time and place, and hopefully in the midst of that wrestling we will be shaped by the love of the one we come together to worship so that we may be a blessing to the world we are called to serve.

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Have We Made The Church Into A Gated Community?


The church has sometimes been compared to a country club when it becomes primarily a social activity, but as I have become aware of some of the broader trends in the church over the past generation I began to realize that this derogatory reference missed the point. You see a country club is a social and entertainment function, and while it may connect with work and family it often remains one isolated segment, but one of the major movements in Christianity has tried to become something much more. When I first started thinking about this my first thought was to use the term ghetto, which Wikipedia defines as “a part of the city where a minority group lives, especially due to social, legal or economic pressures.” But the more I thought about it, the more I realized the inadequacy of this provocative term because the church is not a minority group, and unlike minority groups in a ghetto which may not have a choice to reside within the area they are confined to, the church has over the past 30 years increasingly walled itself off from the outside world. Many processes of developing a culture of the programmatic church have become more and more church-centric, where we train people to participate in church activities which are separated from the rest of their life in the world, where people can listen to exclusively Christian music, watch authorized Christian television and videos, read Christian approved books, shop in Christian bookstores, date on exclusively Christian matching sites and become more and more isolated from the rest of the culture that has little or no interest in the predominantly conservative Christian sub-culture. It is a mindset where the rest of the world is filled with evil influences and it is a church against culture mindset that has been manipulated and played by both media and political forces for their own gain. As Reggie McNeal insightfully states:

The idea of what it meant to be Christian became synonymous with what it meant to be a committed church person. Further, the measure of personal devotion to God was the degree of one’s separation from the world outside the church. This meant centering one’s life on the church and its activities, usually pulling away from people who weren’t willing to do the same. The primary focus of evangelism was converting people to the church culture. (McNeal 2009, 42f)

We have created our own gated community, a place where we can stay and not have to venture out into the world very much. More and more portions of the Christian church have pulled away from the rest of the world in a reaction of fear. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way, nor was it ever meant to be this way but this is not new, it has been a process that has taken place over the long history of the Christian church. Until recently mission work entailed converting the people you were doing mission work among to not only Christianity but also the broader culture that the missionaries were coming from and the work became linked with colonialism to the point where the “three C’s of colonialism” were Christianity, commerce and civilization. (Bosch 1991, 305)

Perhaps there have been moments in time where a predominantly Christian in title civilization existed, although I have yet to see a civilization truly based on love of God and neighbor, and perhaps many long deeply to a return to some mythic Christian age, but the reality is that we live in a thoroughly secular age in a pluralistic and post-modern world. There is an increasing sense that at least some churches have moved to a footing of church against culture, rather than openly going out and engaging the culture the is out there in the world. Success in this view of church meant creating ‘full-service’ churches with exercise gyms, day cares, schools and coffee bars. Now there is nothing wrong with any of these things and in a purely attractional model of church where people see what is going on and they naturally want to be a part of this it sounds great. But what happens when people don’t want to live in gated communities with homeowners associations? What happens when the people within the gated communities view the outside world as a danger? What happens is isolation.

The other problem is that the gated community model of church looks very unchristian, at least as far as it relates to Christ.  When Christ was constantly moving beyond the boundaries of what the religious people of his own day considered acceptable, and the early church found itself being pushed farther and farther out into the world, much of contemporary Christianity has been content to shelter behind its own wall creating bigger and better programs. Unfortunately Reggie McNeal hits on the head some of the things I have heard from people outside the church:

The program driven church has produced a culture that is despised, not just ignored, by people outside the church. Their antipathy for what we call Christianity exists for all the wrong reasons. Basically it comes down to our failure to demonstrate the love of Jesus, passing by people not like us on the other side of the road on our way to building great churches. (McNeal 2009, 93)

Many of the things that we do as church are very good things, and I am fortunate to serve a congregation that is increasingly active in the midst of the world—but as a programmatic church we do struggle with this. How do we begin to shift the measurement from how much time people spend doing church activities within the walls of our church to the manner in which their time within the walls of our congregation equips them to be a blessing to the world around them. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told his followers:

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. (Matthew 5: 13)

Salt is not just for seasoning, in Jesus’ time salt was for the preservation of foods-but it only preserves if it is rubbed or somehow absorbed into the item that is being preserved. We may forget that it was predominantly the Pharisees as they were portrayed in the gospels who were worried about being contaminated by the outside world, that the contamination of the outside world would dilute their own righteousness. In Jesus we see just the opposite, a movement outward where holiness and righteousness become a blessing and transform those primarily kept on the outside of the walled cities of his time or excluded from the synagogues. Think on how many times a person who is unclean (like lepers or the woman with the flow of blood) or sinners and tax collectors are mentioned within the gospels. Perhaps we too need to learn how to take down the barriers we have set up to isolate ourselves and be willing to see where Christ is already at work in the midst of the rest of the world.

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Something Different: Church As A Farm Without Fences

I will continue on with my growing project on authority tomorrow, but since I haven’t completed the next post in that series I’m going to do something different today. The question of authority is a very live question, and it is very present in our popular culture-not surprisingly my first listen Linkin Park’s new album Living Things has several of its songs  seem to deal with authority (it was just released yesterday so I’ve only listened through once)…but today let’s talk about boundaries.

In Kendra Creasy Dean’s book, Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers is Telling the American Church (which is an interesting book in its own right) she includes this story from an African Christian:

You Americans think of Christianity as a farm with a fence. Your question is, ‘Are you inside the fence or outside of it?’ We Africans think differently. We think of Christianity as a farm with no fence. Our question is, ‘Are you heading towards the farm or away from it?’ “The church’s identity is not defined primarily by its edges, but by its center: focused on Christ, the sole source of our identity, no intruder poses a threat. No alien hops the fence, because there is no fence.

I would give a page for the above quote, but since I am reading this on an e-reader this is one of those books not set up with page numbers.

I think there is something very revealing about this change in perspective. One of the gifts of modern thought was the increase in specializations, but that was also one of its greatest challenges. Let me explain what I mean by this with a medical illustration: if I need to have a surgeon do a bypass of the arteries around my heart or do brain surgery after an accident I really don’t want this to be the only time they will do heart or brain surgery this year—I want someone who has experience in this and knows what they are doing, hence if the problem is with my heart I go to a cardiologist. Yet I am around hospitals a lot, and while this is improving there are still times where you have a whole team of doctors caring for a patient and the patient feels a little like a chemistry set or a lab rat. The cardiologist may do one thing, and yet that may require something else from a doctor who knows about kidneys, something else from physical therapists, and as a problem becomes more complex each person may know their part but no one can integrate all the parts together.

For the church, in the enlightenment and following eras there was a movement towards a precision of thought who God was and how God acted that may seem strange to us now. Boundaries were drawn between Lutherans and Reformed, Catholic and Anglican, Baptist and Presbyterian and as things progressed it got a little out of hand as the differences became more and more trivial.  I am not saying that the histories of each of these groups are not important, but it is too easy to become focused towards the fences the boundaries that separate one from another. Certainly this has been an age of walls lowering between the older faiths and the discussion has been fruitful…but are we missing the point? I’m not saying that myself as a fairly liberal (at least in some aspects) Lutheran minister and a conservative Southern Baptist are going in the same direction (to be honest there are times when I wonder if we are even talking about the same God or Jesus) but can I and others give up my need to say this is authentic and this is not…or to go a step further this person is on the inside of the church or salvation (whatever one means by that term) by putting up walls of saying who is in and who is out (as if we get to make that decision).

Maybe rather than focusing on the boundaries/fences and differentiating ourselves from that which is outside the boundaries (to use a mathematic term-rather than trying to be a bounded set) what would it mean to focus in on the center and to invite the intruder and the alien to walk into our territory and join us at the table (being a centered set in mathematics).

One final note: David Lose, who teaches at Luther Seminary, had an interesting post coming at this from a very different direction which is worth some thought and caused a lot of discussion in a group I am a part of. For those who want to read it, it was re-published here in a more refined form : Do Christian Denominations Have A Future.

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