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Our Blog
May 7, 2020 | Michael Gulker

The Veggie Burger Church

Church feels different now. The seating might be more comfortable in our living rooms, but the sanctuary is smaller.

Over the past couple of weeks, I have talked with 22 church leaders—17 pastors and five denominational leaders with a bird’s-eye view of hundreds of churches—about how they are leading and seeing others lead congregations differently now.

Across the board, it seems the novelty of online church has worn off. Just as pastoring is more than delivering a weekly sermon to a camera, congregations are expressing that online church seems to be missing something.

The image of a veggie burger comes to mind. There are good veggie burgers out there, maybe even some that are better than a hamburger. But a veggie burger is not a hamburger. And if you order one and get the other, you will be disappointed.

The available ingredients for worship have changed. We are all struggling with worship taste buds that are not satisfied by live streamed services and Zoom fellowship. So, rather than trying to make online church “taste” just like in-person church, how can we faithfully make “veggie burger church” that actually nourishes our souls?

Applying the Colossian Way to this question, we should offer our praises alongside our laments, and chart what we hope for in and on the other side of this time.

Praise.

It turns out there are many reasons for joy in this new style of church.

We have drastically simplified church liturgies and orders of service: singing, sermon, prayer, online fellowship.

Families worship together instead of disbursing children to Sunday school classrooms.

One pastor of a mega-church told me he has seen people who are not typically involved in the life of the congregation beyond Sunday services are asking about ways to serve. People have more time and energy to serve and connect in new ways.

Lament.

Some pastors I spoke with shared that roughly 80% of the church activities we aren’t doing right now, in and beyond worship services, don’t seem to be missed by congregants. In fact, some thought those activities may be gone for good.

Several pastors confessed avoiding the difficulties of change by hoping that everything will go back to normal soon. But many congregants may not return to church, even when the governor says it’s OK. “Normal” seems increasingly distant, and pastors sense some changes may be permanent.

The life of the Church centers in community—the communion—of the Body of Christ. Leaders are wondering how to be relational, while social distancing, and offer connection and discipleship that go beyond one-sided preaching and pre-recorded content, especially in response to the intensifying toll on mental health.

In our veggie burger metaphor, it would seem the “meat” of the church we’re hungry for is embodied relationships.

Hope.

We do not need to choose between lament and hope. Lament can nurture hope. Lament, after all, is a kind of negative image of heaven, illuminating those things that are not right now but will be resurrected and redeemed in eternity. We hope now for a Church rebuilt into a stronger, more resilient, more beautiful witness.

Post-Pandemic Church

How do we live now then, as a Church of hope? The leaders I spoke with had a few ideas.

Though physically isolated, each church doesn’t need to figure it out alone. Several pastors I spoke with expressed a desire to learn from each other and discover the best way through together.

We can imagine together what new possibilities could emerge if we dropped some of the activities most churchgoers don’t miss. We can begin to imagine new possibilities for small, in-person fellowship in the interim before large gatherings resume.

We have a unique and exciting opportunity now for “micro-churches,” small gatherings for discipleship and fellowship. In fact, according to Christianity Today, 44% of over 1,500 pastors are looking for practical tips on how to construct online small groups. In a second survey of nearly 2,000 pastors, the top two resources pastors identified as needing to help them lead are ways to create engaging online conversations and gatherings (61%) and practical ways to be on mission in this season (55%).

While online right now, future smaller gatherings, with the right infrastructure and staff support, can provide a very different but still spiritually nourishing diet of worship and discipleship. And the new forms of fellowship that current constraints make possible can diffuse a deep, rich sacramental life across your congregation.

We know many of you will face hard decisions in the near future about when to reopen sanctuaries, which programs and activities to resume, how to engage faithfully in matters that were already tense before the pandemic. These necessary conversations will spark conflict, and, we hope, help cultivate discipleship. If church must change—if we must change—let it come in the form of growth toward Christ.

If you are searching for deep, scriptural resources that lay leaders, elders, and families can use, I invite you to learn more about The Colossian Way. One pastor told me in our conversation that, “the best work The Colossian Forum does is help think theologically about practices and complex issues that locates the work in the Church rather than the ivory tower or [with] academic pastors.” We designed Colossian Way curricula in the hope that they would foster new life in the Church in times of crisis and tension, like those we experience now. It brings us immeasurable joy that these tools in the hands of faithful Christians continue to do just that. 

We pray for you daily, my brothers and sisters, as you do the hard work of lament, hope, discipleship, and engaging conflict in the Church. How are you experiencing church now? What are your praises, laments, and hopes for your/the Church? We’d love to hear and learn from you. Feel free to email me at mgulker@colossianforum.org and let me know a good time for us to talk.

Suggested Posts
Lent and the Rhythm of Faith
February 26, 2020 | Emily Stroble
Lent and the Rhythm of Faith
Today, in celebration of Ash Wednesday, Christians around the world received a smudge of ash on their forehead in the shape of the cross as a sign of their repentance and redemption. This external representation of our salvation, however simple, feels comforting—grounding. Lent, the 40 days of repentance and preparation in the Church calendar that begin on Ash Wednesday and lead up to Easter, literally grounds us. A phrase you will likely hear in an Ash Wednesday service is, “dust you are, and to dust you will return.” The ash reminds us that we are sinful, mortal people living in a broken world. The cross reminds us that we are redeemed by the sacrifice of Jesus. Today, these beliefs are on display for everyone to see. Lent also reminds me that my faith should constantly be apparent in my life every day, shaping who I am and what I do. One of the best ways to continue that process of shaping is to practice ways of living out my faith. Of course, getting better at something—including getting better at living out my faith—requires practice. That’s why Christian practices are central to Lent and to The Colossian Way. My piano teacher used to say, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes more of whatever you practice. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” She also told me to “build muscle memory.” It’s amazing; once you play a song many times, you don’t have to remember every single note. Your fingers just know what comes next. I rarely play anymore, but songs still come out of my fingers when I sit down at a keyboard. Their rhythms are part of me. Christian practices help build spiritual muscle memory. If a pianist practices a sonata, that is what their fingers will play in concert, even if they are nervous. If we practice grace or speaking the truth, that is what we will do, even under the pressure of conflict. Heather, a pastor who has led many Colossian Way groups, talks about how practice, particularly lament—which is part of every Colossian Way session—teaches us the rhythms of faith. Lament and Lent, Heather says, “help us voice our pain. Lament comes straight out of scripture, and it shows us the pattern of telling God about the brokenness in our world.” The rhythm of lament also gives us hope in the midst of sorrow because, as Heather puts it, “There is always an ‘and yet’ to a lament—‘And yet, God is with us.’ We know we won’t lament or be in Lent forever. We will get to Easter. And we will celebrate.” We believe that God hears our prayers, cares about our pain, is redeeming us and our world, and that “In Christ, all things hold together.” Practice gets those rhythms of faith and scriptural truths “into our bones,” as Heather says, and committed to muscle memory. We know Easter comes after Ash Wednesday, and that hope comes after lament, even when we feel hopeless, because we’ve practiced it. That’s how the song of the Gospel goes. These practices and rhythms of faith give us strength and guide our actions when we grow weary and uncertain. Lament gives us words for our pain. Repentance gives us peace from our guilt. The Colossian Way gives us paths through scripture for our conflicts. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul speaks of a “thorn in his flesh.” Scholars wonder if this is a sin Paul is repenting for, or if he is lamenting physical pain or another consequence of our broken world. In either case, God’s words to Paul have encouraged generations of Christians: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness.” God writes the signs of his perfect love in the dust of our lives. His strength shapes our habits and actions as he breaths his life into us. Over the next 40 days of Lent, we joyously invite you to explore practices of faith with us. We will share more stories like Heather’s and ideas for Lenten practices from our staff and members of our Colossian Way family. And if you have built spiritual muscle memory or discovered new rhythms of faith through the practices of The Colossian Way, whether in conversations with staff, workshops, leader training, or resources, we invite you to join us in raising $7,000 during the 40 days of Lent to cover the costs to train 40 Colossian Way Leaders. All donations will support costs registration fees don’t cover—costs like hospitality at training, Leader resources and materials, and coaching and mentoring before, during, and after Leaders run small groups. Well-equipped Colossian Way Leaders are vital to building up churches and communities to gain the muscle memory to engage conflict in the strength of their redemption. Learn more about supporting Leaders here, and give online here.
The Vulnerability of God
December 24, 2019 | Chris De Vos
The Vulnerability of God
Upon being born, a baby presents problems—problems that seem so manageable during the nine months of pregnancy. Rude cries for food in the night, raw soiling of blankets throughout the day, and utter dependency upon us in each passing moment drain our energy and, for some, test the limits of our patience. Although we are programmed to respond a certain way when a baby smiles (a gesture that releases pleasant chemicals into our central nervous systems), her piercing cries have the power to render nothing short of sheer frustration from the best of us. For me, it was the daily, unrelenting dependence upon my wife and me that led me to wonder what we were thinking when we decided to have a child. Well, we thought about the future. About the future of this world. After all, there is no future without babies. As grandparents now, we see this even more profoundly. I wonder whether Mary and Joseph had similar reflections. After all, the birth of Christ was always about the future. From the moment Adam and Eve acted in self-defiance against God’s wishes, the future of creation itself was in question. God spoke of the future when blessing the nations through Abraham, when establishing a throne for David, and when anointing a suffering servant king that Isaiah foretold. The future of everything hinged upon God’s decision to conceive a child in Mary. The logistics of all this have produced stretch marks in the minds of the best thinkers in history, and many have rejected the reality or deconstructed its power.  But the message proclaimed in Christ’s birth begins with the reality of God, incarnate in a baby. God, emptied, to some extent, of God’s pure divinity, born as any human baby is born – to a woman crying out in labor and a father pained by the agony in his wife‘s face. A child, smeared with bluish-white goo, wiped perhaps by a rough muslin rag and washed while breathing in his first breath of air. A couple questioning the sense of having a child in this world, let alone one with such strange prophecies about it. God took a chance at the right time, we’re told. But it all seems so full of vulnerability, ready to fall apart at any moment. Salvation depended on Joseph and Mary trusting in God’s idea of the future. The whole plan rested upon those two parents and their openness to the possibility of Jesus -- “God with us.” And to a great extent, the future still does. My theological muscles are not strong enough to understand the fine points of human-divine natures co-mingling in the person of Jesus, but I do believe it and believe that Jesus’ birth is our greatest hope for the future. For to deny it, or turn from it, or go about life as if it didn’t happen means to turn life over to ourselves. It means to say that God never has come to live in our skin. That God is distant, uninvolved. It means to say that God does not exist, or if he does, he does not understand us. To trust in this story is to keep the door open for new possibilities for the future, despite our fears, doubts, weaknesses, and divisions. To believe this story is to accept vulnerability as the starting point for new life. In our cultural moment, in which we’re so deeply polarized, this hope for renewal and reconciliation is more meaningful to me than ever. At Christmas, we reverently and joyfully remember that the vulnerability of God leads to the viability of a renewed creation – a new you, a new me, and a new relationship, even with our enemies!

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