"Be careful, you are not in Wonderland. I've heard the strange madness long growing in your soul. But you are fortunate in your ignorance, in your isolation. You who have suffered, find where love hides. Give, share, lose — lest we die, unbloomed."
Rev. Amy Butler, minister at Riverside Church in New York City, wrote an opinion article at Religions News about the dying of organized and institutional Christianity in north America. Declines in church attendance and giving to traditional churches have not gone unnoticed. But, all is not lost. There is a sense in which there is something new, maybe better said, refreshing and not altogether different needs to happen. Her article is here: https://religionnews.com/2019/10/30/christianity-as-we-know-it-is-dying-lets-welcome-the-new-life-ahead/
My district superintendent in South Texas asked for some thoughts on the article. So, here is something of what I sent this morning:
There are those are culturally part of Christianity…they go because they’ve always gone…and in the same way. Sunday morning worship for an hour, after dropping off children at their activity station, maybe meet during the week with a few families to watch a video lesson and discuss something related to life, faith, and the Bible, could be Sunday School or as it is called now, life group. Occasionally volunteer for some church-related event or service project nearby or abroad. And, they are gravitating toward big box non-denom Bethel-infused Baptist/Catholic churches: it's dark inside so sound and lights are on point, mostly great contemporary music, good coffee served by enthusiastic greeters, preaching focused on the "how" more than the "why." People have left others still sitting on pews and singing from hymnals after attending Sunday School. The veneer has changed but it's mostly the same, and folks go because they've always gone. Example: Recently, I met with a few leaders to talk shop, and one of them said, “People just won’t go to church unless it meets on Sunday morning.”
There are those who are just completely indifferent – NONEs and DONEs. They believe that they’ve been there and done that and there’s nothing really more to it. And, they refuse to go back. Youth group kids went on every ski trip and mission service project and retreat and summer camp and ... then the adrenaline rush of youth ministry did not answer their questions, or even worse, question their answers as they entered adulthood and exited what James Fowler called a synthetic-conventional faith. It's a faith patched together from various teachings but not consistent or coherent (synthetic). It is a faith borrowed from parents, pastors, song lyrics, and bumper stickers or Pinterest boards (conventional). It's a meme-derived faith that makes sense in the moment but cannot be easily remembered, especially when life reveals itself as really, really hard. Example: A male parent of a trick-or-treater at pastor's house in one of our fastest growing locales in southern Texas, asked the pastor first thing after being invited to church, “So, is your church non-denominational?” They've been to youth group, and just don’t want to go back. They want to think about a faith that questions their assumptions and gives them hope when things don't look so good, and something to chase when they feel like what they have doesn't satisfy like they thought it would.
So, in between the two, I think there is a place for authentic Christian community. Those are loaded words and vague enough to not really mean anything. They are root concepts. I think it means “groups of believers with a designated leader that meet regularly for worship, discipleship, or service.” This is how my church defines church. Inside this definition are expressions of authenticity, something that reflects the original genius of the Body of Christ found in the New Testament (and Hebrew Scriptures and Early Church, and other historical epochs of revitalization. There have been times when the Church remembered itself: The Desert Fathers, Franciscan monastic movement, Celtic missionaries to Western Europe, Radical Reformers of Western and Southern Europe, evangelical movements like the Great Awakening in the US and the Methodists in England, and the rise of Pentecostals in Latin America and rapid church multiplication in Africa and Asia. I do not suggest replicating past movements but learning from them and not making the same mistakes and nurturing the best ideas and practices that history has to offer.
We have already made room for more organic and fluid expressions of gathered people. So, let's do it again by meeting in third spaces like coffee shops, ball fields, festivals, farmer’s markets, library study rooms, as well as homes, apartment complexes, and dinner churches that all fit this definition. See Kris Beckert's stuff at Fresh Expressions US. Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost have made careers on trying prune this garden of wilting flowers and unharvested fruit. These faithful and fruitful expressions of church may meet for a time, and then disperse, re-organize later, or move to another place but still find ways to be together as a people. It’s a little scary but not too much.
So, I think churches about to bloom look like this, for starters.
Authentic - seeks to find the original purpose of God's people as a locally gathered people empowered by God's Presence.
Christian - identified with biblical and historic Christianity: to be called, sent, broken, healed, to be serving, loving, living as Christ in their midst.
Community - gathered and identified as the "cultural expression of God's sacramental presence of God in their local context." (My definition of church, btw.)
What do you think?
Looks like I’m headed to Texas.
It started when Megan Pardue, a house church pastor from North Carolina and Duke Divinity School adjunct instructor, came to MVNU to preach on Feb 6. We’ve known each other for a few years with our common interest and work in organic forms of being church. Afterward, I took her to lunch along with a student and staff member both considering Duke for graduate school. A pastor friend from northern California, Mark Lehman, also met up with us. During our conversations, she mentioned that her in-laws’ church in Austin, Texas is looking for a pastor. This caught my ear. I love Austin. But, I always file away these open churches in the back of my mind, especially if someone in ministry or an alumnus calls me looking for a new opportunity. I also love Austin. It’s like Portland, Oregon except with cowboy boots and BBQ. “Keep it weird,” as they say in Austin.
A few days later, I drove a couple van loads of students to Kansas City for the M19 Conference on Evangelism for the US/Canada Region Church of the Nazarene. About three thousand or so people were in attendance. At the end of the first worship gathering, I saw Matt Rice standing in the open atrium outside the convention hall. He is a Nazarene pastor I stayed with during my visits to San Antonio the previous Fall. We talked for a bit. I asked him for the contact information for his district superintendent. I wanted to ask about the church in Austin. He said, “Well, he’s coming up right behind you.” I turned and saw Jeffrey Johnson, the D.S. wading through the crowd, his father in tow. I said quickly, “I’d like to talk to you about the church in Austin.” As he passed by in the crowd, he said, “Get my info from Matt, and we’ll talk.” He passed by, and I figured, well, looks like I’ll find more or maybe not. It’s hard to get face time at big conferences. Matt and I talked a bit more, then I turned to find my students, and I saw a church planting couple I know well - Chris and Lynnlee Moser.
I walked along with Chris and Lynnlee. I congratulated them on their move to Salt Lake City to plant churches. They are perfect for this role. They said they knew it was a God-thing for them since they turned down an opportunity to return and plant churches in San Antonio, where they had lived for a while. I had no idea. So, cool that God moved them to the right place at the right time, right? We then saw Sam Flores whom we all knew from church planting and evangelism task forces. He was also from San Antonio, Texas and is now a D.S. in South Carolina. I asked him about the church in Austin, and Sam said, “But you’re more interested in church planting, right? If so, you need to meet these two pastors.” We all continued to the Young Clergy Meetup. After a while, Sam came back to me and said, “They two guys finished up in here and are out in the hallway.”
Sam and I walked down the wide convention walkway to where Todd Barker and Michael Pigg where talking it up with a few folks. Sam introduced us, and I felt like I met versions of myself from ten to fifteen years ago. They were talking about a church planting movement between Austin and San Antonio: planting 32 churches in ten years. Three were already in place in Kyle, San Marcos, and Jarrell -- all part of the Wayfinders Church network on the South Texas District. They said, “Hey, come and visit this summer for two weeks.” I repiled, “How about for two months?” I really wanted to find out more about what makes these guys tick. I love what they’re doing in Texas. So, I asked, “What do you think are your missing pieces?” They said, “People. We need more people to get some of the work started in new places.” At that moment, my students walked up behind me. I said to Michael, “You mean like these people?” Michael and Todd spent 30 minutes talking up the students in the hallway, sharing their vision.
Later, that night, I told Jared Tucker that I thought something happened tonight when we met Todd and Michael in the hallway. I just wasn’t sure what exactly. It felt like trajectories were shifted, new directions were starting to take place. It was Spirit-led from the start.
I got a text from Michael the next morning from all of their group at breakfast. He said they were talking about me. I was thinking about them, all the possibilities and challenges...all happening in this place in Texas, the I-35 corridor between Austin and San Antonio, where I spent seven weeks during sabbatical. I was just trying to get my head around what my heart already knew.
Later that morning, I received a text from Jeffrey, the D.S., asking if we could meet up after the service. “Definitely” was my quick response. We met in the hallway and he mentioned some open churches, and then mentioned he also had “this church planting thing.” This struck a chord. “Oh?”, I asked. “Yes,” he said, “You need to come down and visit us.” I said I had time over spring break in a month, but I would come only if I could bring some students. Serendipitously, the next night a few of the students ran into Todd and Michael in the hotel lobby, and then spent three hours talking about what was happening in Texas. The students were psyched about what was going on there.
I caught the deliberate enthusiasm that radiated from these guys as much the students. We started talking about an informal trip down to Texas over break. We all talked to several more students after we returned. A week before break, I get a text from Paige Hopper, a former student looking for job possibilities. She meant “in Columbus” but I asked if “Texas would be possible.” Her significant other, Ryan Fortner, also a former student, was also looking for a move, so I suggested they join us if she could get a week off. She texted back two hours later with permission to take a week off work granted by her supervisor. And, bonus, Ryan would drive. Two weeks later, we all trekked down to Texas.
We arrived early on Tuesday morning, and joined Jeffrey, Todd, Michael, and Jake, driving a van from South Austin Church of the Nazarene, the same one Megan told me about, so we could visit some of the locations along the I-35 corridor ripe for new church possibilities. We spent a long day in some great places. We stopped at Summer Moon for coffee, hit up a Buc-ee’s once or twice, and met some great people and had those famous van ride conversations that happen on my trips. We gathered with the four pastoral families from Wayfinders for a meal at Todd and Holly's home. I saw how the D.S. interacted with the pastors and students, how the pastors interacted with him and the students, and the students loved all of them. The vibe in the room felt like a gathering of missionary families -- the urgency of the work, the noisy din of hilarious stories being told, and the intense joy of being together talking about Great Big Things.
Later that evening, Jeffrey the D.S. asked, “What do you think about coming down here to help us?” I smiled and laughed. [Edit: I realized this way of phrasing it was not too different than the Macedonian call was phrased as Paul heard it in Acts 16:6-10.] This was the offer -- a Texas-sized offer if I’ve ever heard one. I asked, “Do what exactly?” He said, “Come down to recruit, encourage and mentor some church planters, do some cross cultural training with our established churches, maybe work on a partnership with West Africa since there are so many immigrants, and work on some practicum opportunities for students…We can hash out the details later.” I asked, “So, where do you do want me to live?” He said, “I think it’d be good to live in Austin, San Antonio, or some place in between?” My jaw dropped. I prayed those exact words back in January in another context. I didn’t realize at the time that God would have a bigger purpose in the response to this prayer. Jeffrey asked if I’d like to pray about it. I told him that I already had...but it would be good to have a few more days.
The rest of the week was overwhelming...the pastors--so few of them...working in the midst of such a huge wave of population growth. I found out that 10,000 people a month are moving to Austin. In five years or so, San Antonio will top three million inhabitants--the crowds, getting larger and larger, looking for something or Someone else, needing good news whether they know it or not. The ratio of churches to inhabitants was decreasing rapidly compared to nation-wide numbers. Since the trip I have met and talked with several pastors and people -- well, over 50 people -- and around fifteen of them have already said, “Yes…” They are going to join God in this work and make the long-term move to South Texas this summer or soon after. About fifteen more have said they will consider making a visit to come and see . . .
After returning, I realized that I wasn’t just asking others to make a move. God wanted me to go there, too. It wasn’t a matter of “if” but “when.” So, on the Monday after Spring Break, before there was a job title, job description, salary, or definitive place to move, I texted Jeffrey, “I’m in. I don’t have all my questions asked but I’m in. Or all the details clarified but I’m all in. This is God’s momentum and I can’t wait to try and catch up with Him.” So that began the process and started the next big move in my life...this time to Texas. The District Advisory Board met on March 29 and 30 to discuss this new position and interview me. This date of March 29 is an important one for me; it was the culmination of my self-designated one year of healing and restoration since the divorce process began the previous year. Wow...I love the symmetry of God’s grace. Afterward, the DAB voted unanimous approval for me to join the district staff as Church Planting Missionary. Since it is a district position, the responsible General Superintendent needs to approve it, and so, I heard the next week that the move was given “enthusiastic approval” by Dr. Carla Sunberg. I start June 1, 2019.
So, after a decade of teaching at Mount Vernon Nazarene University, I find myself leaving people and places that have shaped much of who I am today. I have spent these years nurturing future leaders into the ministry and serving others all around country and around the world -- one summer I had six students serving on every continent except Antarctica. Last year I became a full professor and completed my first sabbatical. I have done research in urban megaregions including the Texas Triangle, taken a deep dive into the spiritual lives of historic Celtic missionaries, consulted in organic church planting, compassionate and urban ministries, pastored a local church here in Mount Vernon, written about Christian missionary work in the borderlands where cultures collide and blend, guided others through the complexities of cross-cultural life and work, and taught over a hundred students the basics of church planting. Combined with my years as an undergraduate, I’ve spent almost one-third of my life in Mount Vernon. I'll come back to do the annual Spring Break "Matt Price road trip" to KC-Chicago-Indy for MVNU. So, I'll keep a footprint on a campus that I love dearly.
Ohio, it’s not goodbye, but see ya later. Texas, I had no idea you were going to be part of my life this time last year. All I know is that I began this year of transition in May 2018 on a spiritual pilgrimage in Ireland, Wales, and England, studying and living into Celtic missionary spirituality. I asked myself the question at the beginning of this journey, “What is my next step, Lord?”
Looks like I’m headed to Texas, y’all.
The solidarity of brokenness is palpable in this seemingly random meeting. The willingness to risk making a fool of oneself by finding comfort in another person as wounded as ourselves is what makes these words so powerful.
Loneliness may also be shared. This is the twist that pulls me into this song: "I could be lonely with you." This is the hope of every friendship, drawing us into another person. This song could easily be a prayer for our times, and definitely an anthem for recent months in my own life.
My reading of Belden Lane's The Solace of Fierce Landscapes engages the idea that brokenness is part of what it means to be human:
"Our culture substitutes the glamorous for the grotesque, denying this awkward vision of the imago Dei. Our definitions of the human rule out bizarre and broken forms. People dying of cancer possess none of the power or beauty that we assume to be the principal marks of human worth. If we define the person exclusively in terms of rational ability and productivity, someone with Down's syndrome will inevitably appear to be less than whole. The eccentric, the ugly, the abnormal lie beyond the measure of our societal norms. We're left with a stylized and truncated humanity, dangerously imagining itself complete." (1998, page 33)
There is a wholeness that comes only through brokenness. Healing does not need to happen before the wound. There is hope in brokenness, entered into through finding oneself alone and honestly appearing before the other. In this moment of clarity, loneliness finds a friend, and brokenness begins to collapse into something more complete.
This morning I presented a training session on posmodern evangelism to over twenty church leaders from across the United States and from Kenya. The hope is to be humble enough to listen, draw near, and engage people in conversation along the journey toward Christ--the trajectory of grace through the threshold of faith. Below is the downloadable powerpoint file.
Later, I will be able to link to a video of the training session.
Thanks to Black Dog Coffeeshop in Lenexa, Kansas for providing the necessary caffeine for an early Saturday morning. And, to the Lord, for pointing us all toward the Life we all seek.
Link to the video file on dropbox: CLICK HERE
broken by lovelytheband
Life to Fix by The Record Company
From This Valley by The Civil Wars
Sit Next to Me by Foster the People
The Joke by Brandi Carlisle
Friday I'm in Love by The Cure
Small Town by John Cougar Mellencamp
Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen
Round Here by Count Crows
Hunger by Florence + The Machine
Bad Bad News by Leon Bridges
Mr. Blue Sky by Electric Light Orchestra
Somebody to Love by Queen
Don't You (Forget About me) by Simple Minds
Learn to Fly by Foo Fighters
Even Flow by Pearl Jam
Sucker's Prayer by The Decemberists
Lightening Crashes by Live
Holding Back the Years - Simply Red
Everybody Needs Somebody to Love by The Blues Brothers
It's the End of the World As We Know It by R.E.M.
Your Bright Baby Blues by Sean Watkins, Sara Watkins
Refugee By Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Sweet Child o' Mine by Guns N' Roses
Wish I Knew You by The Revivalists
You Worry Me by Nathaniel Ratecliff and the Night Sweats
Soul To Squeeze by Red Hot Chili Peppers
Saturday Sun by Vance Joy
Revolution (featuring First Aid Kit) by Van William
So here's a "melt-your-heart" dorm room cover of Chance the Rapper by Payton Price
(click the image to watch)
"Early in the spiritual journey, we start to experience the reality of God and God’s love as more than an abstract concept or theory. At the same time, however, we tend to start by believing that God’s love is limited to just us, just our group! The circle takes a long time to widen.
"Little by little we begin to respond to God’s love, but we still perceive God’s love as dependent on our ideal response. We believe that grace is a conditional gift, that God will love us if we are good, that God will save or reward us if we keep the commandments or go to church.
"As we practice giving and receiving love, we begin to see God’s love is infinite and unconditional, but the implications are just too mind-blowing. We acknowledge that God loves us whether we are good or bad, and that God is gracious to the just and the unjust alike. But we still think that God is doing that from afar, from up in heaven somewhere. We do not yet see ourselves as inherently participating in the same process. Frankly, we have not yet discovered our own soul.
"Finally, we make the breakthrough to seeing that God’s grace and love is present within us, through us, with us, and even as us! We wake up to who we truly are: the image and likeness of God. The mystery of incarnation has come full circle. We can now enjoy God’s temple within our own body as the Apostle Paul teaches (1 Corinthians 3:16-17 and throughout), and we can love ourselves, others, and God by the one same flow. It is all one stream of Love! We fully realize that it is God who is doing the loving, and we surrender ourselves to being channels and instruments of that Divine Flow in the world. We do not initiate the process; we only continue it."
- Evolving Faith by Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations, 2018
"The biblical tradition reveals that whenever the prophetic gift is lacking in any group or religion, such a group will very soon be self-serving, self-perpetuating, and self-promoting. Without prophetic criticism, all sense of mission and message is lost. Establishments of any kind usually move toward their own self-perpetuation, rather than 'What are we doing for the world?' In fact, the question of mission is not even asked because self-perpetuation has become an end in itself."
- Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations 2018
There is only one Nazarene church on the Front Range megaregion that has over 1,000 in worship attendance--Denver First with 1,309. The second highest worship attendance is also in the Denver metro in the suburb of Westminister at a church called The Crossing with 707. Here's the kicker:
One of every 4 worship attenders are in these two churches during a typical worship gathering. And, one-fourth of the total Nazarene membership in this megaregion is also found in these two churches.
About half of the churches on this megaregion (46%) run below 45 in average worship attendance.
There are 14 churches that average more than 150 in worship attendance (including the two mentioned above). Let this figure settle into your missional thinking for a moment. Remember this megeragion has 5.5 million people (and will grow to 10.2 million in three decades).
87 churches reported attendance more than zero in 2017.
Pueblo, Colorado is the geographic center of this megaregion (if we extend this area south to El Paso).