Anna Radcliffe interviews Fuller Theological Seminary professor Scott Cormode on why the key to the future of church and to faith amid a pandemic may be embracing a spiritual practice from our biblical past: lament.
Full interview text
Hi, friends! I’m Anna Radcliffe, coordinator of Next Generation Engagement for the Reformed Church in America. There is no doubt about it, we are in a crazy season of ministry. My hunch is that by now you’ve established new rhythms of worshiping, stepping into places like Facebook Live, Instagram Live, Zoom.
But where do we go from here? How do we position ourselves as communities faithfully serving and loving the people around us during this time: as people lose their jobs and loved ones, as fear and anxiety continue to pulse through our own lives and those near to us? How are we as people of faith called to live into the tension of this already, but not yet season? I believe we’re invited into a posture of lament. In this inaugural podcast hosted by the Reformed Church in America, we’ll hear stories of lament to help. We’ll hear from ministry leaders and practitioners. We’ll hear more about what is lament? How do we lament? And why is it that lament is so important for us as people of faith, as well as communities of faith?
Anna Radcliffe: Thank you for joining us here today. My guest with me is Scott Cormode. He is the Hugh De Pree professor of leadership development at Fuller Theological Seminary and the director of the Innovation for Vocation project. He is also the author of a new book, Innovative Church: How Leaders and Their Congregations Can Adapt. Scott, thank you so much for joining me today. It is so good to be with you.
Scott Cormode: Good to be here.
Anna: So Scott, you know, we just kind of want to start off talking about your newest book, Innovative Church. You’ve been working with congregations and leaders to help them understand the necessity for innovative change. Can you talk a little bit about like, why did you write the book? What were you seeing? What were you hearing from church leaders?
An unchanging gospel to present to an ever-changing culture
Scott: Sure. The place to start is where the book begins. The book begins with this idea. The church as we know it is calibrated for a world that no longer exists. All the things that we do, all the things that we think of what it means to be church were constructed in the mid-20th century, at times when the world has changed significantly. And so many of the questions that people are asking, are not the questions that we are answering. What ends up happening is it’s almost like we continue dancing to a song that is stopped playing. We’re out of step with the questions that people are answering. The way that I that I think about it, is that we need to be able to find a way to do two things. We have to be able to maintain a rock solid commitment to the unchanging Christian gospel while at the same time create innovative and entrepreneurial ways to present that gospel to an ever-changing culture. So we want an unchanging gospel that we can present to an ever-changing culture. And the way that we do that is we’ve worked with congregations to help reinvent Christian practices for the contemporary world. We look at the needs of the world and we say, the Christian practices that we’ve been engaged in for 2,000 years, what do they look like in the contemporary world? We ended up testing this process with about 100 congregations from around the country, and ended up rewriting the process based on what we learned from them. And the result is the book that you have before you.
Anna: Wow. So, you know, can you talk a little bit about some of those categories? You know, we look at 2,000 years of church history. What are some of those categories that you selected for congregations to process?
Scott: Sure. There are Christian practices that we’ve been engaged in that define what it means to be Christian. There is never a time when we have been Christian and we have not engaged in prayer. There is never a time that Christians have gathered together where they don’t worship. There is never a time when Christians have gathered together we don’t practice testimony, or hospitality, or generosity, or lament.
Anna: So a lot of it is really just kind of looking back historically and recognizing: these are the consistent principles and helping churches unpack those principles.
Leadership, longings, and losses
Scott: Well, actually, what ends up happening is it’s not as much looking back historically, it’s looking at the needs of the moment. Where do we begin? You begin with this idea that leadership begins with listening. We tend to think that the stereotype of a leader is a leader who speaks. And of course leaders speak. But leadership begins with listening. We listen to the people that are entrusted to our care. Christian leaders don’t have followers. Jesus has followers. Christian leaders instead have people that are entrusted to our care. These are people who already belong to God, and God entrusts them to our care. And as we listen to them, we listen to the things that matter most. We listen to the things that keep them awake at night.
You know, that moment when you lay in bed, and all of the needs of the day, all of the questions of the day, all your hopes, all your dreams, all that comes rushing in? If we can listen to people and know what those moments are, what will happen is we’ll recognize that every one of our people is experiencing the kinds of things that we’ve described for hundreds of years as the human condition. I don’t call it the human condition in the book. I talk about our longings and losses, the things that every human being longs for; things like good life and health for our children, care for our aging parents, we want to be able to be successful in what we do, we want to be able to have friends and to have a sense of identity and to be part of community. We have all these things that we long for. And we have all these losses. So we have longings and we have losses: things that are basic to human life that we can’t quite get. When we experience sickness, when we experience wealth, what are we going through right now with all this COVID? All these things that we take for granted we’re experiencing as loss.
And so where does leadership begin? It begins with listening to those longings and losses. And then we ask, how does Christianity respond? Because I would argue that the gospel is God’s response to the human condition. Then we ask, how have churches for hundreds and hundreds of years responded to all of these things of the human condition. We have certain Christian practices that we have always engaged in. And as we engage in those practices, as we do those things, we discover that they are the response to the things that keep people awake at night. The Christian gospel doesn’t need to be reinvented. The gospel itself is the response to the human condition. But how we present that gospel has to change. Let me give you an example of that everyone will recognize. We all recognize that once upon a time, churches worshiped using things like Gregorian chants. I’m guessing most of the churches that are listening, they don’t spend their time performing chants. They do other kinds of things. We have other kinds of worship. We have reinvented worship. The songs that we sing, for example, are an expression of the Christian practice of worship. The songs can be reinvented, the way we go about worship can be reinvented, but the very practice of worship—every church, and every time, in every place has engaged in worship. It’s part of who we are. So there are things that can be reinvented to respond to the ever-changing culture. And there are things that must absolutely, positively remain the same. Because they’re a part of the never-changing gospel. We will always worship, but we will find new and creative ways to worship, as everyone in the last couple of months has discovered.
Anna: Yeah, right. Right. Yeah. I mean, I’m just reminded so much of the amount of grief and anxiety that our leaders are already voicing. You know, you’ve mentioned leadership begins with listening. And so for the leaders that are looking at sort of responding to the present needs, and stepping into those places, you know, one of the Christian practices is lament. And so how might church leaders, spend time, we’re past Easter, we’re just past Easter, and so typically, we’re stepping into this season of celebration and enthusiasm. But culturally, we’re in a really hard time. What is it look like for church leaders to practice lament, to pick that up and to really step into it innovatively?
Praying the psalms of lament
Scott: So what I would suggest is that every church needs to be able to teach its people to pray, teaches people to talk to God, the way the psalms talk to God. The psalms are our model for how we should talk to God. And if you look at the psalms, a very, very large number of them are psalms of lament. How do you know what those psalms are? They’re the ones that they typically don’t read in our churches. And the message of the psalms of lament is that God can handle your honesty, even and especially if you are angry at God. One of my colleagues here at Fuller is an Old Testament scholar named John Goldengate, probably one of you know, if there are five best Old Testament scholars in the world, he’s on that list. I mean, he’s phenomenal. But when he talks about lament, he said, what lament means is when God’s people are invited to shake their fist at God and say, God, you promised it wouldn’t be this way. We are used to authority figures who can’t handle our honesty. We have to tiptoe around them when we are angry. We have to gently bring stuff up because they might get offended. But the last thing we want to them to do is to know what we honestly think. The psalms of lament give us a language that God invites us to say, kinds of things that we would look at our churches and go: You can’t talk to God that way. But I’m just praying what the way the psalms of lament pray.
Let me give you an example. My very favorite psalm turns out to be some of lament, and I didn’t know it. The reason I didn’t know it is because my church when I was growing up, edited it, and they gave me the sanitized version, the non-lament version. My favorite psalm is Psalm 139. Psalm 139 talks about how God has known us forever. I’m fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are thy works, and my soul knows it very well. Fourteen, eighteen verses of just celebrating how well God knows us. And there is such an intimacy with that. And then there’s two verses we always skip. And then at the end of it, it says, search me, O God, and know my heart and try my anxious thoughts. See if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in your blessing. Well, I love that. I love that. It turns out the entire point of the psalm is the two verses that we skip. The first 18 verses say, God, you know me better than I know myself. So I might as well just be honest with you. And then it says in verse 18, oh, that you would slay the wicked. The psalmist is saying, I want you to kill people for me. Not just you would slay the wicked. I have names. The whole message of the psalm is three parts: 18 verses of God, you know me better than I know myself, I might as well be honest with you; I want you to kill people for me; if that’s not right, fix me, search me, O God and know my heart, see if there be any hurtful way in me and lead me in your everlasting way.
That we don’t typically think of lament as simply, we think of lament as crying out to God in anger, but sometimes it’s just rash honesty. And we take the intimacy of that psalm, the intimacy of the psalm is God, you know me better than I know myself. I can just be utterly honest with you. I have something I want you to do that I’m not entirely sure is right. I’m just going to tell you what it is. And then I’m going to ask you to fix me if it’s wrong. There is such a rawness to that. It’s when you’re laying in bed at night, and you fantasize about how you want the world to be. You think I can’t tell anybody these kinds of things. The message of the psalms of lament is bring them to God, bring them to God. The message of the psalms of lament is that God can handle your honesty, even if you’re angry at God. And you know, look at Jesus, Jesus on the cross. One of the last things that Jesus says on the cross is My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? And, you know, when I was growing up, I read that, and I thought Jesus was asking a philosophical question. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized he was quoting Psalm 22:1. And you and I know that if you want to quote a song, sometimes you just say the first line of it, you know—Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound—and I’ve invoked the whole song without having time to actually say the whole thing. Well, read Psalm 22. It’s crying out to God: God, why is this happening to me? My body is being poured out like water. My bones are being ground up. People cast lots for me, all this kind of stuff; but at the same time it says, but God, I will continue to trust you.
It is a way of saying to God two things at once. God, I’m angry at you, and God, I continue to trust you. Think of the intimacy of that. We only have that kind of intimacy in our lives with people we really, really trust. Our churches keep God at arm’s length if we don’t allow ourselves to speak honestly to God. So we need this language of lament for right now. And we discovered a number of congregations that were practicing lament in new and creative ways.
Anna: So, I mean, in some ways, like for congregations that have been keeping God at arm’s length because they politely want to just have a very boxed-in faith, not boxed-in, but a very boxy faith that that is manageable and navigating, this is an invitation to get messy, to get gritty. You know, when you think about congregations that have started this or have tried this, you know, I can imagine that there’s a sort of a breaking down or a dismantling of a common narrative. Can you talk a little bit about some of the ways that congregations have just stepped into lament, knowing that their people are uncomfortable, knowing that this is a very vulnerable place to begin, and I’m looking at kind of the current climate of culture today, and how can we not start from a place of vulnerability and, you know, kind of frustration with God for a pandemic that’s existing.
Examples of churches using lament
Scott: So I’ll give you like four really quick examples of congregations that are using lament in creative ways.
One congregation is in urban Chicago. And what they’re doing is they’re saying that we’re going to teach our people to pray the way the psalms talk to God. And so each week as part of their worship service, they have a piece of lament. And for the first many weeks that they did it, all they did was laments that were from the psalms. And each part of their service also has places where they cry out to God in worship, and they use that from the psalms. But nobody can complain if you bring psalms into worship. No one’s going to say, Oh, no, no, no, no, no, you can’t talk to God that way. You’re literally speaking words that God has invited in the psalms. And so they get their people used to it just by using those kinds of psalms. And then, over time, they allow people to, they modeled them by writing up some new psalms, or writing up new ways of lament, and then eventually got their people to lament on their own. So that’s one church.
Another church is a church in Colorado. And what they did is they were working with young people. And so what they did is they built themselves a little Wailing Wall. They took Styrofoam blocks, and they painted them brown. And then they gave their people, every Wednesday night, they gave them small slips of paper and little golf pencils, and said, you can write whatever you want to God. And you just need to know two things. One is God will accept it. And number two, we will take these out, and we will use them to pray. We will not hold them against you. We will just use them to pray. And so you will not be alone. And the message they had is God can handle your honesty, and so can we. That became so effective that the adults in the church found out about it, and they said, can we bring this into the worship service for adults.
Anna: So classic. We want to play too!
Scott: Exactly, exactly. Because we want that level of intimacy. It’s intimacy with God, and it’s knowing that if I pour out my heart, there are other Christians who will come alongside me.
Another congregation is a congregation in Florida. And what they did is they were working with middle schoolers. And one of the things they learned is, is that if you studied Scripture, you discover that they do something called form criticism where there’s a structure like a form letter, you know, we have letters of start out, you know, “Dear Anna,” and that end with “Sincerely.” Well, if you got a letter from your bank that said, “Dear Anna,” and then it ended within “Sincerely,” you wouldn’t say to yourself, oh my goodness, my bank thinks I am dear. And then they said it was sincerely. Wow, I must be cherished by my bank. You understand that the form communicates something. Well, the psalms, especially psalms of lament are written in a form or structure. And that communicates something, and the most important part of it is it includes both a complaint and a statement of trust. Well, in Florida, this youth minister decided that what she was going to do was to use a Mad Lib structure. You remember Mad Libs from elementary school where you fill in something where it says, you know, fill in a verb, and you said drive, and they put a sentence and it all turns out to be very funny. Well, what she would say is she took the parts of lament, and a structure of it, and she gave them short sentences. God, I am angry because… God, I will trust you, even if I’m angry because… And let middle schoolers write up whatever they needed to be able to write. And they did it in a structure that said, God I still trust you.
A final example is the weekend before all of this COVID stuff broke. But there was that week where at the beginning of the week, we thought things were going to be normal. And by the end of the week, our church services were canceled, and things would never be the same again. Well, the weekend before that, we hosted an Innovation Summit at Fuller Seminary. And one of the congregations we were working with was a megachurch in the south. And they decided that what their young adults needed more than anything was lament. So they went back to their congregation, and they said, we want to make lament a part of our ongoing process, or they proposed something. Well, in this large church, if you try something new like that, there’s all sorts of hoops you’ve got to jump through. And so what they told folks is, you may schedule this for next fall, tentatively, but we still have to approve it. So it was, you know, months and months away. Two weeks later, I talked to them on a Zoom call to do some coaching with them, and they said, so our senior leadership would come back to us, and we’ve decided that we’re starting this project Friday. In other words, all of this stuff about lament, what happened is the young adults that came in and were part of this Innovation Summit, went back and started telling all their friends, I need this lament right now. I need this right now. And they would cry out to God, and it became kind of viral; it started spreading within their congregation. And once it started spreading, no pun intended, once it started spreading, what ended up happening is that the senior leaders said, I guess we should be calling for this. We need lament. And so they went, and they asked their leaders, can you construct something that two weeks ago that the leaders didn’t realize was controversial and difficult and now was needed and immediate. We have to be able to cry out to God, and we need to be able to provide our people a way to cry out to God. We need to be able to talk to God the way the psalms talk to God.
Anna: Wow. Wow. I mean, just, I can’t even imagine what a whirlwind that congregation was experiencing. I mean, what a beautiful testament of how the Spirit was blowing in that that community. You know, I’m aware, I think when I first heard about lament, as a church leader, I was definitely uneasy about what does it mean to open up this kind of honesty and vulnerability for people? What a gift and what a hard thing to carry alongside of people. I’ve heard you share a little bit about kind of the faith trajectory of how lament works in a corporate body. Can you just share, I mean, if you’re going to convince the most skeptical of pastors, what does that look like? And how does that kind of impact the life path or life journey of that congregation.
Scarcity and abundance
Scott: So let me give you a kind of a structure that I work with in how I see a number of these practices working together. I still believe leadership begins with listening. We just, you know, they are not our people, they belong to God. And God has said over and over again that the thing that we know most about God is God invites us to pray, God invites us to speak. And if we’re going to lead our people, following God who listens, then we must be able to listen. So listening, if we’re going to listen, one of the things we have to listen for is loss. And if we’re listening for loss, we have to give our people a chance to lament because the appropriate biblical response to loss is lament. We don’t just stay there. Eventually, we go from listening to lament to gratitude and then to generosity and to joy. So, from listening, to loss, to lament, to gratitude, to generosity, to joy. And the really difficult move is the move from lament to gratitude.
I would argue that this is what Walter Brueggemann calls the move from scarcity to abundance. He gives the example of the children of Israel wandering in the wilderness, and God has provided manna for the children of Israel. And here’s the question: is manna enough? Well, depends on enough for what? Is it enough to survive? Is it enough for today? Yes. Well, if that’s the case, then God has provided abundance. Is it enough to be independent of God and to have things enough so that you no longer have to depend on God? Well, no, it’s not. So that’s scarcity. And the people of Israel, the children of Israel wandering in the wilderness, took God’s abundance when it was enough for today and experienced it as scarcity, because it wasn’t enough to be independent of God. And I have to recognize that that is a very, very common thing in my life. I will take the things that God offers me. And I will, instead of seeing them as enough for today, and I will treat them as if they are scarcity, because I want to have enough that I’m no longer dependent on God. And in this moment, this COVID moment, do I have enough that I, what does community look like? Do I have enough community? Do I have enough care? Do I have enough all these things in my life? Probably. Do I have enough that I’m independent of God? Probably not. And at the same time, God has given us gifts that we have undervalued. For example, the gift of community. I think of my own congregation, oftentimes koinonia—connection, community—often means that after church, we stand around drinking coffee and ask each other how are you doing? And the answer is fine. And we all feel good about it. And we go home, and we never have the kind of interconnectedness that koinonia requires. Well, so we are unpracticed at this moment when all of a sudden we all need koinonia. We think, Oh, no, we have to reinvent it, because we haven’t been practicing. Well, it’s an opportunity then. It’s an opportunity to say, apparently there is something that we have all needed that we have not pursued properly. Let’s go ahead and reinvent koinonia for this for this contemporary moment.
Anna: Wow. Wow. Yeah. I mean that kind of opens up the invitation then, I mean for pastors who are thinking about beginning a process like this. You said leadership begins with listening, and you’re listening to your people’s longing and losses. You know, I think about how hard it is for a leader who is stuck, who feels stuck. What does it look like then to begin to listen to people, when not only did they feel stuck, but now they’re having to reinvent the wheel. You know, how would you suggest those leaders begin?
Five questions for leaders to ask
Scott: Sure. I have five questions that I ask leaders to follow. What that does is it’s supposed to be a way of getting unstuck. When we’re stuck what we want is positive options. We want basically choices that we can make to say we’re actually accomplishing something. We don’t actually want guarantees that it will all work. We just want to be able to make progress and be unstuck.
So the first question is, who are the people entrusted to your care? Is it just your congregants? Is it the people that are in your neighborhood? Is it, I was having a conversation recently with a pastor who was saying, well, this moment, this COVID moment, has forced me to ask who are the people entrusted to my care in my congregation, because for the last year, we’ve been working so hard on bringing in young adults and people who are not 75 years old, because we’ve had an older congregation, and we want to be intergenerational. But at this very moment, the people that are most vulnerable are the people who are 75 years old. And so it forced me to go back and ask myself who are the people entrusted to my care? First question: What people are entrusted to your care?
Second question is: How do they experience the longings and losses of the human condition? You can imagine a young family that has three kids at home and not in school right now, and two parents who are trying to work, and the two dogs, and all the chaos of the moment. That’s a completely different set of longings and losses than someone I was talking to yesterday, who lives by himself. And he lives in a retirement community, and the retirement community is terrified that COVID will come to them. And so they’re telling everyone just to stay in their home. So once a week, he sees the guy who delivers groceries. And once a week, he sees one family from his congregation. And that’s it. Well, you can imagine there’s a completely different set of longings and losses and loneliness and all of that that goes completely different than the chaos for this other family. My job is to ask: Who are the people who entrusted to my care and how did they experience longings and losses? And I’ve got to then understand them differently.
The third question is: What is the big lie that people believe? Because every one of us believe big lies that prevent us from hearing the message of the gospel. You know, one of the big lies that people often believe is regarding lament that we were just talking is, if I talk honestly to God, God won’t like me. Because the big lie is God is like every other authority figure I’ve ever known. God can’t handle the truth.
Anna: God will fire me.
Scott: God will fire me. God won’t like me. God will use God’s power against me. And that’s why Psalm 139 is so great for me. The whole point is, I can’t lie to you, so I might as well just be honest. I got nothing to lose here because you already know what I’m about. You know, there’s a there’s a whole level. So the third question is, what are the big lies?
The fourth question is: How do we make spiritual sense of their longings and losses? So for example, I was talking to somebody recently who was experiencing a great deal of fear about this COVID moment. And they were saying, God, you promised you would be with me. God, you promised the community faith would be with me, and I feel so very alone. God invites you to say that to God. And we’re like, no, no, no God can’t handle that. And we talked through it, and we practiced it. And now before they can go any further, they have to be able to say that to God. And then the next step for them is to be able to work with their church to figure out what would community look like in this moment? I saw yesterday, some 83-year-old people trying to figure out how to use Zoom for the first time. We had a connection of group small connection to our church, and all the rules of Zoom etiquette were out the window for them. They kept touching the screen and talking to each other. Who’s that person there again? And it was great. It was. I have no problem with that, because what’s going to happen over time, is they’re now going to find ways to connect with. So the fourth ways, how do you make spiritual sense?
And then the fifth question is: How do you express that as a shared story of Christian hope? Because ultimately, your story and my story has to be weaved together with a biblical story to create a shared story of future hope. So, there are five different sets of questions you can be asking yourself. And once you begin to ask yourself those questions, you have handholds. I can’t climb the mountain for you, but we can provide you handholds that will allow you to be able to climb the mountain together.
Anna: Scott, thank you so much. Friends, again, Scott is the author of Innovative Church: How Leaders and Their Congregations Can Adapt. This has just been one Christian principle—lament—that we’ve unpacked. If you are interested in learning more about his book, you can pre-order it on Amazon. But it is set to drop in September. Scott, thank you so, so much. It’s great to be with you.
Scott: Thanks a lot.