Is This a Religious Thing?

As long as I’ve been writing this blog or hosting events for 13point6, I’ve never tried to intentionally hide the fact that I’m a Lutheran pastor. And my wife is too! But when people have asked if 13point6 is a religious organization, sometimes it’s unclear how to respond. On the one hand, I don’t talk about Jesus unless people ask and I do not have an end goal of getting more people into church. All of the events we’ve led so far have specifically and intentionally not contained any religious material. Some things happen to take place at a church, but that is largely due to convenience and a general lack of gathering places in this area. None of this community building work feels religious to me, at least in a way that is focused on preserving the institution of church or overtly evangelizing.

However, if you start to ask about my motivations for doing this we’ll get to Jesus before too long. Want to know why we hosted a park cleanup day back in May? It was an attempt to bring the community together for the sake of serving and giving their time and energy to something larger. And though that’s not a uniquely Christian ideal, it’s where I’m coming from. Even the camp we hosted this summer, a week-long arts-based camp for kids, didn’t have anything to do with church or Jesus specifically. We didn’t read the Bible or pray. But it involved creativity and taught kids about justice and peacemaking. And in my mind, activities that bring the community together around those topics, and creating an atmosphere where kids feel valued and affirmed, that’s God’s work.

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But even though we aren’t trying to evangelize and our entire purpose is service and community building, along the way we have run into resistance. Some people did not feel comfortable with their kids attending camp at a church led by pastors, even though they aligned with the values of creativity and peacemaking. Some people have felt odd gathering in a church space to talk about an issue in our community. Many people have had trouble engaging me if they know I’m a pastor. They think I’m trying to convert them or judge them or preach to them. And all these experiences have made me wonder: How much of people’s discomfort has to do with me being a pastor, or with church, or with Jesus, and how much has to do with themselves? With past negative experiences? With preconceived notions about what church is and isn’t? And if that is your story, I can’t say I blame you. There’s plenty of negative associations with Christianity to go around.

But as far as our work in the community, we’ve never asked people what they believe. Nor do we care. Some of our most trusted partnerships are with people of other faith traditions, and I’ve met plenty of people along the way who have clearly stated they have no interest in church or Jesus. Fine by me.

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One of the points of the 13point6 blog is to not just tell stories of the community, but to tell stories that engage people in ways that draw them into community. Stories that engage in meaningful questions about inhabiting a place together, giving back, finding where we fit in. You know, spiritual concerns.

Maybe this social space that we are occupying is a difficult one for many people to wrap their head around because it defies categorization. Honestly sometimes I have trouble explaining it to people. But I have no need to put 13point6 in any box that says “church” or “religious organization.” If people are uncomfortable reading a blog or participating in community building because we are pastors or we are gathering in a church, that’s ok. But I believe the church can do its best work when it gets out of its own way and stops trying to make everyone think the same way. When it gets out of the traditions and buildings and comfort zones and engages people in a new way with the only end being deepened relationships. Sure, it’s a new experiment in practicing faith, but it’s also a new experiment for a community in embracing faith. In moving past the discomfort of religious differences.

So, my cards are on the table. I am trying to practice following Jesus without all the baggage that usually gets in the way. 13point6 is part of that. I still don’t know what exactly this is leading to. But if you’re interested in community building or serving or justice or even following Jesus in a new way, let’s talk.