Church That Isn’t Church

Or Not-Church that is Church?

That was the other thing I realised when I was looking at my Living Circle pictures yesterday: In a lot of ways, Living Circle was the prototype for the kind of thing I’ve been mulling over so much lately, regarding spiritual direction and people who love God but not church, and those sorts of things.

I don’t remember where our group’s money came from. I know we had some, but most of the stuff we did, we each just paid for out of our own pockets, and since we didn’t have our own building (and to my knowledge we didn’t have to pay rent–or if we did it was minimal) we didn’t have the expenses of a physical plant.

We had a leadership team made up of people from across a number of churches, which helped keep us accountable, although I think the two churches that started Living Circle before I ever got there, still had some sort of loose oversight. I was on the leadership team myself in my second year–although I forget what my job was, and that was the year the whole thing disbanded, so maybe we should take everything I said yesterday about my young adult latent leadership skills with a grain of salt.

We still met once a week (on Monday nights), and we sang songs to God, and prayed, and studied the Bible together. Sometimes we invited a speaker to come in and speak on a topic, but mostly we just broke up into smaller groups and studied topics and sections or characters of the Bible together. (I think, if I recall, maybe the Bible study portion was the weakest part of the whole endeavour, but it wouldn’t have to be.) We broke bread together often, if by “breaking bread” you mean we ate together a lot. We did not share the eucharist (too many denominations were represented, and both Roman Catholics and Protestants were in attendance) or baptise each other. We served our community and those further afield. We went on retreats together. We also celebrated.

We were all a bunch of clowns, really ...

We were all a bunch of clowns, really …

Most members of Living Circle belonged to their own churches, and would attend them at the relevant times, and hopefully Living Circle helped each of us who did, to serve our churches better than we would have without that network and support. People who did not belong to another congregation were still always welcome. We did not call Living Circle “church,” but it sure had a lot of overlap. There was sometimes drama, but I wonder if the reason no one thought of it as church, freed it up mostly to act like all the best aspects of church. Kind of like my leading better when I didn’t know I was leading, maybe. There are of course limitations, but considering no human institution is perfect, and acknowledging the need for improvement in a couple of specific areas, I’m still starting to think this is a good template to start with for a ministry that provides interdenominational Christian community for people who are “barely hanging on” in church, or who just don’t want anything to do with it, anymore or in the first place.

Now to figure out how to modify that template for people of the twenty-teens instead of the 1990’s, and how to “internet-ify” it for people further afield … More thoughts, The Readership?

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Going Around Again

I’m trying systematically to scan my old photo albums and reproduce them digitally so they take up less physical space. There are a lot of photo albums, though, and I used to add extra pages to every single one of them, so getting through even one is always quite a project. I haven’t worked on one in a long time, until today.

The one I worked on today depicted my transition from college graduate to nanny in Nannyville, Connecticut, and so there were a lot of photos from my friends and busy social life in Living Circle, the Christian young adults’ group I belonged to while I was there. Today was not the first day in the past five years I’ve wished I could recreate something like that group for young adults I know now, nor the first day I was aware of how astonishingly well it worked for an interdenominational experiment. However, today I did realise two other things for the first time. We can talk about the second realisation tomorrow. But here’s the first one:

Looking at the photos, it dawned on me how I myself was turning into a leader all the way back then. I’ve long struggled with insecurity and self-doubt, and even now, although I am able to take the lead much more easily than I used to (a skill I’ve especially gained thanks to my years at Now Church), I still second-guess myself and don’t always feel comfortable saying quite what I mean or effecting quite what I intend in certain contexts because I’m unsure of my position of authority. I still have trouble delegating specifically, sometimes, and I’m still learning to think on my feet.

But in the bulk of the last photos of today’s photo album, there were pictures of me and my Living Circle friends working at Habitat for Humanity, serving dinner to a group of younger short-term mission workers, and rehabbing a summer camp in Upstate New York. All these were labeled as “Service Committee” photos, but here’s the thing–there wasn’t a Living Circle Service Committee until I got there. I don’t remember who organized the dinner-serving project (although I do remember grocery shopping for it with my friend Anne and looking for ground beef with the highest fat content because we couldn’t afford the leaner kind!), but I know that I was the one who organized the two building/painting projects. And there were even decent sized groups of people who participated in these efforts. (From the photo below, it only looks like there were five of us, but I think there were at least twelve who went on this one.)

It's not like we didn't horse around while we were doing all these worthy projects or anything, obviously.

It’s not like we didn’t horse around while we were doing all these worthy projects or anything, obviously.

I’m not saying this to brag–it’s more of an exclamation of astonishment, because I guess I still usually think of myself as someone who has to plead and beg to get a show of support, and then a lot of the time I imagine people are only helping out of pity. These pictures were something of a revelation to me. I was one of the youngest members of Living Circle at the time. I had forgotten how much influence people had allowed me.

After my life as a nanny, but before I moved to London, I lived in a guesthouse with some other future missionaries at the headquarters of the nonprofit that was going to send us overseas, and I was asked to be the “leader” within my house. Once again, I was one of the youngest. It was an absolutely terrifying proposition, I could never figure out why they had chosen me, and I think I did a pretty awful job. Now I’m wondering. If I hadn’t stopped to think about whether I was a leader or not, would I have been better at it in that house–and in the years since? Or is it even possible to lead if you aren’t making the conscious effort to learn leadership by trial and error? Is unwitting leadership is more or less effective than intentional leadership? What do you think?

Living on the edge.

Living on the edge. Back in the days when I still tucked my shirts in.

Thoughts in Threes

Jeff posted one more thought about my projected on- and offline spiritual venture on Friday night, and it went like this:

Thought number 3 (perhaps the final one for now): Is your bliss around building a new community, or does the idea of equipping and empowering existent communities fire you up? On the ground, creating a new community would look like building up a church; empowering existent communities might look like partnering with churches that are out there, and serving as a consultant who either as a one time thing facilitates discipleship, small group ministries, etc…. or on an ongoing basis, provides these ministries with the possibilities of retreats, ongoing communication, etc.

Of all three thoughts, I think this is my favourite. It’s also the one I have the hardest time figuring out how to talk about, but it’s super-important. It might be easier to write about if I had already written a post about what I believe the significance and cosmic importance of the Church is, even though I have never been part of a church that has been easy to be a part of (in spite of all of them having wonderful aspects, too) and quite often I have toyed with the idea of giving up on church altogether. I mean, plenty of other people do.

But I do believe the church is cosmically significant, and what’s more, it is beloved by Jesus the Beloved (though He alone knows why, frankly). So, whether this sounds counterintuitive after that claim or not, I do NOT want to create a new or another church. I would love to consult with existing churches (and actually had not really thought of that angle, but it’s a really good one). I would also, however, like to provide a “landing space” or safe haven for three types of people. First, for people who are not currently in a church but are intrigued by Jesus. I mean those who consider themselves “Spiritual But Not Religious” and are Jesus-friendly. Second, for people who who used to be active participants in the life of a church and still love Jesus but are just totally over the whole church thing. (In some circles these two groups are called the “Nones”–those with no religious affiliation–and the “Dones”–those who have been there and done that and have no intention of going back.) I would finally like to serve people who are persisting with membership and participation in a specific church but feel like they need support to hang in there (I’ve been there!), and/or who don’t quite feel like they fit in either the liberal or conservative church mold (I’ve been there, too!). A few weeks ago, I was trying to figure out “my demographic” and it dawned on me that I’m not just compelled to write stories about displacement and hope-of-home, but to live that story myself, and enter other peoples’. It dawned on me that I need to revisit this theme of displacement and bring it into my current pending project.

Displaced baby albatross ... So much literary and spiritual significance it isn't funny. But it IS really intriguing.

Displaced baby albatross … So much literary and spiritual significance it isn’t funny. But it IS really intriguing.

I don’t really want to sneakily create Alternative Church with my little project, but I do want to create a space for people in these categories (no matter why they’re in them) to pursue Jesus and be pursued by Him without the presuppositions (either theirs or a church’s) so inextricably linked to the term and the institution of Church. I imagine that at some point according to the individual’s context, I would encourage them to become involved, again or for the first time, in a community looking more traditionally like church, but my hope and even prayer would be that by that time, our interactions with God together would have equipped us all to interact with Church in a more mutually beneficial way–such that we could benefit, and also bring greater health and strength and God’s love to whatever church we enter.

It’s a big goal–and did I tell you I don’t really know how to describe it very well? I know I can’t do any of this myself–without the assistance of other people, but especially without the direction and supernatural aid of God. Nevertheless, this is really where my heart is: 1) to help foster and deepen the relationship between the spiritually disenfranchised and the Triune God, and 2) to help build up the Church and individual churches up with spiritually grounded and growing and transforming people who have found Home in the God who gives meaning both to us and to the Church.

Thought Number Two

Then Jeff said,

Thought #2: The retreat-supplemented by some sort of online community-building is a fascinating idea. It strikes me as analogous to the online courses that are popping up everywhere: you meet in the flesh maybe once a month and online interact much more frequently. This seems to like an interesting niche/middle ground between attending a major one time event and a weekly church service. Promise keepers/woman of faith/catalysst type things can be so isolated from our every day experiences. Weekly church services and small groups can be so routine.

He seems to have cottoned onto the fact that there really is an “online course” aspect to the project I’m trying to figure out how to start. This model has, in fact, been suggested to me, but since I haven’t actually taken any such courses (except for the ones I’ve been finishing up from Seminary, which are, in fact, a little different), I’m not entirely sure how to set this up. Maybe that is really the only question I am asking about this hypothetical nonprofit I would like to start, but Jeff is correct that there are other questions and observations to be made in the wake of it.

Less obvious to me than the class aspect was his observation about the middle ground between major conference-type event and weekly church service. I might be as intrigued by this as he is, simply because I hadn’t noticed it before and it is an unusual way to think about practicing and developing the communal relationship with God. I’m not sure that once a month retreats would really be sustainable, though. If my Paul and I were able, at this moment, to pick ourselves up and buy a farm in the Granite State, from which we could host retreats on our own property, that might be more of an option, but in our current pleasant but tiny digs, it really just isn’t. I wonder what the minimum number of retreats would be in order to create this middle ground Jeff describes, and I wonder what the ultimate goal of said middle ground would be. What do you think?

I was thinking this picture I drew as a college student on vacation might illustrate what I mean about hosting retreats, but it looks even tinier than our current house, and there isn't enough granite. So really, it doesn't illustrate much of anything. But I needed a graphic.

I was thinking this picture I drew as a college student on vacation might illustrate what I mean about hosting retreats, but it looks even tinier than our current house, and there isn’t enough granite. So really, it doesn’t illustrate much of anything. But I needed a graphic.

Some Deep Thoughts – Part 1

My friend Jeff, of Jeff’s Deep Thoughts, commented in the Online Spiritual Fitness group where I first posted yesterday’s questions, and boy, did he ever comment. Which I guess could be expected from someone with Deep Thoughts. Anyway, his questions/thoughts were really good ones, and since, in the Facebook format where they were posted, I can’t nest comments under them, I decided I’d try to initially process them here, and get more people (that means you) involved in the dialogue if you want.

Here’s his first Thought:

It seems like there are theological repercussions to how you proceed … Not only around how God works in general but also how you are finding the Holy Spirit working through you at this stage in your life. I am, for example, kind of community-minded at the moment, and I am not really drawn to the 1:1 coaching kind of model, at this moment, for example. But where I am is much less relevant than where you are.

I guess I am drawn to both the community and the coaching aspect. Maybe I need to pick one in order to streamline things and be more effective, but I really believe both things are vital. I have a Spiritual Director and some individual mentors these days myself, and I also have greatly valued having different Christian communities outside my job at various points in time. (I learned that trick in London–that if you work for a church and you want to maintain spiritual health, you have to find another group of Christians who are not connected to “work” in order to keep yourself balanced.) At one time, that group was a Bible study and fellowship group in which Jeff himself and his wife participated. More recently, it’s been my friends in Seminary. I definitely benefit from both the individual and the group input, and can’t really imagine doing life very well (especially entering this phase of Trying New Things) without either one.

Venturing into the New

Trying New Things

On the other hand, I get that different people, in different places on their journey, might have a greater need for one or the other. Which, I guess, is why I would love to figure out how to create a service which offers both community support and individual accountability, with the option to participate in both, or just one or the other.

If you consider yourself to be on a spiritual journey, where do you see yourself as far as the involvement of other people on that journey? Are you more drawn to one-to-one input, or to the more multifaceted feedback of a group?

Something to Think About

Things continue to be not-boring in the life of Jennwith2ns. The most recent development is that, after almost seven years at Now Church, I have resigned. (This is raising all sorts of questions about what I’ll call it if I ever blog about it after the resignation effective date, and what I’ll call the new church I’ll be attending.) I’ll be graduating soon and I guess maybe I have ants in my pants or something. Probably no matter where you are, there’s a sense that the grass is greener somewhere else, and while I’m not entirely convinced I’ll find that greener grass, I am getting a more distinct impression than ever before that now is one of those times that I could settle in and do the same thing for the rest of my life, or I could “step out of the boat” as it were, and at least make a stab at doing some of those things that “I’ve always wanted to do” for at least the last three years or so.

Let's acknowledge that even metaphorical stepping out of the boat elicits a much greater sympathy for Peter--both his desire to try it, and his terror once he got out--than one might have upon simply a routine reading of the story.

Let’s acknowledge that even metaphorical stepping out of the boat elicits a much greater sympathy for Peter–both his desire to try it, and his terror once he got out–than one might have upon simply a routine reading of the story.

One of the things I’ve “recently always” been wanting to do is start a spiritual direction based online and retreat ministry, expanding on what was, until about a month ago, being done in the “Online Spiritual Fitness” groups I was facilitating on Facebook. So over the weekend I began to introduce the idea to these two groups. I guess I’ll introduce it here, too, to see if you have any feedback as well, and I’ll continue to mull over aspects of it here and there, because I’m pretty sure any number of you might have some good ideas, and I’m a firm believer in brainstorm sessions and sometimes allow myself to be a idealist about the democratic process . . .

Here’s the initial question:

By now most of you have probably heard the news that I have resigned from Now Church, effective June 7th. This is happening in conjunction with my graduation from seminary and my desire to get some training in CPE (chaplaincy certification) and Spiritual Direction. I am applying to jobs related to these two (overlapping) fields, but I’m also in the process of discerning the possibility of starting up a spiritual direction nonprofit, incorporating [online] groups like these. 

The point of creating a nonprofit around these would be to provide myself with some financial, theological, and personal accountability. I’m aware that this type of format makes scams and cults (or simply a “Jenn-thing” instead of a God thing) an easy “slide.” I want this to be what God is directing, and a place where people can deepen their relationship to Him and the way that plays out in their lives, via community like this as well as one-to-one accountability with me. I don’t want this to be an ego-fueled endeavour on my part. I just believe God has given me some spiritual coaching skills that hopefully He will use in people’s lives to a greater extent in the near future.

At the same time, I will need this company to be something with an income that can pay me. Up to this point, Now Church has been my “funding organisation.” Apart from Now Church, this nonprofit will have to be my source of income for this type of ministry. I would expect that mutual online support communities like these existing ones would continue to be offered free of charge. But I’m curious to know what additional resources you think I could add that you (or people like you) might be willing to pay for. More teaching? Classes? Scheduled one-to-one appointments (google or skype or in person)? Retreats? Thanks for the feedback! I’m all ears!

Working Out the Implications

This morning I woke up with a splitting headache, which is not, now that I’ve been off Tamoxifen for over a year, normal for me. Also, I’ve been doing this hybrid workout series of P90X3 and PiYo, and that combo is, apparently, even more killer than either of the two workout series on their own, so my muscles were screaming at me. It was when my stomach started feeling sour that it dawned on me that maybe, even though my brain wasn’t telling me that I was nervous about my doctrinal defense today, my body was.

In my paper I was meant to defend I said, “I believe that the starting point of pastoral care (whether as a traditional pastor, or as a spiritual director or life coach) is to focus on God and the person, prayerfully bringing them together, and letting the two of them work out the implications. Then the pastor or director can speak into the person’s life as the Holy Spirit indicates, and as a part of that working out the implications. I don’t believe starting with the implications is ultimately very helpful.” But today I wasn’t “starting,” and I was going to have to talk about implications, I guessed.

I did some yoga and got myself ready for the day, and then I went over to the church where I was going to be “defending” (or explaining, or something) what I believe. It was 9.30. My defense wasn’t until noon. I sat in my car for about an hour and a half, and read my Bible, and prayed, and thought, and listened to the birds because we can now hear birdsong in the morning after a winter which has quite frankly picked New England up in its frigid fangs and shaken it silly for about two months.

photo by my Paul

Sometimes we could laugh about it?

I watched the ice melt under some blobs of snow so that the blobs were no longer pedestaled above the pavement, and the former ice pedestals were instead trickles of water running down the parking lot. Then I went inside and worked with one of my professors on a website I’m helping him with.

Then the other professors and one of my mentors showed up and we all sat in the room where I was to be interrogated. Everybody ate lunch and talked congenially, and while I joined in the congenial talking because I really do like my professors and my mentor and feel pretty relaxed with them, I felt still a little too nervous to eat. At about ten minutes to noon, Prof SysTheo explained how this “exam” was going to go, and prayed for the process, and it was full steam ahead.

Last semester, I had to write a series of approximately two-page papers which, together, turned into a thirty-five-page paper covering my understanding of: own personal conversion and calling, the Bible, God, humanity, sin, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, salvation, the church, eschatology (the study of “last things”), some select ethical topics, transformational ministry, and an analysis of my personal growth during my time at seminary. All the professors had seen this paper before today and came armed with questions. It’s a good thing I do feel pretty relaxed with them, because I definitely couldn’t answer all their questions. However, even in the process of this exam, I learned stuff, and the feedback was very positive and encouraging. They prayed with and for me at the end, too.

photo by Jennwith2ns

All that to say that I guess I really will be graduating in May! For some reason even though the graduation itself hasn’t happened yet, just the process of going through this today makes me feel quite happy and free and full of ideas. And the sun stayed out all day. It was a good one.

Pivot Points

Seminary final today: doctrinal defense. Cue suspenseful music…for the next six hours.

I’ll let you know what happens, if anyone’s still here…