Rev. Melissa Cooper

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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!

Guest Post: I Wonder Where "We" are, Too

Last week, I shared some thoughts on language in corporate worship music and liturgy. I closed with the following questions:

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.

And wouldn't you know, I received some responses! One of the folks who shared thoughts is Eric Drew, a songwriter, coach and Director of Worship for the UMC in Greater New Jersey. I invited him to share more of his thoughts in today's guest post. Enjoy (and be sure to check out his music)!


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I am a contemporary, Wesleyan worship songwriter. That means that I am a United Methodist through and through; I love the UMC, its traditions, liturgies and theology. It also means that I'm a big fan of the sounds that Elevation Worship, Bethel, Hillsong and others are producing for worship music.

And living with a passion for those two things is lonely.

As I try to create and share in this unique place of worship music, I am grateful for Rev. Melissa Cooper's post, "Where is the 'We" in Worship?" It is a question that the church must ask.

The words which we pray, say and sing in our congregational worship are so important. I agree with many critical bloggers about contemporary music, we have been going through a season where it has been easy to share and use music and lyrics in congregational settings that does not always meet thoughtful, theological criteria.

But Church, here's the thing: the huge majority of those bloggers, as well as us as pastors, leaders and readers, simply got on the bandwagon of bashing and judgment without taking a moment to listen, understand and engage.

I can't take credit for the phrase, but one of the most important values to me as a worshiper and songwriter is that we must create instead of criticize. So here I'll talk about myself as a songwriter and artist. I'm just trying to be faithful and provide new voices and sounds for the church to sing as we worship.

As a songwriter, I think a lot about the voice of the congregation. Historically and practically, this voice has many dimensions. Here are several that are important to me:

Vertical and Horizontal

Here I ask myself if we're singing to God or to one another about God (or something else). A vertical position would have us as the congregation worshiping and singing toward God. An example would be, "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty. Early in the morning my song shall rise to Thee." 

A horizontal position sets us as a congregation singing toward one another. One example from a friend and mentor of mine would be, "Draw the circle, draw the circle wide. No one stands alone, we stand side by side. Draw the circle, draw the circle wide."

As a songwriter, my tendency is to use the vertical dimension. I like to use the pronoun "You" so that the community is aware that we're singing to God (vertical). Will I write or sing horizontally? Sure. But my tendency is to write and sing worship songs that are vertical.

Me and We

I agree with Rev. Cooper when she observes that it feels like an exaggerated amount of contemporary worship music is "all about me."  Using "I" in worship leads us to a very personal expression. There are historical examples of this as well, such as, "Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine. O what a foretaste of glory divine."

The "We" dimension comes from all of us. "Our" is another pronoun that fit in this category, so an example of "We" (or, all of us singing together") in worship could be, "How great is our God. Sing with me, how great is our God."

As a songwriter, I balance toward the "We" side of the equation. I think there is a place in worship for personal expressions (and you'll find them in my music), but generally I want to acknowledge that we are a corporate gathering, literally one Body of Christ raising our voices together. I love that we (not just me) are singing.

Inclusive Language

There is a lot writen about inclusive language (especially in the last 40 years), but I do not intend to join a debate about this here. I can only share what inclusive language means for me as a songwriter.

As I interpret the history of the church and worship music, God has been referred to as He (the male pronoun) and Father exponentially more than other images, names or pronouns. I hope that my music can help expand our vocabulary and thinking around the God to Whom we sing. To do this, I try hard not to use "He" but rather clarify if we are singing about God or Jesus. When we get wishy-washy with language and pronouns, it can be easy to begin making statements that either don't make sense or aren't true. 

Why not use Father? Honestly, I have a friend who interrupts each sentence of prayer with "Father God." I love the guy, and maybe it's meaningful for him. For me, it feels automatic and limiting. Yes, God is referred to as Father in scripture and throughout church history. But again, I would love my music to be expanding our vocabulary and imagination about God.

Diverse Sounds of Worship

Especially in my tribe (the United Methodist Church) there is a wonderful emphasis that we are a global church. This connection with our sisters and brothers from other lands who use other languages and sounds is a great blessing.

As I'm preparing worship for gatherings large and small, it has been helpful for me to wrestle with how to provide a familiar language and sound to all the people gathered. Oftentimes that includes people whose first language isn't English and who embrace worship with very difference styles, sounds and approaches. This pushes and expands me, my faith, and our corporate worship.

As a songwriter, my sound and style fits into categories which aren't particularly global. I know that. I'm in the middle of several projects and trying to expand. And honestly, there are so few people in my little niche that it feels like someone has to do what I'm doing.

These are some of the dimensions and voices meaningful to me as a worship planner, songwriter and artist. I don't think there is one right or wrong way to sing or write when we're approaching worship. There are faithful disciples of Jesus worshiping, singing and writing songs from all of these perspectives and more.

So as a follow-up to Rev. Cooper's post, I would invite you to listen, plan, sing and write thoughtfully. As you're doing this, I'd also encourage you to look for songwriters and artists who are doing the work of wrestling and discerning with how to use new sounds of worship in a theologically responsible way. There are a few of us. I'd love to hear from you, and you can find more information on my website.

What other voices, dimensions and characteristics of worship music and lyrics are important to you?


Eric Drew is a worship leader, songwriter, coach and the Director of Worship for United Methodists of Greater New Jersey. . He is passionate about bridging the rich traditions of the church into a new generations, spaces, and sounds. In 2017 Eric released his first full-length album of worship music, Center of It All. More information is available at www.ericdrewmusic.com

Melissa CooperComment
Where is the "We" in worship?
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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:

INVITATION
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.
 
CONFESSION AND PARDON
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
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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?

[Generation Z]: The Next Civil Rights Leaders, Pt. 2

Be sure you didn't miss the first installment of this series by clicking here.


I am continually and simultaneously both completely surprised and entirely unsurprised when older generations comment on the shortcomings of the current generation of youth and children.

The explanation for it, though, is simple: they don't know them. If you haven't spent time with today's teenagers, I get it. In fact, most teenagers throughout history probably didn't look like they would amount to all that much.

There is plenty to be concerned about with this generation. Mounting pressures from parents and schools, skyrocketing rates of depression and suicide, issues of safety and security online. Plenty of issues.

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But I see a lot more hope than concern. And I see a lot of those issues being reduced if we build more intergenerational relationships (but that's also another blog post!). 

Today, I want to look at what we can know about this generation by looking at historical generational trends and generational theory. This is a little bit nerdier of a post than I usually put out there, but hang with me and I think you'l find some really interesting tidbits ...

In the early 90s, William Strauss and Neil Howe published the book that started it all, GenerationsTheir study produced a theory that throughout American history (and theoretically before), a consistent cycle of social moments, alternating between secular crises and spiritual awakenings, has produced a four-phase cycle of generational types. 

If that was a bunch of theoretical gobbledygook, I'll give you the most recent example. In the early 20th century, we had a social crisis - marked by major events like the Great Depression and World War I and II. Depending on what stage of life a generation is in during this social crisis, you can determine what generational type it is. The "Greatest Generation," which came of age during this social crisis, is what we call a "Civic" generation - one who ends up focusing on solving the issues through social change, developing new institutions, and doing whatever they need to to take down a whole bunch of Nazis. 

The generation who was born during this social crisis, the "Silent Generation," is known as an "Adaptive" generation. They benefit from the social response of the civic generation, and then build on it. Traditionally, Adaptive generations "grow up as overprotected and suffocated youths during a secular crisis; mature into risk-averse, conformist rising adults," and then they become "midlife arbitrator-leaders during a spiritual awakening." 

I won't bore you with the rest of the cycle today (contact me if you want to hear more about how this impacts your community and church), but what I want to point out is this: if trends continue, [Generation Z] is predicted to be an Adaptive generation. Our most recent Adaptives are the Silent Generation, and the Silent Generation pioneered the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th Century.

As these young people grow, they will not be satisfied with the status quo. But unlike Millennials who have been content to branch off and start their own communities and initiatives, [Gen Z] is likely to feel the need to change the entirety of society and prompt a new spiritual awakening, a new Civil Rights era. 

Currently, we're seeing Millennial/[Z] cuspers speaking out in the wake of the Parkland, FL school shooting. These young people have the entrepreneurial spirit of Millennials combined with the need for wholesale social change of the Adaptive [Generation Z]. Change is on the horizon, friends.

What will be interesting to see as these trends are proven true or bucked entirely (this is all simply a theory and does not reliably predict any outcomes), is how the trend toward shorter time frames between these social moments, and shorter generational turnings, will affect the development of these young generations, especially Millennials and [Generation Z].

So friends, what I want to offer you today is hope. A picture of the future that, if we take the rhythm of history seriously, gives us a bright picture of what these young people stand to accomplish for themselves and for society in the future.

Nothing is certain, but I believe if we give them our support now, and continue to be in relationship with them and help them develop, they will become our next Civil Rights leaders. They will lead us into a new era. I'm ready to follow.