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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Wednesday Festival: Being Church?

Here's a tweet that keeps coming back to me....
Shane Claiborne @Shane Claiborne  What Chores Would Jesus Do? "Church is not something we attend. It's something we are."

 The linked article refers to a group of people living in intentional community, and it's an interesting read, but it's not really my point here.  While I'm not feeling called to a monastic life, I have been thinking a great deal, in this time of such commercial pressure to be happy and joyful and madly gifting, about what church is meant to be in our lives.

Church is not something we attend.  It's something we are.  

Our RevGals in the UK all seem to be doing something called Messy Church, which intrigues me (messy being one of my favorite states).  Sally writes about Messy Church at her Methodist chapels:
Two pictures that will stay with me this week, two very different churches packed with families for Messy Church...

Picture one, children sat around the feet of the story teller, gazing at her with eyes like saucers!
 Picture two, a dad so chilled at Messy Church that he lay on a rug on the floor, head on arms behind his head and simply enjoyed being while his children were having fun!

Who needs a hymn prayer sandwich?

But, as Sally's next post shows, some people do need a "hymn prayer sandwich."  There are folks in the congregation truly mourning the removal of the familiar pattern of prayer, study & worship that they've known all their lives. 

In a similar vein, Liberation Theology Lutheran's Florida church chose to swap sermons for creative activities during the Sundays of Advent:

About a month ago, a group of us gathered at the parsonage to talk about a different approach to Advent.  I'm lucky to have a pastor who's a creative guy and thus, is open to doing worship with creative elements--especially if one of the lay people wants to take the lead.

Our pastor had a vision of having an alternative creative activity that would take place each Sunday in Advent.  We anticipated that mainly children and youth would participate, but certainly adults would be welcome too.  I had a vision of people who learned by hands-on activities working on the creative offering and listening to the sermon.

Those of you who have worked with groups of children will laugh.  But I'm calling it a success.  Do I think that participants in the creativity project got the exact same message that they would have, had they been listening to the sermon?  No.  But do I think that they'd have gotten those messages if they had been sitting in the pews?  Not necessarily.

Our experiment turned out to be a success, so I thought it worth documenting here. 

For Advent 1, the participants made 6 banners, with the Advent themes of Joy, Hope, and Waiting.  Below you'll see a sample.

For Advent 2, with its theme of Good News, participants made paper chains out of newspaper.

I thought our plan for Advent 3 was most ambitious.  The theme for the Sunday was the message of light breaking through, so one of our team came up with the idea of turning the windows in the back of the church (windows that connect the sanctuary to the nursery and to a rehearsal space) into a stained glass look by painting on them.

Below you see the windows in the before-but-prepped stage:

Below you see the participants painting the windows.

I particularly like the shot below, with the cross in the distance.

And below, the finished windows:

For Advent 4, with its themes of promises kept and the Magnificat, I thought back to what we'd done with silk and interpretive dance at a Create in Me retreat.  I had a vision of people writing/drawing onto silk the ways that they'd seen God keeping God's promises and prayers for what they still needed/wanted God to do.

I bought 12 yards of silk from
Dharma Trading Company, after a very helpful Customer Service rep helped me decide what would work best for the project.  When it arrived, I thought, well, I've bought far too much fabric--as I so often do.

 But as it turns out, we used the whole length. And then we processed up the aisle as the offering was brought forward.

If I decide to do more with silk and liturgical dance for Pentecost, we'll practice more before we process.  We didn't quite get the hang of getting the silk to drift and float through the air--and of course, the children participants were shorter than the Create in Me participants.


We put the silk at the bottom of the tree.

It's been an interesting, creative approach to Advent.  And I know that some of our participants wish that we could keep having creative activities, even after Advent ends.

Finally, from achurchforstarvingartists, Jan shares this meditation on the purpose of being church:

Church Friend #1:  Since our pastor retired, our worship numbers are down
significantly.  We didn’t realize how many people came just to hear him preach.  And then they went to brunch.

Church Friend #2:  That’s not really church, you know.
 Many of us have participated in Destination Worship to hear a great preacher preach.   A friend just told me over the weekend that she would be visiting Texas for Christmas and while she’s in Houston she will definitely go hear Joel Osteen.  Because he’s Joel Osteen.  (Maybe not everyone’s idea of a Great Preacher but we’d all agree he is a famous preacher.)
I’ve traveled to Grandville, MI to hear Rob Bell preach.  I’ve made several pilgrimages to hear BBT.  I’ve made special efforts to hear other fine preachers deliver God’s Word.  My faith has been impacted by their teaching and I have a richer understanding of scripture from those sermons.  But I can’t say that my experience was truly “church.”

My friend Steve Knight wrote earlier this month about Participatory Church.   For generations, many of us believed that being a Christian meant spending Sunday mornings in a church sanctuary, sitting in a chair or pew, hearing a sermon and then going home  (or to brunch) comforted or smarter or stirred spiritually.  And that’s that.
Jesus taught something completely different.

It’s easy to go hear a fine sermon and then return home and forget about it until next week.  It’s easy to go get a shot of inspiration and then continue life as usual.  But being a church together, being The Body of Christ together involves a commitment, relationships, a change of perspective and priorities.  Way harder.
Advent is often about theatre and pageantry in the institutional church.  Concerts and “special music” fill those weeks before Christmas.  Consider The Church Christmas Pageant.

Who doesn’t love a Christmas Pageant?  The kids are cute.  The pews are full. The story is familiar.  It creates happy memories and brings people together.  What’s not to love?

My hope is that this perennial favorite is more than a sentimental exercise.  I hope it touches souls and points us to something holy and beautiful.  But to be honest, sentimentality often wins.  We prefer easy worship.  We go.  We hear and watch.  We come away spiritually moved or entertained or informed.

But that’s not what it means to be the church together.  Jesus asks for more.

What are you finding this Advent that, to you, is truly church?  Is it in doing, being, sharing?  Finding new ways of experiencing?  For me, with an ill spouse for the last several months, church has been, not attendance at services, but presence (face to face and virtual) of many in my community of faith...both the one to which I "belong" and the one that I have found online.

May your gift this year be a new realization of God in your life and the lives of those you serve.


  1. Here's my defense of the Christmas pageant. It's not for those who are watching. It's for the children and other participants, who are embodying the story and hopefully, therefore, learning it in every fiber of their being.
    This is why I didn't like the pageant at the large church I began attending when my oldest was a toddler. There were so many children, they had to come up with a system. I understood that. But the result of this professionally narrated pageant was leaving the littlest children standing out in the hallway until nearly the end of the pageant, because they were the lambs. And yes, Lord, they were adorable when they came up the center aisle. But they had missed the message entirely.
    (I made a few changes when I ran the zoo.)

  2. MB, I have shared much of your experience. I have showed up most Sundays, but being diagnosed with and having surgery for cancer has meant that much of church is about my congregation "showing up" in all kinds of ways, for me and for each other. And other people, too, in other ways, such as one Rev. Songbird . . .

  3. Robin, I hope you continue to get yiur strength back. I love this post. I am a believer on participatory church! A couple times a year we have "stations" for the main body of worship. I keep the opening and closing the same so people are mostly comfortable. Then we go off to interact. It has worked well. I wonder about the individual nature that most stations are, but have also had a group make quilt squares. I like the idea of then doing something with what was created. Thanks for the ideas .

  4. Nancy, could you explain yours a bit more?

  5. our Christmas pageant is totally participatory - whoever wants to be part of it can be. the notices all say come dressed as a shepherd, and gel or king. I will see if someone is willing to be Joseph an Mary. the play is narrated and form the TEAR website. when we break in the story for a carol or two, I ask whoever would like to be a shepherd [or whatever part we are up to] to come forward, and then they become part of the play. last year we had grandma and child as angels together.

    on worship in general: we do run Messy Church 4 times a year and we find it great for engaging people who are often irregular worship attenders.
    Sunday morning we have tried some 'different' things. I agree with Rev Nancy, keep a good part of the service as 'usual'. I have found the congregation willing to have reflections, PowerPoint, sometimes they will even answer questions in worship, last week was what would you say to Jesus at his birthday party?
    if you want something creative for Christmas, a few years ago early in Advent ewe did 'cloth for the cradle' from the book of the same name. worked well, and the cloth still makes an appearance from time to time.

    sorry for the long post, time to work out which verses of the carols to sing tomorrow night, this way we get more carols into the program.

  6. I think the Christmas pageant can be really fun, instructive and affirming of the story for willing participants, a problem I encounter again and again in the UK is adults who as children were at best coerced and at worst forced to take part. Messy Church is a Fresh Expression, its messiness is not in the glue and glitter but in the being together in a different way you can find out more here:

    Messy Church

  7. oh, thank you for the link to more on Messy Church, Sally.

  8. We did an "all church" pageant the last year I was at my previous parish. We had the youth do the narration; the church school dressed as shepherds, wise guys, and assorted animals, and we had head pieces (either shepherd, wise guy or angel halo, all simple preps) for everyone who came in. And there were lines printed in the program for each group. It was a great success! I haven't tried it here yet; maybe next year.

    I love the four Sunday art projects.

  9. OH, and a young couple with a baby were the holy family...


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