Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Confessions of a Slowed Down Emergent

So God, because he loves me and doesn't want me to have to labor along with all the character deficits that hold me back, decided to crush me and his little church he put me in charge of, in order to resurrect us in a much more capable and streamlined version. He's good this way, and I am thrilled that he trusts me to suffer so much in his name. I kind of think that's a big part of Christian maturity - God knowing he can crush you and you won't run away but will allow him to refashion you. Multiple crushings and refashionings are what take horrifically self centered people and turn them into others centered instruments in the Master's hand. (by the way, though I wrote this to be somewhat cheeky, the word "crush" is very biblical - Israel and all the great bible characters got it a lot).

In the midst of my being crushed, I was looking for some form of hope and the idea of merging my half dead little church with my buddies super exciting and growing church provided a bit of that. His willingness to engage in a process of attempting that was so kind and encouraging. On a human level, he's the hero of this story, so encouraging me in the midst of being broke, homeless, church falling apart, abandoned by others, etc.

But in the end I began to realize that this was a hope I was holding onto just to have some hope and not really the future direction of things. So I had to walk through a process of being refashioned by the Lord, and bit by bit my internal character refashioning's began to bring more light to the future vision of our little church. In the middle of the crush, I just had not one ounce of spirit within me to imagine carrying on the church again. But now, miraculously by the presence of the Lord breathing in new life, I can see the way forward and have begun to excitedly work on the re-launching of Cota under the new name Communion (more on that below).

I briefly considered closing Cota and going to school, which has many attractions, but in the end, I really don't want to leave NYC and start new somewhere else. And thought I'm a thinker, I'm also an artist and doer so I think I would be frustrated in an academic setting without being able to do what I'm thinking.

One of the great things is I've been given such clarity to see and understand the many mistakes I made. A better way forward seems so clear to me now.

One thing that will give you some context is that I was just rabidly emerging (imagine white foam coming out of my mouth) - I just couldn't throw out everything that existed fast enough and replace it all with something totally new (and of course unproven). So I ran ahead like a maniac and hardly anyone had any idea what I was doing.

I will confess, in my heart, I felt many well known emergent pastors who I know personally and are my friends and who are emerging at what I would describe as a much more slow and steady pace were basically what I labeled privately in my little prideful heart, "Wimps"; afraid to take bold measures, or maybe just to unimaginative. I am ashamed of that, and it is part of my confession. I hope it didn't come across to them. I now see them as wise and capable, succeeding where I failed. The big take away here is that we must emerge at a pace which our congregations can fathom.

In addition, I think if I had been better financed (my fault) I probably would have had more success in some areas - it wasn't just the rabid speed of progressiveness that was an issue. Also, having a larger percentage of new followers of Christ who don't have as many pre-conceived notions can help in this. But there were other problems within me that limited that. The idea is that it's complex, and no one area is alone at fault, but they are connected - if you have money to do certain things maybe you can go faster, if you don't have the ability to draw unchurched people and your reality is a gathering of mostly those with church experience and thus pre-conceived expectations, that affects your speed.

So here are my confessions of what I did wrong and a better way forward:

You must have worship music: it may sound stupid, but I was so determined not to have contemp/pop worship music that I was willing to have nothing until we could create something original - the idea that the pressure of longing for it would spur us on to create. I still love the idealism of that method, but bottom line, people want to worship to music. Evolve it rather than have nothing until you get what you want.

Don't be afraid to fund raise: being afraid of fund raising is like being a teenager who enjoys the car and the house and the phone, but has no clue that responsible parents are going to work everyday to pay for it all. Don't spiritualize it like I did and pray that God would send someone with a fund raising gift to the team. Take responsibility and do it even though you don't like it. In many ways a pastor is like a parent in that he does some of the hard work for the family that nobody else wants to.

Don't have just artists: Tim Keller gets the last laugh on this one. He's said this before in general publicly and directed towards me (read the comments) and I kind of half agreed - I never wanted only artists, rather a large percentage of artists - but I felt (wrongly) we could overcome some of the deficiencies he pointed out.

If you look at the NYC arts community, it has a whole host of other people in it besides the artists. You have arts administrators, producers, techies, craftspeople, agents, bankers, lawyers, administrative assistants, web design, librarians, fund raising departments, equipment makers, supply retailers, prop/carpentry, venue managers and workers, etc., etc. There are so many that support the artist and they are needed just as equally within the church to do liturgical art. Plus, just the natural idea that congregations should be balanced. Huge mistake, lesson learned.

One insightful aspect of this mistake that I think could be helpful for others is in understanding how a good motivation can lead to a wrong idea. The wonderful motivation in my heart to have a church for artists is because in the recent history of the evangelical church, artists have been the little rejectable step child - unchampioned, dismissed, overlooked, misunderstood, etc. etc. - and so to have a church that would understand them and champion them is an amazing thing, and the church at large would be blessed by the contributions of their coming of age. All so very true, but a church just for artists is not workable, so we must do all these good things in balanced congregations. You can have a balanced church that is also super about the arts, but you will have to work hard, as I am about to, to make sure that it is balanced.

One of the other aspects of this is travel and out-of-town work. That has been the bane of my existence. We had all artists, and all artists who got out of town work at the same time. Please God send me a few people that have stable, in town, non-travelling jobs.

This is also a major reason why I will be changing the name of the church from Communion of the Arts, to just Communion. I always struggled to find ways to say, "We don't want just artists", but the name made that hard. The other problem is that when you say "Communion of the arts" at regular speed, no one understands what you are saying. They reply..."Community of artists"? They never, ever get the word communion. So I find myself saying, "commun-ION of the arts", which is stupid. Also because the name is long, we always reverted to calling it Cota, which a lot of people were kind of fond of, but what does Cota mean? Of course people confused that with Coda - the musical term. Cota means nothing, it doesn't communicate anything to anyone. Karen Ward at Church of the Apostles (Cota), you get to be the only Cota again:)

But Communion is my favorite word. It is, I think, the essence of the church, of God's dream for the world. If you say it by itself, people hear it. It has both a sense of community and spirituality. Anyone who reads knows the general American culture is abuzz with the word community, it's everywhere. For me it's the biggest cultural marker of postmodernity. So, Communion takes this culturally understood and favorable word, and adds spirituality to it. Communion is spiritual community.

I really do hate to lose the word Art, but I think it is for the greater good. We will still be focusing on artists and on creating an original worship liturgy, but I think our reputation will communicate that we are about artists, and we don't need it in the name.

The church hasn't emerged yet: People don't even know anything about emergent. Essentially everyone who is really involved in "the emerging church phenomenon" today are, "Progressive ecclesiological nerds" - and there's a few of us in every city. The word nerd is a word for a small group of people that have a unique specialized knowledge that the greater world doesn't know or care about. I believe someday it will spill over, or break open, and then all of us in it now will be like Silicon Valley Nerds of the Eighties. It's pretty cool to have been one of the nerds who had a commodore computer and now is a billionaire. That'll be us someday, but for now we're still just buying parts at Radio Shack and using wood to make the case.

This reality causes me to feel somewhat annoyed when I hear people talking about emergent as some old hat thing that they are getting bored of already. Dude, so you're bored with your 1984 commodore motherboard which isn't that different from last years model? Guess what, you're going to be blown away by the concept of a 100 megabyte hard drive in a few years. And guess what, that's nothing. Soon, the computer industry will blow up in ways you can't even possibly dream of right now.

Try to go back in time and explain to this fellow about Gigahertz speed processors and Gigabytes of memory on little postage stamp size cards. Try to explain to him back in 1984 how the internet will dawn in ten years, and radically change commmerce and culture in twenty years. Just as he couldn't possibly imagine it, so the ways the church is going to emerge in ten years from now and twenty years from now are unimaginable to us (except for Brian "Jobs" Mclaren and Tony "Wozniak" Jones).

The point - this emergent thing is way super early. This is just the beginning.

Two things. Because people don't know much about emergent - but the ones that do are spread all over and from different backgrounds showing that God's spirit is inspiring similar thoughts and longings in his people all over, and because people that haven't heard of it are very quick to understand and feel excited by the prospect when they hear of it - this makes me think that we are near a "tipping point" where it will spill over into a much greater general sense of understanding, and this will bring many people and all their energy and gifts to bear upon creating this new expression of God's body, the church.

But because we are not there yet, we have to evolve our worship gatherings towards it, not just expect people to understand and accept all sorts of changes that they haven't been prepared for.

This was the biggest mistake of Cota - we ran forward far to fast and way to far. People just didn't understand what we were doing, and all the stuff they were used to wasn't there, so they were kind of left with not much. Then in our need to try to adjust and make it more understandable, we were constantly changing everything so much that it just added to the confusion.

I was determined with one stroke to revolutionize the church and it didn't work. Now I'm more about slowly and steadily evolving things. This is my confession. I can't wait to see how it all comes about.


Todd said...

Hi Jeff,

I'm going to look at your blog and church site in more detail tomorrow; but wanted to respond right away--I am blown away by all that you are trying and learning! I co-pastor a church in Virginia; sounds like we have been trying a lot of similar things. (www.convergenceccf.net)

I'd love to talk more about church--I know we could learn from what you are doing. Hopefully we can be an encouragement to you as well. I'm impressed by your desire to learn and grow and create something new and creative and desperately needed.

Talk soon...

Cindy said...

hey jeff. i lost your link off my feed for a while. it happened to a few others too. it was the change over to new blogger etc. anyway i have you back on my radar. keep in touch. glad to hear what's going on. blessings.