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The Barna Group‘s latest research reveal indicates that most Americans want a customized religious experiencehttp://www.usatoday.com/NEWS/usaedition/2011-09-13-If-World-War-IIera-warbler-Kate_ST_U.htm   The research, as summarized in the USA Today article,  suggests that Americans shop for their religious believes like accessories to the self.  That is, Leslie’s religion reflects her preferences and is absent of the convictions or statements that make her uncomfortable.  For example, the article cites that there is an increased belief among individuals in Jesus as their personal savior as well as the conviction that they are going to heaven however none have attended church in the last 6 months other than for a special event such as wedding or funeral.

While their contribution to the conversation is helpful, it may be true that the Barna research is playing a tired chord within an over-played song.  That chord is that people are mindless without the church; clergy have lost their persuasive abilities and that the church is fractured because of both the previous points.    What if the chord was transposed just a note or two higher?   It might sound like this, people are still striving to be found faithful in an increasingly complex world;  Clergy have never been persuasive apart from their care to people by which their study of the gospel is fully informed; and the church has never been of one mind or expression about anything.  Such a higher note might allow us to honor gospel fundamentals without grasping at trendy straws in order to solve what is uncomfortable about the church’s life.  After all being the church means being fundamentally uncomfortable.

Quite contrary to Barna’s concerns, religious experience is fundamentally customized (that is the essence of believing in a personal God).   Customization is not something that people do artificially because clergy and the church have lost control.

In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) we believe in the aggregate of experience that informs the entire Body of Christ.  So, my customized religious experience is put alongside others who have a distinct customized experience.  If there is the right spirit between us, I am interested not only in my experience but in the experience of my fellow worshiper and church-goer.  The shared life, then is a creative mix of the customized.

Research like Barna’s is the most recent arrival  in a long line of laments that mainline Christianity is on the way down and out.  This anxious cry is becoming increasingly impotent.  This is the cry that would have us all trying harder to keep up with insatiable expectations for the church.  Some of our expectations for Christianity in the United Stated of American cannot be satisfied.  We expect more and more.   Increasing demands include more attendance, more income, more members, more successful programs.    Perhaps these insatiable demands are what drive people from organized religion to find some relief.  It seems to me that there is a natural ebb and flow in the organized life of the church.   If we are truly in an ebb, perhaps it is a good time to dig down and serve those gathered with greater personal attention to their customized experience so that it can inform our shared life in creative ways that contribute to the next flow from an abundant God.

After all the fundamental expectation for Christ‘s church is not just rapid appeal and growth.  There is also the relational work that serves as scaffolding to the Body of Christ.  In this relational work, we taken on tough questions as we figure out the customized experience of “the other” person….specifically the person who seems miles from our own experience.    This work is not for those who believe they are going to heaven because they prefer to….this is the work of those who are wondering, hoping and working ….doubting that their customized faith is all there is.     This has always been the work of an inner circle of customized individuals who prepare to interact intensely with God’s wider world.

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God of all savory truths and digestion, we have gathered this morning to cleanse our palates.  For we have partaken of things too sweet and ravaged what was excessively sour.  We have indulged in the bland and gorged ourselves.  We have avoided the more complex and nourishing diet because we have been in a hurry.  We give you thanks for bread and cup that will remind us of adequate portions.  May what sustains us be a balance between appropriate satisfaction and appropriate hunger so that we may strive as your servant people.  Hear our prayer as we consider the brain of Jesus who enjoyed fellowship and the mind of Christ‘s communion. Amen.

Written by Rev. Dr. Leslie King for March 6th, 2011 worship at the First Presbyterian Church of Osawatomie, Kansas

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The Good News

The Good News

It is a traditional commission within the Christian faith that believers are to “share the Good News” with others who may not have it.  As familiar as this instruction may be to those inside and outside the Christian community, this is perhaps one of the most difficult instructions for the Christian person to navigate.  Our Adult Sunday School class is engaging the subject in order to investigate why sharing the Good News can be a challenge. 

1.  The Definition – to define Good News is more difficult than one might think.  Most will answer that the Good News is Jesus Christ.  But of course there are many understandings and experiences of Jesus Christ.  If my definition of Jesus is different from yours and I share the Good News as I understand Jesus, is this Good News to you or is it just news or nuisance?   

2.  Between Giver and Receiver.    In order to share the Good News, there is necessarily one who is intent to give it and there is one who is in receipt of it.   Perhaps there has been an assumption that the Good News should be shared whether folks are interested in it or not.  In other words, the duty of the giver is to create receivers.  This is to our previous question.  If Good News is something you have not asked for…do you perceive it as good news?

Our Sunday School class is considering Good News as  a process of communication.  The communication begins and takes intentional shape within the mind of the person who is the giver of the Good News.  Only the final phase of the process is in the speaking of the Good News.   Not only is sharing the Good News a process of thoughtful communication, it is also communication that happens in response to a request or stated dilemma.  Further it is communication that happens with differing levels of awareness for the giver and the receiver. 

First, the process of communication.  In order to be a person who shares the Good News, one first need someone who presents a need for it.  In other words, if no need is presented, there is not an opportunity to Share the Good News. Our class believes this is biblical.   The need may be a need related to their humanity and identity, to their wonderment about church or their secure attachment to God…i.e. salvation.  Each of these options provokes a different intensity of giving from the giver.

1.  humanity and identity.  If an individual presents a need that is related to their humanity and identity but is not overtly about church or salvation, our class is considering the idea that Good News as overtly religious language is not”a fit”.  Many a Christian person has struggled with themselves when they have not shared Good News though they felt like they should have.  (Even though they would tell you that they just knew deep down it was the wrong time to try to share).    This need regarding our humanity is perhaps the most vulnerable expression of faith and can be crushed by overly doctrinal or religious language.  This need requires the giver to go to the Jesus that precedes church.   In order to share Good News that is congruent to this need one must  call upon the ministry of Jesus.  It was in that ministry that people’s empowerment and healing allowed them to experience Jesus as Good News.  In this instance, sharing the Good News is not overtly religious language but finding a way to express how an individual’s life is full of strength and promise.  This is  a subtle sharing of the Good News and receivers may not know they have received Christian Good News but they will feel they have been empowered. Thus, it is Good News shared for the giver.

2.  Sometimes Good News can be shared through wonderment about Church.  Folks who are searching for Good News often wonder if the church can provide them an experience of fulfillment or restoration.  Many good Christian people, out of their love for the church, have been tempted to explain the way that the church can make someone’s life better or make them feel better.  Our Sunday School class is considering a reversal of this traditional understanding of church.  Together we are considering  that the Good News is not so much what the church can do for an individual but how faith seeking individuals with their prayers, life experience and energy inform and empower the church to make its most robust response to God and to the world.  Here there is a renewed understanding of church without any false promises about the complexities of life.  Here giver and receiver are both highly aware of what is meant by Good News.  

3.  Still other times, Good News is shared through the question of salvation.  Again a person presents with a dilemma or a need to know “am I saved”?  The question of course is what does saved mean?  Making a choice for a salvation experience in the here and now rather than at some imagined future day, our Sunday School class is considering the self giving behavior of Jesus as the first tickle in the experience of Salvation.  In other words, as Jesus gave of himself in extreme and subtle ways, individuals began to experience being unbound from the things of the world and free to be in full and generous relationship with others.  The human being who seeks to follow Jesus exercises similar self giving in order to intensify the experience of and confidence in salvation.  So when the dilemma is presented about how to experience and feel confident about salvation, the Good News puts people in touch with their willingness to give of self for the upbuilding of others as an act of gratitude to God.

What is very interesting to me personally is the way that all of this is a legitimate way to share Good News.  It is legitimate even though the awareness and knowledge  of the giver and the receiver are at different levels of intensity.  

   What do you think of our Sunday School class’ work?

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In the chapter entitled:  “Do Corporations Serve the Human Family”, from the book Progressive Christians Speak, Progressive Christians United ask the reader to consider the history of corporations rising out of trade and the industrial revolution.  That history reveals a rise of mechanization and technology and the temptation to understand organized human beings as part of a machine.  The authors note that corporations have major stakeholders as well as stockholders.  Stake holders include stockholders, managers, employees, customers, suppliers neighbors and society as a whole.  This understanding has emerged in Europe and Japan as stakeholder capitalism.  Stakeholder capitalism thrives where strong unions are informing and challenging corporations.  In the last quarter century, unions have been powerfully diminished in America.  This diminishment as coporation grow have given rise to another type of capitalism in America….stockholder capitalism wherein the goal is to realize a profit for those who invest in the company and those who hold shares.  The authors suggest that humanity can experience a better quality of life if there is a stakeholder capitalism at work.  So that entities like, Planet Earth, the poor and destitute; humanity as a whole are also stakeholders in the corporations activities.  Thus the success of the corporation is determined by its ability to consider all the stakeholders as it does its work.

The authors encourage the reader to take action through their congregations and adult education programs;  as consumers and stockholders attending to humane and environmental practices and policies;  and as citizens whose voice and vote and influence government. 

My particular interest is in the church as an organization itself.   For as an organization local churches can be tempted toward a more corporate model.  In fact this is the nickname for our largest churches.  Here growth /expansion have been primary energies if not primary goals.  Forfeited or at least under attended are the congregations that do not promise growth or expansion.  Clergy will declare that they have “done all they could do” or need to “move on” for their career or call.  This, in itself,  is permissible partly because America’s corporate mentality has the ability to infect clergy’s perception of their call to ministry.  I heard recently that within the call process, a minister declined further conversation with a church because of its mortgage.  While there may have been other reasons, not wanting to tackle the mortgage may be likened to a CEO who does not believe the situation is profitable enough to invest his or her energy.

 Assessing the church as a corporation may be, simultaneously, a serious impediment and a necessary evil in order to experience the church as the Body of Christ.  It may be a necessary evil because as the authors of Progressive Christian United note, corporations have at least four strengths that might be summarized as an ability to organize work, raise capital, think at a global level and transcend prejudice.  Congregations need clergy and leaders to attend to their life toward , at least, these very ends.  I believe every congregation can be affected in order to be better organized.  However, all organizational efforts must be reinforced by relational glue.  Assessing the church as a corporation has also served as an impediment as clergy live and move and make a living within the churches.  The temptation is to move on and up the ladder.   Congregations cannot survive this corporate type temptation.  Their need is for residential pastors who have the patience and long term interest for congregational redevelopment and restructuring.  They need pastors who have the relational fortitude to bury the beloved and welcome the stranger into a congregation continually over time.  The corporate idea that excellent CEOs are the heads of the largest companies is not a helpful idea for the church but it is pervasive.  There is an assumption that the best preachers, writers and administrators among pastors are in the largest congregations.  EVERY Congregations hold a promise to be the thinking, praying, community building, missional entities of our nation. If we succumb to a corporate model where the smallest are left to atrophy and die we may be left with terrific gaps of under-served communities in our nation where thinking, praying, community building…is compromised or absent.  All size congregations are stakeholders in the Kingdom.

I have a hunch that clergy do not want to be CEOs.  Some if not all of us must function like them but the corporate model alone does not help the human family nor the congregational family.  When the corporate model is balanced by pastors that are wiser than stockholder CEOS and take up stakeholding,  relational inspired leadership open to all types of congregations….then there an ability for God’s church to be a well-represented Kingdom Corporation.

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Weekends are about returning a pattern of self care and community.  We step away from the routine of the work week and we want to make the most of our time. This often requires a shift in our mind set.  We might be focused on:  getting free of work week resentments; being more mentally available to our families;  mobilizing ourselves for imporant home improvements; or readying ourselves for community events.  Whatever the weekend,  if we want to shift the mind, we must first get the body’s attention. 

The ability to guide our mind (instead of having random thougths guide us) begins with breathe control.  This can lead to greater awareness.   Yoga is an ultimate practice in breathe control and awareness.  Often associated with Eastern Religions, it is important to note that Yoga is not a religion or the practice of one religion but “…an aid to practice the spiritual truths in all religions” (www.dlshq.org/teachings/yoga.html

There is a great deal of conversation on the internet about whether or not Yoga and Chrisitanity are compatible.  With intention, I believe they are.  Yoga can be a spiritual practice for the Christian person in a number of ways.  Sometimes, pracitioners couple scripture with postures and yoga becomes a way to reflect on sacred texts.   Another option is to use the postures to pause and meditate intentionally upon a life dilemma in light of who we believe God is calling us to be.  Still another option is to focus on health and healing as one moves through the poses.  In this last example, healing and health can be physical or social.   There are a number of websites that offer information about how Christians can use yoga to increase their Christian mindfulness and discipleship.  A great one is http://www.christianspracticingyoga.com.

Breathe deep … its another weekend!

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