By most measures, it was a typical Wednesday morning commute. Coffee in the cupholder, slow traffic, radio tuned to NPR, brain wandering and wondering if it is ready for the day. But this day was not a normal day. Local government officials were beginning to encourage us to practice social distancing, diligent hand-washing, and no face-touching. It was the third Wednesday of Lent and I was rehearsing my sermon for that evening in my head. My colleague and I had been invited to preach a 5-week Lenten sermon series on the Public Church at a local church. I was in the middle of a thought – reminding myself NOT to crack any inappropriate jokes about the pandemic during the sermon – when I noticed a crowd gathered on the overpass. The Saint Paul Federation of Educators (St. Paul Public School’s teachers’ union) had just begun their strike and they were demonstrating on every overpass that crossed Interstate 35E and Interstate 94 in Saint Paul. I honked to show my support as I drove under the bridge. Then it hit me. These teachers are beginning their necessary strike which will require public demonstrations. How will they do this while honoring the call to social distancing? We will be preaching tonight, encouraging a congregation to move into their neighborhood as a public church. How will they do this while honoring the call to social distancing? It has been two months since that not-at-all-normal morning commute, and I think I have some things to say about how we live as a Public Church in a pandemic.
from Church to Home to Neighborhoods
If our goal is simply catechesis – teaching people what we believe – then all we need is new delivery methods for the information we want people to have. But if our goal is the transformation of lives and the worlds we live in with our neighbors, then delivering information over the interwebs is not enough. The church has become quite skilled at delivering information and assuming it’s forming faith and transforming lives. I have been so impressed with the creative ways congregations are delivering everything from worship services, to game-nights, to virtual retreats. But I also want us to find creative ways to remain public.
In Caminemos Con Jesús: Toward a Hispanic/ Latino Theology of Accompaniment Roberto Goizueta says God’s preferential option for the poor “. . . implies a preferential option for the home, the city, and, the crossroads where home and city meet, the church.” The mainline church’s current understanding of the relationship between home and congregation is one of partnership between the home and the congregation in order to enhance faith formation in both. Goizueta values both home and church, but sees their partnership as being for the sake of the city or public. The home is not where we rehearse for a Christian life lived in a congregation, nor is the congregation the place where we rehearse for a Christian life lived in our homes. Instead, the congregation becomes the place where communities of all types (i.e., friends, families, etc.) rehearse for a Christian life lived in the community, or the public square. In this sense, the family becomes the learning unit, not the individual. An individual is not taught how to be a disciple by her parents; rather the whole family learns to live as faithful, freed and called disciples in their own communities. The congregation is called to help the family learn new ways to engage and respond to their neighbors in their public encounters. So, simply delivering content to homes is not enough. How can we, in this pandemic, be a crossroads where home and city meet – where our individual members and families learn to be good news for their neighbors in a pandemic? Paulo Freire says education is always for domestication or liberation. How are we – in this pandemic teaching for liberation and not domestication? Are we spending our time trying to keep our people’s’ attention on our congregations or are we freeing them to be good news for their neighbors?
Die to Live
A few years ago, there was a story in the Star Tribune about a small congregation in Woodbury, MN that knew it was dying. They made the decision to go out in a blaze of glory by spending down their endowment in service of their community. They would only gather for worship – no meetings – and the rest of their time together would be spent serving their neighborhood. They visited local nursing homes, read stories at the local elementary school, and put together weekend meal kits for the students at that school and their families. They took up the hard work of engaging their neighbors. They saw their neighbors’ struggles and began to give themselves away for the sake of these neighbors.
And. They. Grew.
These neighbors started attending worship. And the church did not close. The congregation chose to die gracefully so the Body of Christ could live. If we put our energy into ensuring the sustainability and longevity of our congregations at the expense of our neighbors’ needs, then we run the risk of losing both our neighbors and our congregations. But if we put our energy towards ensuring the wellbeing of our neighbors and our neighborhoods, then even if we lose our congregations, we will have become the body of Christ incarnate in our neighborhoods. In the midst of this pandemic, we are all dying to live again. Maybe the best way we can be dying to live is by risking the financial future of our congregations. After all, most of our congregations are built with dollars whose origins are rooted in American slavery and most of our buildings are on land stolen from Native Americans.
Public ministry in a pandemic will require us to face death head-on. It is inevitable. We cannot avoid it. Our congregations might not die, but parts of our congregations will need to die so that the good news of Jesus Christ might live into our communities. I heard from many leaders who recognized their impulse to over-function immediately after we were ordered to stay at home. We cannot, and should not, do everything. But what will we let die? Our neighbors need life and hope, they do not need a lot of what we spend resources on as a church. What might God’s spirit be asking us to let die so that we have resources for where life is needed? Can we eliminate some practices, some “sacred cows”, some expenses that are not bringing life to our neighborhoods right now?
Trust the Artforms
Hopefully you are saying, “Yes. We can let things die so our neighbors might have life.” But you also might be wondering how you determine what can be released and how your neighbors might need you to show up. This is when I beg you to trust the artforms of the Public Church Framework.
In September 2011 I invited a group of ministry leaders to join Walter Brueggemann and I for breakfast at Augsburg University to begin imaging a new approach to discipleship with young people that prioritized community engagement over catechesis. To be clear, catechesis (or the teaching of core beliefs) is still critical, but I do not think it is the place to begin. Instead, I believe faith formation or discipleship or Christian education must begin by encountering life and the neighbor. From there we can move into catechesis, or the teachings of our faith, with the questions that arise from our encounter with our neighbor. I’m sure I’m wrong, but I like to think our conversation shaped Brueggemann’s latest book, Materiality as Resistance: Five Elements for Moral Action in the Real World. I’m sure I’m right when I say this conversation with these ministry leaders shaped the creation of what we now call the Public Church Framework.
The Public Church Framework is a process of four movements – what we call artforms – which include: (1) accompaniment, (2) interpretation, (3) discernment, and (4) proclamation. It grows out of the assumption that we must first do the hard work of hearing our neighbors’ bad news if we want to know how to proclaim good news to them.
These are the artforms we must lean on now more than ever during this pandemic. These movements will help our people move from their homes into their neighborhoods as accompaniers, interpreters, discerners, and proclaimers of good news – as faithful people who are dying to live.
If you are reading this as one of our Riverside Innovation Hub partner congregations, then you have already been learning how to flex these muscles. You know what it feels like to practice accompaniment, interpretation, discernment, and proclamation. If you are not one of our partner congregations, it is my hunch that you also already know how to do this work. We like to say the Public Church Framework is descriptive not prescriptive. I like to say it’s not rocket surgery. It is not prescribing a fool-proof technology for solving the church’s challenges. It is simply describing what we already do when we are attempting to proclaim Christ’s good news into our world. You are certainly already doing all of these artforms, but you might not be doing them intentionally. Or you might not be doing them intentionally in relation to one another. Or you might not be involving your entire congregation in the work of these artforms. They are not a planning method reserved for the professional church staff or council. They are meant to be practices or habits that shape the congregation’s culture and life together. Are you simply delivering content to your congregation right now, or are you equipping them to transform lives where they live?
The muscles we have been building are the muscles we need now more than ever – listening, thinking theologically, discerning, and proclaiming. Double-down on these movements right now. Use them with your leadership teams, teach your congregation how to practice them in their homes and in their neighborhoods. They need you to proclaim the good news to them but they also need you to help them learn to discern how they are being called to participate in the good news with others right now.
Some Questions to get you Started
I can’t tell you how you should do this in your context. That depends on your gifts as a leader, your congregation’s assets, and the realities of your congregation’s neighborhood. But I can ask you some questions to get you thinking and wondering about the work to be done.
- What are the listening posts in your congregation’s neighborhood? Where are the stories of your neighbors being shared? Those places where your congregation can interact with and listen to the neighbors who live around the congregation. Maybe these used to be coffee shops and school board meetings. Now they might have moved on-line. Or maybe your congregation is still serving meals to the neighbors or hosting blood drives, etc. How can you find the places where people are still “gathering” so that you can listen to them?
- How are you helping members of your congregations find or create listening posts in their own neighborhoods? What are some ways they can put themselves in places where they will hear their neighbors’ stories, joys, concerns, celebrations, and fears?
- RESOURCE: One-to-One Relational Meetings – A great introduction to one-to-one meetings that includes a list of excellent questions to help you be in conversation with your neighbors.
- What are the core theological convictions or key elements of the biblical narrative you find yourself drawn to during this pandemic? What aspects of your faith are helping you find meaning and understand the world right now?
- How do these core convictions and key elements interact with your neighbor’s stories? How do their stories shed light on your core convictions? How do your core convictions shed light on their stories? Where do you hear God at work in their stories? Where do you hear them longing for God in their stories?
- Do the members of your congregation share some core theological convictions? Are there elements of the biblical narrative that are important to your congregation’s shared life together? How can you help your people gain a better understanding of their core beliefs and how those beliefs might help them think theologically (and hopefully) about their neighbors’ stories?
- RESOURCE: “Scripts” featuring Walter Brueggemann – A six minute video introducing us to the idea of the dominant script and the counterscript. The dominant script is the story we are forced to live that is not life giving. The counterscript is the story of the gospel that has a very different way of thinking about the world and our place in it. This is a nice way to begin seeing the importance of thinking theologically (counterscript) about our lived realities (dominant script). “Counterscript” by Walter Brueggemann – An article on the same theme.
- Discernment begs this question: Given what you’ve seen and heard in your accompaniment and interpretation, who is God calling you to be? What is God calling you to do? What are some ways you can gather your people around these questions in this time? I imagine we are all wondering what it is God is calling us to do and be since the pandemic has turned our world upside down.
- How can you teach your people to weave together God’s story and their neighbors’ stories in a way that leads them to begin seeing how God is calling them to be present and active in their neighborhoods for the sake of the neighbor?
- RESOURCE: Discernment as a way of Life – A nice six-part introduction to discernment as a communal and individual spiritual practice.
- Now that you have heard your neighbors’ stories, have thought about them theologically, and have discerned how God is calling you into your neighbors’ story with good news – what will you do to proclaim that good news? Proclamation is not always words. Our neighbor might need our actions more than our words. And sometimes proclamation happens by amplifying the good news that is already present rather than inserting good news into a situation.
- How can you gather your people together to proclaim the good news you have discerned in creative ways that honor our new rules of life in a pandemic? Is the good news something they need to hear or something they need to experience?
- How can you equip your people to plan and implement their own proclamation of good news through word and deed into their own neighborhoods?
- RESOURCE: Mele Murals – A documentary about a team of Hawaiian graffiti artists who work with a group of Native Hawaiian youth to create public art that teaches the youth their culture and history. This film is not about the proclamation of Christianity but it is an excellent example of a team of people accompanying a community, interpreting what they learn through the lens of their core beliefs, discerning the proper action to take, and then creating a public proclamation of beauty and pride and liberation.
Habits for Life
Our world has turned upside down. We don’t know if or when we will ever be able to return to normal. The Unitarian Universalist Association is recommending their congregations plan to not gather until June 2021. We will need to resist the desire to over-function while also recognizing we have to do more than what we are currently doing. Things will need to die, or be let go, so that we can take on the new work God is placing before us. The Public Church Framework is a way of walking together into the unknown that prioritizes the neighbor, it is shaped by your congregation’s core beliefs, rooted in communal discernment of God’s movement, and intended for proclamation. It is not a planning tool for leaders, it is a series of movements/ practices/ habits that can shape the culture of your congregation. It is a toolkit your members can access in their own homes and in their own neighborhoods. Even in a pandemic with stay-at-home orders in place and real risks involved in being in public, we are still called to be a public (rather than private) church. Our neighborhoods are steeped in anxiety, despair, and bad news. Our call is to participate in the proclamation of hope and good news that challenges the particular ways anxiety, despair and bad news is showing up in the lives of our neighbors. God has promised to empower us to do this. May it be so.