We have all been hearing a lot about change lately and many of us are experiencing it. Our politicians probably droned on about it far too long during the political campaigns. But now we are talking about changes in our economy, changes in our health care system, changes in our financial institutions, our educational systems and yes, we occasionally hear about changes in our churches.
But two weeks ago I experienced a change I could not have imagined any time in the past. I attended the Earl Lectures at Pacific School of Religion. I have been doing this for over twenty-five years. The lectures were established in 1901 to bring prominent religious leaders to Berkeley’s university community. These lectures have featured such internationally known figures as Theodore Roosevelt, Elie Wiesel, Howard Thurman, Maya Angelou, Paul Tillich, Walter Brueggemann, and Alice Walker.
So what was the surprise? This year the featured speaker was Jay Bakker the son of Tammy and Jimmy Bakker. Jay’s claim to fame (besides his parents) is that he started a very exciting and rapidly growing church called The Revolution and he has written a book about his experience. It seems that after a rough childhood and difficult teen years, lots of experimentation with drugs and atheism, he had an epiphany. He discovered and was attracted to a “new kind” of inclusive Christianity that focused on love and not sin. He did not need to go to school and study theology. He did not need to get educated about the historical Jesus. He simply had to be a follower of Jesus and learn to love more fully and completely, we were told.
So this young man, with tattoos all over his arms, with rings in nose and eyebrows, without a high school diploma writes a book, gets invited to be a keynote speaker at a prestigious graduate seminary and makes jokes about how out of touch we old folks really are. And what really drives me crazy is that he was right!
During this conference we were given the opportunity to participate in three different worship services led by church leaders from three very different churches. We also observed parts of three other church services on video and learned about some of these three congregation’s remarkable accomplishments.
The oldest minister in this combined group of six was a Presbyterian who I believe was in his late thirties. As far as I know he was the only one who was part of a national denomination and his church was the only one that was meeting in what you might call a church building. They have done everything in their power to make it look like something other than a church, including removing the pews, adding coffee tables and big pillows for the floor. The others in this group of six featured churches were meeting in warehouses, old movie theaters and one in a crummy downtown bar.
At respective services we sang something like praise music, simple repetitive, verses, and we danced and moved to the live band music. We watched video screens with beautiful pictures. One service started with Japanese Taiko drums.
The young participants in our audience were enthralled. Many were seminarian students. Others, like anthropologists were fascinated and some appeared to be mildly interested. A few people left after the first session.
You must remember that the average age of the audience was probably 55 or older. We were used to hearing lectures from famous people that we were supposed to respect because of their intelligence, their degrees, their publications and reputations.
What we heard were young people who could care less about hermeneutics or apocalyptic genres but had a great passion for sharing what they believed was a transformational message of Jesus. Each and every one of them had the audacity to believe what they had to share, if taken seriously, would change someone’s life! They just assumed that becoming a Christian meant that something fundamental changes in the way one lives and the way one views their life.
This three day conference was focusing on something that has become a national phenomenon. It is referred to as the emerging church or emerging Christianity. I want to assure you that these emerging young Christians have attracted a lot of interest on the part of social scientists and denominational leaders.
You know why? They are growing vital and exciting churches without preaching fear and eternal damnation. They are teaching the Jesus story without focusing on atonement and salvation. They are focusing on grace rather than sin. And they spend lot of time in worship and small groups talking about ways to practice Jesus’ path of love and compassion. They are doing it because they believe in a theology of change. They actually believe that the purpose of the Christian faith is personal and social transformation.
And according to the data that have been collected by sociologists, like Gerardo Marti, professor of religion at Davidson College, they really are changing lives. He has been studying this new movement for over four years now, has published several articles and a book about it and has a new one coming out this year.
Professor Marti wondered what these somewhat disparate growing churches have in common and the list is interesting and too long to cover here. But the most important one is that these young church leaders passionately believe that they are in partnership with God. And they teach their members that they are in partnership with God to make a difference. And they believe that anyone who wants to participate in the life of that congregation is in partnership with God…not to build buildings or grow the congregation or even to save lives…but to change lives.
Marti states that this shared passion was the common trait in all of the churches he studied. I wondered what the response from the over middle aged audience might be after one of my seatmates walked out of the session grumbling: “I’m too old for this.”
After each of the sessions, I sat out in the lobby and listened to some of the comments from the attendees. I started asking people what they thought about what was going on. Admittedly most of the people I talked to were clergy that had been in the ministry for years.
“Well this certainly hasn’t been any help to me. My congregation would throw me out the door if we tried any of that stuff,” one colleague stated.
“Can you believe that phony praise music? I was offended,” another whispered.
After the conference I met with a few of my colleagues for lunch and heard more of the same types of responses. One of my peers said: “Can you believe that crappy repetitive music?” He was almost angry.
I reminded him that ancient chants were repetitive and they have worked pretty well for a couple thousand years.
Another friend said that it was nothing but “Christianity light.” I presume this was a play on the Budweiser beer, “Bud Light,” with fewer calories implying that the theology was not very deep.
But I wondered, how changing lives can ever be light? How many of us clergy go into churches on Sunday morning and assume that lives are going to be changed by our words or the something that happens in the worship service. Most of the time we are busy watching our words for fear someone will be offended. We don’t want “change” if it means that some one might leave.
Clearly a lot of people enjoyed the experience and some were very enthusiastic. But I am not certain how many of the three hundred or so participants thought that there was much there that they could take back to their own churches. And if they felt that way, I think they missed the point and I am not surprised. This lecture series was about change.
I have done church growth workshops for nearly 20 years, and have frequently worked with clergy and church members who wanted only to find a simple way to increase their church membership without changing the way they did anything.
It seems so ironic that people who are trying so hard to hold on to something that is no longer working, trying to keep things the way they have always been, are supposed to be representing a man who was a radical change agent in his own time. Not only was he advocating changes in his own religion, the entire Jesus message, the foundation of Christianity, has always been about change:
Repentance is about change;
Forgiveness is about change
Conversion is about change;
Transformation is about change;
Love is about change;
Resurrection is about change;
Taking on the mind of Christ is about change.
In fact, I would posit that the whole primordial mythic Christian epic is about life and death and rebirth. It is about learning to die every day and being reborn…again and again as we grow spiritually.
Professor Marti states that “if you do not like change you should not be a Christian.”
Now please understand, the change I refer to here is not necessarily about video screens and pillows on the floor. It is not about tattoos and rings in the nose. It is not about rock music and Taiko drums at worship.
It is about embracing a theology of change. It is about the belief that the church is in partnership with God to change lives- to heal, where healing is needed; to provide growth where growth is wanted; and to provide guidance, when someone is seeking a deeper relationship with their true being…the Living God.
But if a congregation really believes that it is in partnership with God to change lives, then it cannot be held hostage by those who do not want to change anything. If a church believes that it has a transformative message for young people, then it will be compelled to find ways to share that message, regardless of what changes must be made. And if a church takes that commission seriously, it will not look much like most churches today. It would not have services that sound or feel like most churches today.
There are clearly changes coming and they provide wonderful opportunities for courageous churches. But first they must be willing to embrace a theology of change as part of the Christian way. And second, they must passionately believe that they are in partnership with God to change lives. According to Marti, “the leadership of such a church will have to be transformational rather than managerial” in the way it functions. That can be chaotic, challenging, scary, and even sloppy. And change is always hard. That is probably why there are a lot of empty churches today.
I close with the words of one of my favorite poets, Bob Dylan.
Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.
Adapted from a presentation offered at the Irvine United Congregational Church, February 15, 2009