Being the Church: Neighborhood Ministries

Chances are pretty good that soup kitchens will not be moving online.

As I talked about in my pastoral care article, there are certain activities that simply have to occur in person: feeding people, hugging people, childcare, trying on clothing, helping someone move, sheltering the homeless, secondhand sales, neighborhood fairs…in other words, lots of traditional neighborhood ministries.  For many faith communities, neighborhood ministries are an essential part of being faithful.  What happens to these ministries as more and more faith communities shift to the eighth continent?

I’ve written before that, in the post-pandemic era, those of us in communities that are hybrid (partly online, partly not) are de facto eighth continent faith communities.  If we’re not, then what we’re really doing is inviting online participants into worship as guests, not as full members of the faith community, because online participants are prevented from participating in the social, service, and/or decision-making functions of the group.  

It feels to me as though it could quickly become strange for an online or hybrid faith community to run a food pantry in, for example, Springfield, Missouri, if an increasing percentage of those who are part of the faith community have never been to Springfield, Missouri.  Everyone might start out with excellent intentions, but eventually, I can see how there might be fewer and fewer volunteers available at the food pantry (since many in the community aren’t geographically close enough to volunteer), and suddenly, the congregation is deciding whether or not to fund a ministry that many of them have never seen that is staffed by overtired volunteers.  What happens over time to the neighbors who rely on this food pantry?

To me, this scenario, in which a neighborhood ministry continues because of momentum and then slowly falls apart, letting down the people who depend on it, is the worst available option.  But there are a number of other ways to go, depending on the circumstances of your faith community.

Suppose that you are certain your neighborhood ministry needs to continue and certain that your faith community is called to run it.  In this case, you already know who you are as a faith community, and this particular neighborhood ministry is probably at the heart of your activities together.  Most of your congregation is probably involved in the activities of the ministry in some way, supporting it with volunteer hours, financial contributions, prayer, and/or encouragement.  

Maybe yours will be a faith community that doesn’t maintain an online component after the pandemic.  Having online worship may have been a good emergency measure, but you’re really a group that’s called to be closely entwined with your geographic neighborhood, in which case, it is okay to turn off the WiFi.  Not every faith community needs to be online.  If you are absolutely certain that you need to continue your online presence, be clear about the expected relationship between online members and your neighborhood ministry, and be prepared for this to drift naturally if the proportion of local to non-local attenders changes.  You’ll have to be deliberate about checking in on this every couple of years.

Or suppose that you are certain your neighborhood ministry needs to continue but not certain that your faith community is called to run it.  In this case, you may have already seen signs of this before the pandemic.  You might have noticed that fewer members of your congregation were directly involved with the ministry, possibly less than half.  Or maybe maintaining the ministry is starting to feel like a hardship for other reasons.  But you know that the neighborhood ministry is still needed because people are still making use of it on a regular basis.  

If this is the case, it might be time to think about how to gracefully release that ministry.  Does it have a core of volunteers and financial supporters?  Is it possible that some of these core supporters are not even part of your faith community?  Is there another faith community or a community nonprofit that might be prepared to take this ministry under its wing?  Or is the ministry large enough and strong enough that it might be ready to become its own nonprofit?  To hold onto control of a necessary ministry when your faith community is no longer genuinely called to run it harms both the ministry and the faith community.  The ministry needs enthusiastic support; the faith community needs its energy to go where God is directing it.  One place the energy might be going is developing a vital and growing online or hybrid congregation.

Or it’s possible that you are no longer certain this particular neighborhood ministry needs to continue but certain that your faith community is called to run neighborhood ministries.  A lot has shifted since the pandemic began.  What the neighborhood needed before might not be what the neighborhood needs now.  And yet, if your faith community continues to have the calling, the energy, and the finances to run neighborhood ministries, you have the chance to begin anew!  

In fact, if you find yourself in this situation, it might even be a chance to make the shift from a charity model to an empowerment model, if you haven’t done that already.  Instead of thinking about what your neighbors don’t have, can you think about what your neighbors do have and find ways to support their gifts?  My favorite resource detailing this process is Michael Mather’s book, Having Nothing, Possessing Everything, about just such a shift at Broadway Methodist Church in Indianapolis.

As in the case of the faith community with an ongoing neighborhood ministry, yours might be a faith community that doesn’t need an online component.  But if you’re sure that you do, take care to define the relationship between online, non-local members and the local neighborhood ministries, and be prepared for that to naturally shift over time.

Or maybe you are no longer certain this particular neighborhood ministry needs to continue and not certain that your faith community is called to run neighborhood ministries.  This might be good news, even if it feels hard, because it makes it that much easier (at least, easier on the neighborhood) for you to close the neighborhood ministry that you’re no longer really called to run.  This may still be difficult for the faith community.  You may grieve a time when you had more energy for neighborhood ministries.  You may be wondering what your faith community is called to do now.  If that’s the case, I suggest you read on to the next section.

There are many faith communities that don’t have an active neighborhood ministry at all.  There are many reasons why that might be true.  Maybe your faith community has never felt called to neighborhood ministry, or never felt able.  Or maybe you had neighborhood ministries when the pandemic started but have closed them, either because that seemed like the right thing to do or because you couldn’t see any way to keep them going.

In this case, it’s time for discernment: what does it mean to love your neighbor?  Start by taking a look at who you are now, as a faith community.  Are you still a faith community worshiping in person, entirely composed of local members?  Or are you a faith community worshiping entirely or partly online, with geographically disparate members?  Are you called to an ongoing neighborhood ministry as a faith community as a whole? Or have circumstances changed—maybe because you’re too small to run a ministry, or maybe because you’re so geographically disparate that you’re no longer associated with a single neighborhood?

My suspicion is that many of our faith communities are not called to run independent neighborhood ministries right now.  If yours is, by all means, live into that call.  But if yours is not, that doesn’t mean you can’t be serving your neighbors.  It doesn’t mean that volunteering can’t be central to who you are as a faith community.  Suppose that you encouraged members to find their own ways of serving their neighborhoods, wherever they might be?  Suppose that sharing stories about service became part of your regular social gatherings or worship services—not for the purpose of bragging or recognition but for the purpose of providing examples to one another, sharing your joys, and reminding yourselves to center this work?

Not long ago, I heard a sermon from Bishop Gene Robinson in which he pointed out that many of us (those of us who are middle class or upper class, especially) seem to equate giving money with giving service.  We do not, ourselves, feed the hungry or clothe the naked or visit the sick.  We pay somebody to do that.  He hastened to add, “Not that I want to discourage you from giving money!”  But he pointed out that there is something different, something visceral, something that shifts our worldview when we ourselves serve our neighbors directly.

Even in a post-pandemic, very two-dimensional flat-screen sort of world, we can still center this.

Being the Church: Stuck With Each Other

Someone told me once that, in the Quaker tradition, joining a congregation is a covenant, like a marriage, except it was a marriage to everybody in the group.  I was momentarily horrified.  I’ve written a lot about covenant relationship and intend to write more at some point, but for now, I want to focus on just one aspect of covenant, which is this: being stuck with each other.

Not every faith community has a theology of covenant relationship within the congregation, but we can all identify with the idea of being stuck with each other.  We’ve all had the experience of That Person in the congregation.  (More of us than realize it have probably been That Person for someone else.)  That Person might just be annoying (chews with their mouth open, sings the hymns loudly and off key) or might be obstructive (refuses to go along with repainting the building unless their semi-incompetent nephew gets the contract) or might be genuinely threatening (sexually harassing or abusing other members of the congregation). 

We, as individuals in the same congregation, have multiple options in terms of dealing with That Person.  We can ignore them; we can encourage them to change; we can report them to an authority; we can rearrange the power dynamics so as to give them less influence; we can gossip about them; we can ask them to leave the congregation; we can, ourselves, leave the congregation.  Which is right will depend on a great many factors. For example, ignoring the off-key singer might be merciful and loving, while ignoring the sexual harasser will cause more people to be harmed.  

The “right” response to That Person depends a lot on their actions, their motivations, our own degree of involvement in the situation, the institutional power dynamics in which we both find ourselves, the potential consequences of inaction or wrong action, and more.  There are absolutely times when the “right” action is for the community to ask the person to leave, and there are times when the “right” action is for us to leave.  Sometimes, the best and most Godly way to respond to a situation is to end contact with someone, either permanently or temporarily, especially in cases of ongoing abuse.  I want to be really clear about affirming that because of what I’m going to say next.

Which is this: I am concerned that it has become too easy to end our relationships with people we don’t like.

Digitalization in the pandemic and post-pandemic era has accelerated a pre-existing trend within the church, which is our tendency to simply change faith communities—or drift away altogether—when we’re disillusioned with the people we have been worshiping alongside.  Sometimes, it’s just one or two people who bother us so much that we no longer want to co-exist with them.  Sometimes, it’s some kind of systemic sluggishness or unwelcome community momentum that makes us leave.  Sometimes, we’re tired of the infighting or the lack of action or the unhealthy power dynamics.  Eventually, we want to disconnect, and the ability to attend another congregation online makes it that much easier.  The new community almost always seems shinier.  We haven’t had time to grow annoyed with them.  It’s often easier to love a stranger than a long-time acquaintance.

All by itself, this isn’t such a big deal.  But our ability to hop from one faith community to another is a manifestation of a broader societal shift.  

In the United States, for example, most of us live in political bubbles, either very red or very blue.  There arepurple communities in this country, but they are few and far between.  So we’re likely to work with, relax with, and live beside people whose political views are roughly similar to our own.

Social media further encourages bubbling, since the algorithms quickly learn what we like to see and what we don’t, and then they stop showing us posts from people we disagree with.  We might have hundreds or thousands of diverse “friends,” but we rarely see anything posted by the friends who don’t share our views.  If I don’t like my friend Alejandro’s politics, I probably won’t see his political posts, and eventually, the social media platform also won’t show me pictures of his grandchildren.  Unless I’m texting him or writing him letters, we lose touch.

Our culture, too, encourages this trend.  I see so much of people drawing a line in the sand and not only refusing to change but refusing to speak with anyone who disagrees.  I see this from all kinds of people, many of whom are beloved to me.  The general attitude is this: “If you said or did such-and-such, then you aren’t worth listening to.”  Sometimes it even goes beyond responding to someone’s actions and becomes preemptive.  I see friends on social media posting, “If you don’t agree with such-and-such, then unfriend me right now.  I want nothing to do with you.”

This feels like exactly what Paul was talking about in 1 Corinthians 12: “Now if the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.  And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body…the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’”

Where, in today’s society, are we expected to learn how to be in relationship with people we find annoying?  With people we dislike?  With people whose views or actions we believe are outright harmful?  I think we’ve seen ample evidence that people don’t change when other people tell them how horrible they are.  Change, when it happens, is a matter of divine grace, often prompted by an accumulation of many surprising small acts of love.  If you shout at me or refuse to speak to me, I am unlikely to draw the conclusion that I should be more like you.  If you listen to me or show me kindness, I am also unlikely to change immediately—but if this happens enough times, over a long enough period of time, then I might begin to wonder whether your position has some merit.

What’s the role of the church in all this?

Again, I go back to the old-timey books, in which church conflict is often played for comedy.  There’s a reason for this.  It’s because conflict within the church was such a common experience that everyone could identify with it.  The members of the church might despise one another, but they nevertheless remained as members of the same faith community, because they didn’t have much choice.  They had to learn to co-exist.

Adults today have very few opportunities to be in forced relationship through profound disagreements.  And I really think that’s a bad thing, for the church and for the world as a whole.  I read what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12 as a statement that nobody can leave the church and nobody can get kicked out of the church.  Everybody is needed.  This is both amazing news and the worst news ever.  We might even be momentarily horrified.  Everybody?  Even That Person?

Paul was trying to teach us that difficult relationships are part of the pathway to the kingdom of God.  So I say again—what’s the role of the church in this?

One thing we can do is talk about it.  We can talk about the importance of being in difficult relationships.  We can talk about acting in counter-cultural ways and maintaining relationships that are really hard, and not just within the church.  But maintaining difficult relationships might not actually be enough.  We might have to seek relationships with people we don’t especially like, don’t understand, or don’t agree with, because the way our society is organized today, it is far too easy for most of us to live day to day in affinity bubbles of various sorts, never meeting or engaging with the “other” that we hear about on the news.

A lot of our churches implicitly or explicitly encourage severing relationships with the “other.”  Some do it in the name of purity; some do it in the name of safety.  Most of the time, this boils down to the same thing: we will not engage with those who might harm us.

As I said in the very beginning, there are some situations—usually situations involving abuse or physical violence—in which the genuinely Godly response is to end contact with someone.  Ending contact doesn’t even imply that we don’t care for somebody.  Sometimes, ending contact is about stopping an enabling relationship or keeping someone from physical harm.  I see God in that decision.

What we might all do, however, is revisit our definition of harm.  Under what circumstances can we deliberately seek a 1 Corinthians 12 relationship with someone we find ourselves hesitating to engage with?  Can we join a bowling league with people whose politics mostly differ from ours?  Can our local faith community reach out to a faith community in another part of the country and build a relationship through mutual visitation?  Can we host a Zoom dinner and invite people with drastically different experiences of a social issue to each share their stories?  

If the answer is no, we can’t, then how can we ever hope for peace?

Being the Church: Organizations

Even before the pandemic, our long-term practice of organizing ourselves geographically had been getting pretty iffy.  Most faith organizations have local groups, small regional groups, and large regional groups, and this has been our structure for keeping track of ourselves, disseminating information, hiring staff, and making decisions.  

Does this approach still make sense?

I can think of one faith organization for which it definitely does, and that’s the Mormon church, more officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.  The reason geographic organization makes so much sense for that group is because they have a policy in place that members cannot attend a congregation other than the one to which they’re assigned geographically—or rather, they can, but there are serious limits on the ways in which they’re permitted to participate in the congregation if they do.  Because members understand that worshiping where they are assigned to worship is expected of them, they almost all do.  And because the church is organized so hierarchically, there are constant reorganizations of geographic boundaries, including closing of congregations and opening of new ones, in order to make sure that every local congregation is a sensible size.  This works efficiently and serves everyone well because the institutional organization is a good match for the behavior of the members.

But most faith organizations don’t function this way, and organizing ourselves geographically when the behavior of members is no longer based in geography isn’t working.  People attend the congregation to which they are drawn.  If one faith community no longer feels like a good match, they’ll move to another one, sometimes even crossing denominational boundaries to do so.  People attend one faith community over another for affinity reasons: I like the music there, I like the preaching there, I like the people there, I like the social opportunities for my children there.

Studies do show that, absent an Internet-based alternative, seekers are most likely to try out a new faith community within a twenty-minute travel radius of their home.  So geography matters at least that much.  But long-term members of a congregation behave differently.  Even if they move a town or two away, they will often continue to attend their “home” faith community because they have an affinity to it.  And when many of our communities started worshiping online, many of us discovered members returning from years ago—people who moved across the state or across the country but have always missed their “home” faith community.

What’s the purpose of our larger-than-local denominational organizations?  I think this differs based on theology.  

For some of us, it’s a top-down hierarchical structure.  We receive our instructions from people in leadership of the larger groups, the theory being that people holding those positions have been ordained by God to do so.

For some of us, it’s covenant relationship.  We connect to something larger than our local organizations so that we can have mutual reliance and help one another out.

For some of us, the larger organizations exist to support local groups, by providing expertise or guidance when the local groups are having difficulties.

For some of us, it’s a matter of needing someplace to “kick things upstairs.”  If there’s a conflict or an issue that can’t be resolved locally, we send it to the next-highest rung of the institution.

For some of us, it’s a matter of collective resources, knowing that larger institutions can do things that local institutions can’t because they have more money, more staff, and more connections.

For some of us, it provides validity for the local faith community, a way to say, “Yes, we are part of such-and-such denomination, which does all this great work.”

And for most of us, it is some combination of the above—and possibly other aspects, as well.

Here’s the problem: while having smaller groups within larger groups might still be the best way to organize ourselves, delineating these groups geographically wasn’t serving a lot of us pre-pandemic, and it certainly isn’t now.

For one thing, younger adults are incredibly mobile.  The average person in the United States today will move 11.7 times in the course of a lifetime.  Half of those moves occur between 18 and 40, which means that the average young adult will move every three or four years.  Under these conditions, structuring membership and belonging within our faith communities in such a way that it requires commitment to a local congregation no longer makes sense.  In faith traditions that traditionally require local commitment, younger adults have been asking for—and in some cases, getting—changes, so that they can be members of a larger, more geographically disparate organization.

But now, we’ve hit the point where non-geographic membership is an issue not just for individuals but for whole congregations.  Communities that moved their worship online, or partially online, now find themselves with frequent national or international participation.  To which geographic regional organization does the distant online member belong?  If, for example, the faith community’s building is located in Arizona, does the family attending their worship online from Portugal belong to the denominational organization in Arizona or to the denominational organization in Portugal?  Where do their financial contributions go?  Where does their service go?  Who provides support for them when they need help?  

What if the faith community with a building in Arizona hits a point at which more than half its regular attendance is online and comes from outside Arizona?  In that case, is it still the denominational organization in Arizona that’s responsible for the whole of the group?  Suppose that, instead of being spread out, the online contingency was actually a network of several hundred people all located in Portugal?  Does the denomination continue to serve them from Arizona, or does the denomination try to form a new congregation in Portugal?  Will the Portuguese worshipers even want their own local communities, or do they feel as though they are intimately connected with the group in Arizona?

These are not just hypotheticals.  I’ve met a Lutheran bishop facing a situation very much like this.

Let’s look at it another way.  I work with a Quaker institution that’s geographically organized to serve Quakers in New York, part of New Jersey, and part of Connecticut.  When we organized online Quaker parent support groups, we opened participation to Quakers everywhere.  We did this partly out of kindness but partly out of self-interest.  We simply don’t have enough parents that they would have enough schedule cross-over to form large, functional groups of parents with children who are similarly aged.  Even though the funding for the program came entirely from the New York-based institution, we had more than twice as many parents participating from outside our geographic area, and that was the only way to serve our “own” people effectively.

Most online denominational programming is drawing people from outside the designated geographic area.  We have moved to the eighth continent.

And I haven’t mentioned yet the new faith communities that have formed during the pandemic that are entirely online, with literally no geographic boundaries.  Where do they fit into denominational systems?  Or will we leave them adrift, without a larger organization to provide resources, support, and mutual accountability?  Some such groups may want to be independent, and that’s probably fine, but others feel very much a part of some particular denomination.  Are they?  Have we found a way to make that true?  Will these online groups have a voice in denominational decision-making?

I can think of three ways in which denominational organizations might be able to respond to these changes.

First, geographic organizations could decide—now, before test cases appear, if they haven’t already—how they will respond to membership requests (or de facto membership) coming in from the eighth continent.  If a local congregation used to have sixty regular participants, and that same local congregation now has seven hundred regular participants online, how will the denominational organization respond to that?  How does God ask us to be in relationship with distant members?  Who do we serve?  Who has the authority to participate in decision-making?  What is our financial relationship with members outside our geographic boundaries?  How do we support clergy people who are trying to be in relationship with members outside of their geographic boundaries?  How can we be assured that distant members are cared for in terms of physical needs, spiritual formation, and more?  Are there cultural implications or power inequities of which we need to be aware?  What will the organization do if a new “local congregation,” entirely online, inquires about affiliation with the organization?  If accepting an online group feels right, what about a distant group that is not online but that feels called to be part of your organization?  How will you approach that relationship?

Second, denominations could form online “regional” organizations for the express purpose of giving online members and online congregations groups with which to affiliate.  We might actually need denominational organizations for the purpose of serving the eighth continent.  If this is what’s needed, and if it’s not clear how to do it, why not look to our historical processes?  It might have been a while since we last opened a new geographic region, but we all have that procedure somewhere in our history.

Third, and most radically, denominations could consider phasing out geographic organization all together.  If we did not organize our regional groups geographically, how else could we do it?  What would it look like to have an affiliation of local congregations that are deliberate multiage faith communities?  Or an affiliation of local congregations with a primary concern for racial justice, or for earthcare?  Congregations that run schools?  Congregations with ministries to the homeless?  A worldwide “region” for congregations that worship in French?  

Would affinity-based organizations be able to do things like hire staff more effectively?  If the entire region agreed on a single focus, then we might not have to hire people for every position.  We might even have more clarity about who we are and what we’re called to be doing, which is definitely a center of conflict for a lot of religious organizations.

Some of these ideas might be ridiculous.  Some might have their own downsides.  But it’s time to start experimenting.  I’m not sure any new things we try could be more ridiculous than organizations operating strictly geographically when humans simply aren’t living our lives that way.

Being the Church: Worship

What is the purpose of worship?

Different faith traditions, and different faith communities within those faith traditions, would answer this question differently.  I would venture to say that even individuals within the same faith community might answer differently.  I can think of a whole bunch of possible purposes:

To praise God

To fulfill a commandment

To connect with other believers, alive and dead, through rituals

To pray/intercede together

To express gratitude

To rejoice

To have a mystical connection with God

To receive instruction from God

To teach theology

To make disciples

To receive communion

To renew covenants

To have a communal/social experience

To be comforted

To enjoy interesting speakers or music

To hear Scripture

To evangelize

What else should be included on my list?

This feels like a question worth asking now because so many of our faith communities are trying to figure out how to do worship in a post-pandemic era.  And if we want to figure out how, first we need to be certain of why.

When Covid first began, we all did the best we could to adapt our traditional worship to whatever new formats might be available to us.  We moved to Zoom; we streamed on Facebook; we sat six feet away from each other, outside; we mailed packets and liturgies to those who couldn’t access technology; we broadcasted by radio or conducted services in parking lots for people in their own cars.  Maintaining some kind of normal was, understandably and probably rightly, a big part of our concerns.  Whatever our people were accustomed to, we did that, changing only what was absolutely necessary.  We were all panicked enough, thank you.

But the situation is different now.  We have had some time to breathe.  It’s becoming clear, as Covid numbers swing wildly down and back up, that we’re not “going back to normal.”  And even if we could, in many cases, our congregations have shifted.  We can’t go completely offline and in-person, as we were before, without excluding our three new members in Idaho and the elderly couple in a nursing home that’s not allowed to leave the grounds and the young man who calls in on his cell phone to listen as he’s driving home from work Sunday mornings.

How do we figure out what to do?

What is the purpose of worship, and who is it for?  This will make a lot of difference.

In order to show what I mean, I want to consider the cases of four fictional faith communities. For each, I’ll answer the “why” and “who” questions, and then I’ll offer some thoughts about “how.”

Community A is a small, rural faith community with an elderly population.  Many of their members have underlying health conditions, and they are very nervous about returning to in-person church.  Their part-time clergy person—let’s call her Diane—is also elderly and semi-retired.  Because many members of the congregation are not comfortable with technology, the group has not met for worship since the pandemic began.  Diane visits members of the congregation as often as possible, but they are spread over a wide geographic area, and the driving plus check-in phone calls have been stressful and have often exceeded the twelve hours per week for which Diane is paid.

In her visits recently, Diane has begun to ask each person this question: what is the purpose of worship?  The sense she gathers from the group is that worship is for prayer, for comfort, and for a social experience.  Some members of the congregation also miss singing familiar hymns.

What does post-pandemic worship look like for this faith community?  Given the members’ distance from one another and the fact that they aren’t comfortable with technology or with gathering together physically, the future of worship for this community might be a Sunday morning conference call—no video component, just a call-in number and access code that can be used by any telephone.  During the conference call, the group might take turns making prayer requests and offering prayers.  They might each have a chance to share something important about their day-to-day lives: a new grandchild, the loss of a sibling, an interesting new book they’ve discovered.  One or more volunteers might take turns singing or reading a favorite hymn, and perhaps Diane could share a scripture passage related to that hymn and a few words about it.

It’s worth noting that this group probably isn’t going to grow.  That’s okay.  For this faith community, the purpose of worship is prayer, comfort, and familiar connection, and that can all happen on a simple conference call.

Community B is an urban faith community with a membership that has slowly dwindled in number over the past fifty years.  Today, it has about 150 members on the roles but only had a regular worship attendance of about 65 pre-pandemic.  Their full-time clergy person—Andrew—only began serving the community in the fall of 2019, and this was his first position as a second-career clergy person; previously, he’d been a high school chemistry teacher for twenty-five years.  All other roles in the faith community (religious education for children, music, office management, property maintenance) are traditionally filled by volunteers.

When the pandemic first began, Andrew (with support from the board members of his faith community) started streaming sermons and as much of the “normal” liturgy as possible from the worship space on Facebook Live, with written liturgy accessible on the faith community’s website so that people can follow along.  He has a real gift of speaking, and the group watching on Facebook Live quickly grew from about forty people to more than three hundred each week.  It’s not clear whether those watching are the same three hundred people every time, but they seem to represent a diverse group geographically, with some people joining in from other countries.  The volunteer music director has tried to include some music during some worship services, but this has been inconsistent because of copyright concerns and because providing music would require her to be in the room with Andrew, and for the first couple of months of the pandemic, it was not clear whether this was safe.

Andrew has tried to be in contact with those who were regular worship attenders pre-pandemic, but he did not know them well before the pandemic began.  No one is sure how many of the members of the faith community, including those who had previously been stalwart volunteers, are actually “at worship” during the livestream each week.  

The religious education for children volunteer—Hannah—has been hosting regular Zoom gatherings and some outdoor gatherings for the children and families, but this has been entirely separate from the weekly worship livestreams and usually happens on weekday evenings.  There are only about four families that are well connected to the faith community, anyway, all of whom have children who are elementary school age, and they tend to function as a social unit

In a meeting with the board of the faith community, Andrew poses the question: what is the purpose of worship?  The board members respond that the purpose is to praise God, to make disciples, to teach theology, and to practice liturgy.  But both Andrew and the board realize that livestreaming their worship through Facebook has shifted the make-up of their faith community dramatically, and they don’t even know in what way.  As they work toward reopening their building, do they want to simply continue the Facebook livestream as it has been, except now with people also physically in the room together?

It seems like the Facebook livestream of liturgy and a sermon is working pretty well for a lot of people, and if the congregation feels as though the general order of worship is helping the group effectively praise God, make disciples, and learn theology, then there’s no reason to change it much.  But it’s likely that the way worship is happening now is not working for the children and families in the community, and it’s also not giving the volunteer music director much opportunity to share her gifts.

This group might consider a couple of modifications to the way worship has been working.  

First, if the copyright problem of livestreaming music can’t be solved, they might consider having music at the beginning and end of worship each week, restricting the livestream to the portion in between.  This allows those who are physically present—and there will be some, as the building reopens—to participate in worship through song once again.  If Hannah is willing, it also might be helpful to ask her to do some sort of message or activity for children as part of the livestream each week.  This doesn’t need to replace the gathering of families on weekday evenings, but clearly, Hannah has a gift for nurturing spiritual community among families, and including her in the livestream will make it possible for her to share that gift with other families, as well.

This community could probably take some steps to address who they are outside of worship, as well, especially since they now have a population of people who they’ve never met who are connecting to their livestream.  But this blended model of worship, with particular attention to including children, will support praising God, building disciples, and teaching theology across all of their generations, for those who are gathered in person and for those who are afar.

Community C is a medium-sized suburban faith community for which the taking of communion is central to worship.  In the first few weeks of the pandemic, this faith community didn’t meet at all.  Later, they started meeting by Zoom, with their part-time clergy person (Elisabeth) leading the worship from her dining room table, since the faith community’s building did not have WiFi.  Worship included prayers, liturgy, singing (with everyone’s microphone on mute, except for one piano player), and a brief homily.  Elisabeth has made a regular pandemic practice of taking communion to individual people’s homes, but naturally, it is not possible for her to visit every home every week.  Most people have been receiving communion less than once per month.

In the summer of 2021, after most adults in the community were vaccinated, the community returned to worship in person, masked, with socially distanced seating and no coffee hour afterward.  The small group that made this decision did so knowing how central the receiving of communion was for this faith community.  However, this small group with decision-making power contained only adults in good health with no small children, as this is the group that has traditionally volunteered for leadership positions in this faith community.   They assumed that all adults in the community would simply return to worship and that the families with small children would similarly come back as soon as they could.  They were surprised to discover that quite a number of adults who previously attended worship regularly did not come back—or came back once or twice, then stopped coming.

This community needs to ask again: what is the purpose of worship?  Yes, the receiving of communion is essential.  But is that the only purpose?  Is it possible that worship is also for the purpose of spiritual formation, social connection, or something else that isn’t being met in an adults-only community under strict Covid protocols?

They might consider reinstating Zoom worship simultaneously with their in-person worship, installing WiFi in their building and placing a camera directly on Elisabeth.  Those who are joining by Zoom cannot participate in communion, but presumably, if they felt they could and wanted to participate in communion by being physically present, they would be.  Elisabeth could then continue taking communion directly to the homes of families with children or housebound individuals.  

Or, in this case, it’s possible that the more technological solution isn’t the right one.  Maybe what’s needed is a “sunny day worship” policy—if the weather is good, worship will happen in-person, still masked, but outdoors in the courtyard.  This makes it much safer for children and immunocompromised individuals to participate, and an outdoor gathering might even include an optional post-worship coffee hour.  If the weather is not good, worship will happen on Zoom.  The decision is made the night before worship, and a message goes out by text and email to everyone who has asked to be on the mailing list.

For this community, the primary—but not only—purpose of worship is receiving communion.  They need to be in person as much as possible, in a manner that includes as many of their people as possible.

Community D is also a suburban faith community, composed primarily of families with children ranging from preschool to middle school age.  They have no paid clergy and, pre-pandemic, took turns worshipping in one another’s homes.  They also took turns bringing spoken messages, activities, music, and food.  The families involved had long-term, close relationships with one another.  Worship gatherings were noisy, crowded, and full of joy.

When the pandemic started, the group did not meet for worship for the first two months.  Each family felt overwhelmed and scared by the sudden disruption to their routines.  The group considered meeting for a virtual worship, but the idea just felt wrong.  For this group, the purpose of worship was to rejoice, to have a connection with God, and to have a connection with one another.  None of that seemed possible over an Internet connection, especially because most of them were trying to do both work and school online.

When the weather got warmer, this community decided to try worshipping outside, wearing masks.  They quickly realized that different families had different levels of comfort with gathering in person.  Two families stopped attending completely.  The families that continued gathering to worship were now doing so in yards and public parks.  They were noticed.  Other families occasionally asked for information on how to join.

A few stalwart families continued to gather outside even during the winter, and the number of families that considered themselves part of the community continued to grow.  By summer 2021, most (but not all) of the adults in the group were vaccinated, although most of the children still could not be.  They continue to gather weekly, always outdoors, even when the weather is poor, although the group is very small when it rains.  To make sure everyone feels as safe as possible, they wear masks and do not share food.

Now, as the group approaches fall and winter again, they reconsider the question: what is the purpose of worship?  To rejoice, to have a connection with God, and to have a connection with one another.  What will that look like in the post-pandemic era?  Several of the new families who have been attracted to the group don’t own homes and would not have the ability to host a gathering.  And because the group has grown, it’s not clear that the whole community would fit into a single-family house for worship.

This faith community could look for a building, but they still aren’t comfortable meeting inside, and besides: it’s become clear to them that worship now has one more purpose…to evangelize.  They have grown because families have seen them worshipping outside and have wanted to join.  

Might they continue to worship outside?  Even as the weather grows colder, if they can find a pavilion in a public park, for example, or another outdoor space to rent where people often pass by, this group could continue their worship in visible ways and, very likely, continue attracting new families.  This way, this faith community will continue to rejoice, to connect with God, to connect with each other, and to evangelize.

Four different faith communities, four different responses.  For each, the purpose of worship is different.  And for each, the members of the faith community are different.  So they’ll require different physical spaces and different types of technologies.  

There are also further implications to their choices.  If Community A owns a building, is it time to consider selling?  If Community B is now reaching an international population with its livestream worship, how will it involve that population in other meaningful ways with the faith community?  If Community C reaches a point when all of its community members are able to gather physically for worship, will they adjust to changing conditions by ending the Zoom link?  If Community D keeps growing, might that eventually change who they are as a community?

But those are questions for another day.

What is the purpose of worship in your faith community?  Is the manner in which you are worshiping now actually meeting that purpose?  If not, what needs to change?

Being the Church: Pastoral Care

What does pastoral care actually mean?

Presuming that pastoral care is about the people who are already part of our congregation (since we have the terms mission and community service and evangelism that refer to serving those who are not part of us), what categories are included in this?  It might be basic needs, like food and shelter, and emotional needs, especially in times of grief or illness or other crises, and recognition/celebration in times of achievement or new life.  Pastoral care might also include counseling people through conflicts (either within the church or within families), and it might include helping people make difficult decisions.

In my experience, there’s always been uncertainty around the boundaries of pastoral care.  How much are we capable of doing?  How much are we responsible for doing?  What are we responsible for not doing because we’re treading into dangerous territory and might mess it up?  Whose job is it to care for members of the congregation, and whose is it not?  What do we do about times when we don’t know that someone needs help?  (Should we know?  To what extent are we responsible for knowing things that people don’t tell us?  But what about the fact that the hardest time to ask for help is when you most need it?)

Here there be complexities.

This is all made even weirder by the fact that congregations are not the sole source of support for most congregants and are not positioned to know (easily) what sources of support may or may not exist in somebody’s life.  This goes back to the old-fashioned small-town literature church model, in which the church was at the center of the community, with nearly all social enterprises and relational networks flowing through it.  In that model, it’s pretty clear what someone’s needs are and whether they’re being met.

But today, the average person has multiple potential sources of support: extended family, friends from work, friends from a spouse’s place of employment, people they know from a child’s soccer team, Facebook friends that go back to high school days, college buddies, and who knows what else.  Even institutionalized sources of support run through government agencies and nonprofit community organizations—very rarely the church.  This multitude of potential sources of support is a blessing (in that the church really doesn’t have to do everything) and a curse (in that complex social networks are difficult to track, so how do we know what somebody really needs?)

The complex social network model of modern life also creates a supply problem.  Back in the day, the church could count on many hours of volunteer work from its members because the church was a primary source of social connections.  Today, many people may need to be present for friends and coworkers as much as for people in their congregations.  They might be doing a lot of pastoral care for other people—just not through the church.

I notice another pattern, too.  When our social connections are broad and we all have many, the “easy” pastoral care is likely to be covered.  One-time drop-off of chicken soup?  Easy.  Ongoing pastoral care for a person with chronic illness?  Harder.  Providing Wednesday night gatherings for couples to talk about conflicts in their relationships?  Easy.  Noticing patterns of abuse in a relationship and intervening to protect the victim?  Harder.

Notice that I haven’t said anything yet about virtual churches.  All of these societal complications existed even before many of our communities went hybrid or entirely online.  Now, our congregations have regular attenders that are several states (or even countries) away.  How do we provide pastoral care to someone who is so geographically distant?

I want to suggest four possibilities.

First—we might think about some kind of pastoral care checklist.  This is not a new idea.  When a person is having a difficult time, it can be really hard for them to come up with an answer to the question, “Is there anything I can do?”  Sometimes it’s tough to imagine what might help.  Other times, it’s tough to find the boundaries of what the person offering is really offering.  The honest answer to “is there anything I can do?” might be, “I need someone to take my seven-year-old daughter for the week so I can focus on my hospitalized four-year-old son.”  But it takes a lot of courage to say that when the person you’re talking to might be thinking more like, “I could bring you a casserole.”

What if, instead, we approached offering pastoral care like a checklist, with a list of offers already prepared that we know we’re able to provide?  The conversation might look something like this:

“Would it help if I brought your family dinner tonight?”

“No, we have plenty of food.”

“Would it help if I picked up your daughter tomorrow morning and gave her breakfast and lunch and took her to the park in between?”

“No, she has summer camp tomorrow.”

“Can I offer to drive anyone anywhere tomorrow?”

“Actually, yes.  It would really help if you took my daughter to camp and brought her back.”

Second—let’s reconsider whose job it is to offer pastoral care, especially the kind that involves dropping off food or driving someone’s daughter to summer camp.  These sorts of things might not need to be in anybody’s job description.  We can all offer to help in whatever ways are appropriate for our relationship with the person, our abilities, and our resources.  In my experience, many of us hesitate to offer help because we feel we must be given permission.  But why?  Are we afraid we might violate boundaries?  I suspect we can lower that risk by having regular conversations within our congregations about what reasonable offers of help actually look like—and about gracefully accepting a refusal of an offer.  We can navigate these things in a crisis situation if we have first talked about them—often—and set appropriate expectations in non-crisis times.

(And by the way, there doesn’t need to be a crisis for us to check in with each other and offer help.)

Third—as a church, let’s lean into hard pastoral care.  Abuse situations.  Chronic illnesses.  Addictions.  The kinds of things that make us shy away.  Because the kinds of things that make us shy away are probably also the kinds of things that make others shy away.  In other words, the more difficult or complex or stigmatized the pastoral care need is, the less likely it is that the need’s already being met somewhere else.

This doesn’t mean we need to do things for which we are not trained.  We shouldn’t do things we’re not trained for.  We can hurt people by messing with things that aren’t in our expertise.  But we also hurt people when we ignore things.

So, we can approach this in two different ways.  We can get training, and we can learn where the experts are.

Training in addiction support, mental wellness, abuse response, and more can be made available through our denominations and through ecumenical and interfaith networks.  It doesn’t have to be (and shouldn’t be) full-out social worker training.  But when we learn how to recognize these sorts of situations and we learn what we can do to help (and what the signs are that someone needs more help), then we are much better equipped to talk about difficult things, destigmatize them, and show loving care to those in need.  

Beyond that, we need to know our towns and communities.  Someone in the local community probably provides addiction help.  Someone provides resources for people experiencing mental illness.  Someone helps people who are escaping domestic abuse.  And so forth.  Do we know who they are?  If we don’t, do we know how to go about finding them?  When someone in our congregation needs assistance that the church can’t provide, we don’t have to pretend like it isn’t happening.  We are part of a broader community, and we can act as if we are.

Fourth—we’re also part of a different broader community.  If a church in Idaho has a beloved member in Kansas who joins their worship virtually, who is part of their community from afar, and suddenly that person has a pastoral care need that can only be met by someone who’s local—for example, a meal train in a rural area where restaurants don’t deliver—then I think we have to think about calling the local church (with permission from the person, of course).  If there’s a church from our denomination, so much the better.  If there’s not, let’s call whoever there is.  If the church is going to be globalized—if our geographic boundaries are blurring—then can we step into that deliberately?  Can we learn not just to make the phone call to a faraway church but to take the phone call when somebody needs us?

A friend and I were talking just the other day about this broader conversation, what the post-pandemic church might look like, and we were talking about a lot of abstract ideas and big changes and ways in which the faithful might be a force in modern society.  But it kept coming back to pastoral care, because…well, most people don’t successfully change the world unless, first, there’s someone to bring them chicken soup when they get sick.

Click here to return to the first article of this series.

Being the Church

So many old books devote chapters to churchgoing.  You ever notice that?  Tom Sawyer talks in detail about Sunday school and memorizing Bible verses.  To Kill a Mockingbird has a whole section about Scout and Jem visiting Calpurnia’s church and how the town’s black church differed from the white one.  Lucy Maude Montgomery’s stories (all of them, not just the Anne series) establish the town’s Presbyterian church as central to Avonlea’s social structure, charitable efforts, and systems of influence, with the Methodist church one town over firmly representative of all that is “other” and morally suspect.  And in Heidi, the grandfather’s refusal to attend church is emblematic of his self-ostracization; if he’s not at church on Sundays, he’s not part of the local community, period.

I wasn’t alive in the time of these stories, and I’m not a sociological researcher, but it seems to me that one of two things is true: either churches were historically the center of towns, the system that held together societies, or the fictional representation of churches serving this function is so strong in our common literary history that it’s become embedded in our cultural memory.  Which of these is true doesn’t seem relevant.  We act as if churches were central to community, and in many ways, we act as though they still are, even though this hasn’t been true for many decades.

When I look back to 2018 or so, well before our current pandemic, I remember faith communities that functioned as if they were something out of Tom Sawyer—or more accurately, thought about themselves as if they functioned that way, since in reality, we weren’t doing everything we’d organized ourselves to do.  We had worship every Sunday (even though few of us came every week), religious education for children (even if almost no children were present), and detailed membership records and practices (even though this, combined with frequent mobility in modern society, often meant that people held membership in congregations where they hadn’t lived in years).  We aimed to provide care for those among us who were sick or grieving (though the people doing that care were often overburdened and tired, not to mention working on a deficit of information, often not knowing who on the membership rolls might be sick or grieving).

I could say a lot more, but you get the point.  Churches have been functioning for a very long time as though they were still the pillars of local community, even though that’s not true in most cases, and we’ve been organizing ourselves as though the church provided a primary social network for individuals, even though that’s not true in most cases—think soccer teams, PTAs, clubs, places of work, volunteer organizations, social media platforms…

This societal change has happened slowly, and it’s human nature to have difficulty perceiving gradual pattern shifts.  But this is why we were using 1918 structures to organize 2018 faith communities…because each year, they only worked slightly less well than the year before, and most of us didn’t notice any difference, or else we weren’t sufficiently worried about it to put in the energy needed for change.

Then, in the course of a year (being U.S.-centric for a moment), we experienced a global pandemic, a racial justice reckoning, and some concrete evidence of the fragility of our democracy.  We (as individuals), we (as faith communities), and our society (as a whole) have changed radically.  I believe that God’s call for faith communities is that we will act in ways that are authentic to who we are and responsive to the needs of this world.  So—if the world has changed and we have changed, the ways in which we are called to act, to be the church, must also have changed.

How has the world changed?  It’s become less geographically organized (with many working or schooling remotely), more electronically connected (with a heavier reliance on video calls and social media platforms than ever before), and more socially polarized (partly because it is more electronically connected).

How have we as faith communities changed?  We’ve gained new participants in our fellowship (many of whom have joined through remote worship), lost track of some of our fellowship (mostly those for whom virtual participation didn’t work), and shifted many of our rituals and traditional practices (often because what we had been doing literally wasn’t possible in 2020).

How have we as individuals changed?  Almost all of us have experienced some degree of trauma.  Our priorities have shifted.  Some social connections are more important than they used to be, some less.  We’ve lost or changed jobs, discovered new hobbies, and watched or read the last eighteen months of news—which has caused some of us to shut down and others to reach out in ways we never have before.  We are simply not the same people we were in February of 2020.  (Think about it.  Are you?)

So here’s the overall question I’m holding: how do we be the church now and going forward?  How are God’s purposes being served?

I genuinely don’t believe that maintaining the old ways—or returning to some slight modification of the old ways—can do what God needs us to do anymore.  I’m not even sure it’s possible to return to the old ways.  So this is the first of a series of writings addressing some of the potential that I can see.  Because it is about potential.

I’ve been looking lately at Isaiah 43:18-19.  I’ve always been a big fan of verse nineteen: “See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?  I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”

Is that not the best news ever?  New thing!  Springing up!  A way in the wilderness!  Streams in the wasteland!  Throughout my adult life, I’ve leaned on this verse.  New life!  Promise!  Everything’s going to be okay!  (And yes, when I think about it, I think about it with exclamation points.)

But what I like less is verse eighteen.  I have tended to skip over this one, but now I’m discovering that today, I can’t.  Take a look at the two verses together: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?  I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”

Suddenly, I find myself reading these two verses as conditional.  First, we have to forget the former things and not dwell on the past…and now the new thing springs up.

That stinks.  I don’t like that.  I liked the former things.  I have enjoyed the past.  I’ve been very comfortable with how things used to be.  (I recognize that not everybody has been comfortable.  That does not take away from the reality that I have been, and it’s not wrong of me to be emotionally attached to the old ways.)

I don’t think God is asking us to forget the former things all at once.  I think God understands that change implies grief.  I also think there’s truth in the idea that we have to release the old ways before God’s new ways can totally spring up.  The good thing (depending on how you look at it) is that usually, we have to decide to change, and that’s a really hard thing to do.  But in this case, many of the old ways have fallen apart of their own accord, simply because they’re impracticable in today’s circumstances.

I want to end by sharing some of the questions I’ve been holding.  These are the questions I’ll be writing about in the coming days.  How would you answer some of these questions?  What would you add to my list?

1) Meaningful participation in any community involves both receiving and giving.  As our faith communities have shifted, becoming less geographically centered, more digital, and perhaps less intimate, how do we help all people who are part of our fellowships to give of their gifts to their faith communities?  What happens to the person who’s always made the coffee and washed the dishes if those channels of service are no longer available to them?  How does the person who joins our worship from three time zones away discover avenues of service to our faith community?

2) How do we offer pastoral care across vast physical distances?  Counseling and comfort is possible by phone or video conference, but who delivers the chicken soup to a sick person or provides a childcare respite to a desperate parent?

3) What does it mean to serve our local community if our congregation is de facto no longer local?  What does it mean for a geographically de-centered faith community to run a soup kitchen, a clothing ministry, or a neighborhood clean-up?  Do we need some faith communities to decide they are not going online?  What are the implications of that decision?

4) How do we build multiage community now?  Some of our oldest members are technologically adept, but some are not.  Some of our children and youth thrive on videoconference connection, but some do not.  Have we found ourselves accidentally reinforcing age-segregated communities in the last eighteen months?  What can be done to build relationships across the generations?

5) What does social connection look like for hybrid communities, in which some worship in person while others worship remotely through the Internet?  Does the Internet connection shut down before coffee hour?  How do we ensure that everyone has opportunities to access social connections?

6) If our ritual practices have changed in the past eighteen months—and almost all of them have—then have we addressed this together theologically, culturally, and sociologically?  Do we understand the implications of these changes in ritual?  Have we talked about what cannot change and why?  In times of extraordinary change, what connects us to those who came before us, whose stories can teach us about faith and resilience?

7) What happened to bring new attenders to many of our faith communities?  So many groups have stories about people who have just appeared in their virtual worship and stayed.  Hooray!  And yet—can we ask the questions about how these new attenders found us?  Where did they come from?  What were they hungering for?  Why have they stayed?  Now that we know for sure that there are people looking for us, are there things we could do to make it easier for them to find us?

8) How has our call shifted in terms of how, and about what, we witness to the world?  If we are called to testify about justice, human dignity, or protecting the earth, have the specific pressing issues changed?  Have the ways in which people think about these things changed?  Have the people holding power changed? Have the most relevant and effective communications channels changed?  God’s call is probably the same—do justice, love mercy, walk humbly before your God—but what does that look like in 2021?

9) Even before the pandemic, our long-term practice of organizing ourselves geographically had been getting pretty iffy.  Every faith organization I know of has local groups, small regional groups, and large regional groups, and this has been our structure for keeping track of ourselves, disseminating information, hiring staff, and making decisions.  But the Internet is the eighth continent, and I hold fast to the idea that most hybrid faith communities are actually located online.  That’s not even to mention the faith communities that have sprung up in the last eighteen months that are entirely virtual.  (There were some pre-pandemic, but there are many more now.)  Unless we want these faith communities to exist entirely outside our institutional systems—without formal relationship, accountability, or institutional/denominational support—we’re going to have to figure out “where” they go.  What would non-geographic systems of organization look like?

10) Can “local” faith communities be less precious about membership?  In other words, though I believe it’s possible for some faith communities to learn how to be geographically disbursed and still be strong and vital congregations, not all of us will be called to do so.  Can we learn to say to someone who has joined our faith community but who is remote, “We love you so much that we want to help you connect to a faith community that can serve your needs better than we can?”

11) What financial models work for 2021 faith communities?  How many of our congregations don’t need a building anymore?  Which congregations are actually leaning into being physically present in their communities and need buildings more than ever?  How are we supporting our employees?  To which organizations is our faith community giving money?  Are we clear that our faith community’s budget is serving God’s purpose for the faith community today?  Do we know what our priorities are?  How do we discern those priorities?

12) What does it mean for a faith community to be a good neighbor to its surrounding community?  What does that mean if we have a building that we use often?  What does that mean if we have a building that we use infrequently or never?  What does that mean if we no longer have a building?

13) How has worship changed and not changed in the last eighteen months?  To what degree have we simply made alterations to how we worshipped “before” in order to adapt to new media?  If we’re not going back to 100% in-person worship—and many of us are not—then is it time to discuss what worship would look like if it were specifically designed for the online or broadcast or radio media that we’re now using?

14) What happens to ministers and clergy as faith communities transition to a new paradigm?  Some groups may conclude, “We no longer need full-time employees to keep us going.”  That might be true, but it means shifting to a system of unpaid labor.  Unpaid ministry is inaccessible to people who must be paid in order to survive or support families, even if those people are genuinely called by God to ministry.  And trained and/or experienced ministers have skills that our faith communities desperately need.  If we’re shifting away from local congregations that employ full-time staff—and my observations seem to indicate that we are—then how will ministers be supported in this new model?

15) Is it possible that some of our faith communities have reached the end of their life cycles?  In the days when towns were organized around the church in the center, a church generally died only if the town around it died.  That hasn’t been true for a very long time.  Some of our faith communities have reached the natural end of their life cycles.  They have fulfilled their purpose.  What help do faith communities need in order to lay themselves down, faithfully and with dignity?

16) When we look back at Tom Sawyer or Anne of Green Gables, we see how the town church served as a place for people who didn’t like each other to learn to co-exist.  Where does that happen now?  If switching from one faith community to another is as easy as clicking on a different link, what compels us to stick it out in covenant relationship?  What is the role of the church today in teaching the concept enumerated in 1 Corinthians 12: “Now if the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.  And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body…the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’”

17) And finally, what does it actually mean to embody the church?  I’ve heard this so much in the last eighteen months—that it’s okay when we have to close our buildings, because the building is not the church, the people are.  That’s both true and a comforting thought.  But—what does it actually mean?  What do we mean when we say the people are the church?  In what sense?  Which people?  Everybody?  Everybody in our denomination?  Everybody in the denominations we agree with theologically?  Is this an individual or a communal church?  If we’re moving to a model of de-institutionalized, non-geographic, un-hierarchical embodiment of the church, what the heck does that actually look like, in a practical way, from the time I wake up until the time I go to sleep?

I find these questions super exciting.  I also find them pretty pressing.  We are still in the midst of societal chaos.  I think we’re going to be for quite a while.  Some of us do not have the capacity to be asking these questions, but some of us do, and I think we have to.  “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?  I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”

Because we need a way in the wilderness.  And streams in the wasteland.

Sanctuary

This plenary message to New York Yearly Meeting, given in July of 2021, is also available for viewing on YouTube.

When I was little, I went to church with my family every Sunday, and in our church we had a room called the sanctuary.  This was the place where services were held.  The sanctuary had rules we had to abide by.  They weren’t written down anywhere.  But what we were told was that, in the sanctuary, we had to be “reverent,” and over time, we figured out what that meant.

Rule #1: No making noise, and if someone was funny, don’t laugh very hard.

Rule #2: No sitting on the floor, even though the benches were extremely uncomfortable.

Rule #3: Very little kids could play with quiet toys during worship, but as soon as you were about six years old, you were expected to “know better” and be still and listen.  That meant listening to a bunch of old people—these days, I would call them “adults,” but back then they were old people—drone on and on about how we’re all supposed to behave in everyday life.  Which I felt like I already knew, because the church of my childhood didn’t leave any doubts about dos and don’ts.  We never heard anyone tell us anything we didn’t pretty much know before because there wasn’t any space for questioning or creativity about the rules.

Rule #4: You had to wear your nicest clothes, which for me as a child included petticoats and dresses and itchy tights.  If your clothes were too stylish, they were probably inappropriate for the sanctuary.

Rule #5: Pianos and organs were allowed in the sanctuary, as were string instruments and woodwinds, with the exception of saxophones.  But there were no brass instruments and no percussion because these were too loud and might encourage us to—I’m not sure exactly what.  But when I was a kid, I definitely had the impression that they weren’t allowed because they might be too much fun.  In the sanctuary, we weren’t allowed to have any fun.

Years later, my friend Kathleen, who grew up in the same tradition that I did, told me that when she was little, she eventually decided there were two people named God.  One of them was the God her parents told her about at home, who loved her and knew her name and wanted her to be happy.  The other was the God who lived at church, who wanted her to be quiet and sit still and wear stupid dresses.

I’ve been thinking a lot about sanctuary.  That room of my childhood is the first place I learned the word.  It didn’t seem to have much to do with God.  And then, later, I learned about sanctuary in another sense, and while I don’t remember my first exposure to it, I remember pretty vividly the scene in The Hunchback of Notre Dame—the Disney cartoon version—where Quasimodo carries Esmerelda up the bell tower and holds her in the air shouting, “Sanctuary!  Sanctuary!  Sanctuary!”

This idea really intrigued me, the idea that there could be places on earth—churches, specifically—where all you had to do was get inside and call out “Sanctuary!” and suddenly the police couldn’t arrest you.  It was like the adults of the world had somehow agreed on a universal olly-olly-oxen-free.  

But of course, it’s more complicated than that.  Not every government respects sanctuary, and places that do have sanctuary don’t all do it the same way.  Sometimes there are restrictions on how long a person can stay in sanctuary.  In medieval England, sanctuary only lasted forty days, but while you were in sanctuary, you could negotiate with the English legal system and ask to be sent into exile rather than imprisoned or executed.  Medieval Catholics eventually restricted sanctuary to only people accused of certain kinds of crimes.  In many places, sanctuary has come with rules about what the person entering was allowed to bring with them—for example, again in Europe, no bow and arrow.  And in the Netherlands, where sanctuary still operates today, it only applies while a religious ceremony is actively being conducted, which is why a Dutch church in 2018 drew on the help of every clergy person in the area to keep a worship service going continuously for ninety-six days in order to protect a family seeking asylum.

Generally speaking, the concept is that the law of the land stops at the doors of the church, because inside the church—inside the sanctuary—the law of God prevails.  Isn’t that a funny thought?  That the law of God only triumphs in particular geographic areas?  Or in the Netherlands, only at certain times or under certain conditions?  Also, sanctuary sometimes works—not always—in places where nothing about it is codified into law.  There have been innumerable examples of times, throughout history, when a person has claimed sanctuary in a church without any legal right to do so, but this sanctuary has been respected anyway.  Whether that’s a matter of custom, concern for public perception, or moral conscience on the part of individuals working in the legal system, in that way, sanctuary does function a little bit like olly-olly-oxen-free.

Christians were not the first to come up with the idea of sanctuary.  In the Torah, we read about sanctuary cities, specific places where a person could flee if they had accidentally killed another person.  As long as the person stayed in the sanctuary city, no one could harm them, which was significant because at the time, it was considered just for the victim’s family members to take the life of the killer in exchange for the life of their loved one.  Temples built for Greek and Roman gods also provided sanctuary for people being pursued, and anthropologists have found evidence of sanctuaries, either buildings or particular locations, in the Bedouin tradition and in the traditions of many indigenous peoples in the Americas.  The idea of providing a place of refuge for the threatened seems to be deeply and universally embedded in human consciousness.  We have this idea that a person, any living being, that is running and scared should have a guaranteed safe place to go.  No matter who they are.  No matter what they’ve done.

But.

This idea that the law of the land stops at the door of the church, because inside the sanctuary, the law of God prevails.  I’m not so sure about that one.  One thing I found in my reading was that Christian churches didn’t start providing sanctuary until they realized that Greek and Roman temples were doing so, and they started providing their own sanctuary more or less as a form of competition.  “You don’t want to take sanctuary with Zeus or Athena.  Come over here!  Take sanctuary with Jesus!”  What is that about?  If sanctuary is just about saving a life, then why is the early Christian church concerned about where a person takes sanctuary?  Why exactly have so many pursuits stopped at the doorway of a church?  Is it because God is inside the church?  Isn’t God also outside the church?

I think what’s really happening is a different thing.  I think inside a physical sanctuary, we haven’t moved from earthly law to divine law.  I think we’ve moved to a different earthly law.  In the case of medieval Christian sanctuaries, the law of the land stopped at the door of the church because, inside, the law of the church prevailed.  This was a power struggle between secular and religious authorities, not a refuge where the law of God reigned supreme.  And the law of the church said things like “limited to forty days” or “only for certain kinds of crimes” or “no bringing in your bow and arrow.”  The law of the church, when I was little, said “no noise, no sitting on the floor, no toys, no jeans, no drums, no fun.”  This is what my friend Kathleen was identifying: one God who loved her and wanted her to be happy, and another God—the church law God—who wanted her to be quiet and still.

And here’s the other thing about a sanctuary: once you go inside, you’re trapped.  It might be a safe place, relatively speaking, but the minute you place a toe outside, the promise of safety goes away.  You are trapped by the physical boundaries of the sanctuary.  You have given up the freedom to explore.  Choosing sanctuary in this sense might be the best choice available to you.  A being in genuine danger of their life must be hugely relieved to enter a sanctuary.  But no matter how much better it is inside than outside, a physical sanctuary to which one flees is still a form of imprisonment.

The theme of this week is becoming sanctuary.

That is a very different thing.  If a physical, geographic sanctuary is a form of imprisonment, a human sanctuary, either embodied in an individual or in a community, is a moveable feast.  It can be granted anywhere, anytime, to any person.  It is, in a sense, invisible and intangible, but it can be gloriously available.

What does it mean—to bebecome, sanctuary?

First off—it’s about embodying God’s law, not church law.  Just like in physical sanctuaries, it is so incredibly easy to mix up God’s law with church law, or with other versions of human law.  It is so incredibly easy to find ourselves saying, “I rejoice in you except if…  I will always love you except if…  We honor that of God in you but only as long as…

Those provisos, those except ifs and only as long as-es, are the places where we start creeping into some kind of modified human law rather than resting in the overwhelming presence of God.  To do this is profoundly human, so we naturally find ourselves doing this sometimes.  But we can be something else.  We can reach for real, divine sanctuary.

Grace.  When Kelly Kellum became general secretary of Friends United Meeting, he brought into the FUM offices the phrase, “We all live by grace.”  When somebody on the team screws up—misses a deadline, forgets to do something, knocks over a glass of iced tea on the stack of agendas, Kelly says, “We all live by grace.”  I’ve seen this in action.  It often draws laughter, but it also diffuses the situation.  Everybody in the room has heard the phrase applied to their own mistakes: “We all live by grace.”  Everybody in the room is reminded that we all make mistakes, that we all rely on the forgiveness of God and our fellow human beings, and there’s this moment in which everybody relaxes, and while there might still be a problem, something that actually needs to be solved, the feelings of guilt and recrimination aren’t there.  “We all live by grace.”  This is embodying sanctuary.

Mercy.  There’s a Quaker boarding school in Britain with a small percentage of students from other countries, some of whom are still learning English.  Their reading ability often lags several grade levels below their peers’.  So the school librarian keeps two special shelves of books, carefully chosen, that are interesting to teenagers but written at a level accessible to struggling readers.  These shelves are completely unmarked and unobtrusive.  When she encounters a student who might benefit, the librarian says, “Let me show you a place where I keep some of my favorite books.  I think you might like them.”  And so they have books they can read.  They can go to the library like any other student and find a book to read for pleasure—and their peers don’t know, so there’s no risk of embarrassment.  This is embodying sanctuary.

There’s a Friend in Kenya who I won’t name in this story, and you’ll see why in a minute.  She told me once about being awakened in the middle of the night by a call to her cell phone.  At the other end was a voice that said, “We are Ugandans.  We are fleeing our country.  If you do not help us, we may be killed by morning.”  She did not know these men.  She did not know how they had obtained her phone number.  But she did know that Ugandans accused of homosexuality were subject to death.  She made arrangements to meet them and hide them and found a safe place for them to go next, and she did this at risk to herself, knowing that if she were discovered, she would at least experience severe social consequences in her own community.  This is embodying sanctuary.

There’s a rural meeting outside Belfast that had the same caretaker for sixty years.  She lived on the meetinghouse grounds and cared for the buildings and property from 1955 until 2015.  When she finally, in her eighties, could not physically do the work anymore, she moved a half-hour’s drive away to a home for the aging.  The meeting hired a new caretaker but added into its weekly division of tasks, every week without exception, someone to fetch Susan and bring her to meeting and someone else to give her lunch and then drive her back.  It is not a large meeting.  This is done without fuss.  Of course they will care for Susan.  This is embodying sanctuary.

Ever since I first read the theme of our summer sessions, there’s been something that’s been bothering me, which is the phrase “where Spirit can dwell.”  Becoming a sanctuary where Spirit can dwell.  My experience tells me that Spirit can dwell wherever Spirit pleases.  There is nothing you or I must do to make it possible for God to come among us.  God comes where God comes.  Still, there are times when God will wait patiently and allow us the choice: do we choose to invite God into our presence?  Do we choose to prepare ourselves in such a way that we are ready and obviously willing to listen?  This is central to our ability to extend divine sanctuary.  

We prepare ourselves in many ways.  Some of us read Scripture.  Some sing.  Some walk.  Some go out into nature and commune with birds and trees.  Some align our bodies with the flow of energy.  I remember, as a person with a preference for rational things, the first time someone told me to open the crown of my head, feel Spirit flowing through, down my spine, out my palms, and through the soles of my feet.  But I tried it.  My elders told me to.  And over time, with practice, I discovered I could connect with God in this way and that I could extend that presence and energy beyond myself to those around me.  And they notice.  A couple of weeks ago, I heard a Baptist preacher call this “angel energy.”  Whatever we need to do to prepare ourselves to receive God and then extend God’s presence to those around us—this is embodying sanctuary.

We can do that—embody sanctuary—in difficult times and in difficult conversations.  Dr. Amanda Kemp, who is a Friend of color from New England, talks about being present with, and trading perspectives with, people who are actively expressing racist ideas.  She says you need to check in with yourself first, make sure it’s the right time and you’re ready, make sure you’re grounded and strong, and then you can listen—really listen—to the person standing across from you, you can be that presence for them, and then ask, when they’re through, “Are you interested in hearing what my experience is like?”  This is embodying sanctuary.

We also become sanctuary in meetings for worship.  This is the point: collective alignment to the divine will of God.  Early Friends said that in meetings for worship we could experience communion, that we didn’t need the physical sacrament of consuming the bread and wine—Christ’s body and blood—because worship was, in itself, sacramental.  We know the experience of a gathered meeting.  We feel it.  We feel the thrumming presence of God and the communal heartbeat of a people aligned with Spirit.

True sanctuary is always divine.  It is not always calm, and it certainly isn’t always pleasant.  I can never think of sanctuary without the story of Jesus in the temple.  “Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there.  He overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those selling doves.  And He declared to them, ‘It is written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer.’ But you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’’”

Or the day Margaret Fell became convinced, as she listened to Fox’s ministry.  “I stood up in my pew, and wondered at his doctrine, for I had never heard such before. And then he went on, and opened the scriptures, and said, ‘The scriptures were the prophets’ words, and Christ’s and the apostles’ words, and what, as they spoke, they enjoyed and possessed, and had it from the Lord,’ and said, ‘Then what had any to do with the scriptures, but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth? You will say, ‘Christ saith this, and the apostles say this’ but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?’ This opened me so, that it cut me to the heart; and then I saw clearly we were all wrong. So I sat down in my pew again, and cried bitterly: and I cried in my spirit to the Lord, ‘We are all thieves; we are all thieves; we have taken the scriptures in words, and know nothing of them in ourselves.’”

Or Samuel Bownas, who tells this story: “On first days I frequented meetings, and the greater part of my time I slept, but took no account of teaching, nor received any other benefit . . . thus I went on for near three years; but one first day, being at meeting, a young woman, named Anne Wilson, was there and preached; she was very zealous, and fixing my eye upon her, she with a great zeal pointed her finger at me, uttering these words with much power: ‘A traditional Quaker, thou comest to meeting as thou went from it (the last time) and goest from it as thou came to it, but art no better for thy coming. What wilt thou do in the end?”  This was so pat to my then condition, that, like Saul, I was smitten to the ground, as it might be said, but turning my thoughts inward, in secret I cried, Lord, what shall I do to help it?  And a voice as it were spoke in my heart saying, Look unto me and I will help thee! and I found much comfort, that made me shed abundance of tears.”

Have you been searched by the Light?

Spirit, God, does comfort sometimes.  But Spirit also searches us.  The experience of being searched by the Light is often not a pleasant one.  If we align, individually or communally, to the Light, we find our faults illuminated.  We are called to repentance.  Our hearts are broken because they must be broken open.  When we truly embody sanctuary, we transform.  We grow.  We can do nothing less in the power of God.  To suggest that becoming sanctuary is always comforting, always safe, to suggest that being aligned with the purpose of God causes us to be well-behaved in society, is to—as Jeremiah said—say “peace, peace, when there is no peace.”  Church law may tell us to be quiet, to be orderly, not to bother anybody, but God’s law does not.  If we embody true divine sanctuary, we may be called upon to stand up and shout and throw the money changers out of the temples.

But not before we repent.

We don’t talk about repentance much.  I really don’t know why, but maybe it’s because it has fallen out of fashion to talk about sin.  All the word “sin” really means, by the way, is being out of alignment with the divine will.  It means we’ve fallen short, which we do.  To recognize that we have sinned is what happens when we are searched and convicted by the Light, as Samuel Bownas was and as Margaret Fell was.  It’s the moment when we recognize that there are some serious moneychangers inside our own personal sanctuary.  

I’m not super clear on whether God requires repentance, but experience tells me that humans need it.  We need a simple, clear process by which we recognize our mistakes, apologize sincerely, and resolve not to repeat what we’ve done.  Repentance is more or less the same process we go through when we need to repair a relationship with another human being, but this is about realigning ourselves in right relationship with God.  Again, it’s not because God needs the process of repentance in order to love and forgive us.  God does not.  It’s because there’s something deeply necessary for us, in that moment when our heart breaks open, when we see where we have sinned.  We have not been in alignment with God’s will.  We humans need something we can do to help us get through that.  Repentance heals the way we relate with God and also the broken heartedness we have experienced.  It brings us a little closer to embodying divine sanctuary.

Grace.  Mercy.  Unconditional love.  And yes—prophetic speaking of truth.  All of those fall under the umbrella of embodying genuine divine sanctuary.  If we are nothing but gentle all the time, if we are silent and well-behaved in the face of extraordinary and harmful injustice, then we are embodying some set of human rules, not divine law—again, Jeremiah’s “peace, peace, where there is no peace.”  

To embody divine law for one another, to be sanctuary, will often mean we must speak out.  Like Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers, we will be compelled to speak on behalf of the humanity of all people and the holiness of every living thing.  We will speak prophetically about racism, economic injustice, climate justice.  We will say no to behaviors that harm.  We will speak and act, possibly with tremendous passion, on matters interpersonal, local, national, and global.  Divine sanctuary is not about “peace, peace, when there is no peace.”  Divine sanctuary brings divine justice.  If we embody divine sanctuary, we can settle for nothing less.

But divine justice includes mercy and unconditional love and grace.

When we speak up for divine justice, when we act prophetically, it is never without remembering that the person doing wrong—no matter who they are—no matter who they are—is a child of God deserving of mercy and unconditional love and grace.  I may stand in front of you, toe to toe, and denounce your behavior and insist that you change, but if I truly embody divine sanctuary, I will never cease in all of that expecting to see the spark of God inside you.  I will never forget that you are my sibling, no matter who you are.

When we show love to those we know to be desperately wrong, that’s not just about demonstrating our virtue.  It’s not the sort of thing you do only because it’s something you’re supposed to do.  Loving your enemy also works.  I say this as a person who’s changed a lot over time, who grew up in a part of the country where I learned that certain groups of people were just plain bad people, that they were my enemies, people to fear.  I didn’t grow past that because of a logical argument, and I didn’t grow past that because somebody shouted at me or scolded me or demanded I change.  I grew because of an accumulation of many surprising acts of love: the gift of a sandwich, a word of kindness, a time when someone could have judged me harshly and didn’t.  One such act has never been enough, for me, to overcome a lifetime of conditioning, of being taught, “That person is someone to fear.”  But little acts of love, over time, have helped me grow and learn quite a lot.  What changed mewas all the times when someone I feared embodied divine sanctuary.

I want to read a story from the book of Judges.

Jephthah then gathered all the men of Gilead and fought against Ephraim.  And the men of Gilead struck them down because the Ephraimites had said, “You Gileadites are fugitives in Ephraim, living in the territories of Ephraim and Manasseh.”

(In other words: the Gileadites were living on land that the Ephraimites had claimed.  The Ephraimites were persecuting them for it, and now the Gileadites were fighting back.)

The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan leading to Ephraim, and whenever a fugitive from Ephraim would say, “Let me cross over,” the Gileadites would ask him, “Are you an Ephraimite?”

(In other words, the Gileadites had decided not to allow the Ephraimites to cross the Jordan River.  But they couldn’t recognize the Ephraimites on sight, so they had to check the identity of each person trying come through.)

If he answered “No,” they told him, “Please say Shibboleth.”

If he said, “Sibboleth,” because he could not pronounce it correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan.  So at that time 42,000 Ephraimites were killed.

The Gileadites were checking for an accent.  If you could say “shibboleth” the way the Gileadites did, then you were safe.  Sanctuary. But if you couldn’t, if you pronounced it “sibboleth,” like an Ephraimite, you were murdered immediately. 

Because of this story, the word “shibboleth” actually entered English vocabulary.  A shibboleth is a signifier.  It’s a way that we figure out very quickly who we believe somebody to be: are you a welcome Gileadite, or are you a dangerous Ephraimite?  When we engage with someone, we often listen for shibboleths.  Do they use the right phrases?  Display the right memes or bumper stickers?  Drive the right cars?  Wear the right shoes?  Do they bring the right food to the potluck?

We do this.  This community, New York Yearly Meeting.  We do this.  We do this to each other.

It’s one thing to expect one another to change, to have those moments of broken heartedness, to be present for one another in the moments when the Spirit of God is throwing the moneychangers out of our sanctuaries.  To know that we all need repentance.  To hold hands through that.  Sometimes to speak prophetic truth to one another.  To know that we have been exclusive.  Racist.  Homophobic.  Chauvinist.  Ablest.  Destructive.  We have fallen short, individually and collectively.  We have sinned.  I am so grateful that we know this and are working toward being better.

But it’s another thing when we allow the process of being searched by the Light, of broken heartedness, of repentance, and of genuine change of heart to be replaced by a set of shibboleths: right words, right clothes, right cars, right foods.  None of those outward signifiers is bad, but as Margaret Fell would say, if we require them of one another and of those entering our communities—if it becomes about the shibboleth and not about the change of heart—then that is a silly, poor gospel.

Sometimes, we withhold sanctuary based on someone’s failure to say shibboleth.  I see Friends in New York Yearly Meeting do this with Quaker jargon.  I see us do it with political and sociological language connected to liberalism.  I see us do it with whether people own either a hybrid or an electric car.  I see us do it with whether people eat vegan and unprocessed foods.  I see us do it with the strategies that people use to raise their children.  I see us do it with what someone shares on Facebook.  We look for shibboleths, and either explicitly or implicitly, we make clear that those who don’t say shibboleth will not receive our love, our mercy, our grace.

Just to be really clear here: when we have taken the time to know someone well, when we have worshipped with them, listened to them, learned what’s in their heart, and when we have a divine leading to engage with them, we might say—as John Woolman did when sitting with enslavers—“Friend, I am concerned for thee.”  We speak the truth within divine sanctuary.  We don’t subscribe to “peace, peace, when there is no peace.”  Truth telling, coming from a place of love and relationship, is a part of divine sanctuary.  

In contrast, to shibboleth is to make a judgment about someone based solely on outward signifiers and then to refuse to extend divine sanctuary to that person.  If you do not say shibboleth, I do not extend to you mercy and grace.

That’s not sanctuary.  A sanctuary welcomes in everyone, including—perhaps especially—those who’ve done wrong.  That’s the entire point.

If I place any conditions around my willingness to embody sanctuary for you—when I require that you behave or speak in some specific way, or else I will not grant you mercy and grace—then I am building a barrier around the sanctuary I have tried to embody.  Suddenly, just as there is in a physical sanctuary, there is an inside and an outside.  And this is a real problem, because as long as sanctuary is conditional, those who want to stay in are imprisoned.  Suddenly, there are boundaries on what you can do or say, and if you make a mistake, you find yourself on the outside.  

Not on the outside of God’s love.  That’s not possible.  But on the outside of what someone is calling a sanctuary.

If the sanctuary we embody is really divine sanctuary, nobody can ever be kicked out.  This is both glorious and terrible news.  I can never refuse you mercy and grace.  No matter what you’ve done, I hold open for you the possibility of repentance.  Remember, that is different from saying I have to accept everything you do.  This does not mean that I can’t say “no” or “stop.”  Prophetic truth-telling and protection of the vulnerable will sometimes require that I say “no” or “stop.”  But I do it knowing you are still a child of God fully worthy of unconditional love.  I do it in the context of relationship.  I do it because I love you, not because I want to condemn you.  I do it in the hope that you may be searched by divine Light, which will break your heart open and change you.  And I don’t do it because you didn’t say shibboleth.

Let’s remember, too, that we are inside our own sanctuaries.  If we start dividing the world into those worthy of sanctuary and those unworthy, we are ourselves in danger of becoming unworthy.  We might violate our community’s shibboleths and find ourselves outside the sanctuary.  Maybe you’re even afraid that you might place yourselfoutside the sanctuary, that there are certain things you could say or do or think or feel that would cause you to believe you are unworthy of love and mercy and grace.

You are worthy of love and mercy and grace.  You cannot earn it, and you cannot un-earn it.  We are all worthy of divine sanctuary.  Not “peace, peace, when there is no peace,” but a sanctuary without walls where truth comes with love and no sin is without the accompanying promise of the availability of repentance.

There is nothing anyone can do that makes them unworthy of divine sanctuary.

There is nothing our enemies can do that makes them unworthy of divine sanctuary.

There is nothing our friends can do that makes them unworthy of divine sanctuary.

There is nothing you can do that makes you unworthy of divine sanctuary.

It is so tempting to look at this world and think that the pathway to the Kingdom of God on Earth is to win.  It is so tempting to identify sides, those who are with us and those who are against us, to believe that we can rearrange the power dynamics so that the “good” side, the “right” side, has the power, and then everything will be all right.  Not that we think that’s going to be easy.  But it’s tempting to believe that this is the right strategy.  We will just overpower the wrong, at the ballot box, by protesting, with emails to our representatives.  There’s nothing wrong with using any of those pathways, especially to speak prophetic truth, but these techniques will never get us all the way to the Kingdom of God on Earth.

Friends’ experience tells us that the divine Light changes hearts.  We are searched by it; we are convicted by it; we are brought to repentance by it.  It is not our job to overpower our enemies, to win so that we can establish a different system of human laws.  It’s our job to love our enemies, to extend divine sanctuary to them, and to our neighbors, too.  In the end, it is Spirit that makes the change, and what we can do is hold open that possibility for everyone by modeling mercy, grace, and prophetic truth accompanied by unconditional love.  We can invite the world to transformational repentance, one person at a time, by extending to everyone divine sanctuary, where Spirit dwells.

Fruit Basket Upset: And, the Eighth Continent

About three years ago, I started saying, “The Internet is the eighth continent of global ministry.”  Not everybody bought into this, but for me, it seemed self-evident.  I traveled on the Internet all the time.  I used a travel minute to support online ministry.  Of course the Internet was its own distinct place.  It’s a place in which ministry is both essential and distinctly different from ministry in Africa or Europe or Australia.  Unlike telephone systems, televisions, periodicals, or the postal service, the Internet—while technically a medium for communications and information—doesn’t function as only a medium.  It’s a non-geographic location where people are.

Think about it.  We “go online.”  We study there, work there, meet people there, build relationships there.  We shop there, date there, fantasize there, entertain ourselves there.  These days, we even worship there.  The Internet has its own (heterogenous) culture, separate from the culture of our in-person social connections and geographic areas.  It has its own linguistic dialects, its own traditions, its own economy, its own humor, its own status system.  It even encourages its inhabitants to begin to think differently.

I’ve been hearing a lot of conversations in Quaker circles about what’s next, and I find myself thinking about the last year of pandemic and online worship as a giant game of Fruit Basket Upset.  (Have you played this game?  A group sits in chairs in a circle.  Each participant is assigned a fruit: usually some are oranges, some are apples, and the rest are bananas.  One player stands in the center of the circle and calls out a fruit: “ORANGES!”  Every player who is an orange must leap out of their seat and run to sit in a different unoccupied seat.  The last player standing becomes the new center player and calls the next fruit.  If the center player is feeling particularly impish, they might call “FRUIT BASKET UPSET!”  This requires all players to leap from their seats and scramble for a new one.)

Why a giant game of Fruit Basket Upset?  Because even though many Quaker meetings transferred directly from in-person meetings to online meetings, a lot of Quaker individuals did not.  We started dashing about, switching seats.  Some Friends were just visiting and “went home” to their own online meetings the next week.  But that wasn’t true for others.  Some Friends returned to beloved meetings that they hadn’t attended in years, having moved away.  Some Friends’ meetings didn’t move online at all, just shut down, so Friends there had no choice but to worship elsewhere, at least for a little while. Some Friends began experimenting and discovered a distant meeting that was a better match–maybe in a different yearly meeting or even a different theological branch.

This is great.  We’ve had a year of serious chaos.  I’m a fan of any source of positive spiritual support and communion.  But . . . when this pandemic is over, are the Friends who’ve found new faith communities “going back?”  Will they return to their geographic meetings, or will they stay in their new-found Internet homes?  This is one drive behind the desire for hybrid meetings, and so far, I’m seeing a lot of conversation about the technical implications.  How do we create a hybrid meeting in which everyone can see and hear and minister?  

That’s a good first step.  But I feel like there are much more complicated questions.  If a Friend is worshiping regularly with a meeting online that’s geographically far away, where is that Friend’s membership?  Are they sojourning with the meeting online, or are they transferring membership?  If it’s the latter, what does membership in a physically distant meeting mean?  How does a meeting provide pastoral care to a member who’s two thousand miles away?  How does a distant member serve a meeting? I’m not saying it’s impossible. I’m saying it’s different.

In effect, a hybrid meeting is no longer located in its geographic place.  A hybrid meeting is located online, and some of its members gather physically in order to access that online meeting together.  If we say otherwise—that the meeting is gathered physically in a geographic location, but some members are allowed to “beam in,” so to speak, through technology, then the members online are automatically excluded from everything that happens when the technology is turned off.  Which means, if we aren’t led to exclude, that there can’t be a time when the technology is turned off.  Which means the meeting is de facto online.

I find this both exciting and stunning.  What does that mean for community service?  What is an online meeting’s relationship to a homeless shelter or a food pantry?  Suddenly, community service and protest and witness and advocacy aren’t necessarily bound by traditional geography—because the meeting’s not in a geographic place; the meeting is in the eighth continent, the Internet.

Almost none of our meetings have had time to think this through.  Ultimately, some will embrace this model, and others will discern we’re not led to it.

But wait: this game of Fruit Basket Upset is actually even more complicated.

Because when the pandemic started, we didn’t just leap in the air and run for different chairs.  Some of us moved the actual chairs.  Some of us started entirely new meetings.

Did we do this on purpose?  Mostly no.  Some institutions (Quaker schools, Quaker conference centers) started holding regular meetings for worship online, and in most cases, we thought this would go on for a few months . . . and now it’s been a year.  Other groups of Friends, or individual Friends, started online worship of various kinds without connection to any institution.  I’ve done this myself, with family devotionals.  With a few notable exceptions, no one expected these worshiping communities to become worshiping communities, with all the fullness of what that means: developing processes and traditions together, working through conflict, celebrating each other’s joys, upholding each other through grief and loss.  We thought we were meeting temporary needs, and in many cases, we’ve discovered something bigger.

Some of these online worshiping communities are not going to want to end.  I’ve heard explicitly from individual Friends that this online group or that online group feels more like home than their geographic meeting ever did.  Is there a pathway by which these online worshiping communities can become “official” meetings?

 As far as I can tell, there isn’t.  But . . . couldn’t there be?

We’ve Fruit Basket Upsetted ourselves into a whole new place.  Suddenly, worship and religious education and communal discernment and witness and outreach are all happening on the Internet, on this eighth continent, in a place we haven’t mapped and don’t know how to map.  It’s a lot like the days of the very first Friends.  We’re running around, establishing communities, seeking the Light and preaching the Word of the Lord, and yet we have no workable system of organization—just sprawling, dangerous, fertile, blessed mess!

(And it is a mess, with lots of things working well and lots of other things really not. Where’s a 21st-century Margaret Fell about now?)

I have no idea what we’re going to do, and frankly, I find the unpredictability thrilling.  Maybe every geographic quarter will establish its own online monthly meeting.  Maybe online meetings will seek membership in yearly meetings—the ones that resonate with them theologically, since geographic proximity is a total non-issue.  Maybe one or more yearly meetings will be led to make an explicit statement: “Hey, y’all!  If you’re an online meeting looking for a home, come on over here.  We’d love to be in discernment with you.”  Maybe there’ll be new yearly meetings completely online.  Maybe EFCI and FWCC and FGC and FUM  (and ETC) will accept into their membership online meetings. Maybe online meetings will decide that traditional membership is irrelevant and find their own ways of living in covenant community.

And what about the hybrid meetings?  Maybe they’ll thrive in their new online existence.  Maybe this will be the shift that demands radical hospitality, adventurous outreach, and revolutionary witness.   Maybe the Friends who’ve been begging for change will finally see it manifesting.

And maybe—just maybe—the meetings that are led to not be online will deepen in their understanding of what it means to be geographically specific.  What powerful ministry might emerge from a meeting that is deliberately and consciously present within its physical neighborhood?

This is the part where I’m tempted to say “please, whatever you do, don’t end the game of Fruit Basket Upset and demand that everybody rebuilds the circle and sits down in their original chairs.”  But you know what?  I don’t think that’s even possible.  I think we’ve changed too much this year, that too many of us have made too many discoveries, and that as a whole, we can’t go back, not even if we wanted to.

Maybe what’s next is entirely different from any possibility that we can imagine.  Maybe now, more than ever, the call is to “give over [our] own willing, give over [our] own running, give over [our] own desiring to know or be anything and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in [us] and be in [us] and breathe in [us] and act in [us] . . .”

But on the Internet.

Dangerous Theology

This text is based on a presentation originally given at the Quaker Theological Discussion Group Panels in December 2020. The query given to presenters was, “What is a Quaker theology of vocational ministry, and how is it enfleshed/embodied in community?”

Ministry is inherently risky.  The existence of a call to ministry implies potential failure: failure to respond, failure to discern, failure to fulfill.  Ministry also carries with it potential societal and personal consequences, ranging from outright persecution to subtler judgment for counter-cultural words and actions to loss or rearrangement of personal relationships.

Perhaps for this reason, within the Quaker context, we can’t address a theology of ministry while only addressing the minister.  Quakerism is not a faith of the individual but of the community.  In theological and theoretical circles, Friends say that the community, not the individual, has the responsibility for empowering ministry.  The individual may be called, but the community must respond faithfully.

What does this mean?  Consider first the simplest of circumstances: one individual is called to give vocal ministry one time in the context of expectant worship.  What role does the community play in making this ministry possible?  The community is deeply centered in worship, which makes the rising up of vocal ministry more likely; the community has taught the individual how to recognize and discern a call to vocal ministry; the community has created an environment in which the individual knows that, if the ministry is given imperfectly, the minister will not be ridiculed but, instead, appropriately supported and guided; the community has demonstrated its willingness to listen to and respond to well-led ministry, even when it’s challenging; the community may pray silently for the minister who is standing and speaking; and the community has provided the necessary physical support, such as a microphone and sound system.  All of this empowers ministry, making more possible any individual’s faithful response to a call.

But when we are speaking of vocational ministry, the role of the community necessarily grows more complicated.  “Vocational ministry” is either continuous or recurring, consuming a significant portion of the time and energy of the minister.  In the case of vocational ministry, much more is needed to make the ministry possible.  The community still must educate about ministry, refrain from ridicule, support and encourage and guide the minister, accept the fruits of the ministry, and provide appropriate physical and spiritual support.  But “appropriate physical and spiritual support,” in this instance, would likely include clearness committees, travel minutes, recording, logistical assistance, financial support, prayer, spiritual guidance, emotional support, and help with family obligations.  Suddenly, the empowering of ministry is a considerably larger task.

The community is responsible for empowering ministry.  In the context of a covenant community, this makes sense—because ultimately, of course, it is God who empowers ministry, but God generally does this not by invisible miracle but by way of placing the minister within a community, which faithfully fulfills the charge.

This is a dangerous theology.

It is dangerous because ministry is inherently risky, and when Friends say to a minister, “The community is responsible for empowering ministry,” it can cause an individual to commit to the risk, believing that the community will be present to play its role, and often, the community is not there.

It’s obvious how this can damage the minister, but it also damages communities.  It is inevitably damaging to the community because the community is failing to fulfil an expectation that it often did not know existed and that members of the community have never agreed to.  Yes, in theological and theoretical circles, we often say that the community is responsible for empowering ministry.  But among Friends generally, many have never even heard of this concept, and some of those who have heard of it have rejected it explicitly.

Can Friends continue to claim that this is our theology?  If theology, among Friends, is discovered through a process of corporate discernment, and if many of the Friends alive today are not in unity with this idea (that the community is responsible for empowering ministry), then at what point must we admit that this is no longer the sense of the meeting?  It’s certainly true that, historically, this has been our theology, and tradition is the contribution of our ancestors to contemporary corporate discernment.  Still, it’s difficult to argue that any theology is still our collective theology when the majority of Friends have never heard of it and when some who have, have rejected it.

In the twenty-first century, Friends also must question whether such a theology is a reasonable expectation of our communities.  Our spiritual ancestors lived in communities that were mostly self-contained.  Partly because Friends were not accepted in mainstream society, Friends tended to live close together, eat food from one another’s farms, send their children to school together, patronize one another’s businesses, socialize with one another, and marry each other.  

Today, we have non-Quaker neighbors; our children attend school with non-Quakers; we obtain our food and other goods from non-Quakers; we marry non-Quakers; we work for non-Quakers; we have non-Quaker social obligations.  Without judging whether this is a positive or a negative change, it certainly is a change, and we all have obligations to our non-Quaker human connections.  We may see the Friends in our meetings for no more than ninety minutes each week.  Under those conditions, is it reasonable to expect that we will manage to fulfill all of our obligations to our non-Quaker connections and still have sufficient time, energy, and financial resources to take full responsibility for empowering ministry within our Quaker communities?

I don’t believe we have a Quaker theology of vocational ministry.  I do not believe we have done the necessary work of discernment within our communities to know what such a theology, today, would be.

Friends do continue to be called to vocational ministry.  From time to time, a Friend comes to me who is experiencing such a call and asks for my advice, as someone who’s living it.  Here’s what I say:

You will experience extraordinary support and faithfulness from your community, and particularly, from certain individual Friends.  You’ll have much for which to be grateful.  But the community will not take responsibility for ensuring that your needs are met.  You must do so, and doing so is part of the ministry.  You must learn to, first, discern what you need; second, ask for what you need; and thirdly, accept support when it’s given.  You must also learn to recognize the moments when the community is not able to give you what you need, and you will have to find another way.  Obtaining the necessary emotional, spiritual, physical, and financial support for the ministry is not something you must do in addition to the ministry.  It is part of the ministry.  Learn to think of it this way.

I wish that most Quaker communities were ready to discern a theology of ministry, but in my experience, this is not where we are.  Instead, we’re in a place of needing to discern what it means, more generally, to be a thriving, twenty-first century covenant community.  Nearly every Quaker community I know is entangled and bound in the dominant culture and “we’ve always done it this way,” but faithfulness is risky, and the work before us is learning to be faithful communities.  After that, a theology of ministry will come.