Rev. Melissa Cooper


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Posts tagged church
We're in this together.

My Methodist Studies experience in seminary was, as far as I know, unique. My professor liked experiential learning. He had us in the archives handling primary resources every chance he could. And then there were the bands. 

Part of Methodist history is the tradition of band meetings - they're kind of like the original small groups. And so our professor of Methodist history had us also meet in bands each class period. (That alone was interesting because it's not often a room full of graduate students asks the question "How is it with your soul?")

But here is where things got really interesting. At the end of the semester, he told us, our grade for the class would be the average grade of our band

Wait, what? 

This is not the kind of thing you tell a room full of young adults who have chosen to attend a world-class university. Group projects are one thing; this was a whole different ballgame. He couldn't be serious.

It turns out, he was serious.

Throughout that semester, we were assigned to meet at the beginning of each class session with our bands, to ask "How is it with your soul?" and to collaborate on all our classwork. While our papers and projects were individual, you never saw anyone turn anything in that had not been looked over by at least a couple of bandmates. 

In the end, we knew everything we did was riding on not only our success, but the success of our bandmates. 

And this is what our professor told us. "My job is to prepare you to lead churches, to be pastors and ministry leaders. And in the church, you don't get to stand out on your own. You succeed together, or you fail together."

You succeed together, or you fail together. He broke the truth of the church down into such simple terms, and an object lesson I'm sure none of us ever forgot. 

One could take this lesson and apply it to any level of the church, whether locally or denominationally, or even universally. We succeed together, or we fail together. There is no in between.

And yet, we keep doing church as though there is. As though we have the "right" way of doing things, or the "best" model. I reject that idea. I reject the idea that just because it works in one place, it will work somewhere else. I reject the idea that if one person figures something out, the logical next step is for all of us to do that thing. That's just not how the world works, or how the church should engage the world.

And yet, it's how we've build the Christian Industrial Complex. Selling one size fits all curriculum, looking up to "successful" churches to show us the way, following "successful" pastors' leads.

Don't hear me wrong - many churches do wonderful things that we can learn from, but we need to see ourselves as unique communities that, while we may learn from others, we each bring our own unique gifts, individually and communally. And they way we succeed together (rather than fail together) is to bring those gifts to the table and allow them to be used in all their uniqueness.

Connection is a core value of my ministry and the way I approach working with churches. Sometimes we have to stop asking "How do we do the right thing?" and change it to "How do we partner with the people who are already doing the right thing?"

And one of the ways we do that is to collaborate and share life with others in ministry. When we want to learn a new thing, or take a new tack, we need to engage that process with others. The most impactful part of the seminary experience was not just the education in the classroom, but also the education in between those class times, when we gathered together at bars or in coffee shops to share life and discuss what was happening in our own journeys. 

So how are you doing life with someone this week? How are you succeeding together? How are you seeking out opportunities to live into the essentially connectional nature of ministry?

In the meantime, if you're interested in an opportunity to do vision ministry together with others, check out my Intergenerational Leadership cohorts through Vibrant Faith. It's an opportunity to grow in your intergenerational approach to ministry, and to do it in a group of others taking the same approach in their own context. I hope you'll join us!

Where is the "We" in worship?

One of the blessings of my ministry life has been that, while we always have a church home, my work allows me to be a part of lots of congregations. I worship in many contexts, both on Sundays and other times of the week. I see many styles of worship, many preachers, many music leaders, many congregational cultures. 

There are some trends that seem to sweep throughout many churches and across many contexts, and there are other practices that are unique to each congregation. I especially love the unique practices churches take on as a way of expressing community in their contexts.

One thing that has become a trend across contexts, though, is something that troubles me. 

Over and over, especially in contemporary worship music, I keep seeing the same words pop up: "I" and "me." 

Now, I am fully supportive of personal journeys of faith. I love hearing personal professions of faith. I spend a lot of time working with young people on articulating their faith for themselves, and owning their own spiritual lives. 

And yet, in Sunday morning worship, there's an opportunity to do something different. Once a week, I get a chance to come together to express faith with the gathered body, not just by myself. And over and over again, I am invited to sing songs that express an individual and personal faith. Songs that I could sing alone just as easily as with a church community. 

And then, last week, I sat in a room full of a few hundred clergy and laity, where we celebrated the complete Great Thanksgiving. One of my favorite parts is the time of invitation, confession and pardon:

Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him,
   who earnestly repent of their sin
   and seek to live in peace with one another.
Therefore, let us confess our sin before God and one another.
Merciful God,
we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart.
We have failed to be an obedient church.
We have not done your will,
   we have broken your law,
   we have rebelled against your love,
   we have not loved our neighbors,
   and we have not heard the cry of the needy.
Forgive us, we pray.
Free us for joyful obedience,
      through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Leader to people:
Hear the good news:
Christ died for us while we were yet sinners;
    that proves God's love toward us.
   In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!
People to leader:
In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!
Leader and people:
Glory to God. Amen.

Throughout this liturgy, a room full of church leaders confessed collective and institutional sin and neglect of those whom Christ has called us to love. Throughout this liturgy, a room full of church leaders repented for that sin and neglect of the Gospel. Through this liturgy, a room full of church leaders were reminded that Christ loves us no matter what situation we find ourselves in. Throughout this liturgy, a room full of church leaders offered forgiveness to one another. And all of this was done collectively, not individually. 

I'm not saying there's no place for individual faith, or no place at all for individual experience in worship. But when all the language throughout a congregational service is personal, we're missing the point of congregational worship. 

How would your worship look different if you changed the "I's" to "We's"? How would it feel different to say litanies collectively rather than individually? What would it change about your congregation's understanding of community to move to collective language when you gather for worship?

And finally, what artists are out there writing congregational worship music rather than individual prayers or praise? I'd love to hear it, and I'd love to sing it with a gathered community.

#alwaysAnd: The Necessity of Multiple Realities

Both/and. It's a simple phrase. 

And yet, I find that most people in reality default to either/or rather than both/and

Our culture and society are built around polarities - male or female, Republican or Democrat, Coke or Pepsi, N*Sync or Backstreet Boys ... (oops is my Millennial showing?) This is how we're taught to see the world. Black or white, no gray to be found.

And yet, as we experience the world, there's a sense that we've been gaslighted. We are given these either/ors, and as we look around, we see a world full of gray. We see real world issues and realize that it's not as simple as yes or no, in or out, up or down. Reality is more complicated than that.

In the diversity training I lead, we talk about guidelines for healthy communication, and one of them is to "practice both/and thinking." This guideline is all about recognizing that multiple realities can be true at the same time. 

For example, my husband and I grew up both in rural Tennessee, but on opposite ends of the state. We are both only children, so for us, home was a place of peace. Home was a place where conflict wasn't a major player. Home was a quiet retreat. 

For most of our friends, however, home was not necessarily a quiet, conflict-free zone. Home was a place of chaos and turmoil, a place of noise and messiness. They had siblings. More children = more chaos. 

Neither of these realities is better than the other. Neither of these realities negates the other. Home means different things to different people. It's a both/and. 

As we face adaptive challenges in the church, we are going to have to become a church of both/and and not either/or. We will do this, or we will die.

That sounds pretty morbid, but it's true.

We are going to have to recognize that older ways of doing Christianity were not necessarily wrong, and that for some people, these older ways of doing church are still effective and needed in their lives. AND we need to recognize that those older ways of doing ministry no longer work for some people.

This is not necessarily about a generational divide. Rather it's about the idea that there are many ways of doing the same thing, and they can all be valid and coexist. It's not about right vs. wrong; it's about a multitude of ways to be the church to engage all of the children of God in their diversity.

There's a rule in the improv comedy world that, to keep a sketch going, when someone offers a new idea into the sketch, you never respond with a "no," or by shutting down the new idea they've introduced. Instead, you say "yes," then build on it, "AND." 

This is what the future of the church must be. We can either stand in our either/or camps and argue about who is right or wrong, or those of us who are called to move the church into its next phase can look at those who have gone before and say, "Yes! And..."

And those of us who are nurturing an older way of doing church can appreciate and affirm that "Yes! And ..." We can offer support to these new ways of doing things, and we can not feel threatened in the new methods and movements. 

We can be a both/and church.

Where have you seen examples of both/and ministry?

Who is [Gen Z]? Let's take a look ...

Last week, we heard from the Barna Group about the first major study done on [Generation Z], the generation estimated to be born from 1999-2015. As the first of their cohort is just beginning to graduate high school, the information we can acquire about them as a generation is limited, but Barna took the opportunity to get a small glimpse into the lives of this current youngest generation. 

As a committed student of generational theory, I was excited about this first look at the post-Millennial generation, so I ordered the study report as quickly as the internet would allow, and broke into it the moment it arrived on the doorstep.

The Challenges with the Research

Before I dig into the pertinent findings, though, I have to make a few caveats about this "research." 

  • First, this is not generational research. At this stage, it's polling of a group of people from a specific age cohort. This was one of the most disappointing things for me as a student of generational theory. While the study is able to make some solid generalizations about [Gen Z], the researchers often choose to compare them to other generations. Unfortunately, they're not making comparisons about other generations at the same age, but those other generations today. It shouldn't be shocking to anyone that the priorities of teenagers and the priorities of sixty-somethings are different. So, while the data still may be valid, the comparisons only give us a point-in-time reference rather than a generational one, so it's hard to parse out what are generational characteristics and what are just related to age and stage in life.
  • This study only included Protestant Christians. Excluding Catholics and Catholic Churches excludes a significant population of churchgoers, so is simply not a representation of all of the landscape of Christianity in the US. Whatever this study tells us, we have to be aware that it only represents a segment of the Christian population. 
  • The other major challenge I faced in reading the research is the religious bias. No doubt, Barna is a religious research group and their partner for this study, Impact360, is an evangelical organization, and in their words, they "cultivate a biblical worldview." Unfortunately, most mainline Christians would not qualify as having a "biblical worldview" under their definition. So as the data are interpreted throughout the report, some comparisons and evaluation are skewed toward a conservative evangelical approach. It's not subtle, though, so it's not hard to distinguish the evangelical Christian agenda from some of the raw data. 

So with those caveats in place, let's look at what we have now learned about [Gen Z] at this point in time.

My Questions

As I approached the report, I had a few key questions I hoped to have answered: What characteristics will arise? Will they match my experience with [Gen Z] teens and kids? Will technology be the focus of everything or will we be able to move past that distraction to look at the actual people technology is shaping? Will these [Gen Z] kids carry on the Strauss/Howe four-type cycle and carry some of the traits of their great grandparents in the Silent Generation?

I can't say any of my questions was answered completely (and some not at all), but there were some findings of interest and some key themes that arose.

Reclusive & Communal

[Generation Z] has been said to be the loneliest generation on record, and it appears for good reason. Overall, [Gen Z] is less likely to leave their homes, drink alcohol, get their license, and go out on dates than generations before them at the same age. Teen pregnancy rates are down, even rare, but teen suicide and depression greater than ever.

Why? It appears that the over-the-top parenting techniques, commonly referred to as "helicopter" parenting have moved them in this direction. This restrictive but involved form of parenting has created a generation with curated lives, each moment of their day scheduled, and with more homework from educational institutions than ever before.

So, when they don't have control over most of their lives, [Gen Z] seeks out agency and community in the only way they can: through technology and social media. They spend time on social media because they hunger for community and that is the only way THEY can create it.

And the community they seek out? A diverse one. Whereas Millennials embrace and are comfortable with diversity, [Gen Z] expects it. The study showed that they say they find joy in being around people different from them, a shift from previous generations who often express fear and anxiety about being with different cultures.


The Future is the Focus (and that's scary)

One of the most poignant findings in this study is now future-focused this generation is. Personal achievement kept coming up as central to the [Gen Z] identity. And while it's not new for teenagers to be focused on college and considering career, it seems to have spiked with this group. 

Much like their carefully curated childhoods, they are learning to curate their online presences not for the sake of propriety or social inclusion, but because from a young age, they've been told that colleges and future employers will be monitoring their online engagement.

When asked about their role models, the majority of the reasons they chose role models were related to future personal achievement - six of the top ten reasons given were related to career or financial success.

And no wonder this is also the most stressed-out generation in history; in addition to the personal pressures they feel, they are also distrustful of the future in general on a global scale. As far as they know, the world has always been at war, and these kids have greater global awareness than any previous generation. (I know I don't remember having such nuanced opinions about the government when I was their age!)

Spiritual & Don't Know How to be Religious

When it comes to the church, they've inherited an interesting bag. Like Millennials, they are drawn to spirituality, but even more so than Millennials, they don't have the foundation for religious and theological exploration that previous generations had. They're working from a blank slate - and depending on how you see it, that can be a gift or a challenge.

They also appear indecisive at times. They are reluctant to form strong opinions for fear of offending someone. In the end, they tend to end in indecision, and they find it hard to give an answer when needed.

They also don't necessarily feel warm and fuzzy about the church in general. When asked, they chose images that were neutral or judgmental (a cross and a finger pointing over a Bible) to describe the church.

And yet, when they were asked to choose between extremes for their "ideal church," they often chose some pretty traditional images. They chose community over solitude and being in a sanctuary over an auditorium. Unsurprisingly, they preferred a casual, varied experience, but on almost everything else, they were split nearly 50/50: quiet vs loud, traditional vs modern, relaxed vs exciting, performance vs ritual, classic vs trendy. Much like with Millennials, a hip, non-traditional, contemporary church is not the magic bullet for young people of any age. 

As much to Teach us as We have to Teach Them

While there may be some response needed in knowing the lack of conviction and penchant for indecision of [Gen Z], that same characteristic highlights one of their key positive characteristics: empathy. [Gen Z] seems to be able to tap into and anticipate the feelings of others, and they have a great desire not to do harm or offend. They have a high tolerance and low desire to antaagonize; I would say most of our adult generations could learn a few things!

That being said, a lifetime of indecision will not do them well. They need to be given opportunities to practice and skills for critical thinking and discernment. From my experience, when given those tools, they shine brightly! 

While this list is nowhere near the extent of the research from Barna, nor does it even scratch the surface of the intricacies of an entire generation, we are beginning to see the emergence of a new, distinct group in our society, and before we know it, they'll be among our workforce and leading in our churches and our society.

Keep in mind, though, that the youngest of this generation is estimated to be only three years old. This research, even with all the limitations already mentioned, is also limited by the fact that it can only really survey a maximum of about half of the generation.

My hope is we will continue to challenge this generation, and continue asking some of the right questions so that we can not only figure out what makes them tick but also be the best possible mentors and leaders for them, inviting them to participate in a society we choose to create together.