structure verses interaction, is this a fair dichotomy?

For year I've been having conversations with friend, blogging-preacher-mom MaryAnn McKibben Dana, about worship. We were in seminary together and led many an alternative approach to preaching and liturgy.  But now she is serving in a traditional context. Recently I asked her to hit me up with a question or two for this blog.

 She writes:

My question comes from serving a traditional congregation that has a lot of potential. I have introduced all sorts of things with them, basic stuff like prayer walls, talkbacks in worship, and the like. Thankfully, I have never experienced resistance to any of these funky things. But... I sense that they put up with this so long as I don't do it too often. I'd rather the interactive stuff be more of the norm, not that there's not structure, but it's a skeleton, not an exoskeleton, that limits our growth.
So I wonder what tips you have for congregations that are open to change, but are coming from a very traditional place (I keep using that word). This is a church that until 5 years ago did the Apostles' Creed EVERY Sunday. In other words, we're starting from scratch. What's the beginners' course for interactive, creative worship design?

I totally get where you're coming from, MaryAnn.  Just this Sunday I was curating sung prayer for a young adventurous church plant that loves alternative shaped music but still didn't know what to do when the wrong bulletins were printed.  And later that evening I attended a casual Episcopalian service where the attendees wanted to read their prayers, hear the gospel lesson, share communion, and be out in 45 minutes.  Neither of these congregations are ready for or interested in weekly open sourced interactive stations.  They might each agree that change is necessary to attract new comers, but that doesn't mean their worship incorporates change any more than your traditional Presbyterian church.  Among many ways of approaching this, I find a key starting point is developing an understanding of worship that engages the participant as a learner, facing new questions.  Does worship incorporate opportunity to encounter unsolved problems, or does your congregation expect worship leaders to solve all the problems before they arrive?  This is not the fault of structure but the fault of congregational expectations (or pastoral expectations, or both).  A great Phish concert, Jazz show, or improve theater will tell you that they plan meticulously, and yet they know that open spaces for serendipity are essential to the actual art happening.  In fact, high levels of interaction usually require structure.Most of us already do this in preaching, we set up a story or metaphor that places the listener in an aesthetic posture of "re-thinking" their presumed categories.  In their clever book on marketing, Made to Stick, brothers Chip and Dan Heath call this "breaking the guessing machine."  One of the challenges in organized worship gatherings, however, is that people grow accustomed to the guessing machine and find comfort in knowing, resting in the familiar.  See if the rhetorical tools you use to engage the listener can be applied to other worship introductions, and to teaching and observation about the shape of worship. When you can break people's guessing machines when it comes to sharing a cup or pulling out your their wallets for an offering, then you're on your way.

I've spent the last 6 months closely reading Edwin Friedman's A Failure of Nerve in which he describes countless stories of the European explorers of the fifteenth and sixteen centuries.  Though their maps were incorrect, the sense of adventure in these explorers led them down mistaken path after mistaken path.  In fact, over that the hundred year period of extensive exploration, generations of European lived with incorrect maps based on false connections between the continents and major bodies of water  until they finally all synched up into a concrete picture of reality.  The break through into new ways of seeing and knowing our world had been forbidden by imagined bounds like geocentricism and the equatorial myth, and even after those myths were gone, it took 100+ years to rebuild what would become the current image of this planet.  He writes:

"The great lesson here for all imaginatively gridlocked systems is that the acceptance and even cherishing of uncertainty is critical to keeping the human mind from voyaging into the delusion of omniscience.  The willingness to encounter serendipity is the best antidote we have for the arrogance of thinking we know.  Exposing oneself to chance is often the only way to provide the kind of mind-jarring experience of novelty that can make us realize that what we thought was reality was only a miror of our minds.  Related here is the neccessity of preserving ambiguity in artistic expression since, if the viewer's imagination is to flower, it is importaint not to solve the problem in advance." (Failure of Nerve p46)


I think the church is in an imaginatively gridlocked system.  When worship leaders (pastors, musicians, lay or clergy)  have to prove their omniscience to a congregation then its a tail tell sign that the congregation has begun to form worship and the one they worship in their own image. Worship, like therapy, is about generalization.  While I don't think therapy is always a good metaphor for worship, in this case it works—the couple that uses "I statements" with enough frequency in therapy eventually uses them at home in higher stress situatations.  Similarly, in worship, our minds and imaginations inhabit a story and a practice such that we then recognize that story in the wider world.  So I'd argue that worship without questions or "room for serendipity" actually misshapes the congregants. Congregants need their "imagination to flower" in worship so that they can find God in the unsolved problems they face in life.


Here are some tricks to try that don't require unscrewing your pews or painting faces.  And even when they don't go as planned they'll serve their purpose in rewiring folks to make room for serendipity:

  1. Try using a visual image in worship and asking questions about it that you don't already have answers to.
  2. Allow lectio divina to open some space for the "sermon" to crawl into unknown spaces, and then playfully say, "I wonder where that could lead you the rest of the week?"
  3. Regularly confess publicly when you don't know what you're doing
  4. Meet with some of your leadership (such as a worship committee) and identify various places in your worship gatherings (in the usual liturgy) that you can on some unexpected week, either break a guessing machine, or leave open space for serendipity.
  5. Then slowly introduce creative practices (such as those found in The Art of Curating Worship or Sacred Space ) for one element of worship, during session meetings, bible studies, sunday school, etc.
  6. Invoke responsibility: Always note that people are freely invited to opt in, to join the adventure, but that they can also opt into silent contemplation if they would prefer that over one of the exercises.

Let me know if any of these tips work or what other tips you might have.

we are already lit

I posted this back in 2007, while I was still serving a church in North Atlanta as designated pastor.  The poem came to mind recently as I've been working on my first full length book, Getting Drawn In. Its striking how we learn and re-learn things.  The allusions to Moses and Pentecost seem as important a reminder for me today as when I was writing them 4 years ago:

wicks -Church of St. Andrew, Christmas, 2006

1. Until pews are dandelions –sprig leggy levers– catapulting young minds into kingdomcome; sweeping elderminds like dreamseeds of evervision.

Until songs take wing stretching strong like the arrows of migrating Juncos lending lift, everloft, and standard. Tail feathers slicing tomorrow unto tomorrow.

Until prayers shovelset us into the red Georgia clay sinking our toes like the magnolia’s roots breaking open bone-earth’s chapped tongue making our hope particular and rooty tangling us here, now, to daily bread

2. Until our aviary, a loose canopy tabernacling for us, meets the winds of intrastators and price-per-acre and towers catch-and-releasing invisible information; until the long carving frenchdrains spoon away at its stature (walk humbly with your God) until the pieces of our umbrella –the very stones and mortar of this sanctuary– must join their sister elements that groan and clap to the song that sang  us all into


3. Until then, inhale; receive Spirit here. Spirit who practices this all like Moshe’s bush on Horeb who sings that song to which our ears belong. Take the cup, raise her, exhale the gratitude of carbon dioxide and moisturedrip for the forest, lick your lips and dig your teeth in to heaven’s sweet ‘what-is-it.’

4. Today is a Tuesday, December’s light is late as usual. Slipping past the commute into this morning’s eye, I sit in my study, a place of words, walls, and a solid oak desk that all precede me and I watch this candle devour the cold room and flicker hotter than any coal placed on my lips. And I remember,

we are already lit. Burning but not consumed. Set to flight. Racing but not exhausted. And this building already sings and breathes and joins creation. And the dead are raised in Christ, worship already working,

and the old and the future are part of today’s firelight.

Lyrics for songs

I just finished a great weekend at the Montreat College Conference playing with Rea Rea (Clemson) on Bass and Jason Peckman (Athens) on drums.  They put up with a lot of seat-of-the-pants direction from me, and made it a far better weekend than it would have been were I just a guy with his acoustic guitar.  Ellen and Audry (from Emory) were great vocalists, Donnie (Athens) a mad soprano saxophonist, and Jefferson (Northern Alabama) with some sick chops on the piano. We taught a lot of new songs as well as new arrangements I've been working on.  Here are lead sheets for three of those songs.  More to come.  Oh and if you were at the conf and wanna hear some of my singer-songwriter stuff check out the music link to iLike. Wildest Imagination (Bass)

Wildest Imagination (Guitar Capo2)

Oh Blessed God

Bring Forth

GENERATE magazine

I'm excited to be collaborating with Paul Soupiset, Tim Snyder, and Makeesha Fisher, among others, on this long awaited project. I will be editor of visual and performing arts.


GENERATE Magazine has been an open, collaborative project in the works for more than six years now. And after many casual conversations — and the 2009 convening of an editorial team — we are ready and eager to involve you, the larger community, in helping realize this dream with us.

The seeds for GENERATE Magazine were sown sitting around a fountain in San Diego in 2004 — a few writers, poets, artists and designers explored and dreamed about launching a print publication that would embody the ethos and tell the stories of the growing, generative conversation that some have called the emerging church conversation.

Again at the 2007 Emergent Gathering, another planning group was convened to discuss logistics, bring some leadership to the dream, and get things rolling. GENERATE Magazine is the fruit of many months of their planning.


Art provides resistance and lift to what the Spirit of New Creation is generating. The beauty that artisans fashion, sing, and perform can testify to what is possible and evoke imagination for what is yet to come. We are drawn to paintings and songs that put us "in play." GENERATE aims to fashion a synthesis of such works of art, and to celebrate the lives of their creators, in order to put our readers in play as well.


GENERATE exists as a forum to retell the stories of the grassroots communities and individuals who are finding emergent and alternative means to follow God in the Way of Jesus. We hope to create an artifact of this historical conversation. These stories will be transmitted through narrative, works of visual art, documented performances, verse, fiction, non-fiction, essays, and interviews.

We/you are the conversation; our art, our lives, our hopes and failures all meet up with God’s approaching dreams for creation. We converse and in doing so spread the news that we are not alone — that joy is found in our generative friendship.

GENERATE Magazine is a grassroots-organized, independent publication affiliated as a friend of Emergent Village, but not affiliated with any publishing house. We are currently exploring ways to distribute GENERATE Magazine via the Emergent Village Cohorts and wider friendships. More on that in the days to come.

Advent and families...

So here we are, the first week of advent.  Last year, with the help of two other families, we started a ritual of reading advent scriptures (passages that announce the coming of God's dreams) with our kids.  Here's the kit to getting started, and here's the blog that tracked our month.  I'll post more later. I hope this gets your wheals turning!


So Adam Walker Cleaveland and Karen Sloan and I met at the Mainline Emergent/s event at Columbia Theological Seminary two winters ago and the two of them had a great idea to build an environment for emergent conversation within the PC(USA). At first I was a distant skeptic, then a related skeptic, and now a skeptical contributor to this growing discussion. I won't look to define Presbymergent here, but to note the synchronicity that as Presbymergent is looking to define herself Phyllis Tickle, in her book, The Great Emergence is providing some overarching theories for how such hyphen-mergents and Emergent Village are relitivised within a larger phenomena. Along the way I have even met Emergent Jewish Rabis, so who knows where all this will lead. Well, Ryan Bolger, co-author of Emerging Churches:Creating Christian Communities in Postmodern Cultures was asked by his seminary to devote an issue of their quarterly journal to Mainline Emergents, and I agreed to write a piece that needed to be longer than their publishing space. So it is split into two places:

The first installment can be found in Fuller Seminary's Theology, News and Note, Fall 2008 Issue.

The second is forthcoming on the Presbymergent blog. I will post more on this later and sometime in the next month will have a blog conversation with Ryan about the whole journal issue including the following other articles:

Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger wrote The Morphing of the Church; Walt Kallestad, Lutheran pastor, Community Church of Joy, wrote Redefining Success, Moving from Entertainment to Worship; Ryan Bell, pastor, Hollywood Seventh Day Adventist, wrote From the Margins: Engaging Missional LIfe in the Seventh-Day-Adventist Church; Nadia Bolz-Weber, mission developer of a Lutheran church plant in Denver, “House for all Sinners and Saints”, wrote Confessions of a Sarcastic Lutheran; Troy Bronsink, PCUSA pastor and community organizer in inner-city Atlanta, wrote Of Dying Breeds and Swelling Hopes: A Mainline Emergent in the Reformed Tradition; Eugene Cho, pastor of Quest, Seattle, wrote Quest and Its Relationship with the Evangelical Covenant Church; Phil Jackson, pastor of The House in Chicago, wrote A Reciprocal Connection: The Surprising Convergence of Hip-Hop and the ECC; David Fitch, pastor of “Life on the Vine”, in outlying Chicago, wrote On Being an Emerging Christian in the Christian and Missionary Alliance; Liz Rios, founder for Center for Emerging Female Leaership, and Luis Alvarez, pastor in the AG, wrote Will a New Church Emerge? Las Raices in the Assemblies of God.

any press is good press?

So in a previous post I mentioned that the AJC described me as a former pastor...  well I mentioned it to the journalist who referred my name to the editor of corrections who called me trying to get his mind around the issue.  It went a bit like this:

 AJC: So when Chris interviewed you were you a minister?

TB: Yes, I was ordained in July of 2006 and have been a minister ever since, serving at large within the presbytery for the past year.

AJC:  So does "at large" mean you were not at a church?  'Because the AJC is committed to being accurate from the perception of a bystander, and not neccessarily the technical terms of a particular denomination.

TB:  Well, I have been doing minister things, like marrying people and leading funerals and  preaching at churches.  But I was doing that before I was ordained.

AJC:  So would someone in your church say you were a pastor?

TB:  Well it depends on what you mean by church.  I am a part of the universal church but I don't belong to a particular church. Reformed churches generally considers an ordained minister a pastor for her/his whole life.  But my denomination did change my "standing" from "At Large" meaning in no presbyterian post, to "organizing pastor"  meaning starting a congregation that is as yet not chartered. So the problem includes one's definition of "church" too.

AJC:  So you mean you do "have" a church?

TB:  I'm not trying to be evasive here.  But all I have is friends who are meeting oneanother on the journey that might end in becoming a formal church.  We plan to meet monthly for the next half year and to seek God's dreams in the city. But thats it- so far. And I guess 2 or 3 meeting for this purpose includes the presence of Christ who is both Word and Body broken... so you could say this is church.  But none of us thinks so, yet.  Not yet, at least.

Well this went on a bit more until I apologized and said, "Sorry for complicating matters.  My primary concern here is that folks in my neighborhood, colleagues in my denomination, and potential benefactors beyond those groups not think I've jumped ship."  To which he said, "Oh, I see.  Well, thank you for your time."

And after that I think we both hung up the phone and went our separate ways to find a stiff drink and this is what resulted in the paper the next day:

A story in Saturday’s Living section about author Phyllis Tickle included incorrect information about Troy Bronsink’s status with the Presbyterian Church. He is a pastor."

Nice, huh?

presbymeme II

So my new friend Bruce, who moderates an assemblage of 'self-identified Jesus followers who trace their ideological origins back to the reformation and utilize the language and infrastructures of political representative polity to make their decisions' used his power to requisition a meme from those of us in the blogosphere....

The Rules // Presbymeme II

  • in about 25 words each, answer the following five questions;
  • tag five presbyterian bloggers and send them a note to let them know they were tagged;
  • be sure to link to this original post, leave a comment or send a trackback to this post so others can find you;

The Questions // Presbymeme II /

1. What is your favorite faith-based hymn, song or chorus.

Currently tied between Lori Chaffer's "Please Don't Make me Sing this Song" and "Come Ye Faithful Raise the Strain" (hymn 14 blue hymnal- though I mess with 1870s melody) by John of Damascus (c. 675-749).

2. What was the context, content and/or topic of the last sermon that truly touched, convicted, inspired, challenged, comforted and/or otherwise moved you?Mark Lomax at Church Unbound as he spoke about the reign-dom of God.3. If you could have all Presbyterians read just one of your previous posts, what would it be and why?

I think the discussion around the future of presbymergent several months back was a good one to have my presbyterian colleagues weigh in on.

4. What are three PC(USA) flavored blogs you read on a regular basis?

5. If the PC(USA) were a movie, what would it be and why?

"Stranger Than Fiction" the pop-pomo film where Will Farrell meets the voice of his narrator and strives to control his poetic destiny. Why?: Because we continue to hear the voice of our Narrator, but in our fear of our imminent death we run the other way or try to form committees of experts to avoid our very vocation. And because I'm pleasantly surprised at the courage of folks I meet who do take the risk of stepping into the script, and laying down our tribe's future for something larger than our own story, only to find that this is the very act that makes our story and tribe what it is.


So, Tom Livengood and folks at The Living Room took the initiative to help people connect to their neighbor in Atlanta. They started by listing agencies they knew of in the atlanta area on a google map. Trey Tucker with designed artwork for a re:connect page. And then one of the TLR peeps, Amy Anderson, built this site to facilitate the google map and to introduce folks to "Thank you, Tom, Trey, Amy and others."

The Re:CONNECT weekend was an invention of Nate Ledbetter, Melvine Bray, and Leroy Barber and myself. We wanted folks in Atlanta to meet other people doing justice and to learn about justice/social community work. The weekend rocked! We had a panel discussion on Friday night and the panelists included (I'll add more as I have their blogs):

Rusty Prichard : Evangelical Environmental Network

Mark Anthony: Pastor, Jesus for Justice

Carlos: Mentoring and Public Speaking

Daniel Hombrich: INnocence Atlanta

Nate Ledbetter: Charis Housing

Deborah: Mothers and children

Chris Capehard:

They described their work and they answered questions including:

  1. How do others’ passions contribute to the reach and focus of your ministry?
  2. How do you meet Jesus in doing your work?
  3. What has your work taught you about engaging civil government?
  4. How do local neighbors and the contexts of individual neighborhoods play a roll in the kind of ministry you do?
  5. How do church congregations help or hinder the work you feel called to?

J4P crowds

jay and scott

shane’s stump speach, complete with the revolutionary’s bullhorn

The next night we had Shane Claiborn, Chris Haw, and Scott and Jay from The Psalters come and perform "Jesus for President." It was an unbelievable synthesis of narative theology, liberation theology, political imagination, and John Howard Yoder with some deep country Tennessee thrown in. I felt like I was simultaniously at a Tom Wait's show, a Toni Morrison poetry reading, Walter Bruggemann seminary class, and post modern theatre. My friends Ryan and Holly Sharp also known as the Cobalt Season, were the artists behind the book design and the multimedia support- they nailed it!

The whole weekend was a huge success. The AJC wrote about it, we had folks from Auburn and Columbia, SC. And we had a huge crew of volunteers from the Atlanta Emergent Cohort, Marietta Presbyterian Church, and Mission Year.

If you're from the ATL go to and keep the movement going!


So, I'm excited to be speaking at a few events at Montreat, NC over the next year. In July of 08 I'll be presenting with Karen Sloan on Emerging Church at the Church Unbound Conference.

And in June 8-11 of 2009 I'll be a keynote at the Alt7 event, as well as presenting there with Adam Walker Cleaveland.


I look forward to meeting many of you along the way!

Presbymergence? pt2

My friend Adam Walker Cleaveland, posted a great warning on the presbymergent site about trying to "save the PC(USA)" .  You can read the good discussion in the comments section.  One discussion partner, Shawn Coons wrote a response that begins to bring this worthwhile discussion into perspective.  He asks is the PC(USA) worth saving, and argues that he would work to save presbymergent or pomomusings (adam's project- and a facebook group i joined) if they, too, were struggling. 

While Shawn's compassion is lovely, I'm not sure that people's obsolete inventions (what is implied by institutional death) are always helped by our enabling.  It could be that the very people maintaining these systems, my sisters and brothers in Christ, are called by the Spirit to rebuild them (continually being reformed) if we youngbloods didn't give them another way out. Sure, our Christian hope in the coming kingdom of God includes a servant church, the called out ones established in Jesus Christ,  but the church will prevail regardless of denominational inventiveness or preservation.  I'm hopeful that the church's task will be accomplished in the finishing grace of God, by people, and not by any other organizing metastructure. And so it seems to me that our relationship with a denomination or congregation is terribly thin, and rooted in our own promises to oneanother, not in promises to an ontologically necessary structure.  Using some presbyterian moves, I've fleshed this out in a reply to a couple great questions posed by Shawn

Great conversation!

I just left a presbytery meeting where we discussed a lower budget and, while one noted that campus ministry was cut by more than 35%, the presbytery was basically asked to either "trust the process" or  vote for "more funds for my or your idea."  The whole thing was not as ugly as it could have been, but it did leave me thinking, why are we doing this? 

Which makes Shawn's comments interesting.  you should read his post, but here are a few cursory responses (R) to the questions (Q) he poses to Adam, and to me by association, I guess.

Q. If you are not concerned about the dying PC(USA) then why be a part of it?
R. I joined the PC(USA) as a connectional community seeking to display the kingdom of God, and our connection is rooted in the fidelity of that God to bring such kingdom and provisional toward that end alone... 

In a sense we joined a team in the game of kingdom work, and when the court and the players adapt and we are no longer playing that game but simply running drills like the harlem globetrotters, then its time to let the team end on its own, not set up an endowment that it might play in perpetuity.

a few excerpts from our book of order:


G-3.0401c, "The church is called to a new openess to the possibilities and perils of its institutional forms in order to ensure the faithfulness and usefulness of these forms to God's activity in the world."

G 30400. "The Church is called to undertake this mission even at the risk
of losing its life, trusting in God alone as the author and giver of
life, sharing the gospel, and doing those deeds in the world that
point beyond themselves to the new reality in Christ."

Q. If we choose to be here [in the PC(USA)], aren’t we affirming that God is at work here? And if we affirm God’s work being done here, shouldn’t we be concerned if that work should stop?

R. Niehbur might have said this best in his "approximation of brotherly love."  To grossly paraphrase this ethical concept, we work toward an ideal, toward an eschatological promise, and yet we are called to submit these working ideals to critiques.  We can learn by what is not working, that it may no longer fit.  While eschatological hope (and prophetic imagination) is a guide our prior hopes and actions are not "proof" that God's mission depends upon us hoping them and doing them forever.

I agree with Shawn's last comments, "I think we can be concerned about the survival of the denomination, without being inordinately concerned about it."  However, I am worried that we assume, then, that our call is to refine and protect our precious denomination/church/ideology because of it's historical precedence.  Survival of a structure does not guarantee its future usefulness.  But continually rebuilding and being rebuild (with consideration of the construction tools we have been handed by the great cloud of witnesses before us), that is missional. 

returning to the presbytery meeting I just left- What if we were led by images from scripture and the testimonies of those structure ahead of us (all signs that the spirit uses) to hand our denomination away, to put it in risk, the way that G30400 might dare, like Barmen dares, like paul dared as he met with Peter and others in the Jerusalem counsel?  What if we were not concerned with renewing a previous thing, but building something funded in those testimonies for our children and for our neighbor?

On sunday I spoke at a local Atlanta church on the topic of missional churches (you can download the podcast of the class here).  Using the Newbigin triad, i was explaining how the church is not the end-user of the gospel but placed in relationship with culture by the gospel.

Afterwards an architect came to me and described his firms approach to designing hospitals.  He noted that all the other firms in Atlanta come to the client with three different options, A, B, or C.  And they ask the hospital which would they would prefer.  His firm, however, asks the client to describe what they hope to become in their hospital service, to describe the functions.  He saw a similarly between his firm's work with hospitals and our church structures addressing culture, those we are called to bless with our hope-in-action.


I think that the "renew our denominations" drum is too concerned with finding clients to keep models A,B,or C in business.  And we could learn from the architects who (1) ask about the future that their clients hope to see, and (2) are building (appropriating classical knowledge) based on function and not precedence. 


I've been posted in Creative Loafing as the 6th least influential leader in Atlanta, I guess thats good?  The issue is a tribute to women and men everywhere struggling to meet the challenges of life in a modern American city.  I'm proud to be in the fine company of a homeless woman, a small business entrepreneur, a rain dancer, and a couple of whale sharks:)


The timing for Andi's call (the creative loafing reporter) was a surprise since I had left a year as pastor in Sandy Springs only 4 weeks earlier.  So I am grateful that it turned out so positive!  The funny part is getting photographed as least influential.  What do you do, wear your least persuasive sweater and remind no one to say 'hey' when your out in the neighborhood?  i was cleaning my couch when Joeff, the photographer, came by, so things were pretty natural and unforced. That seems pretty unimportant, right?

Here's a bit of what Andi writes:

Bronsink is a pastor without a congregation.

He is part of what’s known as the emerging church, a Protestant movement reimagining church in a post-modern context with an emphasis on community-minded living. Despite his traditional seminary education, his collaborative, cooperative style doesn’t easily mesh with the Protestant church as it’s typically practiced in the South.

He’s not what he describes as a traditional, CEO pastor — “the person who can summarize it all, be the representative, the design guru, and the implementer.”

Bronsink envisions church as a “community meeting at the Lord’s table,” he says. “Jesus is the center, not just one person speaking on his behalf.”

He’s a roundtable man in a podium world...

Anyway, I also wanna give props to the even less influential Atlantans who do even better work of inspiring hope against all contextual odds. May the new creation conspire with us all!

I just found out that there are some more photos and narration by Andi and Jeff in a multimedia slideshow of the "least Influential," with my stuff around 11:54 in the show.(thanks steve for the find)

Manifesto of Hope


I haven't posted about this yet, but I am excited to have been included with 24 folks, all better at this than me, enlisted to describe the emergent conversation. The book, An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, was released April of this year, but I'm just now finding the time to blog about it.  My chapter, "The Art of Emergence: Being God's Handiwork" is a synthesis of the theories of missiology, creative systems, and anthropology.  I had a lot of fun with it.

I've you've had the chance to read it, I'd love to know what it did in you.  If you haven't you can click on the "Search inside" link on Amazon and search art, and start reading on Pg 60.  But You'll have to buy or barrow it to get the whole deal ;)


I had a conversation today with a friend who helps me lead at our church.  She is facing the growing pains of our congregatoin with some sadness, because the old future and its people are gone.  I'm facing the same pains, many of my former dreams are put in jeopordy to step into this next dream, my old futures are also slipping away.  I'm not sure how much of this is the building of new communities/families and how much is the loss of individualism... or both.  It reminded me of a poem I wrote last Christmas...

    -Church of St. Andrew, Christmas, 2006

Until pews are dandelions
–sprig leggy levers–
catapulting young minds into kingdomcome;
sweeping elderminds like dreamseeds of evervision.

Until songs take wing
stretching strong like the arrows of migrating Juncos
lending lift, everloft, and standard.
Tail feathers slicing
tomorrow unto tomorrow.

Until prayers shovelset us into the red Georgia clay
sinking our toes like the magnolia’s roots
breaking open bone-earth’s chapped tongue
making our hope particular and rooty
tangling us here, now, to daily bread

Until our aviary,
a loose canopy tabernacling for us,
meets the winds of intrastators
and price-per-acre
and towers catch-and-releasing invisible information;
until the long carving frenchdrains spoon away at its stature
(walk humbly with your God)
until the pieces of our umbrella
–the very stones and mortar of this sanctuary–
must join their sister elements
that groan and clap to the song that sang  us all into


Until then,
receive Spirit here.
Spirit who practices this all like Moshe’s bush on Horeb
who sings that song to which our ears belong. 
Take the cup,
raise her,
exhale the gratitude of
carbon dioxide and moisturedrip for the forest,
lick your lips and dig your teeth in
to heaven’s sweet ‘what-is-it.’

Today is a Tuesday,
December’s light is late as usual.
Slipping past the commute
into this morning’s eye,
I sit in my study,
a place of words, walls, and a solid oak desk that all precede me
and I watch this candle devour the cold room
and flicker
hotter than any coal placed on my lips.
And I remember,

we are already lit. Burning
but not consumed.
Set to flight.
Racing but not exhausted.
And this building already sings
and breathes
and joins creation.
And the dead are raised in Christ,
worship already working,

and the old and the future are part of today’s

Ordaining Mary

I saw this entry today from a journal of mine, dated July 24, a day after my ordination.  Now, that word "ordination" brings a great deal of baggage with it, I know.  So, let me drop this quote for you first:

Nothing ontological changed.  I still perspire and regret and fear and hate to shave.  I’ve been reverend according to the traditional language of the church reforming for almost 20 hours now and I think the same thoughts and like the same things.  But yesterday during my ordination service some things new were planted and some old soil was given rest.

I’m sitting in a warehouse loft with large pieces of fine art and pop found art on the walls.  My friend Fred has spent several years on a painting he entitles the Call of St. Mathew,  it sits on the floor here in the lofts where I've managed a coffee shop.  Soon it will be brought back to him, I'm still not buying art like I hope to be one day.  Soon, the other art work will be picked up my the friends who donated it for the extended Eucharist that we celebrated here, turn tables, wine, cigars, bread left over from the worship gathering... all picked up, nothing really changed about this warehouse or the building we met in for prayer and charges.

I'm sitting here reflecting on the fact that we never really transform either. We keep being us.  After marriage.  After childbirth.  After divorse. After baptism.  After ordination.  But the names, and definitions and the dictionary change as we go.  New creation doesn't leave behind only an ex-creation.  What is born again does die like a seed, but it is not oblitherated like an atom split leaving only afterlife.... 

I was blessed yesterday, by old and new friends, playful mentors, and deep galvanic tradition. But that blessing is all around us.   In the beauty of the party, in the green of the summer fescue, in the pavers of the sidewalk and the lead paint of the old warehouse.  Blessing is waiting, everything is being anointed.  What is changed in the ordaining is our eyes, our ears, our imagination.

It's Advent and my imagination wanders to Mary.  And then to all the crazy theological gymnastics (artfully, no less) that were created to insure that what is pure is pure.  to insure that what is holy is holy... But whether the Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant theologians have this right or not it can't have unfolded that way to her.  To Mary blessing must have been an interruption of the mundane, a new set of eyes concerning her "state."  Advent, waiting for hope to be born, must have something to do with these new pair of eyes.  Yesterday,I read It Gives Me Hope, a poem by Cheryl linked from Johnny Baker:

it gives me hope

It gives me hope to believe that Mary did not always want to be pregnant.
Not at first. Not really.

It gives me hope to believe that Mary’s ‘yes’
was not always wholehearted.
That even though her body embraced this promise -
every cell of it -
her mind simply couldn’t.

It gives me hope to believe that maybe those first days or weeks
were coloured with despair and confusion
hopelessness and fear
too sharp and raw and private to ever be told.

It gives me hope to believe that one day
Mary woke
not quite knowing herself without the familiar feeling of dread

and found herself
inexplicably bathed
in irrational

And so, the mundane life, all that is disconcerting, the terror and regret, every cell in me is ordained, like it was in Mary.  A life spoken into and an utterance received.  Mary's apophatic practice of having ears to hear...

Hear the blessing
when its time, respect the yes in you (wholehearted and otherwise),
and consider what is ordained

The title of my journal was crops rotating, and i never finished it. 

But, I think this is the waiting.  As i think about it, now, six months later, I realize that our crops are being rotated as we name, as the dictionary changes, as we are "inexplicably bathed in irrational incomprehensable delight." 



Thoughts on transitional institutions

My friend Ken, is in a place a lot like me, in Washington State.  He wrote this great email to me recently and I want to post it and respond:

Other than installation [recent formalization of relationship with congregation] things are going well.  Our membership is down from 76 when i started to 57 now.  We used to have a 6 elder session but now only have 5 because so few people are willing or able to serve.  A forty year member just left the church over what he considered to be apostate moves of the GA.  And someone just drove do-nuts on our side lawn of the church in an attempt to spray mud on the church.  they did a pretty good job.  i tried to see it as a Pollock type art work but our grounds guy didn't see it quite that way.  as i said, things are going well cause i try not to pay too much attention to numbers. 

we are in the midst of trying to hire a part time youth worker.  I've been more involved in some community organizing and our group is trying to move towards starting a community newspaper.  also, i just finished a retreat where rick ufford-chase led about 20 ministers in our presbytery through some good discussions.  he really is an impressive guy and his passion really provides some hope for a denomination that is sorely lacking for passion over anything not related to relationships with too many y or x chromosomes.  our presbytery is coming up on a big vote in regards to a response to the GA's actions and I'm not excited about it.  however, i was asked to give a few minute speal on why I'm Presbyterian after the vote to try to offer some hope in the midst of the struggle.  I'm thinking about starting my testimony with Maryanne's quote, "our system is the worst one out there accept for all the other ones."  what do you think about that?  I've found that quote oddly comforting until i saw how the Amish responded to the tragedy inflicted upon them.  man, i would love for my kids and our people to respond with the same forgiveness of that community and the same boldness as that little girl who offered her life in an attempt to save the other girls.  now that is a community that realizes what it means to really belong, body and soul, in life and death not to themselves but to Jesus Christ. 

Seek first the kingdom.  Not a self-righteous way of seeking but an integrated way of loving more than the church as a reason to stay “in” it.  I think you could do much with this in response to the PUP. 

Like you, I'm sure, I’m so tired of church renewal language or neo-(fill in the blank) or post-(fill in the blank).  Already, 8 weeks into designate pastorate, I am struck at what we all want the denomination or brand-institution to pour into that blank for us.  We want it to leave something behind for us, to guarantee for us, to deliver us from, to give us...  Who in the 2/3rds world has such a “right” to church?  Where in the bumbling emergence of the early church were they shown a self-preserving institution/faith-statement.  I think that "our system is the worst one out there accept for all the other ones" does get at this but fails to really answer, why any of these?

I’m struck by a helpful metaphor from (surprise surprise) art... It came to me when we were were starting an emergent cohort here in ATL, a friendship/conversation-based ecumenical theological discussions (except evangelicals come too). 

We realized it is like a guild, a place for artists to practice and hone their trades and, at times, to share resources out of a love for what the trade becomes- for the beauty of it all.  This is not to say music can be separated from the musician or that the only reason people write and perform is to deposit a disembodied “song” into space.  No, musicians like singing, we like writing, and we love what we make.

The reforming guild of the connectional church: Any connection of practicing congregations would benefit from a similar appreciation of (1)what we are (co)creating- the beauty of the kingdom of God, and (2)some common agreement of practices/disciplines/concepts that contribute to the generation of such beauty- shaping and being shaped.  What beauty do we seek?  How do we shape our sacramental life by the gospel narrative to becoming embracing people and, visa-versa, how is knowledge of the gospel narrative inter-penetrated by our sacramental life lived in this not-yet-fully embracing world.

Metaphors like this make space for disagreement, concessions, and preservation but organize all these virtues around an eschatological hope, they root the reason for church in something bigger than our own self-security and assuredness.  This PC(USA) might be just as good as any other game in town but only insofar as it can equip the sent community to go. 

Here's a quick sports analogy (I'm weaker at these, I admit): Rallying under "our team can ball too" is not the same as "lets take the game seriously enough to value this team and make much out of it."  This breaks down, of course, when you realize that our definitions for "game" have hardened since our team's heights in the 1600s and the 1950s.  But that does not mean that simply forming a new team or forever downloading new skins or pod-casts until you have your very own self-serving definitions of teams and games frees you from the real task of relearning the game week after week, generation after generation.

Here's the test for Presbyterianism, and the jury is still out for me.  Can this institution of Presbyterianism –or Presbyterianism at all– function in a semipermeable way.  Can definitions of the church's participation in the kingdom of God mature or are they necessarily law?  Do they serve, forever, as only a tutor and prisoner (Galatians)?  If so, then we need to reform- with gratitude, beyond our parents' best efforts, into another yet-to-be-reformed definition of the team... For the sake of the game  For the good of God's creation redeemed in Christ.

The church and creative process

Words Do Not Make Worlds

Okay, one of my biggest mentors is Walter Brueggemann, who in step with the Yale school of post liberalism, has argued that "Words make worlds."  This is an hermeneutic argument that what we say, speak into being, changes how we behave.  Citing Freud, Bruggemann writes that speech about our memory and hope open in us new possibilities.  He also then connects this to Biblical Theology as it pertains to God.  The God of the Old Testament, Yahweh, speaks the world into being, communicates as a voice, and instructs through prophets who say "the Word of the Lord."  It follows, then, that the New Testament's extrapolation in the incarnation of Jesus as the Word made flesh, is the embodiment of God's utterance.

The Church After Words
I have been drawn to this argument for quite some time but often get stuck on one thing, "words are not the only way, the primal way of knowing and communicating."  I spent a semester in seminary trying to make sense of this and created 90+ pages of words to prove my point (get it here:  Download arts_as_witness_02_revision

).  Missiologist Leslie Newbigin proposes a complimentary idea that the congregation is the hermeneutic of the gospel.  Different than the Franciscan-Young Life motto- "preach the gospel at all times, only use words when necessary," Newbigin's argues that the congregation is a meaning making group who bear witness to the gospel of Jesus and the reign of God in their host culture.  In this way the words are only part of the witnessing component, and the gospel is not simply preached but performed.  Moving beyond Newbigin, I have seen this argument fitting well with the post-structuralists who suggest that disembodied words are actually tools of power- to manipulate others or evade responsibility.

Until today I have been stuck on how to connect the trajectories of these two formative scholars in my own approach to life in the way of Jesus.  I agree that words, utterance, change our reality starting with our own vantage point and hope.  I also agree that the church is the community witnessing to the story of this hope in word and deed, in the beauty of making a life together for the sake of its neighbors.  But Brueggemann would seem to protest that words are a prerequisite, absolutely necessary for the formation of this community and the Newbigin trajectory (now I'm projecting certain postmodern suspicions to his work, I know) would seem to argue that words are an insufficient. 

Words as elaboration
Today, listening to a pod-cast on hermeneutics and eschatology by John Green, I recognized that imagination is often pre-verbal.  That the church's failure of imagination is tied to our preoccupation with words, to well elaborated systems.  And I connected these two theologians to the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced "CHICK-sent-me-high-ee).

He describes the work of creativity as more recursive than linear, but proceeding in the following progression:

  1. Preparation (immersion in a problem that speaks to one's curiosity),
  2. Incubation (ideas call to each other without the pressure of linear logic),
  3. Insight (the aha when pieces of the puzzle fall together),
  4. Evaluation (utilizing former knowledge of the domain and opinion of the field determining if the idea is novel),
  5. Elaboration (paying attention to outside developing work, open mindedness, refining for elegance and simplicity, listening to colleges, and finally articulating the complete innovation). 

Here is the connection to the church as hermeneutic and the speech act. The church requires the disciplines of contemplation on Christ to shape our imaginations.  The church (to give props to my reformed fore parents) is shaped in the the proclamation of the Word.  The narrative of scripture re-scripts our imagination so that new problems emerge, new incongruence's between our selves, our church, or our world as they relate to the gospel-shaped world of God's dreams known through the gift of the Holy Spirit, scriptures, and tradition.  The speech act is "elaboration."  But this elaboration is, as Csikszentmihalyi shows points out, is not linear but recursive and continual.  And this elaboration is the fruit of an internal creative process, one the church exists to nurture.

Words as fruit and not product

I think this gets to the bottom of my beef with "words make worlds."  In a consumer centered late-capitalist world, we rush past practices as means to a desired end.  For preachers we need the next "word" and so cheap, flaccid, or self serving words are conjured up to meet 7-day cycle of market demand.  Consequently the church has shaped a generation of eager "utterers" looking to say more than they believe and content to believe or wrestle with far less than they like to say.  Churches and pulpits become the natural habitat in modernity for "vibrato" big sexy ideals.  CCM and "praise music" is just amplifies the point.  And yet pastors who preach every week play into this by demanding nothing, by saying words that therapize, validate (from a position of pulpit authority), or demean the other side (feminazis, homophobes, or culture-haters... you pick your idealogical enemy).

But utterance is not a consumable to be outsourced to experts or reduced into microwavable single portions.  Utterance is the fruit of disciplines of readiness.  Imagination is the gift of God from the future for the community to bear witness anew.  And the congregation can bear witness anew only after it has internalized the creative process, facing emerging problems between the "kingdom come on earth" and the inspired imagination of "as it is in heaven."  The church is not just a place for preparation (singing "Lord Prepare Me to be a Sanctuary" or "Wait for the Lord") and elaboration (singing "Shout to the Lord" or "God Bless America" or "We Shall Overcome") but also for incubation (silence, and contemplation), insight (freedom to play and speak provisionally-divergently), and evaluation (lamentation, confession,reconciliation, and protest) as well.

painting "and"

In the last half of the twentieth century many churches have drawn new confession or symbols of faith.  As early as the Nicean Creed (worked on for over a hundred years between 325 and 451 A.D.), confessions were seen as symbols of the unity of the church.  They were a practice of reconciliation between differing opinions portrayed by new images or sketches for churches to share with eachother.  They were the historical equivalents of Christian Hutus and Christian Tutsis agreeing to draw together a new sketch of what they believed the faith-from-the-future taught through the texts-of-the-past called them to do-that-day. They were Jim Wallis, Jesse Jackson, and Beth Moore asking for God to equip them to live today by drawing upon the Spirit’s inspiration of their experiences of scripture to compare the historical work of God “and” the promises from God of what is to come.  So you can only imagine how long process must take.
Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth’s biographer, has written an article reviewing these new confessions made for the most part by two-thirds world churches.   Busch’s article appears at the very end of a book of articles, Toward the Future of Reformed Theology.   I probably picked this article up because of my own personal encounters with Dr. Busch at Columbia Seminary, where he taught a semester seminar on Barth and joined us afterwards for beers and pipes.  He and Shirlie Guthrie were the reason I kept after the class and began to take seriously the reading and writing of theology. I can remember his eyes lighting up as we’d make comments and motioning us with his hands to “keep-rolling” when, as young students, we grew uncertain of our arguments.  He was my first German friend.

Unfortunately Dr. Busch grew ill and could not return to Columbia a year later as he had planned.  I had heard the stroke rendered his speaking and reasoning incapable of teaching.  Somehow I had put together the news that he had passed away.  And then two years ago I was on Columbia’s campus and saw him again.  It was the first time in my life that I thought I saw a ghost.  I didn’t know how exactly to say, “I thought you were dead” so I just said I was glad to see him, told him a bit about the work I was doing with emergent and in the inner-city and that was that.

In reading this article last night it seems to me that he is just as surprised to discover confessing churches.  As if meeting a ghost he meets churches that “confess not because they hold to a specials Calvinistic tradition, nor because they wish to define what ‘Reformed’ actually means.  They confess because they (alone as Reformed, or with other denominations in the frequently occurring case of a merger of churches) find themselves called to confess their identity in the church of God and of Jesus Christ.”   In contrast, over the last two centuries, Busch writes, there emerged “in the place of the freedom at times to confess and at other times to enact one’s confession… a freedom to do nothing, a freedom from confession… At the root of this lay a problematic conception of God, in which God’s freedom was thought of as a despotic regime which did not tolerate human freedom.”

In Atlanta in 2006 there exists a similar domesticated image of God as one contained to the scriptures and the confessions and the buildings of churches.  God has gotten trapped in sacred space consequentially loosing humanity into a spiral of capricious relationship with God.  Because we don’t know for sure, and because we assume that ordained folks like Troy might know better than us, we resign ourselves to a life of conscription or contradiction.  We’ve lost the ability to see God in action and ourselves in action.  We’ve lost the confidence to say “and.”

When faced with this dilemma, the church historically has landed on confessing (witnessing or stating, not simply apologizing or saying confession).  On drawing a new “and” a kind of creed, a new testimony.  The church does this as one congregation in its place and time but with universal intent, a belief that they are not an exception-to-the-rule but a specific location of God’s active spirit.  They speak as “the church.”  And they do this with an unique art.  The art of “and” is learned through contemplation upon the incarnation of Christ both human and divine.  Like Calvin, the church today practices that “that which the one Word of God has communicated to us by pure grace in the one mediator, Christ, we cannot say in one word but always rather in two.”  The following is a list of such twos drawn from historical and emerging confessions.  Busch describes these as the “characteristic doubling of assertions, in which throughout both are united yet remain unmixed; both are differentiated yet remain undivided, let alone made into opposite.”

    God’s majesty and God’s abasement
    the glory of God and the salvation of humanity
    Christ as truly divine and truly human
    Word and Spirit
    gospel and law
    eternal life and ordering of temporal existence
    justification and sanctification
    faith and obedience
    Old and New Testaments
        witness to the “norm” of faith and of life
    God in love and justice
        in grace and power
    Jesus Christ as crucified reconciler and victorious Lord and Judge
        thus justification occurs by:
        grace alone, excluding all self redemption,
it is nevertheless inseparable from human sanctification, renewal, and discipleship

    The church must be determined both
        by gathering and by sending,

        by preservation of its identity
by engaged openness to the world around it

        by the calling of Christians to serve and through the ministerial office
    thus in the sacraments:
        both God’s grace and human response are manifested
    thus regarding the relationship to state and society:
        both loyal cooperation and obedience to God more than human

    the law of God:
        reveals to us sinners our inability to redeem ourselves and shows those freed by Christ concretely the shape of our freedom

Do you get the point?  Incase you don’t, allow me to illustrate through visual metaphors.  Trevor Hart (Begbie, Beholding the Glory) does this in his description of mixing paint.  When you add yellow to red you do not get a “compromise.”  You make something that did not before exist, some sort of orange.  But it is made on purpose and with things that did previously exist.  When God was made flesh, we did not only experience one being as the Other, but an Other-possibility came into existence: the incarnation-idea.  The created “and.”  And yet, with out a paintbrush of “divinity” at our disposal we can only learn and watch this new phenomena.  The concepts of redemption are redefined, Paul sees new, that the old is gone-forever. A material world once filled with divine interruptions is now a material world redefined by the existence of “orange” incarnate interruptions.  “The word of God made his dwelling among us.  We have seen his glory.  Out if his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given.” (NIV for “grace upon grace”), now all this material is assumed, brought into the divine revelation of Christ and through the cross and resurrection- forever changed.

But if it weren’t enough to see orange for the first time and look toward the horizon with hope that a deeper orange would arrive.  The Son of God made flesh breaths the Holy Spirit on his disciples and paints the vision of their becoming orangeness, “as the father sends me, so I send you.”  The Spirit of God ushers in an new day, an 8th day of creation, when more and more of creation will not only be given eyes to see and ears to hear such an orange but hands to paint, feet to carry, and imaginations and swords and plowshares and tongues to create (or crucify) orange again and again. John places this at the end of that upperoom account, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Now if my metaphor hasn’t gotten us in enough trouble I want to clarify what I am saying.  There are some of you (if you have been patient enough to keep plodding through this post) who’s yellow flags have gone up.  “If we make orange, you are forgetting the left side of one of the above “Ands”: excluding all self redemption.” To this I propose we do not make green, but always orange.  Here is where my metaphor breaks down and it begins to look like all we do as ambassadors of reconciliation is paint until the world looks like a 1970s TV with the color knob askew- monochromatic.  So I will work on some more elaboration but I’d love some of you own input.
How is the church to continue confessing with universal intent but to do so in a changing world where the gospel is suddenly informing us to believe differently than before.  How do we think about this difference in light of the one incarnation and not confuse ourselves as the “inventors” of orange or of the “new orange.”  How are we like John the Baptist who "himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light" while "the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”  And how do we handle that the true light that “was coming” has come and yet is still not completely here in fullness?  I think we would find some help in rethinking “and”…