Thursday, May 31, 2007

Interview with Relevant

I was asked to answer some questions for a leadership newsletter, and it seemed appropriate to place it here on the church blog since the answers have to do with us, and how do things at The Gathering. So here it is:

The church you pastor recently sponsored an event that featured, among others, Tony Jones and Jay Bakker. Can you tell us what the vision of the seminar was?

We have seen a growing number of people who identify with God, but struggle with organized Christianity. Among non-Christians - particularly Neo-Pagans, which Salem is famous for, God is an easy topic of discussion, but once organized religion enters the dialogue there is often little positive they have to say about it. Jesus has a good reputation among the people we know, but the Institutional Church has a bad reputation. Recognizing that this appears to be a trend in our society, we developed the seminar to speak to the issue, to hear from people who typically dislike church in order to find out why, and to discuss how we might make the discovery of God easier for people who don't like church. We expect that this seminar was the first of many on this topic.

The topic of the seminar was "God: For People Who Hate Church." What was it about those speakers specifically that made them a good fit?

Jay Bakker has a strange and difficult history with the highest levels of American Pentecostal and Evangelical Christianity. As a young boy his parents became the central focus of one of America's largest religious scandals. Despite this history he has navigated his way back to God, and even into ministry. His history, and the fact that he holds church in bar in New York City were tailor made for the topic.

Tony Jones has been a pivotal voice in the Emergent Conversation. That conversation began as a consideration of the cultural shift in Western society, and a concern that the church had done little to respond to the transformation occurring. Youth were dropping out of church, and message of the Gospel appeared to be couched in a style and in terms reminiscent of the 50's. His work in thinking through this issue, and being a voice for change made him a perfect fit for the conference.

Our third speaker, Jim Henderson from (of the atheist who sold his soul on e-bay fame), was the motivating factor for getting the conference started. Jim was in the area for the dates of the conference, and from there we put it all together. Jim teaches evangelical Christians to share their faith without loosing their reputation - or at least that's my version of what he does so well.

Karen Ward from the Apostles' Church in Seattle was also at the conference, and joined us for an open discussion on rethinking the way we "do church." Her unique style of doing church as a celebration (or as she calls it a "party") of life, and of the liturgical year was a refreshing new way to view church life.

You've personally been involved with some unique outreach. How did you become involved with reaching out to the Pagan community of Salem?

We moved from Southern California 8 years ago to plant a church in Salem, MA. The two most famous things for which Salem is noted are Witches, and Halloween. I knew that I needed a missional response to these people called Witches, and to the month-long season of Halloween in Salem.

Having been active in missions to non-Christian religions for 20 years, I understood the basic beliefs of American Neo-Pagans, but I wanted to understand their culture - how they thought, and how they lived, and so I embarked on an anthropological study of Witches, Wiccans, Druids, and assorted occultists, and what I discovered was that I had been wrong concerning a number of assumptions we Christians believe about this misunderstood demographic.

Once we moved to Salem we determined to treat Neo-Pagans like any other people group, and give them the basic respect due to everyone. I hate to admit that this was unique for an evangelical church to treat Witches like they were regular people created in God's image, but it was apparently a new approach in our city. I suspect this might be true in most American cities. But, we stuck to the plan, and simply treated Witches with the same respect we give everyone else, and consequently have developed good friends among Salem's Neo-Pagan population.

We also decided that instead of gathering in the church during the Halloween season, we would take our faith to the streets in the form of a party. Salem was already an enormous Halloween party, so we decided to create a party within that party. It started off with a little favor from the city leaders, and since that time has grown to 7 days of live music, a children's day with 2,000-3,000 in attendance, 10,000 cups of free hot cocoa, a variety of workshops, and ministry tents offering spiritual counseling to thousands of people each October. This Halloween outreach has grown exponentially in the last 8 years, and has become a training ground for people interested in learning to minister in post-modern, and Neo-Pagan contexts.

Note: For anyone who would like to join us for our outreach during Halloween, we have a week long training experience in postmodern and Neo-Pagan outreach. click here for more info.

Your ministry has drawn some criticism. Were you surprised at the negative feedback from some of your peers who said you crossed the line?

Yes and no.

No, we were not surprised, because I remarked early in our move to Salem, that it would not be the Witches who would cause us trouble, but Christians. Like Jesus, Who was not persecuted by unbelievers, but by the religious leaders, we anticipated anger and misunderstanding from certain Christian circles. I assumed Witches would be pleasantly appreciative to be treated like real people instead of enemies. I also assumed that many Christians would be fearful, and perhaps even superstitious about being around Witches, and this turned out to be true.

Yes, we were surprised, because our biggest troubles came from our former denomination. They supported our vision, and even gave us a significant grant to increase our outreach to the Neo-Pagan community, but when one of the denominational leaders falsely accused us of aberrant practices, they refused to listen to our side of the story, and kicked us out. Everyone who visited our church and our outreaches thought we did a great job, and effectively preached the Gospel. Our accusers had never even visited us, and made assumptions off hearsay.

Right now there are lots of books and resources for people interested in church growth, technology and church and even church marketing-topics centered around reaching people who are unchurched. Generally, there aren't too many that discuss connecting people who "hate church." How has this message been received?

We have had almost unanimously positive responses both locally, and from afar, among Christians, and those who do not follow Jesus. The conference was generally understood to be a discussion about re-visioning the manner in which we gather in our pursuit of God, and finding ways to make God relevant to our society.

For pastors and leaders who want to reach communities in their areas that contain people that do "hate church," how do you recommend connecting with them and telling them about God?

Hang out where they hang out. Find out what they like to do, and go do it with them. Find ways to serve people outside the church walls, and make yourself available for community events.

We bought a trailer, and filled it with a sound system, outdoor chairs, tents, a helium tank, and other party supplies. When the city needs extra help at events they call us to run sound and live music, put up tents and chairs, paint children's faces, and give away balloons.

We have held events such as our philosophy discussion group which we call the Dead Philosopher's Society. We have $1 Movie Nights in the church and show old movies.

We run an online discussion called Circle and Cross Talk between Neo-Pagans and Christians, but we do not allow either Pagans or Christians to get preachy. People are allowed to share their beliefs in a safe environment. We have even held live Circle and Cross Talk gatherings.

We open the doors of our meeting place for free Dream Interpretation times, and like Daniel seek to speak into people's lives through their dreams. We by no means assume every dream is from God, but we have discovered that God is both wooing, and warning people today through their dreams. We also offer times for confessions, and we do the confessing - apologizing for the sins of the church through the ages (a la Don Miller), and even for our own failure to live like Christ. These ministries have helped to pave the way for people who normally distrust churches to identify with us in a positive way.

These types of outreach will not work in every community. Salem is unique. Yet there are creative ways to reach every community, and a little listening can go a long way in learning about people.

What's the biggest challenge in going into communities that "hate church"?


Christian leaders are the biggest challenge. We do silly things like assume that if people avoid church they must also hate God, or are uninterested in spirituality. We hang out our shingle, or throw our little Christian parties, and expect people to show up. We have developed ways of doing church which may work for some people, but are uninteresting, or even offensive to others. Instead of changing our style of gathering for those who don't appreciate our Christian culture, we change our style of music, and expect that to be the answer.

Our inability to adapt to another culture makes us the biggest challenge in connecting with those who dislike church.

A lot of up-and-coming pastors and leaders are truly interested in being missional and creating culturally-relevant ministry. What's your advice to them?

Listen to the people you want to touch. Learn how they feel about Christianity, and why they feel that way. Don't become quickly defensive, and jump to the rescue of the Church. Many people have legitimate complaints, and their voices can be valuable guides in helping you adapt your outreach to their needs, and their spiritual passions. This does not mean changing the Gospel message, but it may mean adapting our style of gathering, and our vocabulary.

If you come into contact with people who are part of a NRM (New Religious Movement), or are involved in the occult do not consider them as enemies to your faith. Treat them with the same respect you would give anyone else. You may end up being surprised to find that they are as normal as you - maybe even more so, since they aren't waiting for some guy on a white horse to come riding out of the sky like we are. ;-)

Find out what people like to do, where they like to go, and find a way to join them, and serve them there. It usually works well to find a need and fill it. We saw that people were attending city events in the park like the Chowder Fest, and the Ice Cream Social, and they had no place to sit, and there was no music. We offered the use of our $5 plastic outdoor chairs (we have 100), and our sound system. People loved having a place to sit, and we helped make the city look good. This kind of service is a win-win situation.

Don't be afraid to serve alongside the people who dislike church. Neo-Pagans have helped us set up for events. I have an atheist friend who helps run our movie nights, and is my sci-fi trivia expert for the times we do sci-fi series. Musicians who are not Christians, and do not like church help provide entertainment on our stage during October. These things have helped us to gain a good reputation among the people who do not attend church in Salem.

But of course...expect a few critics.


mo said...

Great, great article.

Like you we are also planting a church in a very neo-pagan, witch heavy area, Ellicott City, Maryland...probably the only city on the East coast that comes close to Salem. We're just in the second year of our plant, so it's nice to read this article and get some encouragement. Maybe we'll have to come up and visit your Halloween festival.

thanks again

Pastor Phil said...

Hey Mo,

Sounds like I need ot come visit you as well. We'd love to have you up for Halloween.

Agent B said...

Great interview, Phil. You so excellently put into words the overall feelings and experiences I have about church.


Pastor Phil said...

Yeah, I wish you were in Salem B-man.