Putting a Stake in the Ground: Figuring Out Your Church’s Identity


How the “Passing of the Peace” Became and Act of War

After the September 11 attacks in 2001, it occurred to me that we needed to call attention in worship to the cycle of violence, which I believed had surely been inaugurated. It wasn’t that violence was a new thing ushered into the world by planes that flew into buildings. But I was sure that the attacks of 9/11 would profoundly affect how most Americans experienced the world in some way.

On the other hand, with the saber-rattling I knew would come, I thought it important to draw attention to an important reality for Christians: Our identity as followers of Jesus is shaped by the realization that when Jesus was confronted with violence, he elected to absorb it rather than inflict it.

I knew people would be calling for somebody’s blood. How should those who follow Jesus respond? I struggled with that question.

How could the church continue to be a subversive counter-cultural alternative to the frantic calls for some kind of military vengeance that would come?

How might we embody within worship our resistance to the calls for violence?

I spoke at great length with the other minister at the church where I was serving at the time, and we decided that the most faithful and subversive liturgical act would be one that refused to allow violence to define us. We quickly decided that the Eucharist speaks most loudly about the relationship of Christians to violence.

But how could we observe it in such a way as to highlight the profoundly peaceful nature of the Lord’s Supper?

Peace.

Hey! How about we include the Passing of the Peace right smack dab in the middle of communion?

“There’s something,” we thought. “We could put the Passing of the Peace as the act that immediately precedes the approach to the table. We could say that as long as we’re still at war, as Christians we’ll defy conventional wisdom by offering one another the ‘peace of Christ’ as a prelude to our most sacred act.”

“I like it.”

“Done.”

And that’s just what we did. On the Sunday after 9/11 we passed the peace during communion. I explained why we were doing it, why historically the “Passing of the Peace” had been placed within the confines of the service of the table.

I made clear that we were following the historic lead of the dissenting voices that comprise Christian faithfulness when it comes to the issue of violence.

There was some grumbling. Of course, anytime you change worship, people will gripe. We figured that would happen.

What we didn’t expect was the intensity of some of the complaints.

So, on Monday after that first Sunday of eucharistic peace-passing, I was sitting in my office, when the phone rang.

“Hello, pastor?”

“Yes?”

“This is Gladys.”

“Hello, Gladys. What can I do for you?”

“Well, I wanted to talk to you about communion yesterday.”

“Ah, yes. The ‘Passing of the Peace?’”

“That’s right. I didn’t like it.”

“I see. What about it didn’t you like?”

“Communion is a quiet time. It’s my personal time. That thing we did yesterday was loud, and noisy. It was disruptive is what it was. And I want make sure that’s the last time we do that.”

“Well, as I explained yesterday, we’re going to keep doing it as long as we’re at war.”

“I don’t want to wait that long. You ruined communion for me yesterday. I want it to stop.”

“I understand why you might feel that way.”

“So, you’re going to quit?”

“No.”

“You mean you’re going to do it again next Sunday?”

“That’s pretty much it, yeah. We’re going to do it next Sunday, and the Sunday after that, and probably the Sunday after that.”

“So, you won’t be surprised when I get up in the middle of communion and walk out?”

“No. Now that you warned me, I guess not.”

“And if I leave, I’m never coming back.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. I know that must be a difficult decision to make. We’re going to miss you.”

“After all I’ve said, you’re still going to go through with it?”

“Of course. You wouldn’t respect me if I wasn’t as firmly committed to my principles as you are to yours. I think what we’re doing highlights a critical aspect of what it means to follow Jesus.”

Now, I’d like to say that the decision to keep passing the peace during communion made everyone else happy. It didn’t. Looking back, that was probably the beginning of the end for me at that particular congregation.

Even so, I thought (and continue to think) it was right to do it.

Being Who You Are, Not Who People Think You Should Be

Living in a market-based economy, we tend to think in terms of customer satisfaction. The utilitarian calculation about maximizing the greatest pleasure for the most people drives the economic engine of capitalism. Businesses become successful in a capitalist economy by figuring out what people want, then giving it to them.

There are any number of ways to do that, not least of which is the “customer survey.” I get untold number of solicitations to take surveys–via email, over the phones, walking in the mall, at the cash register in the restaurant.

Sometimes I’m even offered a premium in return (money, gift cards, to be put into a drawing for a chance at a new _____), so badly do companies want to know what I think.

Now, many of these surveys are merely trying to find out how I think the business is doing. Are they providing the service or product they advertise? Do I like the look, taste, texture, durability, hospitality for which I’ve paid?

I understand this kind of market research, and I think it’s probably in my best interest that businesses are trying to figure out how better to do what they do. If I consistently find toenails in my pot pie, the offending eatery presumably has a stake in possessing that information.

Being the kind of establishment that wants this information is a good thing for a business.

There are other kinds of market surveys, though, that seem to want me to tell the company who I think they should be. What should they be concentrating on? If I could pick from a list of core principles, which one do I think is most important?

This kind of market research I find troubling. My first thought is: “If you don’t know who you should be, why should I help you figure it out?”

Don’t get me wrong. Knowing who you are is important information to have. All I’m saying is that asking other people to give it to you is dangerous, and a possible signal that you should be doing something else.

The first kind of survey is designed to improve service, and is therefore almost always a good thing.

The second kind of survey is designed to provide identity, and, I would like to suggest, is a sign of organizational flailing.

Churches, in a market-based economy, are prone to imitating business practices. Surveys are no different. Churches often seek the kind of information found in surveys, whether formally or informally.

In the case of the first kind of survey–the “How are we doing?” survey–I think this kind of information can be extraordinarily helpful, something churches should want to know:

  • Were you greeted when you came in the door?
  • Did you find the signage sufficient?
  • Was the nursery inviting?
  • Do you prefer Charmin or Cottonelle in the bathrooms?

Or for Emergent communities:

  • Bock or Pale Ale?

In the case of the second kind of survey–the “Who do you think we should be?” survey–I think this demonstrates a lack of vision and purpose. It’s a sign of organizational flailing.

“Oh, come on! That doesn’t happen.”

Really?

Anytime you make decisions based not on who you are, but on who you think potential “customers” (in this case, that’s often code for, “young families”) want you to be, you’re turning over your most precious treasure (i.e., your identity) to the people who know the least about it.

“What kind of worship should we have?”

“Good worship.”

“No. I mean, if we want to grow, what kind of worship should we have?”

“Good worship.”

“You’re not understanding me. If we want to grow, should we try the whole praise teams and projectors thing? That huge church down the street does it, and the young people seem to like it.”

“What makes you think the young people like it?”

“Well, they have a lot of young people and they have that stuff. It doesn’t take a genius.”

“Actually, I’m not nearly so sure the young people like ‘that stuff’ so much, but whatever. I understand what you’re asking. You don’t understand what I’m answering.”

“Huh?”

“Look. What form of worship best expresses the majesty of God and the rigors of following Jesus, while at the same time represents the sensibilities of the congregation? Do that well and people will show up–or they won’t. But worship isn’t something you do to attract people; it’s something you do because God deserves it.”

The point is: You can’t look to other people to define you. Figure out who you are, and then make sure you do it excellently.

Ask people how you can make what you do better.

Don’t ask people to tell you who you are.

Do the work of reflection. Then put a stake in the ground.

But remember: It’s a stake, not a weathervane.

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5 thoughts on “Putting a Stake in the Ground: Figuring Out Your Church’s Identity

  1. I think you’ve identified a very fact specific issue about how responsive a church or church leader should be. Within the church the church leaders have a responsibility to call the church to action, to deeper spiritual commitment, et cetera. Likewise, within society the church has a role to challenge rather than ratify social norms. But, (as PeeWee Herman taught us, there is always a big but) there are a couple of problems. First, we don’t actually know with complete certainty what must be done. Second, we have to pursuade those being led.

    Sometimes church leaders take a position that is wroing. Sometimes the church takes a positon that is wrong. How can leaders detect when they have made a mistake without becoming the weather vane depicted at the top of the post?

    • Jim: I think you’ve hit on something important. Churches can certainly be wrong about who they are, or in this case, who they ought to be. However, I would still suggest that the people in a position to correct that won’t be found at the end of a survey. The correction will come in consultation with those who bring a certain level of expertise.

      As far as persuading those being led–there’s no question this is a challenge. But it always is, right? I don’t want to be misunderstood to be advocating for intractability on the part of leadership. But resolve, after sufficient time and resources have been expended in the work of self-understanding, is essential.

      You’re absolutely right, though. If I make it sound easy, I shouldn’t. It’s not.

  2. The big-box WalMart church has a very different mission than the more traditional (or even emergent) church has. I know because I was part of one for nine years (I’m now a commissioned DOC guy). Worship in the mega-church model (and that can be a church that is actually a mega-church or one that is trying to become one by emulation) is a 30 minute music set performed by a very professional “worship team” on a stage with lighting and smoke machines and video graphics splashing across the set. It’s not so much worship, really, as it is the warm up act for the message, which is usually 45 minutes long and the focal point of the “service”. Everything done on Sunday morning is done to connect with and entice the person who is just showing up to see if there is any reason to keep coming back. Mostly outreach in mission rather than worship. The model requires a lot of money and staff and a jammin’ band and a rock star preacher who is funny and slightly profane and (at least a few years ago) is willing to wear expensive faded jeans, bowling shoes and cool glasses. It helps to have a bed-head haircut as well, or a completely bald head. Facial hair optional.

    So ok…I have issues. But a customer survey in these kind of churches is a critical part of the strategic plan. Their product can change and flow and needs to in order to connect with what they’re hearing in the culture around them. I’m not saying they “water down the Gospel” (as some harsher critics say). I’m saying the model of “church” they are working with demands a certain flair and cultural connection that the more liturgical, traditional churches don’t require. Their whole strategy for reaching their community absolutely depends on it. And for the most part, it works. Very formulaic, to the point that virtually every large church you visit does nearly the same format, and in many cases the same teaching series.

    From my more recent vantage point in the DOC (and in presenting at a variety of liturgical and mainline denominational churches across America), I would suggest that what needs to change is not so much the liturgy or the pews or any other outward issue. There needs to be a desire to connect with, understand, be a student of, and engage with the culture each faith community lives in. I just spoke at an Eastern Orthodox Church in Chicago and was talking with them about this need. It seems most impossible for the high churches to do anything about since they are so committed to maintaining traditions and liturgy. But the priest spoke up and said, “The first Orthodox Church in America was planted in Alaska by Russians. They studied the culture and learned the language and spent a few years living and working among the people who lived there before they planted the church. We have never done it this way in America since. Instead, we have built our churches and expected people in the community to learn OUR culture, OUR language, and OUR values. Maybe we need to return to a more missionary mindset.”

    (Man…I couldn’t have PAID for that comment!)

    So anytime we compare the mainline church to the WalMart church, we’re basically comparing apples to oranges. And we in the more traditional churches need to quit trying to compare ourselves with that model. We sound petty and jealous and insecure (maybe we are). We have a LOT to offer people and a LOT to learn about how to do that. But we don’t need to change the outward stuff we always fuss with as much as we need to change our hearts and minds and perspectives on our neighbors who we serve. As you suggest, the first kind of survey is a really good thing to consider doing (we suggest hiring people to be ‘secret shoppers’ at a service and provide a survey form for this). But the more important question to me is how well do we know the community we live and work in? Who is our neighbor?

    (wow…this turned into a rather long response. sorry.)

    • Randy: What a great reply!

      A couple of things jump out at me.

      The “big box church”: “Their whole strategy for reaching their community absolutely depends on it.” What I’m questioning is not reaching the community–market analysis can help anyone do that. The problem I’m trying to name (and it applies across the board) is that you need not just to reach out to the community, but you need to know what it is you’re asking them to embrace. I don’t think it flies theologically to say, “Well, we’ve got this whole Jesus thing–which we’re able to contort to just about any conceivable shape to match people’s ‘felt needs.'” Just because you can give people what doesn’t mean that what they want is aligns with the demands of the gospel–or is even particularly interesting from the perspective of the gospel.

      “Petty, jealous, and insecure”: I’m regularly all of those things, I suppose, depending on who you ask. That doesn’t mean, however, that I’m wrong.

      I loved your reply. Thank you for taking the time to write it.

      • Derek,
        Thanks for your gracious response. I think the quagmire might be that the two camps tend to say similar things but mean something very different. For example, the issue you raise about what we’re asking the community outside our walls to embrace. The big-box church isn’t, in most cases, interested in changing the message of the Gospel or watering it down (I say “in most cases” because there are some who are interested in doing that, of course). What they are primarily interested in is proclaiming the message in the language and context of the culture. This is something worth paying attention to, as my Orthodox priest friend suggested. How we speak the Gospel is just as important as speaking it correctly. After all, you could proclaim the Gospel accurately and persuasively in the original Greek languages and say you have been a faithful witness. But unless your hearers were first century Greeks, you would have epically failed. Being accurate isn’t enough. You must also be understood. This is where cultural understanding and connection is valuable. It’s not giving people “what they want” so much as it is giving the Gospel to them in language and in ways they can understand and comprehend. They may not want it once they understand it, but our only failure is to refuse to communicate it in ways they can comprehend it.

        We are all petty, jealous and insecure which doesn’t necessarily make us wrong, as you note… but it does make us less credible if we are right. And more insistent on being right when we are.

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