What I shared at Wild Goose Festival (2): 4 Chairs

During these dangerous and divided times, it’s hard to know how to be church. At my Sunday morning talk at the Wild Goose Festival, I used four chairs to symbolize four ways of being church in this “apocalypse” – not the literal end of the world (although I worry when I think about who has the nuclear codes …), but the “unveiling” of what has really been going on in this world all along.

  1. Complicit Church: Through complicit silence or active collaboration, many, perhaps most churches, will fail to respond to these times with courage and grace. They will either actively support or tacitly approve of the resurgence of White Christian Nationalism that threatens our country. They will similarly be complicit in the actions of a corrupt, dishonest, kleptocratic demagogue and his party. Some will claim moral superiority – “We’re not political” – not realizing that their silence on issues that matter represents the same cruel politics that stood idly by during centuries of Christian anti-semitism, the genocide of Native Americans through the colonial project of the conquistadors, the enslavement of African Americans, the apartheid of Jim Crow and mass incarceration, and so on.
  2. Walking-on-Eggshells Church: Church leaders whose conscience won’t allow them to sit in Chair 1 may choose to gently, subtly, gingerly, and almost imperceptibly nudge things in the right direction, but they will do so with such timidity and fear of offending a few major donors that their efforts will exhaust them and contribute little of value in these dangerous times. They address injustice with thick velvet gloves of generality and ambiguity and observe codes of silence by never mentioning realities that might offend and actually confront injustice.
  3. Holding the Tension Church: Leaders who hold the tension learn to self-differentiate and become the moderators of needed conversations in the Christian community. They break the codes of silence, and they define the “rules of engagement” (beyond civil discourse to loving discourse) and “acceptable disagreement.” In so doing, they call people to a deeper Christian commitment. For example, they might say, “We can have legitimate disagreement on the best way to deliver health care to people in need, but there is no room for discussion on the matter of whether we should care and act, since we follow Jesus, a man who spent his life providing free health care for all, beginning with the poor, the harassed, and the helpless.” This space is not easy. But people who learn to hold the tension and create the space for needed conversation will play a key role in healing our nation, as they learn to mend the divisions in their own congregations. Mickey ScottBey Jones shared about The People’s Supper – something “Holding the Tension” churches could sponsor to help make a difference. (Kaitlin Curtice wrote helpfully about “holding the space” here.)
  4. Seizing the Moment/Building Momentum Church: These churches see in the danger and crisis of this moment an opportunity for Christians to rediscover Jesus’ actual message and mission, and they determine to align everything in light of it – message, liturgy, structure, schedule, everything. After they align, they activate and accelerate engagement … and so become part of the solution rather than party to the problem. (This, I propose, is a good definition of evangelism – inviting people to stop being part of the problem so they can become part of the solution, namely, joining God in the healing of the world, beginning with themselves.) Mickey closed the session with her beautiful benediction, Brave Space. 

We ran out of time before I got to mention that if your congregation is stuck in the first two chairs and you have nowhere else to go, you can form a cohort within your church (with permission if possible, without if necessary) where you can simply practice living and serving as you wish your whole church would. As my friend Richard Rohr says, the best critique of the bad is the practice of the better.

Our session was enriched beyond words (literally) by the music of my dear friend Ken Medema, a musician who plays like a magician. What a gift to be on stage with Ken and Mickey! Thanks to both of them.

If you would like to see what I am involved with to help churches and cohorts move to the third and fourth chairs, please check out Convergence Leadership Project. You might want to apply immediately – we’re starting August 1 (although you can join September 1 too.)