A Message From the Middle

I feel like I’m in the middle.

It’s not the most comfortable place to be.

I feel like I’m in the middle, looking at two sometimes divergent groups, and there’s something I want to say to both of them.

I’ve worked at churches now for about 20 years. I’ve written about it here, but I’ve worked at mega churches and church plants. I’ve worked for “post modern” ministries and for charismatic worship conferences.

I’ve surely not seen everything there is out there to see, but I’ve seen a lot.

All along, I’ve also been “out there”, in the world. I’ve played countless gigs in countless bands in countless bars. I’ve played for weddings, on cruise ships, and on tours.

I’ve tried to think deeply about the world, and tried to follow Christ through the ins and outs and ups and downs of my life.

Over the past few years, I’ve been observing something curious about my world of “ministry” and following Jesus. Basically, it seems as if there are two rising “camps” in regards to spirituality. On the one hand, I increasingly see people who have big hearts and great intentions to reach the world and to show them the love and heart of Jesus. These people are musicians, writers, teachers, and so on. All walks of life.

And on the other hand, there is the church, in particular the pastors and clergy. Good men and women who have spent years and thousands and thousands of dollars to be trained for ministry: to learn how to handle Biblical texts and human lives with (hopefully) equal dexterity and care, as well as to learn how run a sometimes highly complex organization and to lead staffs as best they can.

I’m worried about a gulf that might be growing up between them.

Broadly put, sometimes it can appear as if this new wave of evangelists do not want to be “encumbered” with concepts like long-term community, or church membership, or tithing to a ministry, or even to a sense of orthodoxy.

On the other hand, it can sometimes appear as if the vocational clergy are too concerned with exclusivity, a spirituality that looks more like good USAmerican business practice than it does the fluid faith of Jesus, and keeping things neat and tidy.

I’d like to write a little message to both of you.

TO MY FELLOW CLERGY:

As much as it may hurt to even acknowledge this, we need these men and women who are ruffling our feathers. They are doing good work, seeking to invite outsiders to the party that God is throwing. For better or for worse, it seems as if we don’t have the trust we once had, and now our “Good News” pronouncements are falling mostly on deaf ears.

(Truth be told, it’s mostly our own doing: years and years of assuming a privileged place in society, allying ourselves to deeply with the values of Empire, and spending too much time preaching against things rather than for them have created a pretty toxic bed in which we lie in. The result is that people no longer trust our Good News… it’s sounded so much like Bad News for so long that the people who need to hear it most are most resistant to it.)

So these men and women—unencumbered by the baggage of a church paycheck or an intimidating title—are out cultivating Good News (“Gospel”) seeds in bars and bookstores, ultimate frisbee fields and cooking schools, in poetry and music. The are doing the work that Jesus called his disciples (and therefore US) to in Mark 6: to go out and preach and heal.

It’s sad but true, but people are no longer automatically seeking to darken our doors in order to seek the healing that they so desperately need, so it’s up to these pioneers, entrepreneurs and artists to go out and find these people where they are at and invite them to the feast.

It’s Jesus work, through and through, even though it may look different than what we have been trained to recognize and appreciate. We cannot measure it easily, and they talk about things like art, quantum physics, culture and economics as much as they talk about faith (though any of those fields are not nearly as walled off from spirituality as you might think).

Simply put, they are reaching people that we can’t reach… or really won’t reach… or have given up on trying to reach.

It’s easy to write them off as rebels, or as taking the “easy way out”, but we need to be there for them, because they will need us. First of all, the work they do is difficult: they are interacting sometimes with levels of pain that we don’t see, because many people still try to sanitize their pain for the church. They are also traveling, out there without a net, and making it up as they go along, sometimes without healthcare or a steady paycheck (much less a pension).

Nevertheless, even when they don’t always recognize it, they need us in their corner. At our best, we are repositories of centuries of received wisdom and theology and “God-talk.” We can be deep wells for them: not just of knowledge and wisdom, but of comfort and healing and conversation.

TO THE NEW EVANGELISTS…

Or “renegades”, or entrepreneurs, or simply authors, musicians, and speakers…

You need us.

I know you don’t always like us, or appreciate the work that we do. I know it seems as if we are more into building stable kingdoms of church membership and worship spaces and rules, but we are doing our best to live out our call to be consistent and reliable places for the People of God to meet with each other and with the Father.

An overwhelming majority of us believe desperately in what we do, and so very much want to make a difference in the world in which we live. We wake up and go to work—often not paid all that well—and try to balance the needs of an organization with the needs of an organism, and it’s not very easy to do that.

But we do our best.

We do our best to balance bureaucracy and beauty, ministry and “paying the bills.”

The truth is, we partly envy your work: the ability to create and to interact with people who have shown up to hear you speak, or play, or buy your book. Intentionally or not, we have engaged in a life of stability of place, of “rootedness,” of dealing with the same people with the same problems in the same place over a long period of time.

It’s, as Eugene Peterson puts it, “A long obedience in the same direction.”

But we have things to offer you.

You see, most of us have studied. A lot. We have (hopefully) learned to handle the Bible, our Book, responsibly, and we have also hopefully learned to discern the ways of God in the world.

This is important because—and I know you won’t like to hear this—most of the time songwriters are not theologians. Poets are not scholars.

Some of us are those things, and we can help.

I think N.T. Wright said something about how artists create awareness of spiritual needs and hunger. They help people identify their desire.

Art isn’t always called to tie things up in a bow. You can’t always solve peoples’ problems in a 90 minute seminar, and while theology shouldn’t necessarily (ever?) tie things up in a bow either, we vocational pastors and “church people”, can be there for the long haul, guiding the hurting into little house churches or small groups where they can unburden their lives (and share other peoples’ burdens as well).

We can help massage points or concepts as well, and drive others deeper.

We can be resources for you, both in your messages and in your ministry.
I have been in both of these places. I have sung the Gospel in bars, and I’ve pronounced it from a platform on Sunday morning. The best theology isn’t always found in song lyrics or a painting, but it’s also not always found on Sunday mornings.

We need each other.

Let’s talk.

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