Sabbatical Church Hopping Part IV

7) Saturday, February 18.  St. John Lutheran (Missouri Synod), Ellisville MO, Warehouse Service, 5 pm.  

St. John Lutheran has more than 2000 members and is located about a five-minute drive from Emerson Chapel.  It has five services a weekend, two of them at 5 p.m. on Saturday.  There is a traditional service in the sanctuary and a contemporary service in what they call the Warehouse.  I decide  I will go to the Warehouse Service because I want to see what their contemporary service looks like.  As I arrive I notice that everyone walking into the sanctuary is older.   All the families, teens, and tweens are going to the Warehouse service.  Pretty much the only older people I see in the Warehouse Service seem to be coming with their younger family members.  The people I sit beside seem to be three generations attending worship together.

The Warehouse Service is in something like a black box theater.  There is a simple stage filled with instruments.   I was given the bulletin which did not have an order of service, but rather announcements about the coming week’s activities.  The windows were heavily shuttered and at the front were two large flat screens that offered a countdown to when worship began, kind of like what you see on TV New Year’s Eve.  It was four minutes and 15 seconds to worship when I sat down.   When the stopwatch hit “0:00″ the band began to play.  They were good and played Christian contemporary worship music.  We all stood and sang two songs over the course of 20 minutes, with the lyrics projected overhead.  I don’t think anyone in the band was older than 35.  As I looked around the sanctuary, it was hard to find many people over the age of 50.    Sometimes people would raise their arms as they sang.     The first song was all about comfort.  ”Jesus is here for me.  He holds me and loves me.   There is nothing he can’t do and therefore nothing I have to fear.”  The later songs were about glorifying God.  This time I wrote down the song.  Here is a link so you can listen to it:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2AQ0Dv7kzoA

That kind of stuff.

If you read the last post, are you getting the drift here?  It was EXACTLY THE SAME as the service I attended at the MB church in Leamington.

When the singing was finished there were  a few short announcements, all directed at newcomers.  There was a prayer and the offertory, followed by another song, and then the sermon by the associate minister, which lasted about half an hour.

The sermon was based on 1 Peter 5:6-11 and was the concluding sermon of their February series: “Raving Fans of Jesus Christ.”  The sermon title was “Rivals.”  I will try to paraphrase.

“As Christians, we are called not to be anxious.  Why be anxious?  The victory is already won.  Jesus was crucified, died, and born again.  The devil has already been beat.  But when we allow anxiety into our life, we allow the devil back in. Then we’re not being Raving Fans of Jesus Christ.  So what do you do?  Always look for your Rival.  Kind of like in football.  (grab a football and begin throwing it out into the audience.)  When you play football, what do they tell you ?  Never take your eye off the ball.  Take your eye off the ball (turn your head and let the football go past you and almost smash into the drums) and you drop the ball, don’t you?  Never take your eye off your rival.  And who is our rival?  It’s the devil.  But how do we know where the devil is?   The devil is within and without.  Kind of like the Trojan Horse.   You’re so busy watching the Trojan Horse that you don’t realize the enemy is within.  The devil is the enemy within us, that tempts us away from the Victory that has already been won by Jesus Christ.  This is what we call original sin, the devil that is within us.  So how can you tell when you’ve taken your eye off the ball?  When you’ve let the Trojan horse into your life?  It’s when you’ve become addicted to the following things:

1) success – you think all our success is yours – your money, your job, your accomplishments, your home, your car.  You think you created your own success.  You forgot that God gave you your success.

2) suffering –  You are so focused on the hardships of your life.  This is really a form of self-centeredness.  You’ve put yourself at the center of your life rather than be a Raving Fan of Jesus Christ.

3) busyness – When we become addicted to busyness we no longer put Jesus in the center of our life.

4) pleasure. We’re so focused on pleasure and we become addicted to it.  We become addicted to things like pornography or think that our marriage is too hard and we need to get a divorce.  These are addictions to pleasure.  The only true pleasure is our salvation in Jesus Christ.

When you take your eye off the ball, you let in your rival, which is the devil, who will tempt you and work within you to turn you away from the Victory that is already ours.  You know why Christianity is different from every other religion in the world?  Because our God is alive.  I once went to India and I went to their Hindu temples. And you know what they worship and pray to?  Dead stone.  We worship the living stone of the risen God.

So I leave you with these four questions to help you recognize your rival:

1) Where are my weak spots?

2) When am I most vulnerable?

3) What am I allowing in to my life?

4) How am I praying for strength?”

That was the gist of the sermon.

Then,  they served communion.   It must be because we’re heading into Lent.  And, the minister did the same thing in this service as what the minister did in the MB service, explicitly stated who could and could not take communion.   So once again, I did not take communion.

So, what do I take from this experience.

1) The model of contemporary worship as developed within American Evangelical movement is by now largely standardized.  You can go to a contemporary MB service in Leamington Ontario or a contemporary Missouri Synod Lutheran service in Ellisville Missouri and experience virtually the same service.  Stop watch count down to service start.  No natural light.  Praise band.  Informal attire (both ministers wore a button down shirt and khaki pants).  Large flat screens at the front, same music, no written order of service, half an hour of singing, half an hour of preaching, followed by communion if it’s to be offered, followed by more music and it’s done.  And it’s working.  Attendance is strong.  The age diversity is also strong.

Here are some things I like about this format

1) I like the big screens at the front.  With hymnals, everyone has their nose buried in the book.  You’re not looking around you, engaged with the people around you.  When you sing from a big screen, you’re looking up (which automatically frees up your vocal chords) and the singing is so much easier.  We’re present to the room around us.  The minister at St. John also used a powerpoint presentation during his sermon. That really kept me engaged.   Like many  Gen Xers I have about a 6- 8 minute attention span.  (It’s down to about 4 minutes for Millenials.)  Blame it on Much Music and watching too many sit coms.  Having a power point presentation  kept me engaged because the multimedia allowed me to experience the sermon on multiple levels.

2) Announcements are very very short.  They are directed to newcomers only.

3) I liked the informal approach of the minister.  Both the MB and the Missouri Synod preachers preached extemporaneously and without a pulpit.   I am a manuscript preacher and  sometimes wish I was not confined to either a manuscript or a pulpit.    A pulpit puts a barrier between me and the people I’m speaking with.

Here’s the things I feel so so about.

1) The music.  I like contemporary music.  We use a lot of it at Emerson and I’m SO thankful for our Singing the Journey supplement.  It expanded what is possible in our worship services.  But, I must admit that sometimes I got bored with the music at the Warehouse and MB services.  Very simple lyrics that went on and on and on.   I wanted something more.  The theology felt very simple to me.   At the same time, I also know that simple isn’t always simple.  The simple words are a code to a deeper meaning.  I guess I didn’t like the deeper meaning.  Also, I know that music is key to being relevant to your people.  Contemporary Christian music takes a theology and puts it in a musical genre that everyone knows.  Watch American Idol or The Voice.  Same contemporary style of music.

2) The sermon message.  This is what I like about the sermon – personal responsibility.  the minister, to his credit, did not locate “evil” outside.  Did not make it an other and did not engage in scapegoating.  At the same time, I am of the opinion that the doctrine of original sin is a damaging theology.  You can talk about personal responsibility without having to revert to original sin, which in my opinion is institutionalized shaming.  The minister created an image of life that is a cosmic battle.  A football game with a clear rival.  This is an either/or black and white world and there is a battle for souls going on and you better not take your eye off the ball or you’ll be on the wrong side.

I don’t think the minister understands Hinduism.  To say that Hinduism is about worshipping dead stone gods is really a mis-representation of Hinduism.  There is a strong iconography in Hinduism but it would be a mistake to assume that Hindus worship dead gods because they will physically bow before and offer gifts to statues and carvings of their gods.  The icons are both sacred and pathways to the sacred.   Hinduism is about being in ongoing relationship with the gods and goddesses which are manifestations of the one god, the living god.  But clearly, the minister was putting up his form of Christianity as the only true faith, better than all the others.  Kind of like the song they sang just before the sermon “Our god is higher than any other.”  I just will never agree with that.  I think it’s arrogant and divisive and makes the non-Christian world into an enemy.

Alright, what was really getting to me?  I realized, as I sat there, that I have really been affected by living in Bible Belt Missouri.  It was much easier for me to be tolerant before I moved here, when I lived in cosmopolitan Toronto.   But now I’ve lived here for 8 years.  It is hard to live in a society that is so divisive, where the lines are so hard.  It is hard to live in a country where I am a second class citizen.  It wears on you.

Before I went to St. John, I read their website and many of their position statements, and I already had my back up.    At St. John, women cannot be ministers, and  they can’t be in any position that gives them authority over the minister (such as the Board of Trustees).  Then, if  you recall, last week was the week that the whole issue of birth control health insurance coverage in religious institutions exploded and there was that famous all male clergy panel talking about women’s contraception.  This enraged me.  So I guess you could see my sensitivities were pretty raw by the end of the week.  I was tender.

I came to realize as I sat in the service that I was feeling very hostile to those around me – the minister, the band, the people in the congregation.  I wondered how they voted in the last presidential election.  I wondered what they would do if they realized I was a dyke.  I found myself thinking, how can these women be sitting here?  How can you be part of an institution where you can never be an equal?  How can you bring your daughter here?   What are you teaching her?

And I looked at all the men.  The all male band.  The male minister.  The men serving communion.  And all the men in the congregation.  There were a lot of men.

This is my question.  Will the majority of men be more likely to join religious organizations with male leadership and powerful male god(s) because deep down, it is still difficult to accept female leadership and authority?  And is this also true of many women?  Is it still the case that the majority of men and more women than I would have expected prefer male leadership?  Do they invest it with more authority, power, and legitimacy?

When I think of the men who join UU congregations, I would say that the majority of them have a much more flexible and expansive understanding of gender than the general public.  They don’t want to be the household leader or ruler of their family.  They pursue egalitarian models of parenting.  They are more likely to question the dominant understandings of masculinity.

Now I don’t want to say we’re perfect.    In our denomination, women make less than men in ministry.  In multi-staff ministries, the senior minister is usually a man.  In terms of gender and age, young women ministers have the most difficulty finding full time permanent settled ministries and they have the most difficulty with establishing their authority as ministers.   Our UUA president has never been a woman.  Even in our liberal movement, when male ministers take a stand, they are often credited with being assertive.  Women ministers are much more likely to be called out as authoritarian, and this criticism comes more often from other women than from men.   I think we are also, more than we would like to admit, ambivalent about strong female leadership.

If all it took to address the gender imbalance in our association was to pepper our sermons with references to football, nascar, cars, and the stock market, do you think it would change things?

I want to end this blogpost by reflecting on my comment that I am realizing I have become less tolerant since moving to Bible Belt Missouri.  How did this happen?  Before I moved here, I lived in a tolerant cosmopolitan multi-racial economically diverse city.  Living in the U.S has changed me.  This is a much less tolerant country and the social tension here is ongoing.  It never stops. The only way to get a break from this social tension is to turn off the TV, the radio, and the iphone, get off email, and stop talking to people.  When I joined the board of Faith Aloud, I did not expect that it would result in hate mail directed at me.   I have become less trusting of the society I live in, and I know the tension is only going to get worse as we move towards the next presidential election.  As I sat in the Warehouse, I found myself looking around at the people and thinking, “Did you vote for the constitutional amendment to “protect” marriage from people like me?”

And YET, Unitarian Universalism is about trusting our world, trusting people, seeing the commonalities and the ways we are united, valuing diversity, affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person.  There is no doubt that living in a polarized society is spiritually wearing and it can bring out the worst in us.  But we called not to give in to our distrust, not to stop believing in the beauty of every person.  I want our message to be so compelling, so beautiful, so strong, so welcoming, and so desirable and so freeing that it is irresistible.

So, anybody want to be a Raving Fan of Love, Compassion, Hope and Justice?

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About kristataves

I am a Unitarian Universalist minister serving the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL. St. Louis is my residence. I am a dual American and Canadian citizen living in the great state of Missouri and building my life in this wonderful and sometimes very frustrating state.
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8 Responses to Sabbatical Church Hopping Part IV

  1. Nancy V. says:

    I grew up Missouri Synod Lutheran, at St. John’s. That’s where I was baptized, and was confirmed there. My parents are still members, and the things you comment on about women as non-equal members is something that has infuriated my mother for many, many years. I remember as a Girl Scout, I was not allowed to stand behind the pulpit as I did a reading for Girl Scout Sunday as I was a girl – but on Boy Scout Sunday, the boys were allowed to. I have seen that church change many things – going from “the red hymnal” where services were predictable based on the day of the year, to what my sister and I call “PowerPoint Sundays”. But the fundamental issues remain the same. It has been interesting watching my mom over the years, and watching her separate a spiritual journey from inner conflict over man-made church policy. In some ways we all struggle with that personal spiritual identity mismatch between theology and policy, knowing that no institution can represent any one person fully, and trying to find a balance of what works and what doesn’t. In my mom’s case, she does find a way to make it work. In my case, (obviously) my journey continued!

    • kristataves says:

      Thanks so much for posting Nancy. This is very good to hear. If everyone leaves an institution because they disagree with some of what it stands for, who remains to support change? The church I grew up in did not ordain women, now it does, because enough women and men loved it enough to stick around.

  2. Lauren Lyerla says:

    YES! I DO want to be a raving fan of Love, Compassion, Hope, and Justice. In fact, I think I already am! OK, I am MOST of the time, anyway. I do certainly fall victim to the divisiveness in our society sometimes and I find it hard to be loving and compassionate toward those I see as oppressors, or those who make a point of voting for those I see as oppressors. But at the very least, I do see that lack in myself – I am at least capable of recognizing when I’m not living up to my ideals and can check myself. This whole journey of yours sounds like it’s been truly fascinating, and you sound like you’re getting lots of great material for future sermons, too!

  3. Steve Jones says:

    In my opinion, you have hit upon the most important aspect of the overall problem that is facing this country. The intolerance indoctrinations that come to the people through their churches, their media and their politicians strengthens and incites to the level of ‘us vs. them’ which directly results in the sort of violence that we have come to expect of the countries in the middle east. While we tear down their mistreatment of women, their often visual displays of violence and religious intolerance, we fail to realize that we are exactly the same. It is a high level of hypocrisy that permeates every waking moment and probably a lot of non waking moments as well.

    Imagine then, if you will, what it is like to grow up from infancy in such an environment and then consider what it must take to break free from such negativity and exclusivity. That is the issue that faces us and the ‘opponent’ we must fight. In a society that views liberalism as nothing more than taking from the rich and giving to the poor and conservatism as a way to push down the lazy to the benefit of the privileged it is paramount that we discover new ways to appeal to the human nature of community, but without requirement.

    I have greatly enjoyed reading your take on the various worship services during your sabbatical and would love to hear some of your deeper thoughts and more specific observations. I feel that it is one of the most difficult things to do in trying to keep an open mind and remain bias free while viewing the way that other people live and think. One’s own culture makes it very nearly impossible to examine other cultures without colored goggles that paint a positive, or negative, light.

    • kristataves says:

      Yes that is exactly it Steve. You’ve hit the nail on the head. That is what I came to realize as I reflected on my experience. In my trepidation and fear, I had worked myself into the same kind of mental space as was being promoted in the sermon. I saw those around me as my “Rival,” and this dehumanized them.

  4. Lauren Lyerla says:

    Oh, I also meant to add that my initial reaction to the preacher’s comment about Hinduism was much like yours. I immediately said, aloud, “That dude has no idea what he’s talking about!” But I think he saw what he expected to see, so he didn’t probe any further.

  5. Stephen says:

    Love, Compassion, Hope and Justice: everyone has their own idea what these things demand, operationally. Surely all or nearly all people are fans of these things, as they see them. It’s just when ‘their’ vision differs from ours and ‘they’ are working at cross purposes to ‘our’ vision that it gets all contrary.

  6. Nancy B. says:

    Wow, Krista, what a journey you’re on. Thanks for sharing some important parts of it. As usual, you’ve jogged interesting thoughts, some of which are: Competition is such a dominant theme in U.S. culture; it insinuates itself into our psyches, so that, even in religious belief, we want to say, “My ‘God’ is stronger than yours; my belief is better than yours.” Must be based on fear that I’m not good enough and/or my “God” isn’t good enough. To maintain balance, we likely can benefit from withdrawing awhile from our usual rules and means of engagement with the world. (Sabbaticals and retreats seem to fit the bill.) Gives us time to refill our wells and return with more love, compassion, hope, and justice when we re-engage with the world. As for strong female leadership, I agree both women and men are ambivalent about it. Maybe that’s because it goes against the idea of men’s dominance based on physicality and the established pattern of women as “the weaker sex” in general. So, the idea of strong female leadership seems counter to the “natural order.” It will be a wonderful day when women are able to develop leadership abilities absent critical comparison with or emulation of a “male style” of leadership.

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