Like St. Patrick

I’ve been trying to get to this all day. Better late than never, especially if you might happen to live on the West Coast and reading this.

I recently read The Celtic Way of Evangelism by George Hunter III.  It’s not a new book, but I only learned of it in the last year.  The subtitle is the key: How Christianity Can Reach the West…Again.  Hunter’s thesis is that the pattern of evangelism which Patrick initiated, and which the Celtic Christians used for about 200 years, offers wisdom to the modern American Church, which is living in a context much more like ancient Ireland than the America our grandparents lived in (or the America we imagine used to be).

I’m not going to rehearse all of Patrick’s story tonight (it’s a little late for history), but for an American Christian (like me) or an American church (like mine) there are enough points of contact to both discomfort and direct a better way forward.  Patrick had the option of a safe, comfortable, securely Christian life (remaining in England as a parish priest), but he set aside that comfort to lovingly engage a pagan culture that he also knew (having lived in Ireland as a slave).  He engaged that pagan culture by getting to know it intimately and living inside of it, rather than disdainfully holding it at arms length for the sake of keeping himself  “unstained” by it.  His model of engagement centered on becoming at home in a place and setting up a community there which was intentional and generous about inviting and welcoming outsiders.  He and his team expected to change the culture, rather than working to protect themselves from the corrupting influences of the culture – it would seem that they believed that the truth (both in their hearts and in their lives) would win out over false perspectives on God and life.

Patrick and his teams of community planters – not merely church planters, but people who set up shop in a place for the purpose of changing the place with a new community – thought big.  They expected something massive and powerful to happen.

In every one of these areas, I think I fall short.  I get there sometimes, but not enough.  Not nearly.  I don’t really live as though I expect God to do life-changing, community-changing things often enough.  And I don’t challenge my congregation to expect that as much as I could.

But I want to be like Saint Patrick.  Today’s as good a day as any to start.

Worship Wars Wisdom

I’m almost through reading Transformational Church by Ed Stetzer.  Specifically, read the chapter on worship this afternoon, and even as it affirmed some of the directions I have been thinking about, it challenged others, including some of my long-standing thoughts about blending worship with elements from a variety of eras and traditions.  I’ll say more about it in the next couple days, but for now, this was one of the points Stetzer and Thom Rainer made that I was already on board with: reverence is a more important measurement than relevance when evaluating your worship service.  Of course, part of the reason for this is that God is relevant, and does not need us to make him seem so.  When we are focused on making worship relevant, we are often overlooking that reality; if we were approaching  mindful that the transcendent and imminent God is already completely present and engaged with this moment, we would be in awe of him, and our worship would therefore be more reverent.

Change, Conflict, and Church

I suspect that all of us have had periods of time when suddenly, unexpectedly, a topic or theme or idea or things becomes pervasive: you see a model of car for the first time, and notice it, and then suddenly, every time you are driving, you see another one; or you hear someone use a catch phrase or word that is new to you, and for the next week, every conversation seems to feature it.  If you’ve never had that experience, then I imagine that this post will spur it on for you: everyone you talk to for the next week will want to talk about the phenomenon of suddenly seeing something everywhere!

Anyway, I’ve been having relational moments, conversations, and reading over the last couple weeks that have been circling around the issues of change and conflict, particularly in the local church.  Before you start to worry about me, understand that I don’t see this as a bad thing.  Change and conflict can be (often are) uncomfortable, but they are also the path that can lead to growth and definition.

In the book Transformational Church, Ed Stetzer says, “Churches do not change until the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.”  That statement causes just about every person I share it with to nod in agreement, sometimes while grimacing.  The next step to keep in mind is that when churches then change, that doesn’t necessarily mean they have embraced change, just that they have given in to the unavoidable.  And that is where conflict comes in.

I’ve often thought, when considering how conflict happens in church life, that a significant reason why church conflicts can be explosive is that many of us in churches are conflict-avoiders.  We don’t want to fight, or to have to say something difficult to someone, and we put it off as long as we can.  Eventually, the pressure built up by keeping the lid on the issue explodes, and the conflict is sharp, painful, and a memory we will strive to avoid the next time – probably by doing things the same way.

Yesterday, I heard another angle on the issue though, from a friend, and I think he’s on to something as well.  He suspects that the reason church conflicts often involve someone (verbally) punching someone else in the face is that there are people in churches who know that churches are full of polite people, people who aren’t inclined to fight back or be aggressive in the ways sometimes seen in other communities, and the “punchers” know that they can get away with it.

I hadn’t thought of it his way before, but now that I do for a while, I think he’s got a point.  So, you combine people who know they can get away with being brash, and people who are eager to avoid conflict because conflict isn’t Christian or nice, and people who are sitting on their disappointments and frustrations until they pop – and you get church conflicts, which often seem to turn into holy war over side issues.

How do we begin to change these dynamics?  Well, I think this is the starting place – admitting that we don’t like conflict, and it makes us uncomfortable, and when we get pushed to the point of saying something we don’t always handle it well.  The starting place is confession.  The next step?  Well, that’s for another time.