Last week I had chance to return to the place where I had been a pastor for 11 years. I have been away for 4 years pursuing higher education. It was great to reconnect with folks that I love very much. The trip also included a chance to head out into the woods with a group of guys for a week-long canoe trip in the Adirondack Mountains.
One night around the fire, someone asked
“so you have learned a lot and changed a lot since you were our pastor, bring us up to speed. What has changed in your thinking in 4 years?”
It was a question that I hoped would come up and had given it a lot of thought as I flew across the country from LA to NY.
I said that there were 3 big changes – that I had added 2 things and gotten rid of 1 thing.
We had a saying that oriented us over those 11 years I was pastor: Upward – Inward – Outward: it must be all 3 – they must be in that order. I have learned that there is a 4th direction: downward.
When we look downward, two things happen:
- We see the earth. This awakens us to things like where our food comes from, ecology, and location – the importance of place. Christianity is an incarnational religion and it is a spirituality that is em-bodied. Location is central to the practices of christian community.
- We see those less fortunate or less powerful. This awakens us to issues of justice. Cornel West is the one who has helped me see the importance of not just looking around (which is vital for awareness) and looking up (where our strength come from) but looking down for those who might need some help.
Adding this 4th direction brings in issues of environment, locatedness, and justice. It illustrates the importance of embodying the gospel in a place – none of us are from everywhere.
Critique and Create:
One of the things that I have learned in my travels (from folks like Zizkek, Cornel West, Marc Ellis and Diana Butler Bass) is that there are 3 broad kinds of churches in North America:
- Prophetic – that critique the system
- Therapeutic – that help you adjust to the system
- Messianic – that look to escape the system
We were great at two of them. We had a natural Messianic element because our denomination is staunchly and passionately pre-millennial (the soon coming King! is one of our big 4 things). We also had a good dose of the Therapeutic and helped a lot of people be the best version of themselves within the existing structures.
If I got to do it again, I would add a Prophetic element and address the systems and structures that hold so much sway in our communities and in the lives of our congregations.
The example that I used was routinely praying for a guy with a limited skill set to get a job. “Jesus – please help ‘J’ to get a job”. By not addressing the relationship of local government with factories and manufactures in our area … we were relegating the answer to our prayers to the ‘powers that be’ and J was perpetually disappointed with God and discouraged in his faith. We nearly set him up to fail.
Those are the 2 things I have added: a 4th direction and 3rd element. But I have also gotten rid of something – I no longer believe in the supernatural.
Why the Natural is super:
I am convinced that the church has made a major mistake in adopting the language of the super-natural. Since the epic flub with Galileo and Copernicus the church has allowed science to have the natural (things that make sense) and has been relegated to watching over things that increasingly don’t make sense and retreating into words like ‘mystery’ and ‘faith’ as cover for that which is just not reasonable.
I do not believe in a realm (the natural) that is without God. As a Christian, I believe that God’s work is the most natural thing in the world. I am unwilling to concede the natural-spiritual split and then leave less and less room for God as science is able to explain more and more. The church is foolish to accept the dualism (natural-supernatural) and then superintend only the spiritual part.
No wonder 85% of our kids walk away in their 20’s. This stuff is unbelievable.
I would prefer to reclaim the language of the ‘miraculous’ (surprising to us or unexpected) and ‘signs’ from the Gospel of John (that point to a greater reality).
So that is what has changed since I was Senior Pastor four years ago. I look down now (at the earth, for location, and for issues of justice). I hear the Prophetic critiquing the system. And I have gotten rid of the super-natural while embracing the miraculous.
It was so great to share these thoughts and hear the feedback from my friends as we shared the week together. I would love to get your feedback or to hear how you have changed in the past few years. -Bo