• Roger That

    • Denise Lawson: Good to see you writing again! I’m looking forward to reading these stories:)
    • Jason Coker: The new post is up James : )
    • James Paul: Your leaving us hanging here, bro! ;-)
    • Jason Coker: Hi Ryan, yes, I think habit is part of it. I don’t think that diminishes the...
    • Ryan: I think “doing church” is a habitual thing like smoking as I did smoke and...
    • denise lawson: OH, and I forgot Joan Didion (one of my favorites) Caroline Knapp, Lucy Grealy and...
    • Denise Lawson: Boy am happy to see you blogging again!!! And I’m doing my happy dance...
    • GypysyMama986: WoW! Thank you! There seem to be more & more of us unchurched folk who are...
    • Jason Coker: Glad to have you both still poking around here : ) Bill, you won’t have to...
    • Steve Burnhope: Look forward to Monday, Jason!

An invitation to misbehave

Over the past year I’ve noticed there are more and more people who have left church-as-we-know-it, but are still cobbling together lives of meaning. They wrestle with their faith openly. They engage the community in small and humble, yet often weird and remarkable ways. Some of these folks have formed alternative worship gatherings, created online communities, or started up nonprofits and social enterprises. Some are doing art in subversive or provocative ways, while some are advocating for the victimized, exploited, and powerless. Whatever the case, these things have become church for them.

I can think of lots of examples and maybe you can too. Some, like The Refuge or The Lasting Supper or Revolution Church are fairly well known (and deservedly so). But most aren’t. I’m specifically thinking of two friends here in San Diego who walked away from their Southern Baptist church plant because of a significant shift in their faith. Now they’re leveraging everything to move to Africa to work with at-risk teenagers. Or another former pastor friend of mine in Idaho, whose faith was shaken years ago after his church fired him without warning. Now he’s discovered an artistic mission as a photographer whose work revolves around compassion and empathy for those in pain. Another friend here in San Diego gathers his friends in a neighborhood bar for “church”, and yet another couple I know have left their worship-ministry career to start a local business teaching music to kids in our city.

These people are my heroes. They often defy category. Some are still connected to the institution, while others have left it behind. Some say they have more faith than ever, while others openly doubt. To me they all represent a heroic journey beyond the borders of relative comfort into the wilderness of post-Christendom.

The missiology student in me thinks this is what God is doing among post-Christendom people. But with some notable exceptions, these aren’t the stories we read about in popular Christian books and magazines, and these aren’t the people taking center stage on the Christian conference circuit. Their stories are too raw, too unresolved – often too profane – and don’t lend themselves to marketable solutions for the slow sunset of our Christian institutions.

One of my goals for this year is to get back to writing, and these are the stories I want to explore.

I love the weird, experimental, and odd iterations of faith that come about when people challenge convention. They inspire me. I want to get to know them, learn from them, and share their stories when they’ll let me.

Some will say this more of that emerging church bullshit. And in some ways, that’s true. I’ll confess, I still love all that stuff. I have no problem with Brian McLaren, or the Transform Network, or Tony Jones for that matter – although Tony’s a little theologically conservative for my taste : ) I’m grateful for the various streams of the Emerging Church movement. They’re all doing good work.

But the Emerging Church (and it’s spin-off, Missional) quickly became an industry, polarized, in part, to sell books and book conferences. Perhaps unavoidably, it became a battleground for orthodoxy and a place where boundaries were fought over and re-negotiated. That was painful for some, and I know many of the people doing the most exciting and innovative work just quietly slipped under the radar.

Also, something else interesting has happened as a result. Emerging and Missional (again, movements I adore) have each become the de facto in-house renewal movements of Mainline and Evangelical Christianity, respectively. They’re respectable now. For a large portion of American Christianity, being Emerging or Missional is now an acceptable way to behave. That’s a good thing for lots of reasons, but I can’t help feel something has been lost: namely, the willingness to be on the outside. Increasingly, what that means in America is to be among the quietly-yet-rapidly-growing number of people who are walking away from all forms of institutional Christianity – not so we can colonize them, but so we can learn to find God in the places that were never profane to begin with.

Expanding the ideological borders of Christendom by a few feet (or even a few miles) will not entice these people back. Most of those who have emigrated are never coming back and most of those who were born on the other side will never seek to enter. The Empire is dead. I think that’s part of the plan.

At the risk of bludgeoning the metaphor, I’m not interested in re-drawing boundaries. I’m interested in blurring them. I think that’s gospel work, and I think the people who do it are doing Kingdom work, even if they’re not building the institution. Some are saying that only Church work is Kingdom work. I don’t hold to that. I’m interested in telling stories that demonstrate that the Kingdom of God is bigger than anyone imagined (maybe even God) and includes more people than we are comfortable with. I aim to misbehave. 

But I would like some help. I prefer doing things with partners. If you or someone you know wants to help tell these stories, let’s connect (email me at jason[at]pastoralia[dot]org). I would like to talk about how we might collaborate, discover, and share these important stories in the coming year.

A dispatch from beyond the borders

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A long time ago I was a pastor who, after ten years or so in ministry, began struggling with church and faith in a big way. Emerging. Missional. Yada yada. You get the picture. Cue the big Missional church planting effort…raised the funds, drained the savings, moved across the country. Then one day my wife and I woke up to the dawning realization that we were succeeding at all the wrong things and building exactly the kind of church we didn’t want to attend. Nobody’s fault but ours. So, in what was almost the most painful experience of our lives, we walked away from it.

That was over four years ago. Our faith looks and feels radically different today, and frankly doesn’t fit well anywhere – which means we’re basically unchurched.

After a long period of detox, followed by an uncomfortable season of feeling vaguely like we were doing something wrong, we finally settled down and realized…we don’t really miss it. We have a great family, meaningful work, and amazing friends right here in our neighborhood.

Also, we keep stumbling into little opportunities to “do church” in odd ways. Like gathering the neighborhood for “soup parties” that benefit the local food pantry. Or helping some friends organize backyard panel discussions in their neighborhood around topics like sustainability and faith (I know, sounds weird, but it was super fun). Or officiating a memorial service for friends who are utterly irreligious. It has all been surprisingly fulfilling.

What’s interesting is, we wouldn’t have this life if we were still in church. I don’t mean that as a judgement of the good thing that church is for many people, but if we were still in church we wouldn’t have the space for the life we live now. And it’s a better life. We enjoy more honesty, openness, and relational depth and diversity than ever, even though only a few of our friends are people of faith.

So looking back, I’m grateful for that season of death. Without it, we wouldn’t be enjoying this new, unexpected, and surprisingly sweet life.

Still, we are missing something. Specifically, we miss being more regularly connected to others who – even if their faith has been stripped back – are leaning into a sense of divine hopefulness. After quitting church, we lost most of our faith-based relationships. That was tough. And it left us feeling relatively isolated in that respect.

I don’t want to overstate this. Jenell and I both, in our own ways, have intentionally maintained relationships with Christian friends, and we hold those relationships dear. But for lots of practical reasons these connections are thin, not the least of those reasons is the simple fact that people who share our peculiarly alternative view of Christianity are few and far between. It’s not enough.

But I have an idea, which I’ll tell you more about on Monday.

My interview with Dallas Willard

Dallas Willard passed away today after recently being diagnosed with cancer. It would be impossible to describe just how formative Dallas’ work has been for me personally, and for many others. I’m not sure his impact on the thinking of what would later become the emerging Christian movements has been adequately attributed.

I had a few opportunities to speak with Dallas over the years. More than once I travelled long distances by myself just to hear him speak. The last time was almost three years ago when I interviewed him for a christianaudio podcast called Author Sketches. At the time, I was doing these interviews as a part-time gig and jumped at the chance to interview Dallas about his then current book, Knowing Christ Today. I blogged through that book, chapter-by-chapter, here at Pastoralia.

If you’re interested, you can download the interview for free by clicking here (but you’ll have to register). You can tell in the interview I’m more than a little giddy and starstruck, but you can also tell just how incredibly humble and generous Dallas was.

You’ll be missed Dallas. Peace to you in your rest and to your family in their mourning.

Book Review: Revealing Heaven by John W. Price

The number of Americans who have had a near death experience is greater than the number of those who attend a major league baseball game in one year.

For John W. Price, author of Revealing Heaven: The Christian Case For Near-Death Experiences, this is nothing short of astonishing; not just because of what it positively affirms (life after death), but because of what it negatively reveals – that people are embarrassed to admit their encounters.

This is Price’s mission: to “shout from the rooftops” just how common an experience this is for everyone, the world over. As an Episcopal Priest these experiences confirm the gospel Price preaches, so to draw attention to them is to draw attention to the gospel itself, the hope it represents, and the comfort it brings, especially in a world full of pain, sorrow, and skepticism.

Along the way, Price hopes to convert a few pastors as well. Too many ministers, it seems, are not only embarrassed about these kinds of testimonies in their congregations, many don’t even believe they’re real.

Price goes about his in a straightforward way: telling the stories of near-death experience in an easy and readable fashion, largely following the timeline of his own road of discovery. We get to experience his sense of wonder and excitement as he comes to conclusions about the implications of his convictions for his practice of faith, and ministry. In the midst of these stories, Price does a better than average job of building a broad case for the biblical literature’s evolution of life after death, and winds up making a convincing case that the early church stood firmly on the hope of resurrection.

The book is disarmingly charming in its simple and unadorned approach. Price never seems to overreach in style or content. And yet, I found myself again and again asking the question: “Do we really need this book?”

First, I’m not sure that belief in heaven in at a point of crisis. I’m utterly convinced that Christianity is waning, and will continue to, but few people I know – including many who possess no formal faith – wouldn’t be troubled by the idea of a literal afterlife.

I was also struck by Price’s insistence that near-death experiences particularly affirm the Christian gospel. Obviously, there are some religious beliefs that wouldn’t hold to a literal heaven, but, as Price himself points out, these experiences are nearly universal across cultures and religions. After reading the book, I still fail to see how these experiences – if true – particularly commend Christianity over and above other faiths.

Lastly, I was put-off a bit by Price’s tone towards Christians who don’t believe in a literal afterlife. It’s one thing to hold to such a belief (or lack thereof), but it’s quite another to posit your belief as an unassailable certainty and an essential element of the Christian faith.

And make no mistake: however gentle his writing style, Price is certain – not only of the existence of a literal heaven, but even of fairly esoteric details concerning the nature of death and heaven (see the chapters “How death works” and “How heaven works”). Price bases his assertions on the anecdotes of people’s stories. Now, I’m a strong proponent of religion as a source of knowledge, but the knowledge religion transacts in isn’t quantitative, it’s qualitative. Religion has no mechanism for determining the details of phenomena such as, whether we can “walk” in spiritual bodies after death. Yet, this is the kind of claim Price makes.

In my opinion, these chapters – and this tone of certainty in general – damages the credibility of Price’s claims. Still, for those interested in the subject, it’s an interesting enough – and breezy enough – read to recommend it.

(I was provided with a copy of this book in return for the review I’ve written. I was in no way required to write either a positive or negative review of the book.)


A centuries old occurrence of Stockholm Syndrome

A very provocative post, Protest of the Nones: Religious Disavowal as Social Critique, from Duane over at The Alchemists Imagination who draws correlations between the Nones, the Occupy Movement, and the anti-slavery movement of America’s recent past:

In a centuries old occurrence of Stockholm Syndrome the church continues to hold the hand of its captors, embracing tyranny, inequality, injustice, and playing the part of a harlot, going to bed with capitalism.
Is it then any wonder that a group that is on its way to becoming the fastest growing, and the second largest, religious affiliations is a group that adamantly claims no religious affiliation. This demographic known as the religious “Nones” now account for one in five American adults. One article also points out that “Now, more than one-third of those ages 18 to 22 are religiously unaffiliated. These ‘younger millennials’ are replacing older generations who remained far more involved with religion throughout their lives.” These under-thirty individuals have no interest in identifying themselves religiously and no desire to “label themselves in any way when it comes to their faith or lack thereof.” They do not see themselves as being a part of any religion. While “Nones” are not necessarily antagonistic towards religion(many do in fact think that churches as well as religious and faith based communities can and do make positive contributions to society), the common consensus voiced by 70% of the “Nones”, however, is one that remains suspicious and distrustful of religious institutions, stating that they “believe…religious institutions are too focused on money, power, rules, and politics.”

Then, in a refreshing maneuver, Duane suggests that the hope of the church lies not in a return to preaching that old-timey religion, or in a reliance on new-fangled technologies, but, rather, in turning its own prophetic critique upon itself:

Perhaps then, revisiting the critique of Fredrick Douglas, Occupiers, Activists, Millennials, Protestors, and “Nones” will all cease to be anti-church movements when the church becomes part of anti-capitalist, anti-hierarchical, anti-authoritarian, and anti-corporate movements, joining the fight against the social and economic inequality and injustice rather than supporting the systems and structures that perpetuate and uphold oppression and exploitation. I would venture so far as to say that those who oppose the church and other religious institutions will cease to do so when the church begins to oppose itself, dialectically negating its own structures and traditions and in essence becoming anti-church itself.

This last bit reminds me of some of Paul Tillich’s writing on what he called the Protestant Principle – both about the role of the prophetic critique of the church and the role of those outside the church:

If the Church does not subject itself to the judgment which is pronounced by the Church, it becomes idolatrous toward itself. [...] In its prophetic role it is the Church which reveals demonic structures in society and undercuts their power by revealing them — even within the Church itself.. And in doing so the Church listens to prophetic voices outside itself, in judgment both on culture and on the Church in so far as it is a part of culture. Most such voices come from persons who not active members of the manifest Church. But perhaps one could call them participants of a latent church.”

Sometimes this latent Church comes into the open. Then the manifest Church should recognize in these voices the spirit of what its own spirit should be and accept them even if they are most hostile to the Church.

What Duane here calls “anti-church”, Tillich might refer to as being part of a “latent church.” Virtually everyone has referred to the “Nones” as a sociologically distinctive religious group, but I haven’t heard many refer to them as latent church or a kind of external-yet-internal prophetic critique. The difference, I think, is subtle yet significant, and to me at least, rings true.