Category Archives: worship

Church: Do Not Be Afraid of Change

I am often asked if the transformation that the mainline church is going through (with the fast and marked decline) scares me as a minister. My answer is a bit complicated, but I will try to summarize it here. The very short answer is: yes and no.

Let me explain…

As a minister, the decline of the mainline denominations makes me scared. First, because I grew up in the mainline church. It pains me to see an institution that had such a huge impact in my life declining. The mainline church – in my case, the American Baptist Churches, but also the two other denominations that have welcomed me, the

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The ruins of a church altar in Antigua, Guatemala. (Picture credits: J. Manny Santiago (c) )

United Methodist Church and the Episcopal Church – has been my spiritual home for all of my life. It was in the mainline church that I learned the stories of the Bible, the teaching of the “Golden Rule”, the hope for a coming kingdom and the eternal reign of peace that God will bring. It was the mainline church one of the institutions, along with school, that fostered my leadership skills and gave me a chance to begin learning how to be a leader. Sure, experiencing its decline is both scary and sad.

Second, as a minister, I rely on the church for my income. Contrary to what the media may portray and to what popular culture tells you about ministers, the truth is that this is like any other profession. I went to graduate school. I took psychological tests to examine my readiness for serving people under stressful circumstances. I did an intensive internship unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) to help me understand myself and gain knowledge on how to serve others who are undergoing major challenges in their lives. I also learned about history, economy, sociology, religious pluralism, political systems, non-profit administration, rhetoric and debate strategies, philosophy, literary criticism, multiculturalism and a bunch of other areas that are transferable to non-religious positions but that very few places would recognized as such because of preconceived ideas about religious leaders. Moreover, I took student loans because it was the only way to pay for graduate school and because the opportunities for scholarship when studying theology are minimal (although, I did receive some scholarships from religious organizations and the school itself.) Thus, if I lose my source of income, my family would be in a really difficult position. Of course that scares anyone!

With all that said, the transformation of the Church – in this case, the Church with capital “C” – is not what makes me feel the most scared. Why? Well, because the Church, and its expression in the mainline denominations, is not of my own making. The Church is, as the New Testament attest and we proclaim every day, the body of Christ. The Church has been around for a long time, and it will continue to be around even after all the institutions we have built around it have faded into history. Sure, there will be – as there have always been – enormous transformations of the institutions. Some of them will not survive. Others will merge and create new things. And still others will grow and expand steadily.

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12.27: “You are the body of Christ and parts of each other.” Paul’s words are an expansion of what Jesus himself said earlier in his life. The gospel of John 14.19a-20 tells us that Jesus said: “Because I live, you will live too. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, you are in me, and I am in you.” If the people of the Church is the body of Christ, then we must not be afraid of the transformations through which the Church goes. Sure, the institution will look very different than the one we were raised in or are currently a part of; but the main truth remains: the Church will continue to live.

I believe that our fear to lose the institution that we so much love has stood in the way of letting the Church grow and transform. Many of my colleagues who, like me, depend on the church’s salary to feed our families, are too afraid of losing this source of income. As I stated before, this also scares me. But I am also confident that the tools and the experience I have gained while serving the mainline church will serve me well in finding a suitable position should the time come when the institutionalized church cannot offer a position for me any longer. I believe that we must let go of the fear of losing what we know in order to let the Church and its mainline expression to go through whatever transformation it has to go through.

This also means that we should find ways to give each support. All transformations are both traumatic and difficult. We will go through painful moments. During this time, it will be important to have the support of those who are close to us and who can extend us a hand in making whatever transition may come less painful. However, fear is not, in my opinion, the answer. And thus, my invitation is to let go of the fear of change and accept the transformation that is already present within the mainline church as the manifestation of an ever present Spirit of newness and renewal. Remember that we confess an ever creating God. Let God do a new thing and show us what wonders and awe-inspiring new things God is bringing to us!

 

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How Mary of Nazareth Helped Me Regain My Faith

“Caridad, Guadalupe, and novenas are not part

of my more immediate tradition.

Yet they are part of my culture.

Does that mean that,

like my native ancestors five centuries ago

when faced by the initial Catholic ‘evangelization,’

I must renounce my cultural heritage

in order to affirm my Christianity?

I do not believe so.”

Dr. Justo González, theologian

 

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Original icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Ponce, Puerto Rico. This icon came from the town of Guadalupe, Spain, and has been venerated in the Island for years before the Mexican manifestation of the Virgin of Guadalupe was revealed. 

The Mother of God. The Queen of Angels. The Star of the Seas. Help of the Afflicted. Mystical Rose. Refuge of Sinners. All these and more are devotional titles for Mary, the mother of Jesus of Nazareth. She is not very prominent in the gospel stories, and is very much absent from the rest of the New Testament writings. Yet, for millions of Christians around the world, Mary of Nazareth is a central figure in their spiritual lives. Her image is present in the iconography of Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Anglican, Coptic and many other Christian traditions. Her image is even utilized by syncretic traditions such as Santería, Candomblé and sometimes Folkloric Spiritism. However, for those of us who grew up mainline Protestants – especially those of us who grew up in Africa, Asia or Latin America – the mere thought of having an image of the Virgin Mother was cringe-worthy.

My religious background is a bit confusing. I often say, for simplicity’s sake, that I grew up Protestant. But, like everything in life, the reality is a bit more complicated. My father was raised in the Northern Baptist Convention (now the American Baptist Churches, USA). My mother, on the other hand, was raised in the Kardesian Spiritist household[1]. Although, by the time that my sister and I were born neither one of our parents were practicing their respective faith traditions. By default, we were “Christians”, but no last-name was attached to it. However, there is something that has followed me since my birth.

I was born a few days after the due date. Usually this is not that big of a concern. However, in my case, when I was born I could not breath and the doctors weren’t sure if I was going to survive. As my mother tells the story, she was eagerly awaiting to welcome her firstborn, but the nurses kept mumbling and didn’t bring the kid to her. After several hours, the doctor approached my mom to let her know that I was in critical condition and they could not bring me to her side. Her first glimpse of my face was through the glass window of the maternity ward in the hospital. In addition, she became ill with a cold, and due to my delicate state, she was discharged without even being able to hold me while the doctors kept me in the hospital for almost a month. When I was discharged and due to my mom’s illness, the doctor indicated not to nurse me as I was still too frail to be exposed to any possible infection. While I was in the hospital my mom did what many parents in religious countries would do: she brought my first pair of shoes – the ones that I had never had the chance to wear – to be deposited at the feet of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This took place at the Shrine of the Virgin of the Rosary in the town of Sabana Grande in Puerto Rico. There, my mom asked the Blessed Mother to look after her firstborn and, as many mothers both from the Bible and beyond have done, she promised God and the Virgin that I would be their servant forever.

I kind of “blame” my mother’s actions for the fact that I am an ordained minister today. Without my consent, she already made the decision for me. But that’s something for another time.

Often times my parents would send me – who was always very interested in spiritual matters and in religion in general – to the Roman Catholic Church in my hometown, the parish of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal in Castañer, Puerto Rico. Often times, these visits to Sunday Mass were with our neighbors as my parents would not necessarily come with us. I do have some memories of these visits. I also remember visiting my maternal grandfather’s séance on Sunday afternoons and seeing my grandpa lead the community in worship as their Medium. Every now and then we would also visit a home prayer meeting at my paternal grandparents’ home with the Baptist community. And thus, my religious upbringing had a little bit of three “flavors” of experiencing Christianity: Roman Catholic, Protestant and syncretic.

Around age 10 or 11 and after having been invited to a Vacation Bible School at the Baptist congregation in my neighborhood of Yahuecas in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico, I started to regularly attend Sunday services with my sister. This went on for some time until my mom started coming with us and eventually my dad joined us. Later, the whole family was involved in the life of the church and we were all baptized (or in the case of my dad, re-baptized) in that congregation.

Upon my entering in the Baptist tradition, I learned about the Protestant’s rejection of images, idols and icons for worship. I was taught to reject these as useless items that distracted us from worshiping the true God who is neither wood nor plaster but Spirit. I was taught to memorize every Bible verse that warned against the use of idols or images or anything similar in worship. Moreover, I was taught that those who used idols in worship were really worshiping the Devil, without even knowing it. What I learned was that they were kneeling before idols and not before the true God as it was instructed in Scriptures.

Fast-forward several years. I have entered seminary with the intention of pursuing ordination in a mainline Protestant tradition. Although I was not quite sure whether that tradition would be the one in which I grew up, the American Baptist denomination.

Before seminary, a friend who had served as a Presbyterian minister and was now entering the Episcopal Church, introduced me to the wonders of the liturgical world. For the first time, I had the chance to actually understand the history, the meaning, the power of images and icons and movements and sounds and smells in the life of the Church. In addition, while in seminary, I met another friend from the Roman Catholic tradition. During a conversation with him I asked why he, being so progressive in his theology, was still so tied to the Roman Catholic Church. His response moved me. He said: “One of the things that keeps me in the Church is the thought that, for generations, and even today, at every single time of the day, there is a community reciting the same prayers, making the same gestures, saying the same words that I will say when I enter Mass. We are united in prayer; not only in our daily lives and with the people from our parish, but with our sisters and brothers from around the world, and with the saints that came before us and the saints that will come after us.” That statement made me change my understanding of liturgy forever.

But, there was still the fact that I grew up believing that icons and images were contrary to God’s wish for us. All these experiences and so much contradiction made me come to what I thought would be a final conclusion: there is no god. I started thinking of myself as an atheist. Sure, one that was trained in theology and who served the Church, but an atheist nonetheless.

Some time passed. I continued to struggle with my faith and with the idea of God. I went back to wise words that had been shared with me about my faith needed to be mine and not the one I had inherited from others. I read again some of the theological classics and other contemporary writings. I continued my discernment and my journey, without knowing where it would take me, but sure that I was in this wilderness because there was something, or someone, waiting for me.

My return to the faith happened thanks to Mary. Or rather, thanks to María.

In the Latino culture, María, José, Juan, Jesús are common names. (In fact, my given name is Juan!) As I became more and more involved in activism on behalf of my Latino community and as I traveled throughout Latin America sharing time with communities in both rural and urban areas, I started to notice the faces of my people. I notices the Marías, and the Juans, and the Jesúses, and the Josés… Then, I noticed the face of God in María. Often a single mother. Often poor. Perhaps a tortilla vendor or a farmer. Sometimes a beggar on the streets. Other times she was carrying her grandkids as her own children had left for El Norte in search of a better life for those they left behind. Back home in the USA, I say her carrying signs and marching for the rights of the undocumented community. I noticed her carrying her children and cooking me a meal while I visited with them. I noticed María fighting to get access to education while holding two or three part-time jobs to support her parents who barely spoke English. I started noticing María everywhere.

I went back to some of my books. There, I read about how La Virgen Morena, Our Lady of Guadalupe, had returned their humanity to a whole indigenous community in the hills of Tepeyac. There she was, dark-skinned like the indigenous man I had fallen in love with. She was on the banners of those who fought for liberation and freedom. She had welcomed the throngs of immigrants who desperately crossed more than one border to get here. She had welcomed them with open arms in churches and shelters throughout their journey. La Virgen had walked with these people, my people, and had never left them – us – alone. In this journey of doubt and rejection of faith that I had, she was also there, just patiently waiting for me.

Two experiences had transformed my faith thanks to an encounter with La Virgen. The first one was when I stood in front of the altar to Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre (Our Lady of Charity) in El Cobre, Cuba. There she was, carrying the baby Jesus on her arms, assuring him that all will be well. Her yellow dress reminding the many pilgrims that approach her altar that she was also the embodiment of Ochún, the Yoruba Orisha that traveled with the African slaves to the Américas. I was there, standing in awe before that powerful woman who never left her children alone as they were made to cross the ocean to be enslaved and stripped of their humanity. She journeyed with them and there she was, still standing proud and valiant.

The second experience was when I stood in front of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in her shrine in México. I stood in awe, as I saw the dark-skinned, pregnant, indigenous Virgen welcoming us. She looked at us. She saw us. She knew us. There she was, blessing our relationship and our bond of love. I, the descendant of oppressors who massacred the children of the Morenita, standing next to one of her children, dark-skinned and indigenous, like her. She smiled at us. She forgave me. She welcomed me. La Morenita let me know that I, too, was one of her children.

I continue having doubts, of course. I also continue searching for answers that may never come. But at the end, I know that in my wilderness, Our Mother was waiting for me to come home. As I look at the Mother of God, I want to believe that, if such a loving, powerful, inspiring, courageous woman is the route to know Christ and God, I am more than happy to follow her.

—-

[1] For more information about Kardecian Spiritism, you can visit the following site: http://www.spiritist.com/archives/1862

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Rising From the Ashes

In Greek mythology there was a bird, the Phoenix, which was always reborn out of its own ashes. This image of rebirth, especially out of difficult circumstances, is not new in religion. Almost every major faith tradition shares this imagery of death and rebirth. However, the story of the Phoenix is particularly appropriate for the story of Ash Wednesday that I would ash-wednesday-usalike to share with you today.

Like the Phoenix, there are times when we need to be reborn out of our own ashes. There are situations and events in our lives that could feel like fire burning, destroying, razing with every part of who we are. Nothing can be done… unless you have the drive to be reborn.

The young man entered the sanctuary a few minutes before our Ash Wednesday service began. He came by himself. I was certain I had seen him before. As he found his way into the circle, something told me that this was a special visit for us.

I love planning the Ash Wednesday service, for it gives me the chance to use liturgies that I enjoy and share that with those who come to visit with us. It is also the one worship experience when we get the most visitors. This is always a challenge, as you want to let people know what the ministry is all about but also be true to my liturgical preferences. It is also an important time to acknowledge the truth that both light AND darkness are holy and good.

The young man’s reaction to my mentioning the goodness of darkness was my first clue. He nodded, smiled, and his whole self said that he was feeling comfortable in this space. As the service ended, many of us moved to the foyer to chat, drink some hot beverages, and share stories.

I noticed that the young man stayed looking at our ministry display intently. So I approached him to introduce myself. He immediately opened up. I mentioned that I recognized him, perhaps from last year. He said he had not been here last year, but had been to “other random event here.” Perhaps that’s where I had seen him before.

As he continued to talk, he mentioned that he knew some of the students featured in our display. We chatted about this and how all these other young people of color were involved in one way or another with our ministry. He smiled. He was feeling more and more at home. Then, we talked about the ministry and our lives. He had grown up in church, he said, but things turned bad. He had served in young people’s ministries, had served on the Board of Deacons, had taught Sunday school to children, and had been preaching since he was fifteen. But his was a conservative Baptist church. It is also an African American church, and there were cultural aspects of his culture that were more conservative than what he would like. At some point, he decided to be himself, not to hide anymore. This did not sit well with his congregation. Now, he was church-less. But he had heard about this place, this ministry and safe space for LGBT students. He gave us a chance.

It felt like a rebirth; to find a faith community that is rooted in his faith tradition, one that welcomes him, that offers others like him opportunities for growth and leadership. Like the Phoenix, the ashes brought him back to life.

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Celebrating LGBT-Affirming Bapitsts

Today a Baptist minister who lived spreading a message of hatred and damnation to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities died. I do not rejoice in his death, nor do I feel particularly wont of publishing his name. I believe that the best thing to do with people like him – and with others who also have a message of hatred, such as a certain US Senator from Texas, a Governor from Arizona and others – is to retrain from publishing their names. After all, most of them are always looking for exposure. I prefer to publish the names of those who are working for justice and reconciliation…

AWAB logo

As I reflected on how the media and even LGBTQI organizations continued publishing their reaction to his death, I decided to take a different approach. This approach is more consistent with my principles of inclusion and reconciliation. Today, I want to make public the work of a Baptist organization that is hard at work opening the doors of our communities to LGBTQI individuals. The Association of Welcoming & Affirming Baptists (AWAB) was born out of the need to proclaim a message of inclusion, celebration and integration of LGBTQI individuals in the life of Baptists communities of faith.

In 1997 I was a junior at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez, and I was finally coming to accept my sexual orientation. As someone who grew up in a Baptist church, I could not imagine my life without a faith community. However, accepting my sexual orientation meant that there was no more room for me within the Baptist congregation in which I grew up. Although my childhood church was not proclaiming the same message of hatred as the recently deceased Baptist minister did, the truth was that there was not a message of inclusion either. The message of a God who rejected people with diverse sexual orientations was well ingrained in the overall message of my congregation.

This message of exclusion was so strong that many times I wanted to just disappear from this earth. I thought that I could just solve my problems by erasing myself from the picture. Several times I thought of ending my life, since there was no way that I could find comfort in the arms of a God who hated LGBTQI individuals.

It was at that moment, in 1997 during my junior year at the UPR-Mayagüez that I went to the library and started searching for answers. I clearly remember sitting in front of the computer and typing the words “gay” and “Christian” and “Baptist”. I had no idea of the surprise that awaited me! The first page that showed up on the search engine was that of the Association of Welcoming & Affirming Baptists.

Finding this organization helped me realized that I was not alone. I read the list of churches on that page and realized that, even though these churches were thousands of miles away from me – one of the earliest supporters of AWAB is the Church of Covenant in Palmer, Alaska, which is a few thousand miles away from Puerto Rico – there were people like me out there. Oh, what a joy! There were other gay Baptists out there! Not only that, but the page had their logo published, which at the time was the official logo of my denomination, the American Baptist Churches, USA, with the colors of the rainbow. I was so happy that I printed the logo and pasted it on my Bible. I have had that Bible with this logo for all these years… as a reminder of how AWAB saved my life and showed me that it is possible to be gay and Baptist.

This is my story. This is why today, instead of publishing the name of a Baptist minister who spent his life hating, I prefer to make public the name of the Baptist organization that helped me overcome my pain. I am glad that AWAB exists. I am glad that so many Baptist ministers have spoken out in favor of LGBTQI individuals, and that they have worked hard to include us the many Baptist communities of faith that joyfully welcome, affirm and celebrate the diversity of God’s creation!

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Las mantillas evangélicas

IMG_3419En mis años de infancia, cuando visitaba de vez en cuando la parroquia de Nuestra Señora de la Medalla Milagrosa en Castañer, Puerto Rico, veía una que otra viejita usando mantilla. Las mantillas son esos velos que cubren la cabeza de las mujeres católicas devotas. Por lo general son negras. Las mantillas eran utilizadas mucho en los años antes del Concilio Vaticano II. Pero luego de éste Concilio, la Iglesia Católica decidió que no era necesario el que las mujeres utilizaran mantillas en la iglesia. Así que el uso de mantillas se ha mantenido solamente entre las viejitas que todavía se aferran a la tradición y a los grupos Católicos ultra-ortodoxos.

Bueno, eso era lo que creía yo, hasta que visité El Salvador hace unas semanas. Resulta que caminando por las calles de San Salvador – y en muchos otros lugares que visité en el país – me encontré con mujeres de todas las edades vistiendo mantillas. Todas llevaban mantillas blancas. Elaboradas con perlitas de mentira y bordadas con hilo fino blanco. Me pareció interesante ver tanta mujer católica aferrada a su tradición, así que le pregunté a mi amigo el porqué de tal devoción.

“¡Esas no son mujeres católicas! Quienes llevan esas mantillas son evangélicas.” Eso me dijo mi amigo. Me quedé estupefacto. ¡Mujeres evangélicas vistiendo mantillas! Yo había sido testigo de mujeres de grupos evangélicos judaizantes utilizar mantillas (en Puerto Rico, la Congregación de Yahweh es una de estas iglesias), pero nunca en público. Por  lo general, el uso de mantillas es exclusivo para el culto privado. Después de todo, aun si leemos al Apóstol Pablo literalmente en 1 Corintios 11:1-16 éste hace referencia al uso del velo por la mujer solamente en el contexto del culto.

Lo interesante de ver tanta mujer en El Salvador con velo/mantilla es que me recordó cuán similares somos a pesar de nuestras diferencias. De seguro que si les preguntara a esas mujeres evangélicas qué piensas de sus hermanas católicas, nos dirán que las católicas están mal. Criticarán su fe y su forma de expresar el cristianismo. Así mismo, las mujeres católicas quizás critiquen o no entiendan a las mujeres evangélicas. Pero interesantemente, las mujeres evangélicas son herederas de una costumbre católica romana. La han adoptado y adaptado para sí. De hecho, a quien siguen e imitan es a la misma María de Nazaret, cuya imagen siempre lleva velo/mantilla, pero cuya imagen es tan rechazada por las mismas mujeres que siguen su ejemplo.

Seguimos teniendo divisiones por cosas que no deben dividirnos. Seguimos construyendo muros que nos separan aun cuando somos similares. Seguimos rechazando otras personas porque no comprendemos el porqué de sus costumbres… Así somos… Ojalá que un día estas hermanitas evangélicas se den cuenta que sus mantillas no son suyas, las heredaron de sus hermanas católicas romanas y de María la Madre de Jesús.

 

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And Churches Wonder Why We Don’t Have Visitors!

Churches keep complaining about not having enough visitors. They (we?) complain about not retaining the few visitors that come by every now and then. Mainline churches in particular, keep whining about the lack of interest in the church that some younger generations have. Every single recent research shows the decline in membership of the mainline churches.

Now, imagine that you come by on any given Sunday, ready to explore the church community you have heard about. You woke up early after having spent Saturday night with your friends. Drove a few miles to the church. Parked at the space that read “PARKING RESERVED FOR FIRST CHURCH IN MY CITY.” A nice person with a welcoming smile welcomed you and handed you the program for the day. You sat and, more or less, enjoyed the service. After the service was over, you tried to sneak out unnoticed, just because you are not quite sure if this is the right faith community for you. Now, when you come to the parking to pick up your car… WHAT? There is a ticket on your windshield!!!

“Why?” you wonder. “Why is there a parking ticket on my windshield if the parking was reserved for the church and I was attending the service?” Well, it turns out that the parking is for the church, and you are not part of it! Get it? The “welcoming smile” was just a gimmick to attract you, but the church doesn’t really want you there. At least, that is what I would have thought.

Recently I learned that the parking spaces that my church uses require people to have a sticker to park there even on Sundays. The parking attendants (which, by the way, are pretty much ghosts because I have never actually seen one) cover the pay machine with a sign that says something about the parking being used for the church. But what they mean is that only those with stickers can park there.

What if you are a visitor and do not know this? Well, you get a ticket.

The problem is that not everyone is aware of this. If you visit a church, you expect to have a space where to park if you are driving, and you expect to have an order of service if the church has one, so you are not lost, and you expect to be acknowledged as a visitor without being put into the spot. Going to church, for a first time visitor, should be a relaxed experience. The last thing you want is to find a parking ticket on your car!

We, the people in church, keep wondering why visitors don’t come back and why our church is not full on Sundays. But the truth is that we keep making visiting our churches harder and harder for outsiders. Even when our heart is the right place – wanting to make visitors welcomed – our actions are still telling people that they do not belong. We form closed groups. We hang out in those small groups after church and don’t even acknowledge the visitors. We sit with our buddies during the service and let the visitor figure out where the hymns are or what comes next in the service. We ignore the visitor on our way to communion and at times give them a harsh look should they have the audacity of partaking of this internal meal meant for insiders only.

Finally, when visitors don’t come, we try to find a scapegoat. “The sermon was horrible.” “The brownies were bland!” “The hymns were so last century.” “The songs were too contemporary.” When the truth is that at times, it is the simplest of explanations… Often times, visitors come because they are exploring different faith communities. Your church – my church – is just one among a long list of churches they might be exploring. Sometimes visitors will come back. Sometimes they will leave and never come back. But the important thing is to make all in our power to make sure that visitors feel welcomed and safe in the time we spend with us. A parking ticket is the last thing they need to get from us…

Do I have the solution to this? Yes and no.

On the one hand, we must start to sacrifice ourselves. If having more parking for visitors means that I have to wake up earlier and take the bus, or to park farther from the church and walk, so be it. Church should not be about “me, me, me” all the time (well, sometimes it is OK, but not all the time.) Church should be about “me, you, us, them…” On the other hand, I don’t think that there are just simple solutions. There needs to be a cultural change – a change in the culture of church – and that takes time, effort, and a very painful process. I believe that the mainline churches that will survive are those who are willing to start having these difficult conversations and willing to explore different things, even when some of them fail.

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