Tag Archives: inclusion

Part Ten! God Has No Target Demographic

When we came to Haverhill, I wanted to build a church that connected primarily with two groups of people: those on the margins and post-Christian 20-somethings.

Connecting with these groups of people has perpetually confounded my denomination. In the moment when we realized that inviting people into a better version of the 1920’s might no longer be effective, people started proposing solutions.. Generally speaking, these solutions were proposed by parents of those 20-somethings, those on the margins often not being particularly sought after, due to their messy lives or general lack of money.

The solutions were:

  1. A) Do more contemporary worship! Because young people would love it if we get a really bad band together and play all the songs in the style that we loved when we were young adults in the 1980’s!
  2. B) Get more videos! Because young people like all that media that looks like those MTV music videos that we loved when we were young adults in the 1980’s!
  3. C) Get someone who has a lot of energy and great hair to lead worship! Because all those young people need a pastor who looks like a member of those hair bands we loved when we were young adults in the 1980’s!
  4. D) Throw a pizza party and play silly games! Because all those young people secretly want a church that will still treat them like they’re eight years old (which they were when we were young adults in the 1980’s!)

Who was going to unlock the secret to a church that would attract both all those mysterious young people and also those people on the margins that everyone secretly knows Jesus would be hanging out with?

Us.

I already had my first book started and I wanted stories: not the typical “I went to another church, but I didn’t like the worship/pastor/sermons/theology so I found you all, and your worship/pastor/sermons/theology just feeds me (feeds me? Really? What are we? Cattle? You know what happens to them!) and it just makes me so happy!”

I wanted amazing stories.

Stories like: “Once upon a time, I didn’t even believe in God or organized religion. I thought that all Christians were just a bunch of mean, old, ignorant white people. But then – I MET all of you! And now – I believe in God! Jesus is my best friend! And I spend all my time volunteering, worshiping, studying scripture, and telling my friends about Jesus over lattes or craft beer!”

Stories like: “Once upon a time, I was living on the street. I slept in a paper bag every night! I was addicted to seventeen different drugs! I had three major mental illnesses! And then, I MET all of you! And now- through God’s power, my hard work, and your amazing awesomeness, my life is transformed! When I’m not living in my new apartment, working at my new job, or going to my new institution of higher learning, I’m volunteering, worshiping, studying scripture, and recording compelling fundraising videos about how awesome you all are!”

“God,” I prayed. “Just send me a few of those people!”

Then, something funny happened.

Or, at least, I’m sure that God found it pretty funny.

God sent us a few of those people.

Matter of fact, God sent us a lot of those people and they didn’t fit well in my pre-written stories.

After about six months, I began to learn two very important lessons about the new people I was growing community with:

The first was this: young adults and people on the margins are great. I learned to love many of them, to appreciate their gifts, and to celebrate their wisdom. Many of them are still my friends today. However, they are really hard to build a church with.

Take, for instance, those who struggle with addiction.

(A note to all who are in recovery or work with those who are: I know that addicts, like all people, come in many different shapes and sizes. Many of them are incredibly wise, mature people. You ever want to see what honesty and authenticity look like? Go to a good AA meeting and just listen. What I’m talking about here is the huge group of people who are known in twelve step recovery as the “two-steppers”: those who get into the program, will tell others all about how wonderful it is, but never do the hard work in between.)

If you want a good boost to your ministerial ego, talk to an addict four to six weeks after they’ve engaged with your ministry. They will tell you how you walk on water, levitate about six inches off the ground, and even shit diamonds. They will convince you that you are the best human being walking on God’s green earth.

However, wait about six months. Wait until that amazing new-church smell wears off. Wait for a life change. Wait until you (or someone else in the group) says something that pisses them off. Wait for the first dry spell. Most will leave, and they will convince you that their new behavior (which is often connected with the new substances they’re now using again) is either A) your fault, or B) definitely not their fault.

At first, I just loved it when a new addict would walk into one of our groups.

“Oh Great!” I said, “Another addict!”

They’d speak honestly, they’d invite all their friends, and they’d burn with appealing enthusiastic brightness.

Inevitability, however, they’d not do their work, and if I was lucky, they’d disappear. If I wasn’t lucky, they’d exit messily, leaving a bunch of wreckage behind them.

Some people are good at tolerating the ups and downs and being patient.

I was not one of them. I struggled to stick with all those people I had asked for.

In the end, it’s just hard to build a church when people haven’t learned discipline, conflict resolution, or basic life skills and aren’t always interested in learning about them either.

I developed a set of aggressively rose-colored glasses. I would look at another wonderfully undeveloped person, squinting at them from every possible angle, trying to convince myself that they had leadership potential in the near future. I could take the smallest positive sign (Look! That person brought potato chips to the Bible study without being asked!) and construe it as a prediction of their future greatness as a leader.

However, no matter how hard I squinted, changed my angle, or looked at them cross-eyed, all my frantically hopeful dreams eventually had to make contact with reality.

That’s when I learned my second lesson about those two populations groups that I had idealized.

People are people, not amazing stories just waiting to happen. They are on their own growth curves. When those growth curves are steep, because of addiction, mental illness, arrested development, utter inexperience, or anything else, you do violence to them when you push them up that curve before they’re ready. For one person, the decision to get up, tie their shoes, and step out of their apartment doors is a daily victory that we need to celebrate. For another, the decision not to give into addiction, or talk to someone who upset them, or to bring a casserole to dinner is so remarkable that it deserves a parade.

However, if a community is going to have any staying power, then it needs people from those other non-sexy population groups who will show up, follow up on commitments without being harassed, and will stick with it when it gets tough or boring.

I learned to thank God for every prosaic, boringly competent fifty-something baby boomer who joined our community because, in the end, it was those people who provided us with enough gravity to let everyone grow on their own terms. I also learned that they were just as interesting and just as important as those young adults and people on the margins who I had idolized so much beforehand.

I understand my denomination’s focus on underserved people. When we notice that a group of people are no longer at our table, it’s important that we ask why.

However, it’s also important to remember that God loves the life-long baby boomer church person just as much as God loves the young hipster or the person just off the street.

Creating a truly inclusive community means having a seat at the table for everyone, where people’s gifts are celebrated, where their experiences are valued, and where everyone is challenged to grow in a way that is meaningful for them.

So – bring on the young adult post-Christians and the people on the margins. But let’s bring on the ex-church people, the baby boomers, and the grey haired elders as well.

After all, God has no target demographic.

 

Part Nine! We Are Not A Nice Church

“I hope we never become a nice church.” One of our people told me during a class one Wednesday evening.

“Why do you say that?” I responded.

“Well,” he said, “I don’t like nice churches.”

“Oh really?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“Why not?”

“Nice seems so superficial. Nice people ask ‘How are you doing?’, but don’t want to know the answer. Nice people will say, ‘I hope you feel better,’ but won’t offer to help. You can’t swear in nice churches. You can’t cry in nice churches. You can’t be screwed up in nice churches. I don’t want us to be a nice church.”

“Yeah”, I said, jokingly, “We should put that up on a billboard. The Vine: We Are Not a Nice Church!”

“Yeah!” he said, with unselfconscious enthusiasm, “We should!”

(We didn’t put up that billboard. Maybe we should have.)

It became one of our unoffical slogans for the next couple years.

The Vine: We Are Not A Nice Church.

We’ve made a cult out of nice in the church.

We’ve come to believe that following Jesus means being a nice person.

The problem is that Jesus was not a nice person.

Seriously. Read the Gospels. The guy could come across as a real asshole.

He turned over tables in the temple when he didn’t like what the merchants were selling.

He called the good church people of his days a bunch of whitewashed tombs.

He said that his generation was a group of spoiled children who just wanted a nice religious song and dance.

He realized that the world did not need another nice person.

Our world doesn’t need more nice churches.

Often, behind the often kitschy, sometimes cute, proper niceness of our communities lies nothing that is particularly interesting or life changing.

What the world does need is more loving churches.

Churches that will speak up against injustice, especially the injustice that they practice in their own lives, before they point fingers at anyone else.

Churches that will accept horribly messed up, broken people, just as they are, and then treat them like brothers and sisters.

Churches that will speak honestly about the doubt, disappointment, and messiness that is life.

Churches that will stop worrying more about their carpets than the people who walk on them.

Churches that will care more about feeding the hungry than what hymns they sing.

Churches that will be more concerned with loving people first than fixing their theology first.

Say, for instance, a formerly homeless man walks into a typical church one Sunday. He talks about how much he loves Jesus. He talks a lot about how much he loves Jesus. Not like a little ‘a lot’, but a lot ‘a lot’, flooding the whole group with Jesus-themed, conversational sewage that leaves everyone else gasping for space like a bunch of flopping fish.

What do nice churches do? They listen to him. Generally impatiently. They let him hijack conversations with his bazooka made of words, they let him destroy their well made small groups, kidnap prayer time (your joys and concerns will only be returned to you if you’re willing to listen to my story about this person I met on the street this last week and also applaud my newly composed rap about Jesus, which is so new I’m only now making it up on the spot!), and hijack sermons with long-form answers to unasked questions. Finally, under a veneer of tremendous niceness, they will no longer be available to give him a ride to church, will stop going to the Bible Study that he has happily commandeered, and steer as far away from his conversational miasma as possible during coffee hour.

This is what I did for the first four months after John joined our community.

I tried every polite, demi-passive aggressive trick for moderating him. I would ask him small yes or no questions. I would ask people to raise their hands if they wanted to chime in and would not call on John unless I was scraping the bottom of the conversational barrel. I would wait, like a tiger in the grass, to spring upon the first pause in his conversation, so I could cut him off and call on someone else. (Much to my frustration, it always seemed like he could talk for minutes without taking a single breath.)

I used all my small group leader magic on the other members of the group. I talked about how good it was that we accepted pople like John. I talked about how good we were at welcoming everyone, no matter how screwed up they were, (or how much they screwed up our discussion). But, sometime after our conversation about loving-not-nice, I realized that not only was letting John run his mouth bad for the group, it was bad for him as well.

We were treating him like a nuisance rather than as a brother.

One January night, one of our members finally cut him off during one of his long responses, saying, “John, it’s my turn to talk now.”

Much to my surprise, he stopped talking.

And thus began a long (and still incomplete) process of transformation.

The group served as John’s personal moderator. They would tell him to be quiet when he talked too long. They would ask him follow up questions when it seemed like he was onto something important. They would pray for him when he was struggling. They would wake him up when he fell asleep in his chair after dinner (at least sometimes, at other points, the group decided that a little twenty minute John vacation would be best for everyone).

He became more real. Little bits of real talk – real questions – real experiences occasionally unearthed themselves in the midst of his conversation. And, if he still was not a model of group process, if he would occasionally burst out in a stream of language that sounded parroted from a particularly obnoxious religious pamphlet, if he would regularly very inappropriately invite people to the Vine when it was clear they were not interested, he was growing in a way that was meaningful for him.

He didn’t stick around forever. But I rather think that someone telling him to be quiet was, if not the nicest, then perhaps the most loving thing anyone had done for him in a long time

What Do You Think?

Where do you need to work on being loving-not-nice?

Next Week: Part Ten! Stumbling Into Success

Part Six: And the Glorious People of the Vine (2/2)

This is part two of Sean’s story.

If you haven’t read the first part, click here first.

I wish it had lasted forever.

I wish that if you asked me “How’s Sean doing today?” that I could say, “He’s doing great. He’s back in school. He’s even dating someone.”

But when you’ve been as serially abused as Sean was and when the complications from that abuse result in a cascading set of mental and physical health problems, the story often doesn’t end the way that you wish it would.

Sean’s health declined badly over the next couple years.

I was walking by the coffee shop one morning, when his friend rushed outside.

“Something’s wrong with Sean! He can’t move and half of his face is drooping!”

We called the ambulance and I rode with him to the ER.

The doctor told him to go home and rest with a hot compress. I swear I could hear him quacking on the way out of the room.

Finally, we contacted his nurse practitioner, who prescribed him a set of medications before he went home.

It was Bell’s palsy.

Six months later, he suffered another stroke and was put into a nursing home to do rehab.

We cleaned his apartment top to bottom and threw him a welcome home party, stocking his refrigerator with two weeks worth of food, so he wouldn’t have to cook.

It cheered him up, at least for the day.

However, Sean never fully regained his ability to speak or to walk. He struggled badly with depression, triggered by his physical problems. His mood and health vacillated wildly, depending on whatever toxic set of poorly coordinated chemicals his often disengaged set of doctors and nurses had put him on next. He was in and out of the hospital a couple times, and by the time he was forty, he was walking with a walker or a cane, when he wasn’t hiding in his apartment.

We all worried about him.

One day, I got a call from a friend from the coffee shop where Sean had visited all those years.

She sounded panicked.

“Guys,” she said, “I heard that Sean is dead. Did you hear anything?”

I wasn’t particularly worried at first. This was not the first time that someone had called us, panicked because they heard someone was dead, only to call back a little later when they found the person remarkably alive and kicking, a little irritated at all the panic.

However, as we tracked down the rumors, as I visited his apartment and knocked on his door, as I talked to people at his apartment building. I started to get anxious.

Finally, we ended up in the apartment of one of Sean’s closest friends.

She had the number for Sean’s mother.

She called.

She began to cry.

And then we knew: Sean had died, of a heart attack, likely brought on by the combination of medications he was taking.

It was the first death in our community. Everyone came to our house that night. We ordered Chinese and other forms of culinary prozac. One lady, who, I think, was more there for the free food than for Sean, said, “Oh! Get sorbet! And coffee ice cream! I love coffee ice cream!” (I know that loving people means not punching them, but I still wish Jesus had made an exception for that one.)

We cried, we laughed, we shared stories, we were together, which is really all you can be when something like this happens.

When everyone had finally left, dishes and silverware scattered around the house like morbid mementos, I sat down, and I cried.

We waited to get the call to do Sean’s funeral. We were Sean’s pastors after all. Everyone knew that.

The call never came.

The funeral director had been instructed to give Sean a Catholic funeral, because he hadn’t been a part of a real church.

We found out the time of the funeral and we got there early.

The funeral director helped us carve out some time during the service for sharing about Sean’s life.

A lot of people said really positive, really hollow things about Sean’s life.

Then, Sean’s therapist got up.

I had never met his therapist before, but he had been part of Sean’s life for nearly a decade, meeting with him every week through both good and difficult times.

He spoke with passion about the truth of Sean’s life, about his real trials, about his real courage and determination.

As he finished, he said, “You saved Sean’s life everyday, his family, his friends, his social workers and – the glorious people of the Vine.”

This therapist, who had counseled Sean for a decade, who knew nothing about us except by the changes he saw in Sean, knew that we, the glorious people of the Vine, had saved his life.

There’s a lot that I mourn about my time at the Vine: relationships I screwed up, the wrong calls I made, the moments that my anxiety strangled my joy.

I’ve left a trail of mistakes behind me a mile long.

Sean is not one of them.

Sean was our brother and we saved his life. We saved it everyday.

That’s a moment I’m willing to hang my hat on.

 

Coming Saturday! Why I Talk About My Failures

Coming Tuesday! Part Seven: Quick Everyone! Act Normal!

Part Five: And the Glorious People of the Vine (1/2)

Sean

I remember when I first met Sean.

It was at our community game night, an event we hosted a couple times every month at a local coffee shop. Free snacks, no beer, and enough Apples to Apples to make you want to puke: a perfect fit for a downtown with the better part of eight bars in two blocks.

Sean was the sort of person nearly everyone overlooks: short, rotund, baby-faced, with a perpetual “please-don’t-hurt-me!” expression that begs to be pitied or ignored.

We learned quickly that Sean’s greatest daily accomplishment was managing to traverse the three blocks from his apartment to that same local coffee shop every morning, where he would order a latte while his face turned red, and then sit in the corner to drink it, before returning home to his cat.

Sean came to game night, tentatively playing Scrabble and sweating bullets for the better part of two hours.

It did not look like he was having a good time.

At the end of the night, he walked up to me and announced, “I think I’d like to come to your house for that life group you’ve been talking about!” He said it with the same air of frantic determination you might hear from someone announcing that they wanted to take a walking tour of Antarctica.

Sure enough, next week he came to our house, sitting in the corner, smiling a little bit, and sweating bullets.

It did not look like he was having a good time.

I gave him a ride home. (When you work with people who don’t have cars, you end up one quarter pastor, three quarters taxi cab driver.)

He said, “I’m glad I came. I’ll see you at game night next week.”

And so it continued from there. Life groups. Worship gatherings. Picking up trash on the streets. Once Sean learned that we were safe people, he simply couldn’t get enough of us.

We began to learn about his past. We learned that he’d had a difficult childhood. We learned that he suffered from depression and social anxiety. We learned that he had dreams to become a travel agent one day.

We also learned about his experiences with other churches.

From what I learned as I read between the lines, they had all treated him in one of two ways. Some churches had ignored him: letting him sit in the back, occasionally giving him a ride, and politely ignoring everything he said. (I expect that socially anxious five foot five men who turn red and stammer whenever they’re around people were not their target demographic.) The other set treated him with perfectly tuned condescending acceptance. They’d tell them how glad that they were that he came to their church, (in tones normally reserved for puppies or small children.) Sean was their mascot and they’d happily trot him out on occasion, no doubt very proud of what an accepting bunch of people they were.

Many churches have people like Sean.

If you are a part of one of them, listen to me.

People like Sean are not your fucking mascots.

They don’t need to be coddled.

They don’t need you to praise everything they do, like you might a three year old who just made a sculpture out of her own poop.

Their ideas and opinions don’t need to be ignored for their own safety.

They don’t need to be trotted out like a bunch of trained monkeys every time you need to prove how wonderfully inclusive your church is.

They need to be loved.

Just like you love everyone else.

Here’s the difference between the way we treated him and the way every other church treated him.

To many, he was their mascot.

To us, he was our brother.

We got to know him.

We laughed at his jokes (when they were funny and sometimes when they were not.)

We rolled our eyes every time he started talking about how much he hated Barack Obama. We even reminded him that everyone might not share his distaste for him.

We listened to his stories like they meant something.

We laughed (or winced) at his Jeff Dunham videos.

We let him tour us around Boston.

We brought him over to our house to watch sports and eat food.

We got pissed at him when he used his disease as a crutch to lean on, rather doing the hard work of healing.

We harassed the hell out of him when he became depressed and started isolating.

In other words, we loved him like he was an actual human being.

One year, we learned that his birthday was coming up.

He was not looking forward to it.

We said to him, “Sean, why are you not looking forward to your birthday?”

He shrugged, “I just don’t like birthdays.”

We asked more questions. We learned that he was worried that his birthday might trigger his depression. Birthdays often did for him.

We said, “Sean, come hang out with us. We’ll throw you a party!”

He had shrugged. “No one celebrates my birthday.”

We got about a dozen people together. We had silly hats. We had balloons. We bought him a cake. We had cards. We even had presents.

We brought him to our house, sang him “Happy Birthday!” and did all the other assorted silliness that comes with birthday parties.

After cake and presents, all of us shared, in turn, what we loved and appreciated about Sean.

I didn’t think it was a big deal.

A cake. A few people. A few presents. A little love.

But, when we finished sharing, Sean spoke. He had a huge grin on his face.

He said a lot of things, but there were only three I remembered.

“This is the best birthday party I’ve ever had.” (Forty years on this earth and this was the best anyone has ever done for you? I’m so sorry, Sean.)

“I, well, I love you guys.” (We love you too Sean.)

“The Vine has saved my life.” (And, I knew, he didn’t mean that metaphorically.)

It was another beautiful moment.

I wish it had lasted forever.

What Do You Think?

1) What does it mean to treat people like they’re people, and not just scapegoats, monsters, or mascots?

2) What are the challenges of accepting people like Sean into your community?

Coming Thursday! Part Six: And the Glorious People of the Vine (2/2)