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Omaha, Nebraska, United States
I am more and more convinced that most congregations die from a staggering lack of imagination. Let's change that. Drop me a line on email or leave a comment if you have thoughts on God, Jesus, congregations, the church or whatever.... I look forward to our conversations.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Joy of Prairie Table

This ministry is a true privilege to be a part of, and I wish all my colleagues could have the experiences I do as a missional pastor in a non-traditional new start. I'm not quite sure how I got to this point, but huge amounts of thanks go out to Rev. Chris Alexander for getting the idea going with the Rev. Rueben Duran in Chicago; the efforts put in by Pr. Keith Zeh, sadly moving to a new call in February, but we will always remember him; our former Bishop Duane Danielson and his staff, especially Monroe for his continued work with PTM, and our current Bishop Mark Narum. A whole bunch of people make this ministry possible, and God is truly a generous...if slightly off-center, God.
I mean, who thinks something like this will work? I mean, most "emergent" (whatever that means, see my post from last year about that) congregations are where people are...and Bismarck, although we have people, we also have one church for about every 700 people or so, we're not Charlotte, NC (I think that was one church for every 250 people), but we're not too far away. It's not like we needed another "church," but we do need ministry. (Hence, we're known as Prairie Table MINISTRIES not Prairie Table "Church"). Jane, our erstwhile soup-maker, once asked early on what was my plan for this "school." (To be fair, she works in a school, so she might not have done this intentionally.) But I am thinking Prairie Table is much more like a "school" than a "church" these days. I don't have a lot of trouble at this point with that analogy. (Though I probably will eventually, and we'll get a post about that!!)
It is fun to teach people about the faith, and to try and answer questions...Our Wednesday group will have read the entire Gospel of Matthew by the end of Spring, without skipping one word or verse. It takes about a year to do something like that...talk about peoples' dedication! Some folks have only missed a handful of times...WOW! Our Thursday group has spent time learning about the Nicene Creed, and now we're studying the Lord's Prayer. 30-40 (bad weather 20) people a week pondering some of he great symbols of our faith...Amazing.
For me, PTM is more than fun, it is fulfilling, it creates relationships, it makes friends, it shows me the best of our brotherhood and sisterhood in Christ...I guess it is joyful. What pastor wouldn't want that? Thank you to everyone who reads this blog, to those who comment (and to those who think about commenting but don't...I know you're out there!). Thank you for the joy in being on the prairie (both in reality and in cyber-space) with me, and with God.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Joiners or Individualists?

If you ever want to get a group of historians of the United States talking, ask them if they believe folks in the USA are "joiners" or "individualists?" The battle will ensue...Here's the thing, there's no doubt we've had some great individuals who have made significant imprints upon our society...(think Martin Luther King, Jr. or Thomas Jefferson), but inevitably, it seems, institutions are the result of their work, and the rest of us just "join in." (Think of those who went West AFTER the gold was found in 1849.) You're not going to win arguing one side or the other, but at Prairie Table there is probably no more important idea being debated than that one...joiners or individuals?...
Most mission congregations in the ELCA (that's our denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) are designed for joiners, not individuals. Here's my favorite anecdote so far that proves this point: when we were getting set-up with the ELCA, the people in Chicago (where our denomination has headquarters) had to call up our Bishop here in Bismarck to ask what kind of name was Prairie Table, and why didn't it have "church" in the title? Whoever that person was who called was clearly a "joiner." "Church" is a joiner-word. That is, "church" is something you join...hence, "churches" have members...So, if you're a joiner, and you want to have religious experience, you search for a "church" to join...Prairie Table does not have "church" in its name (for precisely this reason), and hence, "joiners" may be confused because they are not sure what to join...I always love it when someone says to me, "I can't join your congregation, as I already am in one"...which is not true. You cannot join our congregation because there is nothing to join...not because you're already in a congregation (and who decided you could only be in one at a time anyhow? Where's that rule in the Bible?)...Prairie Table is for the religious and spiritual individualist who seeks community not institution...
After six months of gathering, you can tell the joiners who come to visit, and sort of wonder what is going on...where's the liturgy? Where's the roster? Where's the building? Those are all fine, and Prairie Table is not opposed to any of them on principle, but we are about community, and the individuals who comprise it...We believe it's individuals who are called by God who form community...one of the ways to understand our Jewish brothers and sisters is to understand that they are called as a "people," but in Christ Jesus people are called as "brothers and sisters." (This, to my mind, is why Christianity is much more multi-racial than Judaism. Theologically, Golgatha inverts Sinai--- for my theological friends.)
This does not mean, by the way, that all the people who are part of Prairie Table are individualists, we probably have some joiners, and they are learning how to live and see God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit from a different angle, perhaps. We might not be very good individualists either, for that matter, we might be more comfotable as joiners...but I still hold that there are plenty of institutions to join here in Bismarck, and almost anywhere in the world these days,...but where can you find a community of God where your call is valued more than the tradition of the institution without the institution feeling threatened? In Bismarck alone, if you want to worship on a Sunday morning there are over 100 places to join...But if you want support to live out your call, to be free in your humanity to live out the divine desire? Not so many places...of course, that's how any good individualist wants it...but sometimes it's nice to have a friend.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Really? The Bible?

This rumination begins from a conversation (almost all my ruminations begin this way) I had with a woman after she found out I was a pastor. "I don't go to church anymore," she replied, "but I pray and read my Bible." Now, this was above and beyond the call of unasked for defense of a non-religious lifestyle..."The Bible,"I asked, "any special parts?" "Ask me anything. I grew up Jehovah's Witness...I may not like a lot of what they do, but we do know our Bible."
So I softballed her with one about Daniel and Lion's Den. Who were the three friends? "Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednigo. Too easy. Ask me something hard."
"Do you think Paul's hermeneutic concerning the salvation of the Jews is justified, especially considering the prophetic works of the Old Testament?"
"Now you're just screwing with me." Her smile made the day better.
That conversation is well over a couple of years old, but I've met a few people over the last few months who've come up with the same story. "I don't go to church, but I like reading the Bible." Now, here's where it gets interesting...
Another one of my gigs is teaching pastors about missional church and missional leadership. One of the most common refrains my students have is that their parishioners no longer know the Biblical story. That is, the "Church" has lost its narrative and story because the people who go to "Church" no longer know it...you see the irony...basically, people I meet in a bars and grocery stores and never step inside a congregation or its buildings know more about the Christian story and narrative than those who attend worship...some every week...As a missionary I spend a great deal of time talking about the Bible to people not affliated with congregations, and my students, who work in congregations spend almost no time talking with people about the Bible...very strange...
I don't really know what to make of this except to caution those inside the congregations and buildings of Christianity to remember to talk about the Bible every now and then...not just about the friends of Daniel, but about the love of God in Christ Jesus...converse together with power of the Holy Spirit to move mountains, and be friends and neighbors...celebrate the fecundity of God with Psalms and hymns of praise...because remember this: eventually those people will find themselves with me in a bar or grocery store, and we're going to need something to talk about...