Confessions of an accidental feminist

Go read Rachel Held Evans’ Confessions of an accidental feminist. Very good stuff.

I always laugh a little to myself when I receive a Google Alert informing me that someone on the internet has criticized me as a “bitter, angry woman” intent on destroying the Church with my “radical feminist agenda.” I laugh because if these bloggers actually knew me, they would know that I’m more goofy than angry, more hopeful than bitter, and far too disorganized to lead a movement. If they knew me, they would know that I don’t fit into their distorted stereotype of what a feminist looks like, that I don’t hate men or burn bras or crave power, that I—like most feminist—simply believe that women are human and should be treated as such.

Most of all, if these critics knew me, they would know that it isn’t feminism that inspires me to advocate gender equality in the Church and in the world; it is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Church: Club, Community, or Neither?

Awhile back I wrote about how much I hate announcement time.  Go back and take a look at it, because I feel justified in saying that.  Announcement time, as I’ve experienced it in the several congregations I’ve served has, for the most part, been a horrible train wreck.  This is mostly the case because it is not fully utilized or appropriate to the congregation.  Let me give you an example.

One wonderful congregation has this beautiful worship space, very polished liturgy, and an excellent choir.  This is a great congregation to worship with.  And yet, many there seemed to like a home-spun sermon and super-chatty announcement time.  It was a perfect example of a congregation not really knowing itself, or at the very least, not really knowing what they are good at.

Contemporary Worship in a local congregation

Image via Wikipedia

How we feel about announcement time is really just a stand in for something else. It’s about how we feel about our church.  Is it the country club: the place you join and become a member?  The place you visit on a weekly basis to make an appearance?  The place in which you network and take care of civic responsibility?

Maybe your church is a community: the place you are welcomed into and given space to be yourself.  The place you seek comfort from and spiritual renewal.  The place that compels you to be a better person.

You can quickly figure out which classification goes with which announcement style, can’t you?  At the club, you have orderly, prompt, and minimal announcements because we need to get back to our busy lives of business and tee times.  While at the community, you have “popcorn” announcements of random events spoken to by random people.

Must we embody only those two?  What if neither accurately describes what church is supposed to be?  What if church isn’t about joining a club or retreating into comfort?  What if it isn’t supposed to be rigid or chaotic?  What if we aren’t supposed to be efficient or wasteful?  What if our sense of church is messed up?

read this before our next meetingA few months ago, I read this short book called Read This Before Our Next Meeting by Al Pittampalli and he makes several great arguments for how we’ve screwed up staff meetings, but there is one essential truth from which he operates: meetings interrupt our work and keep us from excelling.  Therefore meetings must be kept essential and powerful and non-essential communication must be handled elsewhere.

I’m not suggesting that our Sunday worship should be seen as a business meeting, but there is something to the mindset.  Our worship isn’t really about information or comfort.  And really, it isn’t about inspiration.  We worship because loving G-d comes first.  Full stop.  Everything else: the stuff that takes our minds away from that love: needs to go.  Pitch it.  Get rid of it.  It is non-essential when it comes to our worship.

Challenge Question:

What are some ways that we can make sure everybody gets the essential information without distracting from worship?

Just Cut the Church Programs

For several weeks I’ve been writing about engaging different groups in church.  Then I wrote about dealing with time constraints and what it means for planning.  Now, I am making a personal appeal for an entirely different approach: it is time to get rid of our programs.

As Phyllis Tickle adeptly outlines in The Great Emergence, the post-war world of the 1950s led to a curious new development in church life that has remained intact ever since: churches full of programs.  The roots of this development are quite simple at the macro-level, but remain entirely unexamined at the micro-level:

  • In the late 1940s, as soldiers came home, new communities were created to mimic
    Sunday school class, Manzanar Relocation Cente...

    Image via Wikipedia

    the ones soldiers and their spouses lived in before the war.  Suburbs grew and many churches were founded in the center of these communities.  Parishes built big parish halls and community centers to serve the wider community.

  • Women, who only years earlier, had left the home to go to work full-time, were itchy to get out again and began extensive volunteering at church, providing leadership for much of the church programming.
  • As that generation aged, Boomer women went to work and most Boomers left the church entirely, leaving all of those programs behind.
  • Their parents, now seniors, became the first generation able to retire with time left on the clock, so many seniors pick up the volunteering slack.
  • With each decade, the influence of seniors grows as they are able to retire earlier and live longer.
  • We have essentially maintained this same arrangement of senior volunteerism since the late 1960s.  Boomers, and the succeeding generations (including Gen X, Millennials, and the next generation) have much less church experience than their parents and grandparents had, making senior seniority even greater.

What we are left with in 2011 is an overall decline in Christian attendance, participation, and capacity to join meaningful Christian communities across all denominational groups: some hit more than others.  Rising costs make institutional church archaic, as a huge percentage of the annual budget is tied up in buildings and staffing.  These areas have costs growing much faster than giving, making the current arrangement in most churches unsustainable.  As the fiscal costs to maintain the system go up, so do the social costs.  Maintaining existing levels of social engagement in the church programming is taxing the aging volunteer base and causing real stress on the social makeup of our congregations.

Given the above challenges there is only one clear solution.  Ditch the programs.

I’m not saying that we stop delivering food baskets or offering opportunities for the church to act like the church.  But many of our churches are living into a church model that is inappropriate for their size and makeup.  The average church has an Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) of about 70. This means that the vast majority are a “pastoral-sized church”.  They would have to more than double their regular attendance to begin moving into a new model, triple it to make the transition.  The next model is appropriately named “program”.

Most churches should simply stop using the word “program” at all.  It comes from a different model of church.  It isn’t yours.  Just stop calling things programs.  They should also stop seeing the arrangement as “programs” being what we “offer” to our community.  Instead we should embrace what we as the community value together.  This simple shift in focus more accurately embodies the dynamic most churches are rather than what they were or believe they are supposed to be.

St. Swithin’s in the Swamp with 75 on a Sunday “offers” Christian Education in the form of Sunday School to differing age groups, with 2-3 children per class during their 10:30 am worship service.  They then have their different fellowship programs during the week, which are sparsely attended, and occasional Outreach events in which the same dedicated volunteers come out and work for two straight days, making a herculean, but rewarding effort.  All of this is commendable and wonderful.  However, it causes incredible strain on the community.  The people don’t know what else to do.

This really is quite simple.  Stop.  Just stop.  Then figure out what you’re good at, what you value, and how you are called to live.  It doesn’t matter how much you “offer” since it will never be quite enough and isn’t the panacea we’ve all taken it for.  Christians aren’t only doers and believers: we’re be-ers.

The mythical St. Swithin’s is better off sharing in spontaneous intergenerational formation and worship together, and engaging Bible Study, faith formation, and preparation in natural groups.  The mission of St. Swithin’s is lived out in corporate participation in direct community needs as one, tackling needs evident in their neighborhood or brought to the congregation by individuals within it.

This isn’t just a difference in words, but a fundamental difference that can only happen by living out a different way in all aspects of congregational life.  Otherwise, the pursuit of programs will kill our congregations.

Using My Time’s Gonna Cost Ya’!

Clock

Yesterday I wrote that when we claim we don’t have enough time for church, it is really code for “I don’t want to”.  Today I’ll say that living in the U.S. right now is like living in a time-sucking vortex of anxiety and despair.  Or maybe that’s just what it feels like when I get 30 minutes of uninterrupted silence to write in my home office.  And there is no way that we have enough time for anything, really.

My wife is in retail management, which means her hours are inconsistent and all over the place.  Last week she opened a bunch.  This week she’s closing.  Last week I had time at night to run off by myself.  This week, I have to steal late morning time against my wife’s preference for help staying sane.  I have virtually no time to hang out with my other dad buddies because they work jobs in the city and get up at the a-crack of dawn.  Getting any of us to go to something on a weekday night at church?  You better be offering free lottery tickets along with a babysitter and good beer.  Or at least Chinese food.  I miss that.

There isn’t time.  We’re exhausted all the time.  Planning and playing, working and cleaning; there really doesn’t seem like there’s enough time to even chat with my wife, let alone set aside time for church.

Ah, but we would if we really wanted to.  If it were truly important enough, we’d do it.  My wife would plan for Wednesday nights off.  We’d get a babysitter.  And since we don’t, what does that say?

I met a parishioner, something like nine months after starting at one of my parishes.  She happily professed that she comes to worship monthly.  And after nine months, I was just getting the chance to talk with her.  I understand busy, and I understand the challenge that is getting the family out of bed and over to worship, but monthly?  I’m not trying to be critical or snarky, because this was a nice woman, but we can’t consider something important if we miss it 75-80% of the time.

My plea is that we act how we wish we’d act.  We go where we wish we’d go.  Instead of having church be a distant third, at least make it a closer third.  You know, within sniffing distance.  Throw it a bone that says, yeah, this is important.  And while you’re doing that, get the church leadership to stop complaining that nobody ever shows up.  I guarantee the problem really isn’t time, it’s how you think you have to spend it and how you are asked to spend it.

And that can be changed.

“Clock” AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by Dalo_Pix2

Not Enough Time

In church, we make the excuse that we don’t have enough time, but what we really mean is, “I don’t want to.” I don’t want to volunteer or I don’t want to miss my son’s soccer game or I don’t want to put one more thing on my plate. I don’t want to contribute. I pledge; I show up every other Sunday. Leave me alone.

When we don’t want to do something that we know we should, we feel bad and we make excuses. We don’t simply say that we don’t have enough time, we say…

I’m swamped at work…

My family needs me at home…

I did my time…

and we pretend as if the entire church can go on without us.

But it can’t. And deep down, we know that. That’s part of the reason we feel guilty. The other is that one time we stole a pen from the office administrator because she always gets those great blue gel pens that write so smoothly. Otherwise it’s that we know that we’re needed.

The issue isn’t so much that we don’t have enough time, its that we have other things prioritized ahead of church. And we think that’s the right thing to do. We love our kids, so we go to all of the soccer games, all of the practices, even the inter-squad scrimmages and we think that’s what great parents do. But we’re making a choice. A choice to be at all these scrimmages rather than be at church. And we only feel a small twinge of guilt.

So we have a two-step program:

  1. Admit we put all this other stuff first.
  2. Then do something about it.

It really is that simple. We have to decide whether to do all of those things we think are “necessary” or do we make church one of those necessary things.

And after we make the decision and (hopefully) we want to be at church, step two comes in and we have to figure out what we can do about it. But that’s easy one. The first step is the toughest. It is so very simple, but so hard to admit. To admit that we are the problem.

Calling All Writers and Artists

I’m launching a newsletter soon and am eager to get all of my friends involved.  If you would like to write, draw, paint, illustrate, cartoon about

  1. faith
  2. church practice
  3. the lectionary
  4. worship tricks
  5. and more

then email me at contact@drewdowns.net.  More details will follow shortly.

Why I Hate Announcement Time

Sunday Service at St. George's Episcopal Church

Image by samdessordi via Flickr

My least favorite part of any worship service is the announcement time.  There are so many things wrong with it and there are so few ways to actually fix it.  I’m starting to think we should do away with the whole enterprise.

Many Episcopal churches place the announcements in the middle of the service.  Honestly, there’s nothing funnier than getting about 45 minutes into a 60 minute service and have someone say “Welcome!”  Oh, but if you put it at the beginning, the latecomers will miss all of this really important information.  Plus it doesn’t set our minds appropriately for worship.  We also can’t put it at the end, because everybody is trying to get out of there, so they aren’t listening anyway.  Besides, nothing says “go do ministry!” like 20 minutes of horrible improv.  And just so you know, we did cover this in seminary!

I hate announcement time.  I hate it, whether I’m up front or in the pew.  I hate it!  And it always has at least three invitations:Continue Reading