Friday, September 22, 2006

Church Hunting

I guess it is time to find a church.

This is going to be difficult.

My weird neurology has meant that most "traditional" churches don't much appeal to me. Sitting in a service makes me squirm (I have problems with auditory processing.), but I can deal with that. I don't like early morning services, but evening services are relatively rare. So I am likely going to have to settle for a church that meets at 11am on Sunday mornings.

I live in a Latino neighborhood, which means that I am going to have to travel if I am going to find a church that conducts services in English. Public transportation being what it is in Chicago, getting to church is going to be difficult.

I really wish that more churches had websites. It would make it much easier for me to evaluate a church before visiting.

I am feeling like I did back when I was single and looking to date. I didn't like the process then, and I don't like it now.


Thursday, September 21, 2006

God's Faithfulness, God's Rewards

There have been a few people in the ministry that I really, really admire. These are people that I wish that I could be more like, and I do try to emulate them in my words and deeds.

I have never been a "fangirl", and as such, have never been particularly interested in the "superstars" of ministry. Instead, I have often been attracted to those humble servants of God who have given their lives to those smaller ministries that both the world and the church shun and ignore. Their lives are well-illustrated in the lovely essay, Others May, You Cannot which is one of my very favorite bits of Christian devotional writing.

Recently, the midst of my struggle with confusion, doubt, and dissatisfaction, I received a communication with one of those ministers. She is a campus chaplain for a mainline denomination. She has spent 25 years, most of her ministry career, at the same Midwestern university. She is probably qualified to assume a pastorate in a large church, but a number of factors, both within and beyond her control, have managed to keep her where she is. She is an excellent campus chaplain: She doesn't have the funds or the human resources that the "big" campus ministries have, so the group of students that she cares for is generally fairly small. But she continues to minister to students in ways that the big campus ministries often can't. She doesn't have their pat answers, and she doesn't have their slick speakers and promotional activities. She does, however, have the Holy Spirit, who has cared for her and her "flock" for a quarter of a century. She has never married, and has cared for her mother in addition to her chaplaincy duties.

In her email to me she explained that she was engaged to get married. There are some difficulties with setting a date (distance being a primary factor), but she is engaged to someone that she loves. Now I don't believe that God is obligated to play matchmaker for all of those who serve him, but I am nonetheless struck by how this woman who has offered her life to God has, in the fullness of time, been given the opportunity to know love and marriage.

Such things offer me encouragement as I work though the less pleasant aspects of my faith.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Crazy Community: Part 1

There has only been one period of time in my life that I was part of anything that felt like "community". That was in my senior year of high school, when I connected with a bunch of Christians (mostly outside of school) and we ended up creating a delicious mess that lasted (in one form or another) for close to three years. Names have been changed to protect the guilty, though I can't imagine that any of us don't crack a grin at the memories of what we did together.

I had hooked up with a group of folks who attended Willow Creek every Wednesday night. There was a semi-rotating cast of characters that made up our motley crew, and we all ended up at Baker's Square after service. Between bites of pie we all got to know each other, and began socializing outside of church. Some of us attended a "college age group" over at a Lutheran Church, while others made references to a couple named "Linda and Ernie", and times spent at their house. I learned that Linda and Ernie lived locally and were considered to be very spiritual people. Finally, after weeks of hearing about these people, several of us visited them at their split-level apartment one night.

I knew right then that I had walked into something special.

I can't say exactly what it was, but there was something about these twenty-somethings with four children under the age of five, poor as proverbial church mice, who extended Christian hospitality to whoever happened by. There were at least three different Christian bands who were using the place as a makeshift studio, their upstairs bathtub was regularly used as a baptismal pool, and their two living rooms became Bible study classrooms.

"Linda" and I bonded almost instantly: We had chatted a bit the first night we met, and then a few nights later, during a phone conversation, we realized that we had a similar vision for ministry. Even though it was late (9pm) and it was a school night, she drove to pick me up and bring me back to her place for conversation with herself and Ernie. Thus began a very intense relationship between Linda, Ernie and myself that was to last for several years. Linda and I were generally the only two women who consistently attended our gatherings, so our relationship became especially close.

I started attending the gatherings at their home regularly. . .and I do mean regularly! Technically, "Bible Study" was on Wednesday and Friday nights, with "band practice" on Sundays. The trouble was that everyone considered themselves "special" enough to show up on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday nights as well! Chaos ensued as headbangers, representatives of various cults, half-baked Jesus Freaks, high school and college students, and Linda and Ernie's children ran amok among dirty dishes, stacks of paper, and baskets of laundry. The standard format for the evenings at Linda and Ernie's place usually consisted of people arriving "whenever", and a time of Bible study. At some point the discussion broke down into smaller groups, and someone would yell "Munchie Run!". This was the cue for a couple of us to head off to the local grocery store in order to purchase pizza, soda, and other goodies. Back at the apartment we ate, worshiped, studied, sang, and studied together. In other words, we became a church.

Coming soon. . .Part II

Monday, September 04, 2006

The Liberal Failure

It probably seems like I am only picking on Evangelicals (and Conservative Christians in general). But evangelicals aren't the only bugaboo in my reconsideration of orthodoxy: Liberal Christians have been, if not a greater stumbling block, at least an equal contributor to my discomfort with Christianity. Despite my misspent youth as an Evangelical/Pentecostal, my adult spiritual formation was at the hands of mainline Protestant liberals, and could best be described as a disaster. A qualified disaster (it wasn't all bad) but a disaster nonetheless.

There was a feeling of desperation in my seminary: The student body was almost entirely of the earnest variety. Everyone really wanted to "do good", even though most of us couldn't really articulate why. Claims to supernatural experiences were warned against, or else one of our psychology profs might accuse you of mental instability. This only applied to white students, however. "Minority" students were exempt from any criticism of behavior, belief, or doctrine. This racism was appalling: Liberal rationalism was the rule of the day, unless you were deemed a "primitive" by the school administration.

Things got even sillier when I returned to seminary for a second masters degree. In a class on post-modernism, a woman stated that the Aztecs had never committed human sacrifice, and that the suggestion that they did was a white colonialist lie. (The white colonialists were apparently miffed and jealous that the Aztecs had perfected open heart surgery at that early point in history.) The professor (much maligned as a "conservative" by some within the denominational hierarchy) gently expressed his disbelief in this notion, but the woman's response indicated that she believed that naysayers were simply racists. Nobody in the class (including myself) bothered to back up the professor. I know that I was too stunned to respond. I hope that this was the case with the other students, or else I must come to the distasteful conclusion that my academic colleagues were too stupid to question absurdity.

And what did all this seminary education do for us? Well, I couldn't help but notice that a lot of people had a very difficult time getting ordained. This seminary had a VERY complex formation process for students, as did its denomination. Students could be (and often were) forced to leave seminary or switch to a purely academic degree track because the faculty no longer supported their vocation. Yet our seniors were constantly coming back from ordination hearings dejected and depressed. They may have had excellent academic records, but they couldn't get their districts to ordain them. They couldn't relate to the folks "back home", and the folks "back home" saw our students as "dangerous".

But the worst part of my liberal formation process was that it didn't really have any sort of a goal. The big emphasis in seminary (at least when I was there) was that as ministers, we were supposed to "empower" the people we served. We really weren't supposed to lead, and even serving our people was suspect. Of course, most laypeople don't want to be empowered, and they sure as hell aren't going to pay you to empower them. So here we all were, formed to "empower" people who didn't want to be empowered, all the while completely bereft of any solid grounding in theology. Theology was not considered empowering, I guess, but this deficit meant that we also lacked purpose. Why were we trying so hard to get ordained just so we could empower the reluctant for $20,000 a year? Nobody ever cleared that up for us.

In the face of all this liberal non-rigor, I gave up. I started taking up the study of Western Esotericism, and made my mark in that community. My efforts were sometimes appreciated, sometimes not, but at least I no longer had to pretend that I didn't believe in a God that sometimes does weird things. Of course most Christians no longer wanted to have anything to do with me, but I was pretty sick of Christians (both liberal and conservative) at that point.

But now I am back, tail between my legs, sniffing around for something real to grasp onto. The gender wars are getting worse (and the wrong side seems to be beating the hell out of the feminists), and political money is fueling "conservative" movements within mainline churches. I fit in even less now than I did before. But perhaps that is a cross that I need to learn to bear.
Methods of Madness

"We believe that churches and Christians should continually reform their ministry methods to most effectively reach the changing cultures(s) to which they are sent by God as missionaries (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)."

This quote, taken from a conservative Evangelical blog, quite nicely illustrates my uneasiness with Evangelicalism's obsession with obtaining converts. A "method", to my mind, is a process which is developed in order to achieve an efficient means to an end. In this case, the blog owners are arguing for Churches and Christians to "continually reform" their methods in order to "effectively reach the changing cultures" that they are trying to evangelize.

I am going on record right now in saying that I don't believe that "ministry" and "methods" go together.

I am, of course, aware of these "methods" of reaching "cultures" through "ministry": The thing is, members of the "culture" being "ministered" to usually aren't fooled by these methods. Members of these cultures know that the "relationship" being offered by "relational evangelists" isn't real. They know that the only reason why they are being "ministered" to is because the "minister" wants them to convert. No matter how good the methods are, the ministry seems hollow because it is not offered out of love for human beings who bear God's image, but in hopes of another notch on the spine of the "minister's" study Bible.

"Another soul for Jesus...NEXT!"

I can't do this. I can't be this. I can't extend ministry, charity, and love to someone in hopes that they will convert to Christianity. I can't live a life of breathlessly saying to myself: "Will my parent/brother/sister/husband/wife/boss/best friend/worst enemy/Madonna accept Jesus as his/her personal savior today?" Racking up numbers of converts isn't my idea of real religion, and the notion that genuine ministry is about successful methods (which have to be modified on occasion) is laughable (sort of--because it really isn't funny).

For my own self, genuine religion is about teaching adherents how to serve and to love others without having expectations as to what the "other's" response should look like. I'd like to learn how to extend love and grace and service to others regardless of the outcome. If I learn "methods" I want them to be methods for my own spiritual development, rather than manipulative tools for tricking others into faux conversions.I truly wonder if Evangelicalism will ever get there.

I know, of course, that there are many, many good hearted Evangelicals that engage in Christian service beyond what I could ever dream of offering. But I still get this niggling feeling that the motivation for much of what passes for Evangelical "ministry" is based on the expectation that numbers will be met and if the numbers aren't right, then the "method" must be wrong.

I think that there is a madness behind these methods, and I really don't want to plumb those depths. I don't like the result(s), so I certainly don't want to know the motivation(s) anymore than I have to.