It was through the course of our fundraising that I started to wonder if I really wanted to be a pastor; after all, the church wasn't exactly on top of things when it came to postmodernism, and besides, I was starting to wonder how much Christians in general actually cared about Jesus or what He had to say. Church started feeling a bit bitter to me, with every disappointment another confirmation that I might be barking up the wrong tree. But Ruth had the same discontent, and our church plant was the chance to do something about it.
So off we went. I had delusions of grandeur in my head, about how all my theories of postmodernism were going to come in handy, how I was the expert, yadda yadda yadda. Naturally, this was all obliterated in the first month when I realized that I had no clue what I was talking about. Theory is, after all, nice and tidy only until it's actually put into practice. So since I had the chance (how many times was I going to get to live in Australia?), I enrolled in the FORGE missional training program to get some perspective on Australian culture and maybe learn a few things about being a missionary at the same time.
It turned out to be a life-altering decision.
If you've never heard of FORGE, I'm not surprised - most Americans haven't. However, some of you may have read The Shaping of Things to Come, by Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost, both of whom happen to be the co-founders of the FORGE program (the book was actually written as a textbook for FORGE). In any case, FORGE is based on the principles of "action-reflection" learning, the opposite of most seminary educations. The idea is that one must participate in an internship as the cornerstone of the program and thus praxis, action, and activity are the basis for learning; one then reflects on the actions to garner the theory, which is then put into papers and then reapplied back into the internship. It is supposed to be a holistic model of education, and it seems to fare rather well.
I was placed in a social-poverty agency in the inner city called Urban Seed for my internship, which changed my perspective on a lot. In fact, what I hadn't expected was that the whole cross-cultural experience in the inner-city showed me more about being an American - and an American Christian in particular - than I learned about Australian culture. Take consumerism for example: we in the west, and especially in America, are prone to it because our culture is founded on acquisition. I was once asked if "Desperate Housewives" is what suburban life is like. I laughed it off as ridiculous and said no, but started to wonder how much of a charicature it really is. I wondered if our worship services hadn't become much the same, weekly (or more often, several times a week) performances to be consumed, dramatizing an otherwise mundane and selfish culture. In the first six months, this persuaded me that my dreams of being a worship pastor may have been misplaced, that maybe what American churches needed were not more worship pastors, but more people who were missionaries in their own culture, people who were more concerned with being a positive influence in their local communities in the name of Christ than with tauting the party line or overworking themselves to maintain their steady salary. Worship without relationship is meaningless.
The Gathering during lunch at Credo Cafe (part of Urban Seed) messed with me a lot. The lunch is a time for people of any stripe - housewives, prostitutes, lawyers, heroin addicts, and anyone in between - to gather together as one community for a meal and fellowship. Everyone learns an awful lot from each other, the ultimate liminal experience (as the sociologist says), and, for the most part, is better for it. But the Gathering is their once-a-week worship gig just before lunch, and everyone is invited to come. But let's face it, the group, while mostly artists, is not full of professional musicians. They take whoever they can get to lead singing, and to someone like me who had been usd to much more professional sounding music, it was ... harsh to the ears.
But it was also passionate in a way I'd never expected.
By the time we came home, I had no idea what to do with my life, once again. The Gathering made me wonder how necessary worship arts staff are in a church; if they could worship without the "show" part of it, maybe it wasn't something in which I should invest my time. The time at mimos, too, was a time of less-professional worship, a smaller community gathering in the back room of a pub and playing quiet, reflective music for singing, but also providing times of reflection over scripture and candlelight and holding communion as a meal bought from the pub. Let me tell you, they had wonderful french fries and a fantastic Kangaroo dish that melted in my mouth. I've missed it since I've been home. The community was genuine - everyone wanted to be there and felt no obligation to it; people even volunteered to pray on a regular basis, negotiating with others for the chance. With a church like that, who needed all those paid positions? Worship was as much participation as it was singing, and the dawning realization made me frustrated with my chosen career path.
But seminary still seemed important for some reason, if only because I had no clue what to do next. If anything, at the very least it meant I'd be able to influence people in the church because I had "MDiv" on my resume, and, after all, people listen to other people who have that sort of thing. Naive, I know, but it was my first ESJ class that began to get me thinking again. On a whim, I took a class called "The Change Agent in Missions" with a professor named Mike. Mike is an anthropologist, a student of humanity through the ages, but more importantly, he's also a missionary. Mike talked a lot about culture, about how we view culture, how we participate in culture, and finally, how we change culture. But his views on this were once again participatory - we are to change culture from within, as "change agents", rather than as outside directors. We are to be with the people, living as they live, eating as they eat, but using our growing understanding to show them in terms they understand how their decisions could be better. His rationale? Jesus was like that.
What if worship was like that?
(to be continued ...)