I’ve learned a lot in the last few months, and as we transition into the season of Lent (a season of preparation leading up to Easter), this seems like a good time to pause and capture some of the things I’ve learned this year so far. Before I begin, let me define two terms:
When I use lower case “c” church, I mean our new worshipping community here in Bellingham.
When I use the upper case “C” Church, I mean the Church historic and universal.
Clear on that? OK, let’s go...
I’ve learned that when we create hospitality for people experiencing homelessness who are in a program of recovery, we cannot be hospitable to people who are experiencing on-the-street homelessness. The Lighthouse Mission Guests who have been coming to our worship services are in the most advanced clean and sober recovery programs, they have access to support, and they are working very, very hard. It’s not wise for them to spend a lot of time with people who are still in the midst of on-the-street homelessness, and making that distinction has been helpful for all of us. So when I write “homeless-in-recovery” you’ll know that I’m talking about people who are engaged in relationships and training that help them reengage with life.
I’ve learned more about how much architecture matters. Having a conversation with people who are different than me about the connection between architecture and worship has led us to start worshiping once a month at the chapel in Saint Paul’s Academy. There are three reasons why the Saint Paul’s Architecture has been a great fit for us First, the youth and the homeless-in-recovery folks in our community prefer to meet in a “traditional church architecture” building. They like the traditional architecture, as it helps them feel connected and included in the Church. I found that interesting, because me and my buddies really enjoy worshipping in my living room, and I think many church planting folks incorrectly assume that traditional church architecture is automatically alienating to people.
Second, we need a gym. Play is such an essential part of being human, and we need a space where we can get to know each other, connect with each other, and worship in ways that are native to youth.
Third, and not insignificantly, because I’ve been the Chaplain at Saint Paul’s Academy for the last three years, I already have the keys and the alarm code and everyone knows each other already. It’s one less “new thing” in a season full of new things. And the rent is super cheap.
I’ve learned that graphic designers are the storytellers of the current generation. Let me tell you a brief story: When we had a youth led worship service this summer, I wrote out the worship plan and it looked kinda like this:
I. Call to worship
IV. So on and so forth, you get the idea
After the service, the youth were disappointed that the service wasn’t more organic, they reflected that it felt stuffy and it felt like any other worship service except we were outside. And so when I inquired as to why that service (involved dinner, teenage music leaders and preachers, and scripture reading involving actual goats) felt stuffy and inorganic, their reply shocked me: The order of worship looked boring. They saw the order of worship in black and white, with Roman numerals, with weird terms like “order of worship” on it, and just basic terms for things, and they hated it.
Well, that’s an easy fix. We have an incredible graphic designer in our midst, and so now our our order of worship looks like this:
However, the connection between graphic design and storytelling is bigger than just a great looking worship plan. A friend of mine who is an advertising executive told it to me like this: "Matt, demonstration leads to engagement, and engagement leads to understanding, so if you want me to understand what your church is about, you have to demonstrate in a way that I can engage with.” Our worship plans need to tell the story of our worship time together in a way that people can engage with. So does our website (still working on that one). So does everything else.
In the last few months, as I’ve been more sensitive to listening to the connection between graphic design and storytelling, more than once I’ve heard people say that getting a graphic designer was a critical step for them to be able to tell the story of their company/nonprofit/church to their audience.
I’ve learned that we value active engagement and uncommon friendship. At a meeting in February, this church let me know that they didn’t like the structure very much. I had become so focused on our church’s mission being guided by the youth, the homeless-in-recovery, and the disabled, that I was inadvertently structuring the church in a way that kept people in their demographic bubbles. But I want to pop those bubbles.
Look, our current religious culture affirms that we will intimately and profoundly meet Jesus when we are in friendship and discipleship with people who are similar to us. And while this New Worshipping Community also considers this to be true, it’s only partially true. We also will intimately and profoundly encounter Jesus while in friendship and discipleship with people who are different than us. For us, uncommon friendship on the path of a common discipleship is a vital way that we worship Jesus.
And “active engagement” really matters. We’ve had preaching from teenagers:
We’ve had people writing songs for us to help connect to the Gospel:
When we needed ashes for the Ash Wednesday service, we lit a fire and burned the palms from last year’s Palm Sunday service:
And we happen to have some middle schoolers who are interested in learning how to cook as well:
Discipleship is going to be very, very hands on.
I’ve learned that we need to engage with questions that people are asking. In order to help everyone connect with a worship service, we’ve framed each one around a particular question. For example, during Ash Wednesday the question was “Where is Jesus when life is hard?” And the preacher for that service was one of our friends who’s experiencing homelessness and is doing incredible in recovery, and his story of finding Jesus in the broken places in life is incredible.
I’ve learned that we need space to connect at the end of each service. We added a small group discussion time after the sermon, so people could process some of what is happening during the service. I never thought of anything like this before, and I absolutely love it.
After the sermon, but before the last song, we get into small groups and engage more deeply with whatever the question is for that particular worship service. We get to hear and be heard, see and be seen, learn from each other, and pay attention to what God is doing in our lives.
I’ve learned that the rate of coherence for this group is going to be incredibly slow. There’s all sorts of cultural reasons why we don’t all naturally hang out with each other. And it’s going to take a long, long time for us to be formed into a community. Another opportunity for me to cultivate patience! Ahhh….
I’ve learned that the youth have a lot to teach all of us about Christian community. Do you ever feel like other people don’t understand you? Do you ever assume that your way is the best way, only to later discover you were wrong? Do you ever want to share deep, real, important things in your life with other people but don’t always know how? Becoming friends with people who are young is a great way to learn! Seriously, I’m a better friend to everyone because of my friendships with the youth.
I’ve learned that the homeless-in-recovery have a lot to teach us about how to lean on Jesus in the hard times. Do you struggle with anxiety? Are the hurts from your past sabotaging your life in the present? Do you have a family member who is making terrible decisions and don’t know what to do? Due to the very intense nature of their recovery, these friends of mine have a lot to offer anyone struggling with the broken places in their lives.
I’ve learned that people with disabilities can help us redeem our sense of time. Do you want to be more mindful, in the moment, and/or fully present? Are you constantly in a hurry and don’t know how to slow down, take a day off, or relax? Do you need constant entertainment, stimulation, or distraction? My friends with disabilities has a lot to offer anyone who have an unhealthy relationship with time.
And, of course, all these friendships are more multifaceted that what this email could encapsulate. I playfully described things in a utilitarian sort of way so that I could highlight that we experience Jesus when we pursue a common discipleship with uncommon friendships. And that is because it’s a friendship, which means it’s reciprocal, which means I receive from them. I know a lot of people who know what they want to give the homeless; I know a lot fewer people who know what they have to receive from people experiencing homelessness.
For your love, care, prayers, support, I am very grateful. Thank you.