Magnify the Lord, our God! Bow low at his footstool! He is holy!
Psalm 99:5 CEB
Like a sleuth, I was following a trail. My starting point was the current state of new church plant. We're told not to follow a formula, and then we are given this contemporary church formula to follow. "Don't let people tell you how it's done, but this is how it's done. No use reinventing the wheel." How did we get here, where we take the easiest way to fill a church, and follow the rules to get there? When did this become evangelism?
It led me to reflect on the industrial revolution. Mass production had to become common place or it would hurt the bottom line.
Right now, I'm hand stitching a bag for my mother-in-law. When I'm done, it should be a beautiful bag she can use to hold her bible and loose papers for church. It should be durable, and last her for years. It has taken me weeks to make. I pick it up in my spare time; maybe only stitching a little before putting it back down. It hit me, handmade items can no longer be sold to the public. It would cost too much to pay a fair wage. If one couldn't streamline their process, they couldn't make money selling their goods.
Why? Everything seemed to go back to a very large clan, the Gilbreth family. Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, the parents of 12 children. Two of their children penned the book, Cheaper By the Dozen, which is nothing like the 2003 movie by the same name. Frank and Lillian created something called Motion Study. Along with Time Study, Motion Study discovered ways to cut out unneeded actions to speed up assembly lines, among other things. It was Frank Gilbreth who created the process the military uses to disassemble and reassemble a weapon, even blindfolded. What the Gilbreth's created is used in factories, businesses and even schools today.
While researching I was at first horrified to learn the parents used the same techniques in their home to keep order. Simple tasks, such as brushing teeth, or combing hair was filmed to see which child could most effectively do the chore. If one of the children could find a faster way to do something, they could be paid to present it to their father. It felt so utilitarian and cold. Then, about a third through reading Cheaper By the Dozen I changed my opinion. Frank and Lillian always saw the humanity in what they were doing. They loved their children, and wouldn't have implemented anything that would have been strictly industrial.
It led me to wonder, what would Frank Gilbreth think of how his life work is being used today? Would he marvel at the assembly lines of robots, pushing out a car a minute? Would he be horrified to see his work in sweatshops in third world countries? What would he think about how his work seems to sneak into non-assembly things like school and church?
I will never know his opinion, but I definitely know mine. When it comes to church, doing a specific action because it worked for "General Christian Church", is wrong. It's basically Copypasta church. It takes the easy way, while ignoring the people. From what I learned in my brief exploration into Motion Study, is remembering the purpose. Motion Study is specific to a particular action, for a particular company.
There was something that used to annoy me when some would discover I was a minister of an online congregation. "Doesn't [this specific group] already have an online church?" My answer was always the same. "We both have a different congregational base. I know Fig Tree's congregants would not be comfortable worshipping over there, and I doubt their congregants would be comfortable worshipping over here. We both understand our community, and we specifically reach them."
This "one size fits all" mentality has to stop. I truly believe, because of the Gilbreth's work on Motion Study, we are trained to find the easiest path to success. I think this path was never meant to be made by cutting out the humanity in the process, especially in the church. We are not trying to find the perfect music for worship, we are trying to find the best way for our community to worship God. See the difference? Choosing the right music, lighting, design, etc. is the easy way. Figuring out how we can connect to God through worship is difficult. The easy way cuts the human/Divine out of the conversation. The hard way gives us something real.
It has been two years since Fig Tree Christian launched online! Wow, what a crazy two years. It has changed so much here. For those who are new, or have been around since the beginning, let's take a quick look back:
The evolution of the header: Like any new website, we began with a written header. There was also another version of the logo, as shown on the left.
I visit at least a dozen or so Christian websites a week. The images immediately sets the mood for the site. Think of logos and images as the wrapping paper for the message. What mood do you want the person opening present to be in? There are certain colors, fonts and physical cues that speak to our brain, and tell us things about the thing we are looking at. Unless we are explicit about what we want to say, and find the right visual combo to say it, we implicitly began picking our non-verbal cues.
Usually, websets non-verbally tell me, "We don't have a budget for this." Let me let you in on a secret: Over two years we've spent under $400 for everything. (We pay for yearly web hosting, purchasing our url and occasionally purchasing images that can't be made from scratch.) Photoshop elements cost $60. Find a creative person to begin researching color and fonts and let them play with the program. No, you won't have professional illustrations, but you will have more than a blank header. Eventually, you will have someone who understands the program.
The evolution of the message: When this first began I, Melissa Fain, was a dumper. In other words, I cut and pasted Sunday morning sermons into a blog format. No one listens to to the message or reads a flat sermon written for someone else. If you want a resource for your congregants to find previous sermons, you are doing a great job just pasting messages in. If you want to reach out to others, rethink what you are doing.
When I see some of those early messages get clicked, I cringe. The visuals were horrible. The message was great on a Sunday morning, but terrible for an online audience. I had to get to know people online. What were their issues? What were they dealing with? Once I knew that, I could begin to connect the need to the people.
Still, if you feel your sermon is gold and deserves an online audience, make it suitable for an online audience. Add images that help tell the story. (Purchased, made, or credit is given if it's royalty free. Never just take someone's work.) Separate the text so people can see the points. Cut it down. Forty-minute reads are not read online. Sorry.
Evolution of support: When Fig Tree Christian launched it was me, myself and I... by the grace of God. Looking back, it was rather sad. Every meditation was mine. I had a few cheerleaders, but overall, it felt like I was yelling into an echo chamber. It was like I was crying out in the wilderness when everyone was still in the city.
When this all began I immediately saw the possibility of a devotional app. It became one of those milestones I saw in the distance. I couldn't do it right away, because it required help, and I didn't have support.
Now, this ministry is highlighted by those who support it. I'm just the schlub who calls herself the minister. There are monthly guest meditations. You might not realize this, the past three guest meditations are from people I have never met in person. I know them online. This and going to monthly guest mediations is a celebration. At first, I had a guest meditation about once a quarter, and two contributors wrote more than one! I will forever be grateful for those who saw the potential so early, and wanted to help.
So what is next? You tell me? The truth is, God's plans happens within the Body of Christ. Fig Tree is only as awesome as the community that supports it. It is so exciting to see how far we've come in two short years. I can't wait to see what happens in two more! You should stick around and see what happens.
“How do we fix the dying church?” That's the phrase I have been hearing quiet a lot over the past two years.
“Why are we not reaching millennials?"
"How do we still care for our elderly?"
"Can someone please get the coffee out of the sanctuary!"
OK, that last one isn't really a question, but it's part of the overall theme.
First of all, let me preface. I'm a minister. I have been the full-time, solo pastorate at a church. (It didn't end well.) My story is for another day. Needless to say, after my experience, other pastors came out of the woodwork to support me. Pastors who were hurt, damaged, destroyed by the church. There are more of us than anyone would like to admit. We are a growing number. Many of those blogs regarding what the church should do to remain viable were written by the damaged Christian congregant or minister. We are a wounded team of warriors who still love an institution that has betrayed us. Once again, another story for another day. To get to the point, I've been mulling over two questions:
What is wrong with the church?
How do we fix it?
The reason these are becoming real questions is simple: churches are dying. Sanctuaries that used to hold two-hundred people now hold 30-50 on a given Sunday. Doors are closing for good. Churches can no longer afford to hire their ministers. The warning bell began ringing in the early 90's. Back then, churches laughed off the statistics which were beginning to show a stagnancy in membership growth. Now we have reached full blown decline and everyone is thirsty for easy answers to the problem. (Hint: We have all scoured the well lit areas looking for the “lost coins” of the church. We can safely call the bright and easy to hunt areas 'searched'. Maybe it's time to start looking in the dark.)
I am going to tell you, over the next few paragraphs, what the problem is, and how to fix it. Yes, it will be a real answer. Yes, it will be something every church could do. No, it will not be easy. I don't anticipate churches across the nation will be jumping on board with what I'm about to share. Many churches are still looking for the easy fix.
There are many a congregation out there damaged. Before I really get into the overall problem, let me say something regarding damaged churches. There are times when a church faces serious, and detrimental conflict. Let's say a major church split in 1977 over evangelism that took the minister with it. That damage will replay itself in the church like a scratched record until it's fixed. So the same church will spend the next 40 years scapegoating ministers, loved or not so loved, who even breathe the word evangelism. They might not even know why they are doing it anymore. Until the church fixes the initial 'scratch', the church will keep skipping and breaking congregants/ministers. (I may or may not be using an actual church as an example.) There's the answer for broken churches. Find the initial break, and fix it.
The answer for the collective church is different. The joke is, the church is always 20 years behind society. Clothes. Music. Social issues. If you want to test it, go to church this Sunday and pretend the year is 1994.
Clothes: We were going through a stage in fashion where we were told it didn't matter what we looked like, as long as we were comfortable. Just wear a t-shirt and jeans. (Even if the t-shirt was made by Gap.)
Music: Karaoke was at it's height. It was cool to go to the bar and sing the lyrics of a famous artist. All while the words flashed up on the screen for all to see.
Social issues: Helping people was as easy as writing a check. In the 90's it was the beginning of supporting a cause, rather than helping our neighbor. Maybe the causes were noble, but at the cost of relationship.
You should let that sit for a moment. I just described the modern American church.
Now the follow-up question should be: Why are we 20 years behind culture? The answer has everything to do with our missionary style. I mentioned this before, but it needs repeating. When the culture is not our own, we are completely ready to dive deep into their world, in order to understand their context. Over seas, new church plants look WAY different in it's inception than American new church plants. The problem is, it shouldn't. The outcome, the final product, should look different. The process to get to the final product should look relatively similar.
Instead, this is how the American Church has done church plants for the past 100 years:
“Church A is really growing! Look at what they are doing.
They have A B and C. Let's do that!”
Instead of starting with the culture and building in, they start with themselves and built out. We are perpetually 20 years behind because only a minuscule part of the Christian population is bold enough to start with the culture. Then, their result is copied, instead of their process to get to the result. By the time their result is Xyroxed by every church looking for an easy answer, the result is now 20 years too late. The American Church (and I would love to hear the European view of all this) has been built on the foundation of isolation.
I always get so frustrated when articles just highlight the problem and give no real solution. Here is a solution, a real solution. If you are a life-time Christian, who loves the church and how it's been done for generations, you are going to hate this solution. Yet, this solution will work.
Ready, for this? Start building churches like the culture is not your own, because it's not. Instead of coming to a community with a factory built, ready-made church that worked in San Antonio twenty years ago, come with nothing. There is nothing you can bring to a community that isn't already there. God is everywhere! While we have been cloistered in the safety of our stained glass prison, God has been working in the world! It is not our job to take our images, our symbols and jam them down the community's throat. It's our job to help the community see the images they already have. God, without us, is working in this world! It is our job to highlight what already exists, not paint over it with the skeleton of 200 year old worship. Has anyone asked the community, “How do you want to worship God?”
We have these bio-domes artificially surrounding our congregations, keeping our traditions and worship style intact. It's time to pop the bubbles, have a funeral for our old church, and see what God can do. Christians are built from the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We can survive death. We can rise from the ashes. We, necessarily must die first. Let go, and trust God is on the other side. Let go, and begin mission work like it's meant to be done, from the outside in. I know I'm ready. Who's with me?
Seriously, who's with me? If you feel Christianity is where God is calling you, you feel isolated by the way church is done today, and you are in West Georgia, contact me! Let's start the research. Let's get this going!
It's official. On Friday, April 11th I will be a member of Reddit for one whole year. The site marks the occassion by putting a small cake by my user name. Most of that time, over the past year, has been spent on the /r/Christianity sub.
While I am still a noob in many respects, I wanted to mark this occasion by sharing some very important lessons I have personally learned over that time. Because I will be sharing this with the /r/Christianity sub tomorrow, I want to stress, these are not lessons for them, but us.
We treat the internet like we did missionary work a hundred years ago: poorly.
The modern missionary movement had an ah-ha moment with one little sentence. "God has always been there. " The focus turned from bringing our Western style Christianity to them, but, instead, trying to help them discover how God has always existed within their culture. It means Christian worship looks different in, let's say, Africa, than it does in central Europe or the United States.
Up until that moment missionaries were practically trying to cram their culture with Christianity down the throat of the mission field. Then they were confused when things like the Boxer Rebellion took place. The biggest change that happened with, "God has always been there," was the realization that the missionaries needed to learn the culture of the people they were trying to Evangelize to, and ultimately create healthy relationships with the people.
(Some of y'all over seas might see the obviousness in what I am about to say.) From an American perspective, the Christian culture is no longer the general culture. We need to realize we are not the societal 'normal' anymore and we need to treat our nearby missions like we do our overseas missions: with understanding of the outside culture.
Christians have taken Romans 12:2 (Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.) and in their effort to follow the scripture became poor missionaries.
Let me explain: If a random person were to walk into an American, Sunday worship they would be met with songs they have never heard, cadences they won't understand, and traditions that don't make any sense. If they are a mega-church they will be necessarily ignored, and if they are a dying church they will be overly greeted. A hundred years ago we could return to our home churches and we could have our version of Christianity and we they could have theirs. That can't work anymore. Not when the culture we are reaching out to is supposed to be our own.
What does that have to do with the internet? People want to learn about God, but they cannot connect to our Christian culture in church. They turn to the internet, and Reddit. In response Christians try to take their culture, praise songs and all, and put it online. When it is ignored or down voted, they don't understand why. Which leads me to #2:
Most churches become the most despised things on Reddit: Dumpers, or also known as, Spammers.
Before you are all offended, in the beginning, I was a dumper. Dumping is when you take your sermon, text, whatever and just dump it to the site and leave. If you do this, you are a poor evangelizer and are wasting the internet. Think about it this way. You are bringing a God given message. To do this you must know the community you are giving the message to. Just a hint, this community (Reddit, YouTube, or otherwise) isn't going to sit around and watch you speak in front of a camera for 45 minutes. They are also not going to give your message the time of day if you copy and pasted it into a blog. ( Fig Tree's most popular meditation was posted almost a year ago. Hardly any pictures; mostly words. There are exceptions to everything. Legally Speaking.)
Usually it doesn't matter if you created a turd or spun gold, if you are not connecting with how they connect you've just posted a big pile of nothing. I saw a crazy statistic last week: 2 million blogs are written everyday and almost as many videos are posted. No one, even fellow Christians, are going to give your work the time of day when there is that much highly crafted content out there. Sorry.
The Christianity sub. doesn't take dumping lightly and it can get you blocked if you are not willing to contribute to the group in something other than your posts. Pinterest naturally rewards the pinner who pins other's work because the other sees it. Occasionally they will follow up and pin something of yours. Facebook is all about relationship, and dumping just goes down the feed and is lost. Consider the community. They are all different and exciting in their own way.
If you are not willing to stick around and show you care, why should they care? The internet is full of people who just want to know they are worth something. To me, it seems more important to spend time raising other people up and showing support. So maybe my page hits are down one week. It's not as important as getting out there and showing others they are awesome.
As an extra note: the moderators at /r/Christianity need to be thanked on a daily basis. They are working hard to make sure the sub over there is a safe place for people to educate, share prayer concerns, ask questions, and discuss outside sites. It doesn't look like Christianity has looked for the past 10 or so decades. I think that is a good thing.
When the site's foyer, or front page, is all about spring and summer, while most of the nation has a nice layer of snow outside their window... well, it's a difficult analogy to sell.
Or is it? The United States has had an abnormally cold winter this year. Even the south has felt the icy sting of northern air. And spring is only a waiting game away. If we sit on our butts long enough the perennials will break through the cold ground, and the warm breeze will be back again. Finally, we can talk about our tans instead of our chapped lips.
And that's our problem when we begin to discuss church. Many know this is a winter for the Christian institution. (Let's pray it isn't autumn. Then we are in real trouble.) There are a few things we do in a winter.
And we act like we can wait it out and it will go away. It won't. This is the real danger of Church in America: we don't have the American spirit anymore to drive us to fix it.
When the Baptist, Anabaptist, Christian Church, and other denominations took off in the late 1700's to early 1800's, it was partly because of the American can-do attitude. We were workers, growers, and entrepreneurs. We saw the need for church to change and we just changed it. I was easy because the spirit moving it was in line with the need.
Today, it is different. We have been taught we can buy happiness, we don't have to work for what we want, change is out of our control. This has not only kept us in a Christian winter, it has deepened the cold. Everyone is just waiting for the right group or person to come forward with the right formula. (Usually involving keeping things as much the way they already are, as much as possible.) I'm surprised I haven't seen the book: How to fix the church in 20 easy steps and not break a sweat.
What do we do? I can't say this enough. Something. Get off our butt, and try things. For Fig Tree Christian its getting a dedicated group of individuals together to begin praying and researching. Not to internalize how to recreate what exists at 20 different churches in a 10 mile radius. This is about figuring out what God wants Christians to be in this climate. God isn't calling us to jump ship after we see the next great thing coming over the horizon. This is about God calling us to help build and create the next step, the future mode of transportation for the Christian faith.
Otherwise, and I say this with as much grace and love as possible, we need to stop this suffering and just pull the plug. This is not a winter we can just wait out. This is a winter that ends when we are ready for it to end. Are we ready?
Until March 24th, any love offering made to Fig Tree Christian will come with a hand knotted heart bracelet. It is our way to say thank you for your gift. Bracelets are one size fits most, and colors are randomized.
Checks can be sent to:
Fig Tree Christian
42 Essex Ln
Hiram, GA 30141
Or you can make a donation by clicking here.
Today marks the one year anniversary since the internet launch of Fig Tree Christian. The best way for us to celebrate is to say thank you to everyone who has helped over the year.
Thank you to the congregations who have helped
Central Christian Church- They participated in the fundraiser and sold t-shirts. More than that, they wore the t-shirts at the General Assembly and showed their love to a fellow Christian organization. Thank you.
First Christian Church in Hendersonville- They felt called to send a love offering to us which allowed us to do the first Good Samaritan Gift. Thank you.
Thank you to our guest meditations
Rev. Frank Sherard- He was the bold Christian who kicked off guest meditations and became our first contributor outside of myself. Thank you.
Rev. Paul Appleby- He wrote a guest mediation and has been a supportive voice in the background. With his wife, Sage Appleby, they are grade "A" cheerleaders of the faith. They are strong supporters to Fig Tree Christian. Thank you.
Chaplain Kimberly Russell- Yes, she is my sister, and she is the person to turn to when I need to work out a theological issue or brainstorm the next step. She has written two guest meditations. Thank you.
Thank you to the Georgia Region
The Georgia region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has shared its excitement and support of Fig Tree Christian. They have sent myself to the Leadership Conference and has stayed in contact to try to find ways to support this ministry. Thank you.
Thank you to those who have donated
For privacy issues I don't want to mention these supporters of the faith by name. Just thank you for believing in the mission of Fig Tree Christian enough to give a financial contribution to the ministry. Your gifts throughout the year has made it possible to bring fliers to the Paulding County area. Thank you.
Thank you to my family
On Thursday anyone can check the website after 8am EST and find a beautiful meditation with pictures and a meaningful message. What one would not find is all the praying and soul searching that happens in between that time. If it wasn't for the support of a loving husband we wouldn't be where we are today. Thank you Linc.
Last but not least- thank you to everyone who shows up every week!
Whether you come every week to read or you are sharing the word with your friends and colleagues. Thank you. You only show up as a number on my end, but I pray for each of you on a daily basis. I love y'all, and you are the reason I do this every week!
Now join our Reddit community and add your thoughts! We would love to hear your story and connect! http://www.reddit.com/r/FigTreeChristian/
Luke 12:49-56 CEB
I love cast iron skillets. My love began back when I was a camp staffer at Christmount. We were leading a mountain camp and decided to cook breakfast over the fire one morning, and I wanted to cook it on a cast iron skillet. Not having any idea what I was getting into, I went to downtown Black Mountain and purchased one. Did I stress that I had no idea what I was doing? Cast iron has to be seasoned before it can be used. After it is seasoned it takes on a black hue. My skillet was silver. It was brand-spankin' new. Luckily for me, Jamie Brame, my boss stepped in and helped me out. He, almost gleefully, took my skillet and seasoned it for me. Thanks to him our Mountain Camp had breakfast over a fire, and I vowed never to cook something as messy as eggs again during a camping trip.
I loved that skillet. No one was allowed to cook or clean it except me. Often, after cleaning it, I would allow it to sit on the stove instead of in the cabinet. All my food tasted better when cooked with the gleaming black glory I called my skillet. Then one day it happened. While I was out, a cleaning lady came and completely sanitized and scrubbed the kitchen from top to bottom. She knew nothing of cast iron and assumed the skillet must be dirty if it was sitting on the stove. She scrubbed it clean and left it wet in the sink. (Seasoning does two things: it creates a non-stick surface, and it keeps the iron from rusting.) I came home and my black skillet was red. The whole thing was rusted. I was devastated. I tried to fix it, but I did not have the talent. It was gone. With as much dignity as I could muster, I gathered up the sad remains of my skillet. Later that night, alone in the backyard, I buried it next to the garage. Now I could never be sure, but I thought that I heard the sound of "Taps" being played. Gently. At least that is how I remember it. The father from a Christmas Story and I can cry together over our losses.
While I no longer own that particular skillet, I now own four other cast iron skillets of varying sizes. They were either purchased, inherited, or given to me since that dreadful day I lost my first one. Of the four, I seasoned one myself. I did it recently, and while I did I thought about the process. Seasoning a skillet means cooking the oil onto the surface. It really seems to be a backwards process. It permanently makes the skillet dirty in order to make it usable for life. Anyone who is heavily into sanitizing and cleaning probably wouldn't like to own their own cast iron skillet. A cast iron skillet continues to season for life. So every time you cook, you are cooking more oils onto the skillet. Howard Hughes, stay away. It's not for him.
In the same way I look at the scripture and see the backwards nature of Jesus' words. Jesus doesn't like peace? He wants us all to burn? What?! Is this the same Jesus who said, “Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children?” (Matt 5:9) Don't get me wrong, but is this the same Savior who rebuked the Disciples for suggesting raining down fire on the Samaritans like Elijah did? Why is he suggesting such an action now? This is not the scripture for the staunch pacifist, who believes division is bad at any cost.
The scripture reminds me of seasoning a skillet. It reminds me of a skillet because to gain something worthwhile and special, something odd and backwards needs to be done first: We must speak out and say what is wrong. Today, this has taken the face of traditional and secular ideas going against one another. Mainline and Evangelical voices expressing their distaste for one another's worship style and age brackets sharing how other age brackets are failing to meet their needs. This all comes together and we have a fire beginning to kindle. In my mind, it is the exact kind of fire Jesus wants. It is the type of fire that brings healthy conflict to a head where it can be dealt with.
So here is the problem. We clearly have this fire beginning to kindle, but this fire can go in one of two directions. If it goes the right way it can season the beginnings of a new chapter for Christianity. We will turn this dissonance into a cadence that will bring our songs together. We will create a safe place where all these voices can be heard. In that arena the next question will naturally be, “Now what?” We will start to experiment and try out spiritual ideas to see if something can stitch, or stick us back together. It will lead to a spiritual enlightenment.
Or... we refuse to contain our fire and it burns out of control. We disconnect more than we have ever disconnected. The Body of Christ burns up and ceases to exist. Instead of the healthy flame of renewal, we get the wildfire of destruction.
So let me ask the question: Now what? Now we try things! Feel like people would connect over coffee? Start a coffee fellowship! Connect over music styles. Attempt to create a show that will help those outside 'church' find connection. And celebrate when others make an attempt, no matter how crazy that attempt is! Discover the next step by simply giving it a shot. What if you fail? Well, most of us will. Failure is always an option. Yet, I have learned through Fig Tree Christian, failure is simply being able to check off what doesn't work. The important piece to all of this is to keep connecting through our disagreements. For God's sake, let the voices be heard. Let your voice be heard. Speak up! Listen!
So many have stopped talking because they have been hurt by the other voices online. I, personally, have been deeply hurt through the internet. Some people have said some cruel things to me. Yet, I have celebrated in those pains because communication happened in those moments. I have learned to put down my sword and pick up my doctor's kit. This lesson didn't happen because I was at peace in my life. This lesson happened because I was at odds with the very people God called me to love. While my faith journey has left me 'well seasoned,' I look around me and see our collective faith has been left to rust. It's time to clean this up and fix it the right way. So get out there. Listen to the stories of others, and try stuff out. If someone calls you crazy, who cares? John the Baptist kinda looked like a nut too. If we don't pull this dissonance together, it will all burn up before it has ever begun. The Christian story will only exist as a story we tell our grandkids. "Ah, remember when we gathered together and worshipped God in a church?" Now what? For God's sake, go find out.
Like what you are reading? Join the conversation on Reddit! http://www.reddit.com/r/FigTreeChristian/ . There you can also share blogs and articles that extend the discussion, or just add to the discussion on this meditation. Either way, look forward to seeing you there!
Christian memes are the internet's version of tracts without the negativity. Tracts try to scare people into faith with goury images of Jonah's skin peeling off after being in a whale multiple days, or people burning alive in hell. My high school had a few who would generously drop tracts into my locker. I would laugh at the graphic novel style mini-book. I was not brought to faith through fear and manipulation. I was brought to God through love and caring. Tracts do not scare me, they humor me.
Christian memes, unlike their secular counterpart, do not make fun of the subject matter. They take an image or a group of words to express a Christian idea in an attractive way. Their whole goal is to get you to read and click. Christian memes are hooks. It is meant to draw you into something bigger. This is one of the ways the internet fish for people. This might sound cheap to hear the purpose behind those clever little pictures, but it is all a double edged sword.
Everyone advertises. Everyone uses graphic design to express an idea or feeling. For the most part, churches do it poorly. Part of the reason they do it poorly is because they know they will be chastised for doing it. Design today is manipulation. McDonalds uses red in their restaurant because it increases hunger and get's you to eat faster. The FedEx logo has a forward moving arrow hidden in the name to help your brain understand it is a shipping company. Also, it was recently pointed out the new Wendy's logo has "mom" hidden in Wendy's collar to suggest their food is like home cooking. Design is everywhere. Advertising is everywhere. We cannot escape it. Even at church.
The skin tone of the icons on the church walls and powerpoint presentations are design. The choice between a wooden or brass cross is design. Whether a church has a communion table, what that table looks like and where it is located is all design. All these things and more sends signals to our brain and tells us theological truths. When churches refuse to admit they are designing worship or the space they worship in they allowing bad design to take over. Humans communicate with more than verbal cues.
I write all this because this week I am choosing to post three Christian memes in place of a meditation. Part of the reason I make these memes is so you will share them and spread the word. They are by design. This is the internet and we don't have the luxury to ignore how design looks. Everything has to have a reason and a place or it is ignored. If you find one you really like: pin them, share on Facebook, post one or more on Twitter. If you are a minister, feel free to use one on a Sunday morning during your powerpoint. It's appropriate to evangelize when we are sharing the love of God.
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Matthew 26:26-30 CEB
You would never know this but I struggle with Fig Tree Christian all the time. I wrestle with my thoughts in prayer. I constantly bring my questions about what the next step is to God. Most importantly, I wonder what the heck I am doing and how I am going to do it!
So one of my humongous prayers was related to communion. Now, if you are part the Christian Church tradition, whether that's the Independent Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, or Church of Christ, communion is key. Every time you gather as a worshiping community you have communion. Fig Tree Christian, as non-church like as it is, is a congregation in formation within the Christian Church, (Disciples of Christ.) We are on the Georgia Disciples website as a congregation in formation. Fig Tree was celebrated at the General Assembly last week as a congregation in formation. Yet.... we do not have communion and I have no idea what communion would look like in this format! Even posing the question, what would Jesus do if he had the internet at his disposal has left little to no insight in regards to communion.
That was until I was sucker punched in the stomach with a blog posted last week:
The Myth of Extending the Table by Anderson Campbell
It is a really good read and it hit me hard. I knew it was something important to my personal faith journey when, this morning, I came across it for the fourth time! Even though it was never Campbell who sent me the link nor do I even know the man, I wanted to email him this morning and tell him, "Hey, I get it. Can you please stop beating this message into me?" But, it hit different this morning. It hit in a way where it was a K.O. and I saw it with another perspective. The first three times I saw it for what it was. You cannot just pull up chairs to an already established table. The "new" person is still the outsider no matter how much you want their voice to count, or how much you want them to be equal at the table. That was dramatic enough when someone like me, who professes an open table where everyone is invited, realizes an open table is really only as open as the community sitting around it. Even if the outsider is invited in, if the table isn't rebuilt for inclusion, it is still excluding them. And, as I wrote on my personal facebook page:
Three times I realized the table becomes exclusionary the minute it is set for guests. Every Sunday we limit the table the second we come to it. No. That wasn't true either. The table is limited way before then. The table is limited when the community serving and worshipping at it decide what it is going to look like and builds it. So many churches decide the table in the beginning. The fourth time I saw the post it hit me. Jesus waited to build the table at the end, not the beginning.
Jab. Jab. Jab. Right hook. K.O. Oh, it got me good. What I'm going to say next is going to sound crazy coming from a fourth generation Disciple of Christ. Brace yourself.
Jesus built the table through the journey. As he invited the disciples, and others, to join him he was building the table. As he healed and taught he was building the table. It was only as Jesus' journey was coming to a close and the real work was about to begin the table was finally set and communion happened. Baptism first. Communion last. Fig Tree isn't at a stage to begin communion because we are still building. I suggest any new congregational start should refrain from communion. Walk Jesus' path to grow and learn. Build the table with teaching and healing. Once that is done. Once a congregation is no longer in formation, celebrate with communion. Otherwise you are jumping into something before it is ready. I would say the same is true with congregations going through renewal and redevelopment. The table has to be dismantled and rebuilt. Stop communion until the community knows who and what they are. Otherwise you are never truly in redevelopment because you are still serving communion built at a table meant for a congregation 10, 20, 50 years ago. See where I am? See how huge this is for a Disciple who yearns for weekly communion?
The table is always limited. We cannot change that. Yet, if we are willing to build the table correctly, from the journey, and not just throw it together at the beginning, we will only be excluding those who are not there. We will have a place for everyone who wants to participate. Fig Tree Christian does not have communion yet because we haven't finished building the table. As we grow and learn we will move from a congregation in formation to a worshipping body of believers. Pray with us as we try to understand what that is.
Romans 12:9-16 CEB
Right now my daughter sits and watches Sesame Street while she slowly drinks her milk. She is 19 months old. From her birth she has lived in two states, and four houses. Unlike my 6 year old son, she has never received a baby dedication because we never had a physical church to call home. My heart breaks a little each time I see the dedication outfit, now too small for her to ever wear. It breaks a little more when I realize I can always pinpoint how far I am from my most tragic moment of faith based on how old she is.
Twenty months ago I was a full time minister in a small rural church. During my 1 1/2 year tenure I had spent months without my son and husband by my side, I had broken my ankle, and 20 months ago was pregnant. I can still remember the exact thought that kept crossing my mind twenty months ago: "Now I can really get things done. I will not be broken or pregnant. I can go and do more than I have done before." I so wanted to give all I could to the church, I had finished two months of sermons in advance, working through them on my day off. I had only a little vacation time because I had to use some the previous year so we could sell our town home, and I was saving four days for Christmas break. I was pregnant, tired, and I was not taking maternity. No one had offered and I never felt it was my place to ask.
Then, a week after my daughter was born, I was pulled into a room with a few of the Elders and told it just wasn't working out. I had done everything they had asked of me, but it just wasn't a good fit. As the weeks continued many in the congregation were surprised. It seemed everything was working well. They came to me upset and wanted me to personally know they had nothing to do with the decision. There were even a contingent who left. The story concocted to justify my departure continued to change as the Elders realized their reasoning really wasn't sound. My favorite comment was said by someone unrelated to the church who will remain anonymous, "Usually a church has a little more grace." With the help of the Church Secretary I did research, sifting through decades of board notes, to see the awful truth: This congregation had a history of exploding, and asking for resignations of ministers since 1978.
Matthew 23:37-39 rang in my head and I wept: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You who kill the prophets and stone those who were sent to you. How often I wanted to gather your people together, just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that. Look, your house is left to you deserted. I tell you, you won’t see me until you say, Blessings on the one who comes in the Lord’s name.” In the beginning, there were days I was rolled up into a ball mourning and crying. I always kept my faith in God but my faith in humanity failed. More importantly, my faith in the congregation had failed. It was my ultimate crisis of faith. When I struggled with family issues as a child, I ran to the congregation for support. When my 21 year old friend died from cancer, I ran to the congregation for support. When other friends suffered the same fate, I turned to the church. During spiritual famine, it was the church who became the well I could run to. So it had been until 19 months ago.
Nineteen months ago the well was poisoned. Now, there are some awesome congregations out there. After everything happened I served at an extremely small congregation who normally took student pastors. Their theological well dried out when Lexington Theological Seminary closed their doors to physical students. This tiny group of people were so loving and caring. I wanted to give them more than two months of my life. I would have if I stayed in the area. Yet, as more churches suffer loss or are damaged, the pool of good churches will start to dwindle. The people who really could heal the issue will just leave. There was one couple I begged to stay at the church. Even as the congregation had hurt my family and myself, I wanted the congregation to find restoration. Restoration could only happen with dedicated Christians to lead it. This couple still left. They could not do it.
Flash forward to a couple of weeks ago. As y'all know I have felt a different kind of call. It has been through the above experience God has stepped in and given me an option. A little over six months ago I began this internet ministry. I felt called to reach the people who have felt the pain of the institution of church in a real way. To reach those who are not going to easily step into a sanctuary on a Sunday morning. As you already know, I have been struggling with what a true internet ministry looks like. Through prayer I believe Fig Tree can't look like a worship service. It can't look the way it has looked for the past 65 years.
Well, two weeks ago I was invited to join a group: The Despised Ones. It is a rather new group. It is filled with bloggers and online writers who feel set apart from what church has been. Members have been posting to their community, sharing what it means to be part of it. My time to share has come.
The first obvious truth is in the face of my 19 month old toddler. She is a happy child who smiles and laughs all the time. The first truth is, there is hope. Despite what we are and what we have been through, there is always hope that tomorrow will be a better day with better choices made. There is also always knowledge that something good can be taken from the muck given to you. I left with a daughter. I would go through the entire experience again if it gained me that precious life.
The second truth, one of the key reasons I accepted my place among the 'Despised,' is realizing I am a despiser. When I left the aforementioned church I heard congregants say, "Well, it happened again." There were those who knew this thing happened in the church and they were the silent group who were against it but did nothing to stop it. It crushed me to know status quo was more appropriate than what was right. It crushed me even more because on further reflection I could pinpoint in my past where it was easier for me to stay silent than fight for what was right. I was part of the problem when I chose to do nothing. There were people from my past who needed someone to be their voice when so many were voiceless. Nineteen months ago I swore, never again. Never again will I remain silent while others suffer. I am despised because it took being the one in pain to see how I have hurt others in pain. I was part of the problem.
The third truth lies in Paul. Paul wrote the letter to the Romans in jail. His time was nearly up. He was going to be executed. If anyone knows what it means to be despised, it was him. In his darkest hour I hear his words, "Bless the people who harass you- bless and don't curse them." At the eve of his death love was the answer. I can live in this internet wilderness because this wilderness takes on an almost scandalous version of love. We should love the ones who despise us. We should love our despised brothers and sisters. We should love ourselves, as despised as we are. We are called to be lights when the world darkens. We are called to be salt to bring out the goodness in our existence. We are called to this at the edge of a sharpened pen. With great humility I accept my place in this community. I am a despised one. As a member of this group I shall end with this:
To the church I served. I know there are some of you who quietly follow what I am doing and so I write this to you. On a cold February morning I forgave you. I still forgive you. Every day I feel my heart harden I soften it with forgiveness. I call you out by name in my prayers and say I forgive you. So, I do not wish to do that today. I wish to share my hope. I hope you find the person God is calling to you and listen and learn from that person. I hope with that special person, a person you do not call but God does, you will find the healing your church has needed for 3.5 decades. I hope your healing spreads like a wildfire to other hurt congregations. I want the best for you so you may be gathered by God like a hen gathers her chicks. No matter how everything went down, you are my brothers and sisters in Christ. Beyond death, that truth remains. I love you.
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