“Happy Last Supper”

“Happy Last Supper”

That was the closing remark from a songwriter as he finished his original song about the loss of a recent relationship.

Songwriter SoireeI decided this year to observe Maundy Thursday in the community and Good Friday in a church. The experience was eye-opening. It gave me more to ponder and wrestle with than I had imagined. I bought a ticket to the Songwriter’s Soiree in Portland. This is a community of nearly 300 people that has grown over the past fifteen years around the commitment to create “a culture of appreciation for vulnerability,” as one member framed it. The vulnerability is getting up in front of an audience to perform an original song, often for the first time.

Maundy ThursdayWhile I was sitting in my chair pondering the liturgy of Maundy Thursday services in our churches I was also aware of how much the themes of Maundy Thursday kept showing up in these original songs. In many ways, I think it was coincidence. Songwriters tend to write what is on their hearts at the time and the songs that were showing up kept going back to themes of death, grief, loss, longing and heartache. It is not difficult to imagine that those same emotions were playing out during the Last Supper between Jesus and his disciples. In this time of pandemic and war, death, loss and grief is pretty much what all of us are thinking about.

But, back to that one offhand comment, “Happy Last Supper.” First, the comment did elicit a knowing and polite laugh from some in the audience.  It was clear that at least some knew that they were holding this Songwriter Soiree on the same night other family members, friends and neighbors were in churches observing Maundy Thursday.

But it was the tone of the comment and the ensuing chuckles that struck me. This was not the comment of some rebellious child giving the proverbial middle-finger to an older generation of parents and grandparents. There was a maturity to the comment as if his experience had been polished over time. The comment sounded less like, “Screw you,” and more like, “We are aware that we know something that you don’t.”

It was as if the comment was a way of saying, “Look, mom and dad, we respect your tradition, but we think we have outdone you on this one.” It wasn’t arrogance speaking, just honest self-reflection.

It was a marvelous evening of vulnerability, creativity, and reflection. Even a little “Passing of the Peace” and “sharing around the table” was observed and spiritually reflected upon.

There are two things I am taking from the evening that are worth sharing with you:

last supperFirst, they take the Da Vinci Last Supper painting seriously, if not literally. The positioning of the disciples in that Da Vinci painting show the disciples basically reclining against each other. This is not the table where elbows are not allowed to touch and everyone is equally spaced apart. No, live bodies are actively touching in this painting.

Cuddle Cushions
Watching the songwriters from the “cuddle cushions.”

At the Songwriter’s Soiree, the front of the room closest to the stage was set up with loads of large pillows and cushions. They called this area the “Cuddle Cushions.” It was for anyone who wanted to enjoy the evening nestled up against another human being. Anyone was welcome but all needed to comply with the rule that all touching had to come by mutual consent. Look at the Da Vinci painting. The disciples were cuddlers.

Secondly, one of the things that we keep hearing about what younger generations want from religious services is more participation. They don’t want to be preached at by one credentialed person; they want to interact with stories and themes.

TogetherWe were settled into this night of singing for nearly five hours. Over that time, about 125 people enjoyed the program and about fifty of those people WERE the program. Each of them had original songs to share with the audience. Here is what I think they got right with regard to the culture of younger people. The organizers of the Songwriter Soiree didn’t provide a program for the audience to consume; they simply provided the container for the audience to participate in.

What would happen if the role of the clergy was simply to create a “culture of appreciation for vulnerability” and leave the preaching to the people?

I know, I know! This is a dangerous question to ask a group of Reformed Presbyterians who pride themselves on an educated, scholarly clergy. But I want us to be honest with ourselves. If you had a choice between hearing one charismatic, compassionate and amazing preacher preach on Maundy Thursday themes or hearing fifty of your friends share their original songs or poems or art on death, loss and grief, which would you choose?

We have some good preachers. But that’s hard to compete with—especially if cuddling is also thrown in.

By Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

Let Us Pray…

There is this moment that changes everything for me. I only became aware of it in recent months. Or maybe I actually shifted my practice in recent months without being aware of it.

Those of us in church ministry are exposed to many opportunities to pray, sometimes several times a day. If a committee or task force is true to their mission, they will often open and close meetings with prayer. Quite honestly, if one is not careful these prayers can become so routine that they get tuned out as if it’s just one more agenda item to check off the list.

But I have noticed something recently. There is a profound moment just before a prayer starts that seems to change my world—or at least my lens on the world.

PrayingAs soon as the prayer says, “Let us pray,” my muscles relax, my energy drops from my head to my heart, my breath becomes deeper, and my eyes, even though closed, soften. It seems I enter a liminal space and everything in my head disappears, even if just for a brief moment.

I am amazed at how quickly my body responds to these words. It is the same visceral response that I feel when I walk into a room where fresh baked chocolate chip cookies are cooling; or seeing a baby burst out giggling; or coming around a bend and being flooded by an effervescent full moon.

I am sure that my response has been trained into me after decades of professional church life and work. Another person who hears those words for the first time might feel more of an awkwardness than the calming, centering, grounding effect it has on my body.

I am struck by how simple it is to change my lens on the world. In the same time that it takes to breathe one deep breath I am able to shift from the anxiety of trying to get everything done to the calmness that reminds me that Presence is all that is needed. Prayer, or at the least call to prayer is magically, mysteriously powerful.

Fifteen years ago I was serving a church that was in the very awkward space of facing an unknown future—closure, new church development, or legacy. Many of the leaders in the church wanted a plan in order to ease their anxiety. Repeatedly, I reminded them that the most faithful thing they could do at that moment was simply to “breathe and trust.” I couldn’t promise them a certain future, but I could try to teach them to trust.

checklist

Not long after that we had a church consultant work with us on the necessary steps to discern our future. As we listened to her we kept checking off the boxes, “Yep, did that, did that, did that.” She went through about eight different tasks all of which we had done except one, “Commit to a period of community prayer.”

That’s all we needed to hear. It changed our lens and over the next three months we quit doing all kinds of stuff and simply paused long enough to pray. And that pause changed our world and the trajectory of the church. I am in this position today because of what I learned from that experience.

Breathe tile
The “Thank You” gift

After I concluded my work there, two of the leaders gave me a gift as a reminder of our work together. What they told me was, “The most important thing we learned from you, Brian, was to just stop and breathe and trust.” I didn’t get accolades for coming up with a watertight plan. I didn’t get a special award for some great accomplishment. What I received was a simple kitchen tile thanking me for teaching them to breathe.

Prayer is the pause that changes the world.

Seriously, might it be that simple?

Let us pray…

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

Church Camp 2.0

Over the years, I have had conversations with other church leaders about why they wanted to go into the ministry. The two most common stories are either about the kind of church that they grew up in and the other, about the transformative experience of church camp.

Zoom meeting

Many of our churches during the pandemic attracted a whole new demographic of people through online services. One of the questions that I have heard has been, “How are we going to integrate these people who connected with us through technology and who aren’t likely to show up on Sunday mornings?

weird churchIn the book Weird Church, authors Beth Ann Estock and Paul Nixon, highlight nineteen different models of the emerging church. Two of those models reminded me of the experience of church camp.

I also went to church camp every year from sixth grade until high school. I do remember it as a highlight of my childhood years. That one week in the mountains of Colorado had as much impact on me as the nearly every Sunday experiences of being in church.

I especially remember one dark, cold, clear night sleeping out under the stars during a meteor shower. It was during my second year at Presbyterian church horse camp (I believe the kids were Presbyterian; the horses were all non-denominational!) We had packed our horses with food, cooking equipment, sleeping bags, Bibles and a guitar or two. We rode our horses up the mountain to a 9,000-foot pass and set up camp.

Night sky with milky way and huge amount of stars.

After an evening of good campfire food, storytelling and singing we were finally allowed to find some flat spot for our sleeping bags. Somehow, I ended up sleeping next to a cute red-headed girl. We laid there staring up at the clear Colorado skies as dozens of shooting stars streaked across the mysterious expanse every minute.

What I remember about my childhood was that I loved the community and the fellowship of my church family, but I felt especially close to God that night under the stars in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. I went into ministry largely because those church camp experiences gave me a thirst for God that has dogged me all these years.

We are so accustomed to thinking that shaping a person’s Christian spiritual life needs to come in the form of weekly worship and Bible studies. But the truth is that the most transformative and formative experiences are often found in those once in a lifetime or once every year type of activities.

The Weird Church authors highlight two forms of the emerging church that reflect this model—pilgrimage and one that they are calling “same time next year.”

I share these two models because some of you are asking, “How are we going to connect with the dozens of people who became extensions of our congregation during the pandemic through our online offerings?”

Mecca
Muslim pilgrims arriving at Mecca

Pilgrimages are often once-in-a-lifetime experiences. For Catholics walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain is the ultimate religious experience. Every Muslim is mandated to go to Mecca once in their lifetime. At a critical juncture in my own life, I set up my own pilgrimage—a ten-week, 4,000-mile cycling route that connected me to all the places I had lived. Our own Brett Webb-Mitchell, pastor of the Community of Pilgrims, has completed many pilgrimages around the world and is the author of three books on the subject. The Presbytery of the Cascades is now embarking on establishing a pilgrimage route along the 352-mile Oregon Coast Trail. Pilgrimage is now back in vogue.

“Same time next year” is the title that Weird Church authors give those camp-like experiences that many of us remember from our childhood. They are the camps that we return to every summer or fall where we see the same people. They are the retreats that participants book months in advance and eventually become like family reunions. Ghost Ranch in New Mexico is known for their “same time next year” church communities as well as Companions on the Inner Way.

The pandemic has been brutally tough, but it has also exposed some new opportunities that we couldn’t see before.

  • What if your church contracted with a person who was just responsible for planning and organizing those once-in-a-lifetime and “same-time-next-year” church activities?
  • What if you had one person who concentrated on discovering and meeting the spiritual needs of those people who, because of distance or lack of interest, would rarely show up for Sunday services, but might consider other formats?
  • What if your church reached out to those whose spiritual development is best met by providing opportunities for an intensive week-long experience rather than to a year’s worth of worship services? (In other words, those who would commit 168 hours (the hours in a week) to an intensive experience rather than 52 hours to one-hour weekly experiences.)

I don’t remember a single worship service from my childhood despite having attended hundreds of them. But I do remember that one night at church horse camp sleeping under the stars watching a magnificent meteor light show, and sharing it with a cute red-headed girl. My thirst for God started there.

God is not limited to one hour on Sunday. God sometimes shows up in those once-in-a-lifetime moments and never goes away.

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

A “Bridge” Generation?

Scott DelgarnoNOTE: Last week I wrote about my hunch that those of us in the church today will be known as the “letting go generation.” Here is a similar reflection by the Rev. Scott Delgarno, poet and pastor at Southminster Presbyterian Church, Beaverton, Oregon.

“How Can We Sing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land?”

Questions from Psalm 137 “For Such a Time as This”

“By the waters of Babylon we sat and wept, when we remembered Zion.” Exiled by the pandemic from familiar churchly ways, we, too, remember the past and long to restore a recalled normalcy. Psalm 137 belongs to a canon of Scripture which centers on return and restoration of the community, of Jerusalem, of temple, of a retrieved normality.

What happened? A few eventually returned; most stayed in Babylonia. Restoration remained an ideal throughout Jewish history, the touchstone of many new normalities. What, then, will be our “new normal(s)?”  Can reflection on Psalm 137 give us any help as we struggle to resolve the uncertainty?

We are currently asking ourselves, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in this moment of transition with the self-abandonment that singing calls up in us?” Is the fact that some of us are singing with masks on a metaphor for where we are?

 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!

Judahite exiles in Babylonia faced the reality of what they had lost, what they might forget, and the odds against the survival of their culture. While those who “remembered Zion” might long for it, what of their children and grandchildren? For the young, a return to Zion would mean exile. What a dangerous time the transitional adult generation faced. They risked losing their sense of themselves – unless they found a way to preserve something of “home” in exile,  something that would last longer than the cedar paneling of their temple back in Jerusalem lying in ashes.

According to Jeremiah, “false” prophets said the exile would be short. Once the reality of the situation set in, the Judahites’ chief emotion became anger.

O daughter Babylon, you devastator!

Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!

There’s a lot of anger today. How does one get beyond anger or harness it for good?  Could opportunities to address racial injustices be at hand? Could vaccinated and vaccine-wary Christians find common ground?

On the pandemic plus side, we have found that our sense of the boundaries of our parishes has grown exponentially. We are not confined by the size of our buildings or rubrics and expectations that fenced us in before. Is this something we are embracing or are we hoping it will pass away? Longing for the old ways is strong in us.  What would it mean to “build houses and live in them” in this new land? (Jeremiah 29:5)

Walter Brueggemann (whom Patrick Miller has edited) has said, “[The] Old Testament is, to a great extent, a book of poetry because it brings its reading community close to the extremity of a God who refuses to be boxed in by conventional expectations or reduced to conventional formulation.”  He adds, “Poetry [is] an invitation to live, ever more daringly into the extremity, to embrace the freedom required in the extremity, and to accept the responsibility for engaging the extremity of risk and danger.”

If this is true, will the church embrace the responsibility that comes with the present moment?  Will we think outside our steepled boxes of tradition and creed?  If so, how?  If “Jerusalem” was no longer a possibility, what would it mean for us to …

set Jerusalem above my highest joy?

The Judahite exiles did this by eventually letting go of “Zion” as a physical address.  They became a people of a book, making the Torah the touchstone of their faith and identity; something “neither moth nor rust can destroy, nor thieves break in and steal.”

Recent research into cuneiform sources for Judahites in Babylonia in the Neo-Babylonian and Achaemenid Periods (Pearce and Wunsch, Documents of Judean Exiles and West Semites in Babylonia …) greatly enhances our awareness that a community of Judahites continued in Mesopotamia for generations beyond the return of some to Jerusalem.

We can imagine, then, that several different manifestations of “church” will probably survive –

1) going back to pre-Covid church with no online presence; 2) leaving the brick and mortar church for a fully online presence; 3) adopting a hybrid approach.

What other manifestations of church may be “slouching toward” newness at this time?

What of God might emerge from the elders among us in such a time of transition, realizing we are a bridge generation, having once thought we knew so much about being church?

 

Lent and Letting Go

Ten years ago after I had returned from my 4,000-mile cycling pilgrimage through the Western United States I gave a presentation at the presbytery meeting held at Corvallis, First. I remember saying, “I am convinced that when history looks back at this time that we will be known as the “letting go generation.”

I am pondering the themes of Lent along with the dozens of conversations I have had with church leaders over recent months. I am struck by how most of these conversations are sounding eerily the same. Repeatedly I hear, “Brian, we are concerned about where we are going to be ____ years into the future.” The question has been the same. The only variable has been the number of months or years I hear.

lessLent is traditionally a time when we are encouraged to “give up” something in order to make more room in our lives for God’s presence. Quite often, it means giving up that morning coffee as we learn to rely on the high of God’s spirit rather than on piping hot stimulants. Truly dedicated religious adherents will fast during one meal a day and use that extra time for prayer. Some will give up wine or beer for the 40-day period and donate the savings to a food pantry or local mission.

The point is that Lent has been that season of the Christian year where we make room for God by clearing out the extraneous, excessive, unnecessary and overly consumptive behaviors of our lives. We Americans love to cure our ailments and satisfy our desires by adding more and doing more. Lent combats that tendency toward over-indulgence by asking us to slim down, downsize, give up and let go.

As I have met with churches, I am convinced that this season of Lent is not just a good spiritual discipline, but the call of our time. Phyllis Tickle, author, book publisher and journalist was famous for saying that the Church, every 500 years, needs to go through a massive ecclesiastical, institutional rummage sale. In some ways I believe she meant it as a metaphor, but I wonder if we need to take her advice literally. I have had too many conversations with churches who seem to be paralyzed by the clutter of the past.

I think I know why.

rummage saleRummage sales are wonderfully liberating, but they also require that uncomfortable stage of being able to let go of stuff that reminds us of a glorious past. In our families, we buy bigger houses in order to store the growing amount of saved furniture, unused appliances, memories from the past and family heirlooms. In our congregations, we hold onto outdated children’s curriculum, old unused hymnals, memorial gifts, and even raggedy furniture that holds sentimental value. More importantly, we hold onto assumptions and expectations that keep us trapped in the past.

Lent is about making room for God. And making room for God requires giving up ideas, stuff and useless attachments. Lent requires us to upgrade and replace our stuff to fit today’s context and tomorrow’s hopes.

ash wednesday 2Of course, this shouldn’t be a surprise to us. The story of Lent begins with the words, “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3: 19) and continues through a 40-day period of giving up, letting go, giving up, letting go, giving up, letting go, giving up, letting go, giving up, letting go, giving up, letting go…

dying and…

resurrection!

We are resurrection people and, for a time, the letting go generation.

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

Church as Demonstration Project

“The Exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the World.”

That is the Sixth Great End of the Presbyterian Church. I am not sure exactly what the kingdom of heaven looks like although I have attempted to preach into that theme for over thirty years. But I have a pretty clear sense of what an exhibition is.

exhibitGoogle tells me that an exhibition is a display or a demonstration. Honestly, the word caught me by surprise a little. I have focused on the “kingdom of heaven” part of this phrase for years assuming that the phrase was pointing to the subject of our preaching and the character of our community. But I completely missed the fact that exhibitions, displays and demonstrations are activities that are done for the benefit of others.

It feels almost seems like a conflict in character. Much of religious teaching focuses on the need for humility in character and not doing things for show. Christians often frown on behaviors that are exhibitionist in quality attracting attention just for the sake of being seen. Yet, here in our Sixth Great End the action part of the phrase invites us to become an exhibition to the world, to display our Christian character so that others will see it and to demonstrate what the kingdom of heaven looks like.

It got me thinking about demonstration projects and the nature of church in this time. I wondered if this Sixth Great End was just thing that we all need to hear. I wondered if this one word might break through the paralysis that haunts so many of our churches who feel frozen by the annual announcements of church decline.

demonstration gardenI wonder if we all need to start thinking about ourselves as demonstration projects. You know what I mean? Demonstration projects are experimental projects where specific ideas, approaches and methods are played out for the purpose of seeing what we can learn from them. I have seen a number of environmental demonstration projects and I enjoy meandering through them reading the signs that describe the philosophy and tell me what I am seeing. I like that they are invitations to think differently and, potentially, act differently.

Before the pandemic we in the presbytery started using the two phrases “innovation lab” and “innovation playground” to guide the vision of the presbytery to its future. The whole idea was to loosen the presbytery up for creativity, experimentation, and a playfulness that would release us from the ongoing seriousness, worry and anxiety that has weighed us down in recent years.

Of course, that was all before the pandemic. My mood changed and the presbytery mood changed after that. Encouraging a light-hearted playfulness in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, political turmoil, social unrest, and natural disasters was irresponsible at best, cruel at worst.

But the intention of that playful experimentation is exactly what this Sixth Great End is about. Not only are we supposed to be embodying the kingdom of heaven, we are to be doing it as a demonstration to the world. And demonstration projects take a commitment to creativity, experimentation and a playful openness.

  • They require us to take our best ideals and find new and innovative ways to live those ideals out.
  • They require us to lay the usual conventions aside in favor of unconventional, re-imagined approaches that align with our values.
  • They require us to worry less about whether people will like us and more about whether people will learn something from us.

I like the idea of thinking of our Christian communities as demonstration projects.

Good demonstration projects don’t get bigger; they just get copied.

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

Kissing Cousins

“For many years I have had a Spiritual and Political need to be involved in the Gun Safety Movement…” Herman

“To believe and proclaim, “Jesus is Lord,” is both a spiritual and political act.” Gary

These were two of the comments from my last blog where I asked the question about the line between what is spiritual and what is political. This has been an area of interest for me ever since I changed my college major from political science to religion over four decades ago.

Dictionary definition of legislation

I entered college with the intent to study political science with the hope of serving our country in some elected position. I loved the studies, but after taking a couple of religion courses I discovered that something seemed to be missing for me in my political science classes. There was an added element present in the religion courses that intrigued me—an ideology based on a universal Sacred presence (something we call theology).

The interesting thing was that I discovered that political science and religion essentially dealt with the same basic human questions. Political science is rooted in the concept of the “polis” which is the Greek word for the city/state. Political science is the arena where one develops an ideology or philosophy about how society should be ordered, what behaviors are approved and barred, and what values govern the people of the polis.

rope

Religion comes from the Latin word “religio” which translates “to tie or to bind.” In other words, religion deals with the values that connect us to each other, to nature and to a Sacred reality that we Christians refer to as God. Both political science and religion have to do with how we relate to each other and the world.

I never lost my love for political science. In fact, over the years I have become deeply involved in city planning co-chairing a 30-year vision initiative for Portland, sitting on the City Charter Council, and being an alternate county commissioner. I did this while also serving as a pastor. For me it was not like splitting my time between two different worlds; it was doing the same work in two different settings.

I do believe that every church has to decide how involved they want to be in issues that clearly cross into the political realm. I don’t believe that every church has to do it the same way or to the same degree. But I also believe that one cannot separate spirituality from politics. Spirituality without politics is like love without commitment.

I do believe that there is a place where one can retreat from the chaotic world of politics—on retreat, in meditation, snowshoeing in the mountains, getting lost in music, and enjoying a soulful sunset. But in a tradition that prides itself on the “Preaching of the Word” it is impossible to have a sermon that is purely spiritual.

BLMIf a pastor preaches a general sermon about “Loving your neighbor as yourself” it is generally seen as spiritual. As soon as that same pastor gets specific—LGBTQIA, Muslim, tattooed, homeless, BIPOC—it suddenly sounds political and over the line to some.

My friends, politics and religion are like kissing cousins. Both address the most basic questions of how we relate to each other, how we behave toward each other, and the values that connect us.

The only way to be spiritual without also being political is to become a hermit. And that, in itself, is a political act.

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

Taking a Stand

I sure love it when someone else does my work for me. It doesn’t happen often, but this week an article in the Presbyterian News Service addressed the Fifth Great End of the Church much better than I ever could have.

Stop racism

I was preparing to dig into this fifth in the series, “the promotion of social righteousness,” when I came across the story of a congregation who did just that. Not only did it reveal what this looks like, but it also highlighted the struggle that many of our churches have with regard to stepping into “controversial” issues.

I think the term “social righteousness” could be interpreted in today’s language as right relationship, just relations, and social morality. It covers the areas of how we ought to be treating each other, the social mores that guide the character of our relationships, and the ethical principles that shape person to person and systemic relationships.

Rainbow justice

This week I am hoping that you will read this article of the Presbyterian Church of Deep Run in Perkasie, Pennsylvania that “put their money where their mouth was” and acted on the commitment they had made to the Matthew 25 Initiative. One of the three foci of that initiative is the dismantling of structural racism. They tackled it head on in their community. This is what happened and what they learned.

Read Here: Session Stands Up to Racism

In the comments this week, I would like you to reflect and comment on the following questions:

  1. We know that churches can’t endorse specific candidates due to their non-profit status. Does this also mean that churches shouldn’t address issues that are political in nature?
  2. Some people believe that when one goes to church that is should be reserved for spiritual matters. How does one determine whether an issue is purely spiritual or purely political?
  3. It was interesting to read that this church actually found more young people joining the church after they took a stand. Do you think this is coincidental or actually a reflection of the values of younger people?

Thank you for joining the conversation.

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

A Meetup Story

SnowshoeingMy last post on the third great end, “The maintenance of divine worship” clearly revealed how I am approaching my work as the Presbyter for Vision and Mission. I am deeply committed to keeping one foot squarely in the Church world and another foot in the world of emerging spiritual values and forms of the Pacific Northwest. Thus, over the next two months my Sundays will be equally split between worship in churches and worship in the mountains. I have four preaching gigs scheduled and four snowshoe adventures locked into my calendar. My life is good!

connectingAt the end of my blog, I commented that the task of the church may be to become more aware of the spiritual values and forms of worship that have taken root in the lives of people beyond the church. One astute reader commented that the problem may not be the church’s lack of awareness. The problem may be more one of not knowing how to make the connection. It’s the practical question. The reader wrote, how do we in the church “own (those worship practices) ourselves and join them on their journeys.” The commenter challenged me and us to get practical.

So, here is a practical suggestion from my experience in the pastorate.

Before taking this position over four years ago, I organized and facilitated three different Meetup.com groups. Two of them were groups focused on movies and one group was focused on connecting with the Sacred through outdoor adventures.

Here is the story of one of those groups—Movies and Meaning—that I facilitated in Portland for five years and how it unfolded step by step.

TheaterStage One:         I developed an idea that felt like it could be a bridge between the church community and the people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” I came up with this “movies and meaning” idea where we would attend a current movie in the theater and then retreat to a pub or wine bar for discussion. The purpose of the discussion was to share our responses to the film from our particular religious, spiritual, and/or philosophical values.

Stage Two: I signed up for a Meetup.com account, crafted my description and invitation to the group, and hit the “activate” button. Within one week, 75 people had joined.

dining out

Stage Three: Over the next three years the group grew to 175 with an average gathering of 10-15 people each event. The group was generally about 85% “spiritual but not religious” and 15% church members. People described themselves as Buddhist Christian, agnostic, spiritual but not religious, lapsed Catholic, spiritual artists, dance spiritualists, and progressive Christian. It was a group rooted in spiritual values but very diverse and eclectic.

Stage Four: Not every month had a good movie that fit the focus of the group. After a few “dud” movies, people in the group finally asked me, “Brian, on the months when there aren’t good choices can we pick a movie and watch it at the church?” I naturally said, “Yes.” The group moved from being an activity sponsored by the church to an activity occasionally meeting in the church.

Stage Five: It became clear that there was a community forming made up of a small percentage of church members and a much larger percentage of community members. The goal had always been to build bridges between these two communities. It was becoming clear that there were areas of shared interest.

lecture

In the last year before I shifted to another church position we held two adult study series that served as a bridge and connecting point between the two communities. Adult studies averaged 30 people with half from the church and half from the community at large. We had moved from being two communities sharing one building to one community (at least during those adult studies) learning and studying together.

What are the lessons from this:

  • People in the Pacific Northwest do want to engage in meaningful discussions about religion and spirituality and connect to other like-minded people.
  • It is possible to build community between the traditional church-going member and the person who identifies as spiritual but not religious;
  • People aren’t necessarily attracted to church. But they are attracted to relationships of trust and integrity.
  • Building community in this age takes time. Simply opening the doors to the church on Sunday is not enough.

I have had success in bringing people together through the Meetup platform three times over the last 15 years. It doesn’t take a Master of Divinity degree to do this, but it does take a person gifted in building relationships of understanding, trust and respect.

Here is all you need:

  1. Just one person with a hobby, an interest, or an idea to share with others;
  2. A commitment from the church to pay the $14.99/month hosting fee;
  3. A commitment from the church to pray for and be open to people who have a different, but equally life-affirming spiritual orientation.

Click HERE to learn more how to connect your church to the community through Meetup.

Need ideas?

  • Hiking groupOutdoors, Tourist, Hiking, Walking, Explorer
  • Cycling group
  • Knitting group
  • Quilting groupA young woman's hands quilting
  • Fine dining group
  • Philosophy group
  • Lectio Divina group
  • Bible study group
  • Meditation groupmeditation
  • Tai chi group
  • Yoga group
  • Cultural travel group
  • Pilgrimage group
  • Lectionary group
  • Story-telling group
  • Poets and writers group
  • Dance groupdance
  • Women’s Issues group
  • Racial/Ethnic Support group
  • Caregiver’s Support group
  • Grief and Loss groupwriters group
  • Singles group
  • LGBTQIA group
  • Board Games group
  • Gluten-free cooking group
  • Musical Jams group
  • A cappella group
  • Divorce Support group

Quite honestly, it is not that difficult to build spiritual community in this age. People are hungry for connection and depth. We just have to get out of our church comfort zone and learn how to MEETUP with people on their turf and their terms.

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

Weird Church

I just finished a book titled “Weird Church: Welcome to the Twenty-First Century” written by co-authors Beth Ann Estock and Paul Nixon. The timing of reading it was good. I am making my way through the Six Great Ends of the Presbyterian Church. After moving ahead last week, I am now returning to the third great end: the maintenance of divine worship.

weird churchImplicit in the chapters of this book is a message to the church about worship. The book is split into two major sections—the first addresses the “meta shifts” that are occurring in our religious communities that point to the end of Christendom, or said another way, the end of the church as we know it.

The second section highlights sixteen models of what the church might look like in the future. I appreciated the authors’ self-awareness with respect to this. On the one hand, they acknowledged that they and probably no one really knows what the church is going to look like a generation from now. At the same time, they make the point that we aren’t completely without evidence of what is coming. There are hints of what might be next. So they highlighted a number of innovative, experimental start-up Christian communities that point to a possible future.

But what really struck me about those sixteen models with regard to our focus today was how few of them looked anything like what we consider worship today. Of the sixteen, I think only four of them would be recognizable as “traditional Christian worship” highlighting singing, preaching and praying.

snowshoe 1I get this. A few weeks ago a colleague surprised me when we were casually talking about what we did over the weekend. She shared engaging in various family activities and then I shared that I had spent Sunday up on the mountain snowshoeing. She replied, “Oh, is that where you worshiped this Sunday?” The question caught me by surprise, as if I just been caught doing something wrong. I replied, “Yes, that is exactly where I worshiped,” and I meant it.

Webster’s defines the act of worship as “to adore; to pay divine honors to; to reverence with supreme respect and veneration.” I can honestly say that when I am grinding my way up a mountain through a foot of new snow, with the sun glistening off the pine branches, and the deafening silence of the forest all around me that I am in a deep place of worship. Words such as awe, wonder, beauty and mystery accompany my every step. I actually don’t think about God when I am on the mountain in the same way that a person doesn’t think about their lover when they are in their lover’s embrace.

Staircase Leading Up To Sky At Sunrise - Resurrection And Entrance Of Heaven

A few weeks ago, I was hiking in one of the local forests near my home. As I crested the peak there was a young couple looking at some sort of a guidebook, I thought. I paused for bit thinking they might have needed some directions. It turned out the guidebook was a Bible and I had become an easy target. The man quickly launched into the usual questions about whether I was saved, whether I believed in God and did I want to go to heaven.

I have too much experience at this to settle for giving easy answers. And so I pressed him on what he meant by heaven, his definition of God and what I was being saved from. He kept trying to pin me down to an answer that would satisfy him and then he finally asked, “Do you pray?” I responded, “Yes, I am praying right now. My whole body and soul are in prayer on this mountain.” I wanted to say, “Yes, I was praying until I met you,” but I kept my sarcastic tongue to myself.

snowshoe 3I was serious about my answer. The apostle Paul says that we should learn to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5;17).  I have discovered that the two places in my daily routine when my prayers are deepest are when I am engaged in my stream-of-consciousness journaling in the  morning and when I am hiking, cycling or snowshoeing in the mountains. The mountains have a way of pitching my mind, heart and soul to divine things. In other words, I go to the mountains to worship.

Woodburn 1In the next two months, I will worship every Sunday. But the truth is that about half of my worship will be in a sanctuary of our own creation—a church building—preaching, praying and singing with my Presbyterian community. The other half will be in a sanctuary of God’s own creation, on a mountain, in the trees, heading up a trail, with my mind, heart and soul enjoying the blissful presence of the Divine.

The third great end is the “maintenance of divine worship.” I think it’s a keeper.

But the challenge of the 21st century church is not how to get people into our buildings to worship our way. Our challenge will be to start recognizing the many ways people engage in worshipful practices.

Despite steep church decline, I don’t think worship is going away. In fact, I think we humans are hard-wired to worship. We do best when we seek out sacred places to experience awe, wonder, beauty, reverence and gratitude.

If my Sunday experiences teach me anything, it is this—worship isn’t a particular place; it’s a way of life, a way of engaging with the world.

See you on Sunday–on the peaks and in the pews!

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades