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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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Bring the Sermon Back and See the Church Grow!

It is hard to pinpoint the one reason why mainline churches are in decline. Some people – like me – prefer to say that mainline churches are in the midst of a transformation. There is no resurrection without death. There is no morning without night. There is no possibility of renewal without some heavy shaking up of established paradigms. At the same time, I believe that we must honor our history as faith communities, firmly established in traditions that have formed and informed us. It is a delicate balance to maintain and one that few local communities – and perhaps larger denominations – have achieved.

Following this thinking, I have been reflecting on the role of the sermon within the worship life of the community. Often when you ask people about worship, the first thing that comes to mind is music, hymns, “coritos” (if you are in a Latinx church), prayer, silence, Communion, etc. Music, without a doubt, takes the center stage when it comes to worship life. Seldom, if ever, the sermon, reading of Scripture, study of the sacred texts and education come up in conversation about worship.

It is known that music has had a long history in the worship life of the faith communities. In the Christian church we hear about the use of Psalms and other musical elements throughout the letters of Paul to the churches and the Acts of the Apostles. Indubitable music is an integral part of communal worship. Music can help people to connect in a way that other parts of the service do not. Music helps – or should help – to pass on the teachings of the Church, to teach the growing generations of Christians about the history, beliefs and traditions of their community. Music helps people to connect with the Divinity in an emotional way (and yes, if used properly it can also help in connecting intellectually.) But what about the sermon?pulpit

Ask a 10 people about what they enjoy the most about worship and perhaps 8 will tell you that it is the music. Perhaps the other two might enjoy prayers or some other parts – offertory, anyone? – but I am almost certain that perhaps only one will mention, by passing, the sermon.

Note, however, that I am focusing on the mainline or historical Protestant traditions of the Church.

Recently I preached at a mainline church as a guest preacher. I tried my best to keep the sermon shorter than I am used to for two reasons: I knew the church didn’t enjoy long sermons – more than 12 minutes – and because we were already running late. After the service was over I stayed to greet people as they exited the sanctuary. A person approached me and said something like: “A friend who is a preacher said to me that a good sermon should not be more than 7 minutes. That if you can’t say it in that time, there’s nothing good to say.” No greetings. No “thank yous”. No questions or comments about an idea from the sermon or how it helped – or not – in his spiritual life. Nothing. I was taken aback and didn’t get to respond. But a second person approached with a similar comment about the length of sermons. To this person I replied: “Some traditions enjoy longer sermons. I myself grew up in a church that honored the sermon as an important part of the worship experience, with longer sermons being featured in church. Personally, I can go to worship and have no music whatsoever, but if I don’t have a sermon or the proclamation of Scripture, I have not had worship.” Now it was the person’s time to be taken aback! They looked at me stunned, as if I had said some kind of heresy or something! But what I said was true. I can attend a beautifully planned service with only chants, songs and music, but if there is no Bible reading and an explanation of it, I have not had a worship experience. (This is the reason, by the way, why I don’t quite like Taizé services.)

Interestingly, the largest and more attended churches in the USA are Evangelical congregations. These congregations generally feature long sermons that resemble more college lectures than anything else. The pastor’s words and how they expound on the Bible verses read are integral to the spiritual life of the congregation. Sure, they also feature long musical pieces, but nothing replaces the sermon in the spiritual life of the church.

Why, then, are these churches growing while ours are declining? Does the fact that we have relegated the sermon to a second and perhaps even third place in the worshipping life of the Church has something to do with it? I think it does.

When the Church was in its first stages of development, the Apostles took time to expand on the meaning of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. In Acts 20.7-12 we even read of how the Apostle Paul preached for so long that a young man who was listening, fell asleep and falling of the window where he was sitting! Of course I do not advocate for sermons so long that people start falling asleep and falling of windows… I just think that we must give the sermon and the proclamation of the Gospel the place that it deserves in Church.

Perhaps it is our hubris that makes us reject sermons in worship. With music, we can show off our talents and gifts; we can sing loud and clear, creating beautiful melodies that show others that we can overcome the ugly parts of life and create beauty. However, with a sermon we just sit there, allowing someone other than us tell us what the words mean, how they can be interpreted, what the history of the text is and how we can make use of these teachings in our daily lives. To listen to a sermon requires a humility that few of us in the mainline Church – the Church made up of mostly highly educated people – are willing to show. Listening to a sermon means that we are passive receptors of the wisdom of others, when our own society tells us that we are the center of the Universe and therefore the ones with all the answers.

A few years ago when I was being interviewed for my first church, I asked the president of the search committee how long they would like for me to preach at my candidating sermon. I had spent about three years in mostly Anglo-American, English speaking congregations, but having grown up in a rural, Puerto Rican mainline church, I already knew that there are always differences in worship styles. The person from the church was clear about what they were looking for: “Nothing too long. Between 40 to 45 minutes.” Yup. The Latino church was expecting their future pastor to preach for what others might consider a long time, but for them it was not too long. In fact, in my childhood church the pastor would preach for over 45 minutes, sometimes going over the hour. This was normal! Nobody complained or was concerned about lunch or after-church plans, because Sunday was for God and to worship in community. Church consumed pretty much all morning and even part of the early afternoon. And the sermon was at the center of the worship experience.

If you read the history of the Protestant church you will notice the importance of the sermon and the proclamation of the Gospel in the life of our faith. Pick up a book with the sermons from Luther, Calvin, Knox, Simmons, Zwingly or even later reformers such as Wesley or Campbell and you will notice that they gave Paul a run for his money! Their sermons are masterful theological essays that go on for pages and pages, expanding of the understanding of the faith we share.

As I said before, Evangelicals understand the importance of the sermon and the proclamation of the Gospel. In fact, the people who flock to their congregations are eager to receive the teachings and the wisdom that is shared during a sermon. They are in fact thirsty for it! What would happen if mainline churches reclaim the centrality of the sermon? What would happen if we honor our tradition of being the people of the Book and the people of the Word? In my ordination certificate it states that I was ordained to “the ministry of the Gospel”, not to the ministry of music or prayer or sacred dance… In some denominations the ordination is to “Word and Sacrament”, in others it is to “Word, Sacrament, Order, and Service.” No matter what, the Word is the central piece of ordination. Sure, pastors are chaplains and we tend to the spiritual needs of our congregants; but our main call is to open up the Gospel, to proclaim the good news, to preach and teach and educate.

I clearly remember the centrality of the sermon in my childhood church. The pulpit was at the center of the altar. Below it, at the level of the people, was the Communion Table. This symbolism showed us what was important when you entered this sacred space: the proclamation of the Gospel above all and the sharing of the Table with each other.

My invitation to our mainline congregations is to reclaim the centrality of the sermon in the spiritual and worship life of the Church. It is important to recognize the sermon and the proclamation of the Gospel as integral components of a worship experience. Seven minutes is not enough. Twelve minutes is not enough. I believe we must use as much or as little time as is needed to fulfill our task of proclaiming the good news. Whatever rules or understandings about the effective use of time in oratory should not be taken into consideration when considering a sermon. Would you be concerned about the length of a prayer? How about the length of meditation? I believe that the Church loses much when we want to impose the rules of the outside world to our spiritual life. Besides, how could it be that we are able to sit through an hour long speech by a politician but grumble when our pastors go over the magic 12 minute mark on their sermons?

I enjoy sermons. Whether they are long or short, if a sermon speaks to me, it speaks to me. A well-constructed sermon that opens up the Gospel is a beautiful aspect of worship and I will humbly sit down for as long as it takes to listen to it. Perhaps if we reclaim the centrality of the sermon in the life of the Church more people will be eager to join us and learn with us…

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Please, Keep Your Prayers, We Don’t Need Them!

I hate, I reject your festivals;

    I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies.

If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food—

        I won’t be pleased;

    I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals.

Take away the noise of your songs;

        I won’t listen to the melody of your harps.

But let justice roll down like waters,

        and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Amos 5.21-24

 

Let me start by saying that I am not saying that prayers are a bad thing. If they help you process the awfulness of recent events and of the systemic extermination of black individuals from US society, then use prayer. But I want to make something clear: prayers alone are not keeping black, brown and other minority individuals safe. No matter how much you pray, no matter to whom you pray, no matter how strong your faith is, no matter how powerful your god/goddess/spirit/divine being is, prayers are not working.

Upon hearing the news about the massacre of black sisters and brothers by a white terrorist at Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, what first came to mind were the words from God that the prophet Amos shares in his book. Immediately I knew that many of my friends and colleagues were going to start posting images of candles and words of prayer on their social media platforms. It is always the same pattern: hear the news of a white individual – police, young man, white supremacist, state-sponsored executioners paid by tax dollars… – and immediately there is outrage by allies and people of color alike, followed by posts on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram and prayer vigils.

Black lives matter All of these are fine. Use whatever means you have at your disposal to process the rage, the hurt, the fear and the pain. But again, hear this: NO PRAYER, NO GOD, NO POST is helping save black, brown and other minority individuals from the systemic purge that we are experiencing.

The prophet Amos states that the God of the people of Israel is disgusted with so much ritual with no action. When prayer is not followed by actions of justice, it becomes hollowed. As I interpret my relationship with God, God depends on us working together to change the world. This is collaboration. And I believe that we are way past time to take action.

Here is what I propose, particularly to my white, Anglo/Euro-American friends and allies: shut up, listen, and act. I don’t care that your best friend is black. I don’t care that your sons and daughters are adopted from Asian countries. I don’t care that your significant other is Latin@. This systemic purge is not affecting you as a white individual as it is affecting us as people of color. Thank you for your solidarity, but please let be our voices that ones that are heard. Do you want to know what it feels like to be black in the United States? Ask your friend! Do you want to know what it feels to be a racial minority? Ask your children or your spouse or your best friend or whomever it is that you have used as an excuse to state that you know what we are going through. But don’t pretend that you will ever understand the fear. I am Latino, queer and cisgender. I can only tell you what MY fear is. I cannot speak for my black siblings or my trans siblings. I cannot speak for my female-identified siblings either. I can only speak of my experience. The only experience that a white person can speak of in the United States is that of privilege (yes, even those who are poor. More on how this plays out here: http://thefeministbreeder.com/explaining-white-privilege-broke-white-person)

There are other things that I would like to share about what can be done instead of prayers to change this situation. This is not a comprehensive list, and I encourage you to post your own ideas and recommendations on the comments below. Just be respectful and civil on your comments. I monitor the comments on my page and will not tolerate racism, xenophobia, LGB-phobia, transphobia, misogyny, ableism, or any other form of hate speech.

Here are some ideas:

  1. Reach out to people of color in your communities. Be intentional in this reaching out. Form friendships and alliances.
  2. If you are white, recognize your privilege. Recognize that the system in which we currently live was created for you. You might be a fifth generation trailer park kid, but the founding people of this country were only interested in the wellbeing of the white, Anglo establishment. Things have not changed much throughout the years, and your skin color grants your privileges that are still unreachable to the rest of us.
  3. Learn about the history of privilege in the USA. Learn about the slave trade and the uprooting of millions of people from their lands. Learn about the stealing of lands from Native peoples. Learn about the snatching of land from Mexico. Learn about the invasion on Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam and Marshall Islands. Learn about the USA’s role in placing blood-thirsty dictators in the rest of America and in the Middle East… Learn the history of your privilege!
  4. When you see racism happening, denounce it! Publicly and loud. Don’t just lift up a prayer for the victim… ACT! We – people of color – are literally taking bullets because we are speaking up on our rights to walk on the streets, use public pools, pray in our sanctuaries… Why are you still so afraid of speaking up? Believe me, nobody is going to take out a gun to shoot YOU for speaking up. Not the police, not the KKK member, not the “unstable young man”.
  5. Use the right language when talking about these events: these are not “mentally unstable young men”; they are white supremacists with a desire to exterminate black, brown and other minorities. These are not “unrelated events”; these are all part of the systemic extermination of non-white individuals in the USA. Language matters. How we communicate what is happening will counteract the fallacies that the media create around these acts of terror.
  6. To my Latino and Latina siblings: recognize that the violence against black individuals is just the tip of the iceberg. You and I are marked for systemic extermination too. Additionally, recognize that racism exists in our communities.
  7. Let us scream, shout, cry, curse… This is fucking terrifying and we need to express our fears! We might even say “you” when talking to you about the terror that the white majority is inflicting on us. Just take it. We are not “coming for you”, we just need to express the panic we are feeling right now and we are NOT colorblind; we see that you are white.
  8. Related to that, we do not need you to “allow” us to do anything. We are going to do it because we are entitled to do it as human beings, not because a white person grants us permission.
  9. Be present, but don’t take over. Listen. Ask questions. Answer if we ask, not before.
  10. Do not be afraid of engaging your own family or friends in conversations about racial relations and your own privilege as white people. If you are going to be an ally and help change the system, it is not to us – people of color – that you have to be talking to. It is to your grandparents and your aunts; to your white co-workers and nephews and nieces. It is to your next door neighbor and your golf buddies…

I am sure I will come up with more ideas as I continue to process all these events. But in the meantime, we can start with this list. Just keep in mind this: God despises hollow prayers and rituals, but She states: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

 

 

 

 

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Newtonian Physics and Church Culture – Part I

In 1687, physicist Sir Isaac Newton published a book called Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. In this work, Newton shares three observations related to bodies in motion. The laws of motion as they are known, state the following:

  •  Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it.
  • The relationship between an object’s mass m, its acceleration a, and the applied force F is F = ma.
  • For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Generally, people are introduced to these laws of physics in school or college. However, I think that it would be good for seminarians and church leaders to study them closely as part of our training to work in congregations.

I would like to share my thoughts on these three laws and how they can be translated into congregational life. Each one of these laws helps pastors understand our congregations a bit better. It will also help congregations understand themselves a bit better. A better understanding of our own congregations will, hopefully, bring us to healthier relationships, ministries, individuals, and communities of faith.

Because there is so much that can be said of each one of these laws, I will divide this essay intro three shorter essays expressing my understanding of how these laws affect our congregations and how to best address each one of them.

First Law – State of Inertia

The first law states, in lay terminology, that any object in movement will stay in movement unless there is a force to stop it. Conversely, any object in state of inertia – or of rest – will stay unmoved unless there is a force that will make it move. Sounds familiar?

Churches tend to stay in the state in which they are. More often than not, people pay attention at how the mainline churches continue in a state of inertia. Since there is no force that will move these congregations, they tend to wane and decline. Every now and then someone new will come through the doors. Sometimes these new visitors will stay, but often they will leave soon after discovering that the congregation is not ready to embrace them or to allow them to bring their ideas and passions.

Those who stay do it more often than not because they feel secure in a steady environment. Perhaps, the reason they come to church in the first place is because they are looking for a place where they can feel comfortable. This comfort is sometimes expressed in a state of inertia. Nothing is expected of the new members – with the exception of “blending in” with the culture of the church. The feeling of security and stability comes from not having to move or to be innovative. We can come to church and pray, sing, listen to a sermon, and share cookies afterward like our ancestors have done for only God knows how long. There is a feeling of security and comfort in old traditions. These are the churches with scholarly pastors in robes or business suits, thousands of church meetings to discuss the next business meeting, and one-hour long worship services so predictable that you need not come on Sunday to know at what minute you are suppose to be singing the opening hymn.

On the other hand, we have churches that are always “on the move.” Experimentation, innovation and modernization are usually the operative words for these congregations. Every worship experience is different. Every week there is a new experience to have. New members are always welcomed and they come in throngs. Each new member is encouraged to develop their own ministries, their own small groups, their own spaces of worship or of exploration. More often than not, these “emerging congregations” as they are usually called, will attract people of my generation and younger – the so-called Gen X, Generation Y, and the Millenials.

Everything around us moves at the speed of light. Our generation expresses thoughts in 140 characters or less in Twitter. Texting has replaced boring phone conversations. Emails are often used to engage in discussion, although it still “so-1990s!” Facebook has replaced human interaction. Ideas float left and right and any outsider will feel dizzy with all the movement that happens both in the lives of these generation and in the churches that attract us.

Frequently you will note that the only steady members of the congregations that attract these generations are the pastors. The congregation, however, has changed every few years. Yet, the pews – or rather, the theater chairs that have replaced them – are so full that everyone looks at them as the prime example of successful ministries.

Consequences

The Law of Inertia has important implications for the churches. Let us take a look at each type of church.

First, those churches that are in the state of rest will stop growing at a healthy pace. As I stated, these congregations tend to dwindle at a faster rate than others. Mainline churches are usually part of this group of congregations. Traditions die hard and people are not fond of bringing innovation or trying new things. The consequence is that these churches become almost irrelevant to the communities in which they are established. Stepping into their services on a Sunday morning is like traveling back in time for most people.

Younger generations will find the services at these type of churches boring, irrelevant, old-school, and even disconnected from reality. Social action and justice – which are often talked about in these congregations – are not in touch with the realities of the younger generations. These younger generations live in a world in which racial integration is a reality, gay and lesbians can marry in several countries and states of the USA, and women are often in the pulpits. Truly, our churches have to continue working for social transformation and being willing to take bold stands on issues of social justice. However these churches of inertia have replaced these actions for true spiritual formation and experiences.

If recent research is to be trusted, younger generations are longing for spiritually but not religious experiences. These experiences cannot be achieved with old traditions and regular business meetings. It also means that making the services all about social justice makes the younger visitor feel like what they are doing in their daily lives is not enough. Keep in mind, that these are the people who are marching, demonstrating, getting arrested and beaten by the police as they try to change the systems of oppression we live in. When they visit a congregation it is often because they are looking for an experience of the mystery that they cannot explain; seldom do they come to know how and why Jesus threw the moneychangers from the Temple.

The churches of inertia, unfortunately, do not provide for the spiritual needs of Gen Xers, Generation Yers, and Millenials. What young person has the time to come to three meetings, two worship services, four demonstrations, one fund-raising dinner, and any other church activity in a week? Church for the younger generation is about finding a safe space to connect with the mystery of God. It is also a place to find community, not over budgetary discussions, but over a cup of tea or coffee or even a beer, while at the same time expressing our doubts about God and religion. Contradictory? Yes. But so is life!

Second, the churches in motion have the problem of never being able to find roots for their movements. These churches are more likely to be mega-churches, independent congregations or mainline evangelicals.

It is common for churches in movement to ignore the needs of the aging population. As the baby boomers age and their parents have even more and more needs, the churches in movement have decided to completely ignore them in order to provide for younger people. Most of the emerging churches do not provide for the security and the stability that senior people need in order to have religious experiences that are meaningful for them.

This is not to say that older adults are not fond of movement, but rather that movement for these particular generations needs to happen at a pace that is healthy for them. Too much movement too fast is not what helps the spirituality of the older adults. Tradition helps these particular generations feel connected to their past and histories. Systemic planning – i.e. committee meetings – are places where older adults feel more comfortable, knowing that they have a starting point as well as a clear vision and goal in order to use their gifts for ministry. Finally, predictability gives them the confidence that they do not have to always learn some new language and always being on the move; they have already done this in their lives and it is now their time to rest and to reap the fruit of their many years of labor.

Churches in motion also tend to forget about the life transitions that all human beings go through. With perhaps the exception of marriage and baptisms, it is rare to find a pastor in one these churches who understand the importance of providing good care during life transitions. More often than not, these churches do not provide good ministry of accompaniment to the elderly or the sick, and very rarely are they prepared to lead meaningful funeral and memorial services. The most common understanding is that youthful energy and health will last forever.

Rarely do these churches engage in serious theological discussion. It is most common for them to stress the mystery and the spiritual. When the Scriptures are used, are usually to answer the question “what does this have to do with me?” and rarely on how are the Scriptures to help us transform the world around us. These churches have a very clear “market” and they do everything in their power to sell their product to this particular sector of consumers. In fact, these marketing strategists are at the core of the churches in movement.

Certainly, all these aspects are generalizations. There is not one single congregation that has all of the characteristics I am sharing here. However, I believe that it is good for leaders to assess where in the spectrum the churches we serve fall in order to provide better pastoral leadership.

Solutions?

As stated before, what I have shared are generalizations. It would be foolish of me to assume that there is a “one size fits all” solution to counteract the Law of Inertia. However, I see a possibility in the way in which Pentecostal and Charismatic movements have dealt with tradition and innovation.

The Pentecostal and Charismatic movements have allowed people to both hold on to tradition while at the same time provide for a deep spiritual experience that is individual. The movement towards innovation happens gradually. Members are encouraged to participate, yet there is a deep respect for the tradition of the elders and their wisdom. At the same time, these elders and leaders are open to innovation because of their own personal experiences of the mystery of God (most evident in their theology of the Holy Spirit.) And this interaction between younger and older generations in leading the church helps create an environment in which the community provides for care for each other at all times, regardless of age. The integration of the younger generations and the older generations happens organically, not forcefully as it is often the case in inertia churches and absent as it is the case in churches in motion.

Passion is as important as talent in their communities. You need not have a degree in music in order to sing in the choir, nor do you have to possess a degree in theology in order to engage in teaching and preaching at the church. Generally, committee meetings happen in the context of a specific need and not just for the sake of meeting. Worship is the central aspect of live in community, not business meetings. Instead of four committee meetings a week, Pentecostal and Charismatic churches have three or four worship experiences a week. The “target” audience for these churches is anyone who is not yet one of them, thus there is no need to define the product to sell in order to sell it. Anyone has the possibility of belonging!

Again, these are generalizations. I have expressed elsewhere my concern and unease with Pentecostal and Charismatic theology and worship, and I am open about these feelings. I have also expressed my love and attachment to the mainline Protestant tradition. But I am also critical of churches that stay in their state of motion or inertia for the sake of it, whether they are mainline or emergent. I believe that the future of the church lies in knowing how to keep a balance between movement and rest.

In the next essay I would like to explore the second Law of Motion, and look at what would be the healthy speed in which a church should move in order to affect healthy change.

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