Sunday, November 17, 2013

Text: Luke 21: 5-6

5When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, [Jesus] said, 6“As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

In last Sunday’s scriptures, the prophets and Jesus were critiquing the ways people worshiped. In today’s brief verses from Luke we hear Jesus predicting the destruction of the lavishly adorned Temple, the locus of Jewish worship. According to the writer of Luke, Jesus foresaw that even the ancient, imposing Temple was ephemeral—and as Jesus will intimate later in the same chapter, institutions are especially vulnerable during periods of social upheaval.

We, too, live in a time when the demise of religious practices and institutions are widely predicted. Every day another article announces that Christianity is dying, that 8,000 to 10,000 church doors will close this year in the U.S., that the Millennials are leaving the church in droves, that more and more young adults identify as spiritual but not religious and fewer and fewer Americans attend religious services, that one in five adults have no religious affiliation and nearly 1 in 3 adults under 30 are religiously unaffiliated.

Why, you might have wondered, would anyone start a new church in such an unpropitious climate? Isn’t that as foolish as starting a local newspaper or buying a Blockbuster franchise these days?

IF you insist on starting a new church in Mobile, Alabama, surely you’d be smart enough to know that only conservative Christians are still interested in church. Surely you’d pitch your church to folks who want assurances that the Bible has clear answers for all life’s questions and then you’d provide those answers. Surely you’d craft an invitation to people that sounds welcoming but would make certain people wonder if they’d really be included, which would then insure that you could exclude some while only seeming to include everyone. Surely you’d have a normal (that is, male) pastor and use words and images that reinforce a patriarchal culture. And surely you’d create emotionally charged worship services pulsating with praise band music and MC’d by a charismatic young preacher.


Instead, you and I have set out to offer a liberal and liberating Gospel to Mobilians. Consider this diagram in which the horizontal axis represents people in our community who self-identify as nonreligious on one extreme and highly religious on the other. Intersecting that axis is a vertical line running from highly progressive to highly conservative:*


In 2009 the first participants of Open Table were drawn mainly from the few nonreligious progressives in our city, represented in the upper left quadrant. Although progressive religious people (upper right) would have been in some ways our ideal target audience, most “religious” people are already active in church and my aim was not to siphon off members from existing churches. Instead, I felt that some nonreligious folks might still think of themselves as spiritual, and perhaps some nonreligious progressives might value a community working toward social transformation together. I also thought current Christian theology could be translated in ways that made sense to postmoderns. I certainly wasn’t setting a trap for nonreligious progressives out of a desire to save someone’s soul. I just believed there were people with a religious-y zeal for changing the world and spiritual impulses to fuel them, and I thought these people might be surprised to hear ways Christian theology—influenced by science and other world religions—was evolving and expanding. I pitched Open Table to the very people who were least likely to darken (or brighten!) our doors. I welcomed religious progressives, of course, but I thought my primary audience would identify as nonreligous/spiritual and progressive. And our earliest members came from this section.

I hoped to have access to religious conservatives, since that is by far the largest demographic group in our culture, but I knew my own journey from conservative evangelicalism to Christian progressivism took years. I knew people in the lower right quadrant would have to be especially hearty and patient to hang with us long enough to “get” us and get something from us. Also, since including LGBT folks in our faith community was a nonnegotiable for me, and since most conservatives in our culture do not affirm LGBT people (though that’s changing!), I thought we’d be unlikely to attract many from the lower right quadrant. But in some ways I was wrong about that, and I’m glad I was. (As far as I know, we have not attracted anyone who is anti-religion and conservative.)

Open Table’s first participants probably labeled themselves as liberals or progressives, though I must apologize for using unhelpful and divisive labels to make a point. Many had left the church years before because Christianity had become a list of fourteen impossible things you had to believe before breakfast—instead of a path of peace, of way of compassion, a yearning for the More. I was gambling that even in Mobile there would be people who might love being included in a faith community that loved and lived the big questions, hungered for the challenge of a more expansive theology, longed for companions for the journey, and hoped to include folks that others might exclude. Many of our founding members were surprised to find themselves back in church and some were embarrassed to tell friends and family where they were spending their Sunday evenings. That first group of Open Table participants appreciated finding a haven for progressives in an overwhelmingly conservative culture.

Once Open Table began advertising, we reached new folks whom we were thrilled to include and love—but who had different backgrounds and needs and expectations of church and ways of reading the Bible. These new members were less interested in rethinking Church and reimaging God—and were more interested in finding a safe and supportive faith community.

I kept assuring the first group that they really could ditch the dogma and stretch their concepts of God and appreciate the Bible’s metaphors and exercise their faith through political protest. Then I had to assure the second and subsequent groups that we truly are a Christian communion and our bottom line is Jesus’ bottom line: loving God and neighbor. Perhaps that is when we started becoming a real congregation rather than a single interest group, because the labels couldn’t contain us and the layers of diversity continued to be peeled back to expose the hard but rewarding work of community formation.

Recently I’ve dusted off a book from seminary titled Worlds Within A Congregation: Dealing With Theological Diversity.[i] The author, W. Paul Jones, pleads for what he calls “internal ecumenism” (20). As you know, ecumenism is the call to Christians of different denominations to find common ground. But Jones is saying that in every congregation there are people with diverse theologies who have to learn to talk a common language and work toward common purposes. He even believes that theological diversity within a particular congregation is not only normal but should be celebrated and encouraged. To better understand our own lens on the world and to appreciate others’ differing theology, we’ll consider Jones’ five basic theological worldviews—which account for many of our worship preferences.

His book contains a 62-question inventory that helps readers recognize their own theological worlds. But because of limited time, we’re going to cheat. I’ll simply describe these 5 world views and ask you to spend some time deciding which of these categories best captures your primary theological view. Later we’ll divide into groups and experience prayer in a way that might be most comfortable to persons in that particular theological group. Paul Jones believes that the more you’re aware of the variety of theological perspectives in your church and the clearer you are about your own “theological foundation,” “the less threatened [you] will be by others’ theologies (21).

These five theological worlds are not mutually exclusive, of course. You may visit all of them from time to time, but you might identify most strongly with one or two.

Let me walk you through the 5 theological worldviews. Note that this is not a list of what you believe and which doctrines you ascribe to. After reading about each of the worldviews, you’ll move to the prayer station assigned to your primary worldview and follow the directions for that prayer station. Your group will conclude with a small group communion experience.

5 Theological Worlds
(Descriptions of the world and the liturgy are from Jones, pp. 145-150. The interactive prayer activities are mine.)
1. Your theological world: Your journey is from isolation to unity. Key question: Where am I? You have feelings of separation or longing leading to mystery, unity, and peace.
The liturgy of world one: Best experienced in an atmosphere of mystery, with a taste for candles and receding shadows. Sacred experience touches the outer edges of knowing and being. Even a quiet, darkened, peaceful room will do. Liturgy is valued more for its poetry than its concepts. When leaving, the worshiper wants to have experienced centered silence, periods of timeless peace with a promised wholeness.
Your prayer: Sit comfortably before the unifying Christ Candle, noticing the movement of the flame or your own breathing. Recall that the oxygen that fills your lungs also feeds that flame. Let your gentle breathing be your prayer.

2. Your theological world: Your journey is from oppression to liberation. Key question: What can be done? Feelings of anger and frustration lead to vision, commitment, focus.
The liturgy of world two: You are uneasy with mystery, silence. You want to hear prophetic, challenging declarations and calls to action. Rather than a vision of transcending differences, World 2 people must enter boldly into the cleavages of good and evil, rich and poor, working for a new earth here and now. The worship space would have pamphlets, posters, bulletin boards, and sign-up sheets. (Or the worship space might ideally be a park where the homeless gather for food, and holy communion is the peanut butter sandwiches the church blesses and shares with the hungry ones. See Rev. Jerry Herships’ ministry with AfterHours Denver.**)
Your prayer: With the paper and markers provided, create protest posters for a cause your group chooses and as a way to pray for justice. Choose the slogans on your posters thoughtfully, prayerfully.

3. Your theological world: Your journey is from insignificance to belovedness. Key question: Who am I? Feelings of emptiness and invisibility yield to feelings of belonging, assertiveness, self-realization.
Liturgy of world three: Worship is a warm, gentle family event with lots of story sharing, lots of affirmation, nurture. The mood is upbeat. Worship has happened for world 3 people when they leave feeling “I was fully myself today.”
Your prayer: In your small group, let each person tell a story about a worship experience that he/she has had. This might be a positive or negative experience. Offer thanks for opportunities to come together for spiritual nurture.

4. Your theological world. You journey from failure to acceptance. Key question: Who or what can restore me? Feelings of guilt, conscience give way to feelings of being accepted, adopted, claimed, forgiven.
Liturgy of world four: Worshipers believe confession is good for the soul and prefer scriptures and sermons about repentance and forgiveness which rest upon Christ’s atonement. Favorite hymns are the “I” ones because salvation or spiritual growth is primarily an individual rather than communal experience. “I once was lost, but now am found, twas blind but now I see.”
Your prayer: Reflect on the events of this day. Recall words you’ve said, thoughts, behaviors and interactions you’ve had, things you have failed to do. Write on a slip of paper provided something you regret doing or not doing. Now try to regard that imperfect act or attitude in the way that the Divine Source of Compassion might. Imagine a loving voice speaking forgiveness to you. Now burn that piece of paper and give thanks for God’s grace that lets us learn from the past and move forward into a fresh future.

5. Your theological world: Moves from survival to integrity. Key question: Can I make it? Key feelings: Being overwhelmed and weary give way to feelings of strength, hope.
Liturgy of world five: The music of blues and jazz captures the mood of this world. The prayers of the people that rise from the week’s pains and struggles are crucial in worship life of group 5. And the prayers focus on asking for strength to endure. The music helps worshipers to let go of the pain. Just as life itself is often without much pattern, the worship service just flows, is not rigidly structured.
Your prayer: Write collaboratively some additional verses to “We Shall Overcome.” When several verses have been added, discuss in your group what these additional verses mean to you, maybe sharing a story from your own life to explain why you wanted to add a particular verse. Then sing together these two original verses, below, and the new verses you’ve composed.

We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall overcome some day.

Oh deep in my heart, I do believe. We shall overcome some day.

We shall live in peace, we shall live in peace, we shall live in peace some day.

Oh deep in my heart, I do believe. We shall live in peace some day.

At the sound of the chimes, the groups will conclude their prayers of different types and someone in each group will, in their own words and maybe with help from the group, relate the story of the last supper Jesus shared with his followers. Pause for a silent prayer of thanks for the life of Jesus that lives on through us. Then share the bread and cup at your prayer station with one another in whatever way you wish.

[i] Jones, W. Paul. Worlds Within A Congregation: Dealing With Theological Diversity. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000.
* I borrowed this diagram from a recent discussion session of UCC clergy and laity meeting for Extravagant UCC in Cleveland.
** See an example of such a ministry here .

Category Prayer
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