Beliefs Don’t Matter As Much As You Think!


 I'm very happy to introduce to you The Reverend Michael Bos who is my colleague at West End Collegiate Church. He has recently written a book and I think the content of his book has some helpful thoughts for us as we navigate changing church culture. I invited him to share more about what it means to be A Church Beyond Belief. 

The litmus test for church membership revolves around beliefs. We ask prospective members if they believe in God. We ask if they believe in Jesus Christ. We ask if they believe in God’s Word. Each church has its own way of doing this, from the most liturgical to those who exercise a little “pastoral freestyle” in these moments. But in the end, we all ask if they believe.

So here’s a novel question. What do we mean when we say we “believe”? And more importantly, what should we mean when we say we “believe”? We use the terms “belief” and “believe” so frequently that we may never consider the answer to these questions, yet it lies at the heart of whether or not one can belong to a church.

For most of us, “to believe” is to give intellectual assent to a set of propositions that summarize the Christian faith.  But this is not always the sense in which the New Testament speaks about belief. To express belief was not about conveying the state of one’s knowledge as much as it was an expression of trust, loyalty, and commitment to a life-changing relationship. The question of belief was not to affirm facts about Jesus. It was about a relationship with God through Jesus.

This is important to remember because the journey of faith never begins with the thought, “I think I need some new literal-factual truth in my life.” It begins with a desire to give one’s life to something larger than oneself and a need for connection and belonging. What people want is to experience true belonging on the road to belief (giving their hearts to God). As for beliefs, they often come much later in the journey.

When we frontload membership with beliefs, we are letting people know what they need to do to fit in, which is very different than belonging. Brené Brown says it this way: “Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be in order to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.” What people want is to walk through the door and be seen for who they are, with all their quirks and questions, and know there is a place for them.

If we’re honest, we have to admit that churches have a way of engendering a culture of fitting in rather than a culture of belonging. We need to know that the cost of failing to fit in is very high. When people fail to fit in and meet the expectations of others, they don’t leave thinking they need to try another church. They leave feeling there is something wrong with them and they are unworthy of love and acceptance. In the quest to assure conformity of beliefs, the church has left many in her wake who carry great shame because they didn’t fit in.

We can change this if we follow the example of Jesus. When did the first followers of Jesus become bona fide members of the nascent church? Was it when they agreed to a list of beliefs Jesus provided them? Or was it when Jesus provided a community of belonging and when they put their trust in him? From what I see in the New Testament, the disciples were embraced as members long before their beliefs were sorted out.  Jesus created a community of belonging and the disciples responded with belief (trust). As for beliefs, Jesus gave the space and grace to discover them along the way.

I know that in this short blog there are gaps in my thesis, but I hope it sparks a conversation about belonging, believing and how we engage a new generation that seems to be distancing itself from the church. Younger generations are fueling the rise of the “nones” (those with no religious affiliation). From my perspective, this is not so much a rejection of faith and the church as it is a question mark about them.  The “nones” are really “maybes” who wonder whether there is a community of faith who would ever accept them for who they are and where they are on their journeys of faith.

Michael Bos is Senior Minister at West End Collegiate Church and President of the Collegiate Churches of New York. He is coauthor of the recently released book, A Church Beyond Belief: The Search for Belonging and the Religious Future.



The Earth Is the Lord's

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
    the world, and those who live in it. Psalm 24:1


Last week, like many others this autumn, I went to an apple orchard to pick apples. I was so happy to walk on dirt and not concrete that I went to the pumpkin patch and just laid on the ground watching the clouds in the sky. As I laid there I thought of a class I took in seminary called "The Earth is the Lord's" which Dr. Carol Bechtel taught. One of the texts for that class was written by Ellen Davis and it was called Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible. The idea of the book was to help us read Scripture with the land as one of the main characters. I pay much more attention to how often the land is mentioned in Scripture now due to this class. I often find myself asking questions like: How is the land referenced in this passage? Who is talking about the land and in what way are they talking about the land? What is distinct about this land? What is God's relationship with the land in this passage? 

This Sunday is The Blessing of the Animals service at the church I serve and I am now taking the Scriptural concept I learned from Davis and applying it to animals. I find myself asking questions like: How often are animals referenced in Scripture? What role does the animal play in a particular story? How many different kinds of animals are present? What is God's relationship to the animals? Genesis 1:20 is the first time Scripture mentions animals "And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” One estimate is that there is over 120 different animals mentioned in Scripture from gnats to lions to snakes to a donkey that carried Jesus on his way to Jerusalem.

This week at my soup kitchen I asked my homeless and hungry friends to read Psalm 148 together. A psalm of jubilant praise from all of creation, "Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command! Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds!" We noticed how all of creation joins in a chorus of praise by being who God made them to be and living accordingly. I invited them to let animals remind them of the joy of God's presence. I said "Each time you see a dog, cat, or birds flying above remember this Psalm and join in the chorus of praise." I did tell them how I have a difficult time understanding rats role in the chorus of praise and if they could figure it out this week to please let me know. They laughed.

Let me end with my favorite rendition of a hymn that many of us love and know well. Patty Griffin sings All Creatures of Our God and King and reminds us that the earth is the Lord's and all that is in it.


Church in the Digital World

I am on the upper age of being a digital native. Technology is essential in my life. What's a digital native? Glad you a asked. Let's turn to Wiki, "A digital native is a person who was born during or after the general introduction of digital technologies and through interacting with digital technology from an early age, has a greater comfort level using it. Alternatively, this term can describe people born during or after the 1985, but in most cases, the term focuses on people who grew up with the technology that became prevalent in the latter part of the 20th century and continues to evolve today." What this means is that as a digital native minister, church is not just what happens on Sunday morning, but church is what happens in the digital world. So let me offer some thoughts that may be helpful for us as we consider what the gathering of God's people looks like in a digital age.

This past week I was interviewed by two people who were interested in the ways I use technology for ministry. One of the people who interviewed me is the ELCA pastor, Keith Anderson, who is writing a book "The Digital Cathedral: Networked Ministry in a Wireless World." He wanted me to share my story of how I started the hashtag #MySixWordStoryOfFaith. In the early summer I invited all of my Twitter followers to help me write my sermon. I was preaching on Luke 24 and was fascinated by verse 48 when the resurrected Jesus tells the disciples "You are witnesses of these things." Essentially, Jesus was telling the disciples "Yo! You are storytellers of the faith. Each of you has a story about your encounter with me and the resurrection. Go and tell people your story!" Smith Magazine has made the Six-Word Memoir popular so I wanted to do a faith twist on this. I asked my followers "If you had to tell your faith story in six words what would you say #MySixWordStoryOfFaith?" My followers loved this and within a couple hours it went viral. Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, and all sorts of people began sharing their six word story of faith. You can still go onto twitter and search the hashtag to see the celebration of stories. In my sermon I mentioned this which lead some of the people in my congregation to go onto Twitter after the sermon to add their voice. It was pretty cool!

Techonology is woven into my understanding of how I practice my faith. The church, the body of Christ, is vibrantly alive and I see the people of God everytime I'm on Twitter wrestling with difficult topics with my fellow pilgrims.  

So let me offer a few thoughts for us to consider as we do church in a digital world.

  1. Online is just as much real life as meeting someone in person at a bar. Twitter is real life. Facebook is real life. Snapchat is real life. Instagram is real life. Sitting together in pews is real life. 
  2. You have to stop saying "You use ____ too much" Nope, you don't get it. Being a digital native means these are our hangouts. These are the spaces we live in.
  3. Your front door to your church is not the the wood, or metal, in the building. Your front door to your church is your website, your Facebook page, and your Twitter. Just as you have greeters at the door on Sunday morning to welcome people, make sure you have people who are attending to your social media presence. 
  4. Don't just PR events. Relationally show up in your social media spaces. Theologically speaking, incarnationally inhabit your social media spaces. Get to know who else is your "neighborhood" online.
  5. Pastoral care doesn't happen just in your office with two wooden chairs and the coffee table, pastoral care can happen in 140 characters and it can also happen in a 10 second snap.
  6. Watch this video "Christ Has No Online Presence But Yours" written by Meredith Gould.
  7. Consider how the gathering of God's people on Sunday can be interwoven into the daily digital lives. Create a tumblr for your church. Invite people to post pictures or quotes of the ways people see Jesus Christ in the world. Obviously you will need someone to curate this.
  8. If you don't have a YouTube channel perhaps you may want to consider it. You can post video segments of worship so that people who are not able to worship can have access to worship. Perhaps you want to invite people in your congregation to make videos to share their stories of faith and post them on your channel. Think of the possibilities for community!
  9. My best friend, Rev. John Russell Stanger, and I have created a new YouTube channel called The Real Reverends of NYC. We are both ministers and we wanted to create a show that is as much silly as serious, where we can talk about our engagement with Scripture as much as our love of pop culture. It's new and we are are in the process of dreaming what this could possibly be as we try out different ideas. Check it out!
  10. What about you? What would you add to this list? Digital natives, I'm looking to you to help guide this conversation. What would you want the church to know about your connection to faith and technology?



Exodus 16: Gif Style

I just wrote an entire blog. Hit the save button. My internet went out. The entire piece is now missing. This is how I feel:

The piece was about preaching at my friend's ordination at New Brunswick Theological Seminary this weekend. I celebrated the work of chaplains, as his call is to chaplaincy. I spent a good amount of time inviting you to look at Exodus 16 with me as that is what I'm preaching on.

In 14 verses someone complains, or talks about complaining 14 times. Scripture says the Israelites would rather die than continue in the process of liberation.

I'm sure Moses was feeling pretty good after he stretched out his arms and God moved the sea. I know I would. Now the Israelites are in the wilderness, hungry, and not comfortable. Superstar Moses is now being blamed. The whole congregation of Israel turns on Moses and Aaron and complains. I'm sure he felt a little more like this:

God and Moses talk. God says, alright alright, I will remind them it was I who took them out of the land of slavery and I will provide for them each morning bread from heaven. I wonder if there was gluten free, too?

The vegetarians were happy, but the carnivores wanted a little more. So God said I will give them meat in the evening. And in the evening the carnivores ate quail.

The thing that keeps sticking out to me in this is that God, in the midst of their vibrant complaining, drew nearer to them. It was like God was saying "Oh yeah, I want to hear more of what troubles you." God didn't distance God's self but God came closer.

God could have done this:

But no, God said to Moses to tell the people "I hear them." Not only did God listen, but God also showed up in a cloud. God's glory was noticed by all the people.

Liberation, freedom, salvation is difficult work. It's not always fun. It's not always comfortable. Wilderness is scary. But here's what I know from this text and here's what I know from Scripture, God is present. God might not take away the difficult feelings, but God is present. We are not alone. That's what chaplains do. They can't take away the pain. They can't make it better. Chaplains offer presence. Chaplains stand in for God and remind us we are not alone. 

So enjoy the bread for today. There is enough for you and there is enough for me. Everytime you meet at the Table of God be reminded that God hears you, receives you, and meets your needs.

And while this isn't exactly what my other blog said, I sure had fun retelling the story of Exodus 16 Buzzfeed style. Not so frustrated, but feeling more like this:






We begin, again

Yesterday at 2:00 PM it hit me that I am no longer on vacation; I wanted my afternoon nap.

It was my first day back in my office since the beginning of August. I felt like one of the school kids whose pictures I saw on my Facebook timeline holding a poster: "Madeline 2nd grade", "Jack's first day of school", and "Reverend Jes, year 3 pastor."

The first day back after a lengthy holiday is wrought with joy and anxiety. My first day back to school in sixth grade was terrifying. What was middle school? Why did I have to be a foot taller than everyone else? Why is everyone so mean? My first day back to high school my junior year, however, was amazing. My campaign for class president (with the slogan "Cast your vote for Kast") had worked at the end of the previous year, setting this junior year up with a different set of questions. What legacy will I leave as I lead my junior class? We have to have the best homecoming float this year so what will I encourage us to make? How much will I be able to improve the food served in the cafeteria? First days (school, job, volunteering, etc...) are anchored by questions and goals.

Like many of you, books were a big part of my vacation this year. My book list included young adult fiction, novels, biographies and the feminist existential theorist Simone de Beauvoir. I hang out in existential thought often. "What does this even matter?" is a question I find myself asking consistently, particuarlly at the beginning of new years. What value does this bring to me and the world around? How is value measured? What makes this meangingful?

I think, if pastors are honest, we also ask these questions. "Does my ministry matter?" "Does this church matter to this neighborhood/city?" "Does my faith matter to the world?" These are faithful questions that allow us to reflect with God. I consider these questions to be prayers. I think John Calvin would agree. In the Institutes he wrote, "All the wisdom we possess, that is to saytrue and sound wisdomconsists of two parts: the knowledge of God and our ourselves. (1.1.1)" 

By the time I got home from work yesterday I was sleepy. I didn't get my afternoon vacation nap (though I did 20 jumping jacks in heels to wake me up), but it was more than the nap. I came home knowing that the congregation I serve, my ministry, and the year ahead of me mattered. So I exerted heart and thought because I believe God has called me to this. I've heard the statistic that half of all ministers starting out will leave the ministry in five years. Half! Whoa! I'm curious about that number. I'm so competitive I almost take it as a challenge, but honestly, I also genuinely believe that ministry matters. I do not believe the church is dying and I get so annoyed when I hear people say that. Church is changing, of course! More people are doing church so much differently than just a pew on Sunday morning. I have friends who have planted dinner churches, pub churches, garden churches, and other unique ways of gathering around Word and Sacrament. The people of God will always continue to meet, we just aren't going to keep meeting in the same way. Ministry matters!

Maybe you are in need of some encouragement this year and are also wondering "Does my ministry really matter?" Maybe you are a deacon and wondering "Does this even matter?" Maybe you are a lay person who serves your church and city who is wondering "Does my service even make a difference?" Maybe you are a seminarian who is starting a new school year and are asking yourself "Is this really what I need to be doing with my life?" Or maybe you are a pastor and you, too, are beginning this year wondering "Does my ministry matter?" Most of us ask this question, it's so very human.

I came across this video recently on the SALT Project website and offer it to each of us, espeically my ministerial colleagues, as a response to our question "Does this even matter?" Rev. Julian DeShazier has an inspiring Word of hope for us all. 

God's blessings to each of us as we travel back from our holidays and begin, again.