January 28, 2012
Being with Jesus in a World of Noise and Hype
I just watched the Pentecostal preacher Jim Cymbala give an altar call and about 400 Baptist pastors came forward for prayer. Here's what happened.
Cymbala told a moving story about his young grandson, an adopted child from Ethiopia named Levi. When Levi was two-years old, Cymbala loved holding him in his lap. They didn't have to do anything; they just sat together. Sometimes they rocked in a chair and watched SpongeBob Squarepants. But the point wasn't to do something with Levi; the point was to be with Levi.
Cymbala used this story (and his preaching text) to make a simple point: Jesus invites us to be with him--and sometimes that's the only "agenda" for our spiritual lives. Cymbala called it "sitting in his presence and listening to him." There's a big implications to this for pastoral leaders: we can't give to people what we haven't received from Jesus. So if we're not regularly listening to Jesus, just being with Jesus, receiving from Jesus, then we won't have much to give away to others.
Then Cymbala invited pastors and anyone else to come forward if we need to start spending more time being with and listening to Jesus. And that’s when about half of the 800 people started streaming forward. Cymbala didn't have to cajole anyone; people came quickly and willingly. Based on this experience I'd conclude that evangelicals--especially leaders and pastors--are hungry to be with Jesus.
I wonder, though, if we can actually sustain this practice--this commitment to carve out time and space to be with Jesus on a regular basis—in the midst of our present evangelical milieu. I've been to two large, important evangelical conferences lately and they were very different but they had something in common: they were both stuffed with busyness, noise, and information--lots of information. Both conferences had so many incredible speakers on the schedule, so many new books to read, so many products to check out, and so much noise in the worship times that we just didn't have time to be with Jesus (although we did have time to talk about being with Jesus).
Don't get me wrong. I liked the content. I thought the messages were spectacular. But after awhile I felt like I need to detox from the noise and hype by checking into a Benedictine monastery for a few days? It’s almost like we can’t believe that God can actually do something unless we’re talking about God doing something. Do we have such great faith in the power of words and information that we can't trust God to speak in our silence?
January 16, 2012
Skye Jethani talks about King's late night encounter with Christ that changed history.
January 9, 2012
Football, Jesus, and the question of public prayer.
Tim Tebow represents America’s two great religions: Christianity and Football. But the way the young Denver Broncos’ quarterback intertwines the two has made some followers of each faith uncomfortable. His post-game interviews always begin with “I’d like to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” and he frequently drops to one knee on the field and bows his head in prayer--a posture now called Tebowing. (Check out the website featuring photos of others Tebowing in public places.)
But Tim Tebow’s behavior on the field does raise important questions about prayer and how Christians ought to practice it. Andrew Sullivan criticized Tim Tebow saying his public prayers violate Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) where he taught his followers to pray in private:
"And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:5-6)
Referencing Tebow’s habit of praying during NFL games before millions of spectators, Sullivan asks “Why does a Christian publicly repudiate the God he worships?” Is Sullivan right? Is Tim Tebow actually violating the teachings of Christ with his behavior on the field? The answer is more complicated than critics of publicly practiced religion may prefer.
Strictly speaking Jesus did not prohibit public prayer. In fact he prayed publicly on numerous occasions including before meals (Mark 6:41) and among a crowd prior to raising Lazarus from the grave (John 11:41-42). He also prayed where his followers could see and hear him. As a result they asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray,” (Luke 11:1).
What Jesus does reject in his Sermon on the Mount is hypocritical prayer. The word hypocrite is derived from the Greek meaning actor. It is literally one who pretends; one who fakes it. This is what Jesus sees among many outwardly religious people. They are pretending to be devoted to God so that they may win the approval of people. Remember, ancient Judea was a culture that highly valued religiosity. Such communities, past and present, put great emphasis on external evidence of religious devotion, and this tends to fuel hypocrisy.
At the core of Jesus’ teaching then is not the mechanics of prayer (how, when, where), but rather the motivation for prayer (why). Are we praying out of genuine devotion to God, or merely to win favor with people? I do not know what powers of perception Andrew Sullivan has, but I am incapable of peering into Tim Tebow’s soul to determine his motivation for praying on the field. If he is praying to win the accolades of the spectators, then Jesus says he has his reward. Unlike Sullivan, I choose to give Tebow the benefit of the doubt and assume his motives are pure.
Still, Jesus does offer practical advise for avoiding the pitfall of hypocrisy we can all stumble into. He tells us to pray in private. Privacy makes hypocrisy impossible. One cannot act without an audience. But does this call to pray behind closed doors still apply in our increasingly secular setting? Unlike 1st century Judea, 15th century Europe, or 18th century New England, our culture does not reward public religiosity. Today those who stand on street corners to preach or pray tend to be maligned rather than magnified. In our context praying “to be seen by others” is a less potent temptation.
Or is it?
Stay tuned for Part 2 where Skye discusses the impact of social media and why the loss of privacy is a great threat to our intimacy with God.
December 1, 2011
Tony Jones tells youth ministry profs to blame themselves for the Emerging Church movement they criticize.
Did the modern youth ministry movement create the Emerging Church? That’s the question Tony Jones addresses in a recent blog post. While presenting a paper at an academic conference, Jones fielded questions from professors of youth ministry primarily from evangelical colleges and seminaries.
Jones said to them, “You all have strong feelings about the emerging church movement, most of them negative. Well, you are directly responsible for the emerging church movement.”
He went on to describe how contemporary youth ministry shuns the “accoutrements of power (vestments, titles, special roles and rites). Instead, youth are encouraged to engage all of the practices of the community equally.” In other words, the rejection of structural authority and the focus on a flat structure of relational authority which has marked the Emerging Church Movement was learned in youth groups. Jones noted how many ECM leaders first had lengthy youth ministry experience within evangelical churches: Tim Keel, Doug Pagitt, Dan Kimball, Tim Condor, and Chris Seay.
To the youth ministry professors who may have a negative view of the Emerging Church, Jones said, “You taught them relational youth ministry, so what kind of churches did you expect them to plant?”
What do you think of Tony Jones’ premise that evangelical youth ministry created the Emerging Church? I think he’s on to something important here–namely that ecclesiology is taught (explicitly but primarily implicitly) well before adulthood. Kids form their understanding of church very early, and it stays with them into adulthood.
This poses a problem for many children and youth ministries that do not have a long view of formation. I think it’s fair to say that many youth ministries are focused on helping students through high school by creating a fun, engaging environment where they might learn about faith in Christ and hopefully connect to relatively safe and healthy peers. But how many youth ministries are aware of forming a student's ecclesiology or practical theology?
The problem is a result, at least in part, of what Kara Powell calls the “Kitchen Table Syndrome” that marks many evangelical churches. This is how she describes the isolation and separation of youth from the adults in the community--much like the way kids get their own table at Thanksgiving. It’s a “separate but equal” vision of ministry. The intent is to provide age-appropriate teaching, which is certainly good. But the unintended result is the formation of youth ministries that do not carry the values and traditions of the wider church.
In addition, by isolating students they are less likely to form meaningful relationships with older adults in the congregation–relationships that would provide continuity within the church from one generation to the next. Without this continuity we shouldn’t be surprised when 25-year-olds emerge who want nothing more than to deconstruct the way the church operates, slash the authority hierarchy, or just leave the church altogether. To use Jones’ logic, it was the youth groups of the 80s that created the Emerging Church of the late 90s, which sought to deconstruct the church systems of the 80s.
The irony in Tony Jones’ comments to the youth ministry professors is important to see. While decrying the Emerging Church, they failed to see how they helped create it.
In part 2 I’ll look at how the megachurch movement also is rooted in youth ministry, and possibly the exodus of young adults we are now seeing as well.
October 6, 2011
"But David strengthened himself in the Lord." How about you?
Here's a quick take from Francis Chan's talk. Chan started with 1 Samuel 30, a story from David's life. David and his soldiers had just returned from battle only to find their entire village razed and that the captors had taken off with the women and children. They had lost everything. The situation wasn't just dire; it was devastating. Then, to top it off, after David and his soldiers had wept until they could weep no more, the other soldiers swelled with resentment towards David. They even wanted to stone him. This was bad! But Chan pointed us towards a strange, seemingly out-of-place verse: "...but David strengthened himself in the Lord."
Chan comments, "That's it? He 'strengthened himself in the Lord?'" With all of things David could have done and should have done, that was the first (and apparently) the only thing he did in that desperate situation. Chan asks, "When was the last time you heard anyone talk that way?"
Chan wasn't saying that we don't need Christian community, but when we face desperate situations we often tick off at least four things we need (including God, of course), and if we don't get all four of them, we come unglued. But when we react that way, we almost act like God isn't even there--or that he's just one nice option among many other options.
How about you? Where and how do you need to strengthen yourself in the Lord? Is that your first option, your last option, or just another option in the midst of other nice options?
August 8, 2011
Why right thinking and right doing are not enough.
In 1995, Mark Noll argued in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind that the problem with evangelicalism is “that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” His solution was to take scholarship more seriously. A decade later, Ron Sider argued in The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience (2005) that the problem with evangelicalism is that Christians live just like nonChristians. His solution was to take the social and corporate implications of the gospel more seriously.
Whether or not these books can be credited with sparking current trends, it’s clear the spirit of both of them is alive and well in American Christianity. The so-called “New Reformed” movement is living out Noll’s call for greater intellectual engagement and doctrinal sophistication. And legions of younger Christians are taking up Sider’s vision to seek social justice in Jesus’ name. I support both of these relatively recent developments, more or less. But I think they have the same shortcoming in common. As different as they are, they both appeal to the intellect in one way or another. They both seem to assume that if we simply believe the right things (whether it’s the doctrine of atonement or the Christian’s moral responsibility in the world) then we’ll behave the right way.
I’m not convinced.
I think there’s another, deeper problem in evangelicalism, what I’ll call (for consistency’s sake) the scandal of the evangelical imagination.
I don’t mean that evangelicals produce bad art (although we do), and I’m not issuing a call for more sophisticated creative engagement with culture (though we need one). Imagination is broader than that. The dictionary defines imagination as “the faculty or action of forming new ideas,” or “images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses.” This has to do with faith at its core. We are accustomed to trusting our senses to tell us what is true. But imagination offers a broader perspective on truth. If imagination is the capacity to visualize, and be confident in a reality, even if it contradicts our experience, then it refuses to let our senses determine the limits of what is possible. Faith requires us to envision and inhabit a world that we cannot perceive with our senses--a world where an invisible God lovingly maintains his creation, where the Son of God can become a human child, can die on a cross to save sinners, and be seated at the right hand of God in glory.
From beginning to end, the Bible calls us to adopt a sanctified imagination that helps us look beyond our own experience. Experience tells us prayers go unanswered, as the cries, “O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer” (22:1). Experience tells us sinful, rebellious people get their way in the end, that the values of the world are profitable and preferable: “In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak...; he blesses the greedy and reviles the Lord ... His ways are always prosperous” (Psalm 10:2-5).
But the prophets continually challenge us to imagine a godly future. “The day is coming,” they said again and again, a day when injustice will be judged, when evil will be put right, when exploitation will cease, when God’s faithful people will experience the deliverance they have hoped for--hoped for against experience. In that day, the rebellious lifestyle will no longer be profitable. This is a radical message. The prophets call us to share this vision, and they do so by painting landscapes of a world that contradicts our experience because it exists, until “that day” comes, only in the mind of God.
Jesus calls us to an even more demanding act of imagination. He stood in the line of the prophets, but he radicalized their message. “The day is coming,” they had said. He changed the tense. He says, “the day has come.” The world the prophets had envisioned is no longer a future reality. It is happening here and now. And it is beyond our senses. “Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:20-21).
Practically speaking, this means we church leaders need to move beyond telling people what they ought to believe and how they ought to behave. This instruction is necessary but insufficient. Clyde Kilby put it this way several decades ago:
Pastors seem beset with the conviction that statement is the only correct way. I am starkly admonished, for instance, to love, as though I had not already beaten myself a thousand times with this cudgel. What I need instead is the opening of some little door through which I can enter, some little path through the tangle of my own selfishness, some glimpse of a person who practiced love last week. But what is the use of repeating to me, as though my soul were blind, what my conscience and the Holy Spirit habitually tell me?
One practical way of opening “some little door” through which folks can enter the life of the kingdom is through testimony. I was raised on a steady diet of true stories from missionaries and single moms who received the Lord’s provision in the eleventh hour, of secretaries who led confrontational coworkers to faith in Christ, and folks of all ages miraculously delivered from disease. These stories, from people I could relate to, fed my imagination and gave me the confidence to affirm what I knew to be true and the courage to behave how I knew I should. The longer I’m away from that tradition, the more difficult it is to maintain my imagination.
I’m curious if any of you has found a way to engage the imagination in your congregation. Thoughts? Tips?
December 8, 2010
Mohler, Driscoll, and others weigh in on the controversy.
A few months ago, Al Mohler set off a firestorm when he pronounced yoga to be incompatible with Christian faith. The comments came in a review the Southern Baptist leader wrote about Stephanie Syman's book The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America. Mohler said:
Yoga begins and ends with an understanding of the body that is, to say the very least, at odds with the Christian understanding. Christians are not called to empty the mind or to see the human body as a means of connecting to and coming to know the divine. Believers are called to meditate upon the Word of God -- an external Word that comes to us by divine revelation -- not to meditate by means of incomprehensible syllables.
To his surprise, Mohler received a significant backlash from Christians who use yoga as part of their exercise routine as well as those who believe the practice can mesh with Christian forms of reflection and meditation. But Mohler would have none of it. He wrote, “Most seem unaware that yoga cannot be neatly separated into physical and spiritual dimensions.” In other words, those who merely use yoga as a form of stretching and muscle strengthening are mistaken. He continued:
Christians who practice yoga are embracing, or at minimum flirting with, a spiritual practice that threatens to transform their own spiritual lives into a 'post-Christian, spiritually polyglot' reality. Should any Christian willingly risk that?
Not to be ignored amid a cultural controversy, Mark Driscoll added his $.02 into the discussion. In this video the pugnacious pastor calls yoga “absolute paganism” and says it opens the door to demonism. But he adds this caveat: “Is it possible for a Christian to do stretching and read scripture and pray and do so in a way that is exercise that is biblical? Yes, it is possible. But if you just sign up for a little yoga class you’re signing up for a little demon class.” (BTW, Driscoll also warns against watching Avatar…the “most demonic movie ever.”)
Of course not everyone agrees with Mohler and Driscoll. David Sapp, senior pastor at Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church in Atlanta says the form of yoga taught at his church has "sort of been de-religionalized.”
"What we do is yoga as stretching, exercise and relaxation technique," he said. "We don't do yoga as Buddhist philosophy." Sapp also believes that when yoga stretches and breathing techniques are combined with Scripture meditation, it can be used as a way of communing with God."I believe that God can come to us in all experiences in life," Sapp said. "God has lots of ways of revealing himself to people, and if he chose to do it through yoga, he could sure do that."
Dayna Gelinas, a Christian yoga instructor, also sees a benefit in combining yoga with Christian themes. "It's very different from getting on a treadmill,” she says. Gelinas has replaced any association with Hinduism or Buddhism in her yoga instruction with signing or chanting Scripture.
"My yoga practice is just something I do to enhance my faith," Gelinas said. "I don't see how you can separate your body from your mind or spirit."
Many of the responses Al Mohler received to his original column were from people who do yoga stretches while forgoing any of yoga’s religious elements. Mohler took issue with this bifurcation. "My response to that would be simple and straightforward: You're just not doing yoga.”
Mohler received support for his view from a surprising souce—a Hindu. Rajiv Malhotra wrote a column for The Huffington Post on the question of “Christian yoga.” He said:
While yoga is not a "religion" in the sense that the Abrahamic religions are, it is a well-established spiritual path. Its physical postures are only the tip of an iceberg, beneath which is a distinct metaphysics with profound depth and breadth. Its spiritual benefits are undoubtedly available to anyone regardless of religion. However, the assumptions and consequences of yoga do run counter to much of Christianity as understood today. This is why, as a Hindu yoga practitioner and scholar, I agree with the Southern Baptist Seminary President, Albert Mohler, when he speaks of the incompatibility between Christianity and yoga, arguing that "the idea that the body is a vehicle for reaching consciousness with the divine" is fundamentally at odds with Christian teaching.
With the popularity of yoga among all people, including Christians, getting a better understanding of the issue is important for pastors responsible for giving spiritual guidance. What Mohler, Driscoll, and even Malhotra agree on is that the philosophical/religious origins of yoga are incompatible with Christian belief, AND if those elements of yoga are stripped away what remains (the stretches and breathing practices) cannot be rightly called “yoga.”
So what are we to do? Christianity has a long tradition of adapted pagan symbols and practices and filling them with biblical meaning. Even Christmas and the celebration of Christ’s birth near the winter solstice is an extra-biblical tradition rooted in the pagan rituals of Scandinavian and Germanic tribes. The Puritans were so disturbed by the Christmas holiday that they refused to acknowledge it.
What do you think? Is it possible to take pieces of yoga and adapt them for non-religious or even Christian use? Or are Driscoll and Mohler right—are we flirting with the demonic?
November 8, 2010
Opportunities for self-promotion by church leaders are proliferating. But is there an antidote?
It was a silly thing to do, but I couldn't stop myself. During a "get to know you" conversation with a few acquaintances and a man from the church I serve, we were talking about interests, passions, and areas of ministry. I tried to keep the focus on others at the table. But then it happened.
The man from my church made a statement that I interpreted as making light of me. The fuse was lit, and within a few moments I managed to work into the conversation the areas where I was leading and the wide impact of those projects. I subtly reminded everyone what our church had accomplished in the city. I even managed to throw in some attendance figures for good measure. I pushed everyone else out of the conversation's spotlight.
When it was over, I felt like I had binged on junk food. Self-loathing set in: I hate when I do this, and I hate it even more when I do it as a servant of Christ. Why do I keep falling into this temptation?
I've been through this cycle enough to know that when I feel my capacity or identity as a leader isn't sufficiently honored (and when, really, does anyone ever feel that?), I slip into the sin of self-promotion. But how do I stop?
T.S. Eliot wrote, "Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don't mean to do harm, but the harm does not interest them … or they do not see it, or they justify it … because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves."
Although our mission in Christ is to do good in this world, we will actually do harm if our deeper mission is to feel important and "think well of ourselves." Eliot's words forced me to ask, How much harm do I do to my family, my friends, the people I am supposed to lead, all because I want to think well of myself?
What I've come to see since that day, is that I am not alone. Many other church leaders share this struggle to one degree or another. We may not all be full-blown clinical narcissists, but we share that bent toward insecurity and selfishness. Most gatherings of pastors will usually include subtle or overt self-promotion. I'm not the only one who has used attendance numbers or new initiatives or "my vision" as a badge of self-importance.
Although I'm now aware of my tendency and what triggers it, I don't pretend to have it solved. This is simply my effort to be honest about our struggle with ambition and self-promotion as pastors, and how we can address it.
There is a long and celebrated history of church leaders who struggled with narcissistic tendencies—starting with the original disciples. After following Jesus for some time and recognizing his power, these (probably younger) men debated with each other "Who is the greatest?" They jockeyed for power. Who would be closest to Jesus? Who would get positions of honor?
I remember when those kinds of questions were mine. As a young man, I knew Jesus loved me and that I wanted to serve him. My mentor, Bryan, shared with me a quote from D. L. Moody's biography: "The world has yet to see what God can do with one man that is totally committed to him." Apparently when Moody heard this from a preacher, he decided he would be that man. The quote had the same effect on me. It awakened an ambition in me to do great things for God.
Having great ambitions is a good and necessary thing. The problem was how I defined greatness. I was measuring significance as the world does, rather than by the standards of God's kingdom. When Jesus heard his disciples arguing about greatness, he reminded them of the counter-intuitive nature of his kingdom. "If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and a servant of all" (Mark 9:35).
Jesus does not say to stop pursuing greatness. Instead he redefines it: The last will be first. The humble exalted. The small will be big. Those who lose their life for the sake of the gospel will gain it.
Yet it is hard to find that perspective today, even within the church. Self-promotion and worldly definitions of significance seem not only to be tolerated among pastors but even expected and encouraged. How many people are following me on Twitter? How's the traffic on my blog? How many Facebook "friends" can I count? How's our church's "brand" value?
The opportunities for self-promotion are proliferating. But there is an antidote to these temptations.
May 28, 2010
“I cannot make someone fall in love with Jesus.”
In your new book you write, "I cannot convince people to be obsessed with Jesus, and that's why you need the Holy Spirit." When did you come to that realization?
Once you pastor for a while, it dawns on you that nailing a sermon doesn't mean lives will change. Or you'll meet a person who's surrendered everything to Christ, and you'll realize that your sermon wasn't even good and nothing you did caused him to become a believer.
There was a guy who had been in our church for 15 years. One day he told me my preaching hadn't changed him. He said I spoke too much about the "narrow road" and how everyone needs to be radical for Christ. But he said there's also a "middle road" where people like him can do a lot of good things. I was floored by that. He's sat under my teaching for 15 years and he still believes there isn't only a wide easy road and a narrow difficult road, but also a middle road? I've been told many times that my teaching is really helpful, that I make things simple for people to understand. And then you hear something like that.
That's when I remember, I cannot make someone fall in love with Jesus.
So what's the point of all the work, sermon prep, and programs if the outcome is out of our hands?
Some of our toil is wasted, because we're toiling believing that these things change people.
I believe a lot more of our work needs to be put into prayer, study of the Word, and trusting God. I could spend an extra ten hours on every sermon, trying to get every word just right, but my time would be much better spent out sharing the gospel with people and praying.
Now, I do study hard, because the Scripture tells me to and because I want to be accurate in my teaching. We should work hard "as unto the Lord," but we have to let our theology guide what we work hard at. And you have to be led by the Spirit on how much time to spend crafting a sermon and how much time to spend praying for a movement of the Spirit.
How can we know if our ministry is being empowered by the Spirit?
Churches that are built through our effort rather than the Spirit's will quickly collapse when we stop pushing and prodding people along.
Now we should push, prod, and persuade men, but I've learned to spend a lot more time praying and asking the Spirit to move and begging God to send forth laborers.
The more you look at Scripture, the more you realize that nothing happens unless God is behind it. Jesus is building his church. I just want to be a part of that. I'll keep doing my work, but the fruit is up to him. We can only pray, "Please, please, please let us see your Spirit at work. May it be like a mighty wind that moves us."
I equate it to surfing. Sometimes I'm out in the ocean and there are no sets coming in. I really don't want to paddle in, so I'll pray, "God, give me one nice set, one good wave to take me back to shore." I pray because I can't make a wave and I can't ask my friends to go further out and splash to create a wave. We're powerless. That's what I feel like in church. We think we can make waves, but in reality we're totally dependent on the Spirit.
Read the full interview with Francis Chan at LeadershipJournal.net.
May 3, 2010
It is possible, but often not very encouraging.
How can churches know if they are being effective at making disciples?
Many churches are measuring the wrong things. We measure things like attendance and giving, but we should be looking at more fundamental things like anger, contempt, honesty, and the degree to which people are under the thumb of their lusts. Those things can be counted, but not as easily as offerings.
Why don't more churches gauge these qualities among their people?
First of all, many leaders don't want to measure these qualities because what they usually discover is not worth bragging about. We'd rather focus on institutional measures of success. Secondly, we must have people who are willing to be assessed in these ways. And finally, we need the right tools to measure spiritual formation. There are some good tools available like Randy Frazee's Christian Life Profile and Monvee.com, which John Ortberg likes.
In the past people grew through relationships with spiritual mentors and by engaging the church community. Is there a danger that these individual assessment tools will remove the role of community in formation?
Any of these devices must be used in a community setting. Assessment tools that work best are a combination of self-assessment and the assessment of a significant other who knows you well. They don't work with people who don't want to be assessed, and they should not be administered like individual personality tests that some employers use.
If you have a group of people come together around a vision for real discipleship, people who are committed to grow, committed to change, committed to learn, then a spiritual assessment tool can work. But there must be a deep fellowship of trust to support that work. I don't think any group should go into an assessment without that. I wouldn't advise a pastor to use one of these tools on his or her congregation without first establishing a clear commitment to discipleship. You can't take your average congregation and just lay one of these assessments on them.
Are you ever discouraged by how few churches have that kind of clear commitment to discipleship?
I am not discouraged because I believe that Christ is in charge of his church, with all of its warts, and moles, and hairs. He knows what he is doing and he is marching on.
But I do grieve for the people within the church who are suffering—especially the pastors and their families. They are suffering because much of North America and Europe has bought into a version of Christianity that does not include life in the kingdom of God as a disciple of Jesus Christ. They are trying to work a system that doesn't work. Without transformation within the church, pastors are the ones who get beat up. That is why there is a constant flood of them out of the pastorate. But they are not the only ones. New people are entering the church, but a lot are also leaving. Disappointed Christians fill the landscape because we've not taken discipleship seriously.
What can pastors do to change this dynamic?
Change their definition of success. They need to have a vision of success rooted in spiritual terms, determined by the vitality of a pastor's own spiritual life and his capacity to pass that on to others.
When pastors don't have rich spiritual lives with Christ, they become victimized by other models of success—models conveyed to them by their training, by their experience in the church, or just by our culture. They begin to think their job is managing a set of ministry activities and success is about getting more people to engage those activities. Pastors, and those they lead, need to be set free from that belief.
February 17, 2010
What a not-so-Christian movie says about the goal of the Christian life.
I have been thinking a lot lately about Colossians 1, where Paul writes: "We proclaim Christ, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this reason I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me." It strikes me that this comes close to a creedal text for those of us involved in church ministry. Sometimes we get so immersed in the X's and O's of church work that we forget to step back and ask what 's the real reason we're doing all this. Paul has great clarity on it, and is more concise than usual: "so that we may present everyone mature in Christ."
If your church is looking for a big hairy audacious goal, this will do for starters.
The scale: everyone.
The outcome: mature in Christ.
That's not common language in our day. So recently I have asked church leaders in a number of settings to take a few moments to describe what someone who is "mature in Christ" looks like. Certain words always make the list: loving, joyful, peaceful, forgiving, serving, courageous, loyal, humble, generous.
And when "mature in Christ" is explained in those terms, there are not many people who are uninterested. This offer has remarkably broad appeal. I went with a friend to see Avatar last week. The 3-D thing is pretty cool. The writer does not actually attach a denominational label to the script, but it was pretty obviously not produced by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. However, the qualities in the heroes are remarkably consistent with many of the words listed by church leaders: courageous, loving, giving, loyal, generous. What it means to be a good person has been embedded by God pretty deeply into human consciousness.
How we get there is another matter.
Then I'll ask this question: do you think the average unchurched person in America thinks of these characteristics when they hear the word "Christian"? Not so much.
Here's another question (you can try this one at home, or with your elders if you're feeling perky): on a scale of 1-100, how is your church doing at producing this kind of person? It's a funny thing how often we're aware of our attendance trends or how close to budget we're running, but we often have not worked much to assess the real target we're aiming at.
Sometimes we're not even clear that this is the goal. I was talking to a church leader from a European country recently, who commented on a difficult dynamic where he lives. It is expected that the state will pretty much care for all human needs—the alleviation of poverty, provision of care for the sick, needy, and elderly, and so on. There is little or no expectation that the church will be involved in such issues.
The result, of course, is that most people in that society do not believe that those in churches care about them, or are marked by compassion. In the Acts church, it was almost exactly the other way around; it was the compassion of the church that reached the world.
For only the church has the goal of presenting everyone "mature in Christ." Other entities can try to lessen suffering or care for needs, but these do not have the same power.
I heard a great talk not long ago by Harvard professor Michael Porter about "doing well at doing good." He had been part of a project bringing renewal to Newark, New Jersey. They did this, not by trying to meet needs through charity, but by identifying competitive advantages that could attract businesses and create a sustainable financial strategy. The advantage they discovered was that, because of population density, Newark actually had higher purchasing power per square acre than Beverly Hills.
And much good has been done. But it did raise the question in my mind: Is it a good goal to seek to replicate Beverly Hills all over the world? Shouldn't we aim a bit higher?
Which is part of the reason why the church must be in the compassion business. True compassion is about more than just alleviating suffering. Its final aim is a redeemed humanity and a flourishing earth—"to present everyone mature in Christ."
This was the work of Jesus himself: to heal the sick, feed the hungry, give sight to the blind, care for the poor; give righteousness to the scandalous and scandalize the self-righteous; give hope to the hopeless and love to the loveless.
And he's not done yet.
November 23, 2009
The danger of replacing Communion with a coffee bar.
It's very difficult for many contemporary Christians to recognize how much we have been shaped by the consumer culture in which we live—it is in the air we breathe and the water (or coffee) we drink.
Consider that in many churches the coffee bar has displaced the Lord's Table as the place where real community happens. Due in part to the neutralizing of sacred space that has been popular since the 1980s, churches began removing or deemphasizing the Lord's Table and introducing coffee bars. Without doubt the desire has been to build community by offering people a culturally familiar setting to engage one another. But we must ask: What formative message does a coffee bar convey?
A coffee bar mostly carries the values of our culture. We've come to expect coffee bars to offer a number of choices to meet our desires (decaf, tea, hot chocolate), and the setting is one of leisure and comfort. We usually gather in affinity groups. We sip the beverages not because we're thirsty but because we're conditioned to want them.
By contrast, what does the Lord's Table convey? It is a symbol of sacrificial love that breaks down cultural divisions and barriers of affinity. It reminds us that life is about being chosen by the Lord for interpersonal communion rather than choosing to consume stuff, and it reminds us we are called to take up our cross rather than seek personal comfort.
Both the coffee bar and Lord's Table affirm community, but the kind of community they affirm differs significantly. Churches with coffee bars may have to work harder to ensure they are fostering community around the values of Christ rather than casual consumerism.
At the same time, there is no guarantee that a church that prominently displays the Lord's Table and forgoes coffee will automatically model unity, pastoral care, or break down cultural and generational cliques. It's particularly hard when we engage the Lord's Table privately or solely with our friends and loved ones.
A congregation I served restructured its space to celebrate Communion with greater intentionality. One Sunday after the sermon, the congregation proceeded to the fellowship hall to celebrate the Lord's Supper around large, circular tables. We were encouraged to intentionally sit with people with whom we didn't normally associate and to share with those at our table what the Lord's sacrifice meant to us personally. After each person shared, everyone was to break bread from the loaf provided and dip it into the Communion cup at the table. This process was to continue until everyone had shared.
One woman came to me several weeks later and said that this had been the most meaningful celebration of Communion she had ever experienced. She was grateful the church had restructured its space to move us beyond our comfort zones of associating simply with the people we already knew.
In this example space, and how we utilized it, became a medium for communicating the values of the gospel and deconstructing the values of our consumer culture.
Read the full article at LeadershipJournal.net
November 9, 2009
What do tweets reveal about what pastors really value?
Social media like Facebook and Twitter have received an abundance of critique, not the least of which is that social media users are self-absorbed. But I wonder if we might turn answers on Twitter to the question “What are you doing?” or on Facebook’s status update into an opportunity for self-examination. It might even be an opportunity for Twitter and Facebook users to examine not just what they are doing but how it aligns with our mission.
I’ve spent some time observing pastors who tweet or regularly update their status on Facebook, and I’m far from convinced it’s simply self-absorption or an attempt by little people to make themselves famous. But these updates do reveal what is uppermost on the mind. But let me begin with a confession: I use these social media tools to draw folks to my blog and to the concerns I have there. In addition, on Facebook I have a good time with my “Friends” discussing sports or the news.
And I’m not alone. The idea of both Facebook and Twitter is to share with friends – real friends and not just cyberfriends – what you are doing. We all know that this can slip into silliness with tweets like: “Having a chocolate macchiato latte, double shot espresso with a raspberry scone” But we should also admit that tweets can be a valuable communication form. And another thing is clear—Twitter and Facebook are here to stay. Over time the craziness will wear off and the abilities of social media will become more clear.
Still, there are observations to make about what we see from pastor tweets. Over time I’ve noticed that many pastors tweet links to business people and leadership gurus, Seth Godin being the most common. We discover plenty of emphasis on news items, especially controversial ones. Pastors often became “green” in the recent Iranian student revolution. Pastors tweet a lot about sports. There seems to be a near obsession in pastor tweets with terms like “creativity” and “innovation,” and a corresponding neglect of our great tradition or our heritage in the Church.
Pastors tweet quotes from their reading, and inform us of what they are reading. Sunday tweets tend to be gratitude tweets. We also regularly discover who is meeting with whom (and the “whom” is always a notch above the “who”), or where someone is traveling. We hear about accomplishments but almost never any failures or disappointments, making the Twitter world largely a happy face community.
I have seen some gospel in Facebook updates – some tweets about Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection, but very few about how Israel’s story came to its goal in Jesus. Very few, in fact, about the Old Testament at all. There is some theological orientation. Even if it is hard to reduce theology to 140 characters, the limit of a normal tweet, it can be done and it has been done well. The issue is how infrequently pastors and religious leaders provide such theological orientation and how often they link us to such concerns. Oddly, there is an absence of short prayers for others or ejaculatory prayers for God’s help in a tough situation. In fact there are almost no prayers at all.
So, let me ask pastors who tweet and who update their status a few simple questions: What do your updates tell us about what you are doing? About what is uppermost on your mind? About what is most important to you? It is time to take stock. Perhaps you are like me—using social media to draw the attention and time of others to something else. But where are we leading these folks? What do our links reveal about what is most important to us? About what is uppermost on our minds?
Twitter and Facebook offer us an opportunity for self-examination. I know they have for me.
October 30, 2009
Why don't more ethnic churches have a small groups ministry?
I came across an interesting interview in the recent issue of Leadership Journal. The subjects of the interview were from River City Community Church—a multi-ethnic ministry located in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago. Leadership talked with Daniel Hill, who founded the ministry, along with several key leaders of the church.
Here's a brief excerpt of their conversation:
What kind of person is attracted to River City?
Hill: Most of our new people are white. But there's a revolving door with the white community here. They have a romantic notion of being part of a multi-ethnic church, so many of them get frustrated and leave when they realize how difficult it is to erase their assumptions about the way church is supposed to be.
What assumptions do white people carry into the church?
Arloa Sutter (pastor of community life): When I came I said, "Let's just start small groups! Everyone wants to be in a group, right?" The fact is small groups aren't as important to other ethnicities as they are to white people.
Small groups are a white church thing?
Hill: White people rely on small groups to connect. Other ethnicities form community more organically, more relationally. Immigrant communities find fellowship within extended families. In the city a lot of community happens on the front porch or sidewalk. So non-whites aren't as eager to set up structures and systems like small groups.
Carlos Ruiz (coordinator of community groups): I think whites really value efficiency.
Antoine Taylor (director of Sunday morning ministries): And releasing that value is really hard for a lot of them. They perceive other ways of operating as inefficient or disorganized.
Jennifer Idoma-Motzko (elder): They say it's not the right way to do church. And I respond bluntly by saying, "You mean it's not the white way to do church."
Obviously, there are some pretty strong statements there, and they raise several important questions:
1. Are small groups primarily a "white" way to do church?
2. If we assume that non-white ethnicities connect more easily and organically than whites, does that mean small groups have no use in those communities? Or can they be a supplement to those organic connections?
3. Are small groups really about efficiency? Is that the appeal they bring to churches, whether white or otherwise?
I've got some thoughts on these questions, but I would really like to hear what all of you think before I let loose.
You can read the full interview with the leaders of River City Community Church in Aug/Sep issue of our digizine, Catalyst Leadership.
October 9, 2009
Why God sometimes plants us in gravel
The prolific author (without her constant canine companion, Hershey) introduced her latest book, and gave a copy to each attender at Catalyst: Scouting The Divine: My Search For God in Wine, Wool, and Wild Honey (Zondervan).
To write the book, Feinberg spent time with a shepherdess in Oregon, a farmer in Nebraska, a beekeeper in Colorado, and a vintner / winemaker in California. She learned lessons for life and growth in God.
For example, grapevines are planted in rocky, difficult soil—even up to 75% gravel. Sometimes the vintner will plant more rocks in the soil, to force the vines' roots to grow deeper. Sometimes, Feinberg said, I wonder, why God, am I forced to have these hard rocks in my life? But it's the only way the vine will produce the sweetest grapes, the best wine.
Her hope and prayer for the book? "That people would fall back in love with Scripture."
Catalyst Leadership is a new digital magazine combining the wisdom of Leadership Journal with the innovation of the Catalyst Conference. Sign up for your free subscription today at CatalystLeadershipDigital.com/subscribe/
September 28, 2009
The effort to remove Tullian Tchividjian from Coral Ridge Presbyterian raises questions about how to heal after a conflict.
By now most of you have heard of the conflict at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, the famous church that was pastored by D. James Kennedy for 48 years. (See the Sun-Sentinel article)
This past March, two years after Kennedy’s death, Coral Ridge appointed Tullian Tchividjian as his successor. Tchividjian, the grandson of Billy Graham, accepted the call when Coral Ridge agreed to a church merger with his current congregation, New City Church. He came in with 91% of the vote. Yet six months later, the church (against the wishes of the Elders) held a congregational meeting on September 20th to decide whether to fire him.
What went wrong in such a short period of time? How did the unity of the body become so broken? What does this say about loving and bearing with one another? (See Tchividjian’s interview with Christianity Today about the conflict)
As an outsider it is not my goal here to present both sides or assign blame to one party. What I want to know is, now that the vote has taken place and one third of those present, over 400 people, voted against Tchividjian, how does reconciliation take place? How does the church restore unity, not just formally but in their hearts? Is it possible for Pastor Tchividjian to restore trust with the 400 people who voted against him? How should he and the Session go about restoring confidence in their leadership?
My guess is that they cannot simply move “full steam ahead” or this conflict will likely erupt again. What kind of teaching needs to come from the pulpit? What texts and topic? What about on a personal level? Does some kind of “Truth and Reconciliation” meetings need to take place?
I would love to know your thoughts. There is not a church in the world which has not experienced conflict on this level or a million smaller levels. We need to get this right. The world is watching our congregations and how we respond to the inevitable conflicts that arise. How do you believe we should respond?
September 23, 2009
A researcher argues that the future of youth ministry will require bringing the generations together.
The statistics are grim. Rainer Research estimates that 70 percent of young people leave the church by age 22. Barna Group argues that the figure increases to 80 percent by age 30. The Southern Baptist Convention recently observed that growth in their churches is failing to keep up with the birth rate. Taken together, these findings suggest a startling fact: not only are we failing to attract younger worshipers, we're not holding on to the ones we have.
As executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute at Fuller Theological Seminary and a former youth pastor, Kara Powell has her eyes on the youth drop out trend. She is currently in the midst of a three-year College Transition Project, a study that involves over 400 youth group graduates and is focused on understanding how parents, churches, and youth ministries can set students on a trajectory of lifelong faith and service.
Where did the now popular age-segmented paradigm of youth ministry come from?
In the 1940s and post World War II, there was a real burst in parachurch organizations focused on ministry to teenagers and young adults, such as Young Life, InterVarsity, and Youth for Christ. In many ways, they led the way for the church in realizing that we need to focus on specialized discipleship and teaching for teenagers.
Why did the church adopt this age-segmented model of ministry?
Jim Rayburn, the founder of Young Life, liked to say, "It's a sin to bore a kid with the gospel." So he developed some amazingly creative models of youth ministry that took root and bore fruit. I think a lot of churches saw the success of groups like Young Life and started thinking, If the parachurch folks are tailoring their ministry toward young people's interests, then we can—and probably should—too.
On my dad's side of the family, there were too many of us to fit in one room or around one table at family gatherings. So we adopted the two table system. The adult table had pleasant conversation, while the kids' table usually degenerated into a Jell-O snorting contest. Theoretically we were having the same meal; but we were having two very, very different experiences. That's what we've done in churches today.
What is the long-term impact of segregating teens?
A lot of kids aren't going to both youth group and church on Sundays; they're just going to youth group. As a result, graduates are telling us that they don't know how to find a church. After years at the kids' table, they know what youth group is, but they don't know what church is.
There are a lot of statistics regarding what happens to high school seniors when they graduate from a youth group. As I've looked at the research, my best estimate is that between 40 and 50 percent of seniors from youth groups really struggle to continue in their faith and connect with a faith community after graduation.
What can churches do to increase the likelihood that our kids stay in church after they graduate?
I think the future of youth ministry is intergenerational youth ministry.
At this point in our research, we've found that one thing churches can do that really makes a difference is getting kids actively involved in the life of the church before they graduate.
There is a strong link between kids staying in church after they graduate and their involvement in intergenerational relationships and worship. It's important, we're finding, to get beyond a token youth Sunday and start thinking about how to involve kids as ushers and greeters and readers and musicians in our services.
We're also finding a relationship between teenagers serving younger kids and their faith maturity when they graduate from high school. Teens should not only be the objects of ministry; they need to be the subjects of ministry as well. It's the 16 year old that has relationships with 66 year olds and 6 year olds who is more likely to stay involved in a faith community after she graduates.
Read the entire interview with Kara Powell at LeadershipJournal.net.
August 28, 2009
How modernity and postmodernity have conspired to warp the current generation.
Leszek Kolakowski, a Polish philosopher who weakened Marxism’s grip on Eastern Europe, recently died. Few, I suspect, knew who he was. I consider myself fortunate to have read some of Kolakowski, one book being his scintillating sketch of the history of ideas by probing the central idea of twenty-three thinkers. That book is called Why is there Something Rather than Nothing? My own reading of it impressed me again with the connection of philosophers with their world. From Socrates to Kierkegaard, philosophers are products of their day.
So are we. Which raises the profound problem of blinders when it comes to perceiving what is influencing us, and which raises the other profound problem of needing to understand our cultural blinders in order to break through them with the light of the gospel. Kolakowski’s chapters are short, and everything short when it comes to the history of ideas risks simplicities that mask nuance. I risk the same in what I am about to suggest: the current generation emerges out of a toxic combination of modernity and postmodernity.
In another context (the summer issue of Leadership Journal) I called the toxicity of the current generation a “self in a castle.” Modernity’s singular contribution to the history of ideas is individualism. David Bentley Hart gets this exactly right in his new rant against the flimsy ideas in new atheism when he writes:
“We live in an age whose chief value has been determined, by overwhelming consensus, to be the inviolable liberty of personal volition, the right to decide for ourselves what we shall believe, want, need, own, or serve” (Atheist Delusions, 21-22).
That is, “it is choice itself, and not what we choose, that is the first good.” Personal freedom, which both Kolakowski and Hart understand far more profoundly than most, has become getting to do whatever I want, when I want, and how I want – and government’s job is to make sure it happens now. That’s, of course, an exaggeration, but it’s the exaggeration that is causing our problem in gospel work today.
Perhaps the most important words in Hart’s lines above are “by overwhelming consensus.” The consensus is so overwhelming that the emerging generation – each of us – believes we can form our own religion. A religion of our own making, however, never leads to transcendence or worship of God or anything like the ancient Hebrews’ “fear of God.” Instead, we tinker on the edge of holiness with the notion of experiencing The Beyond.
How feeble of a god is that? When “The Beyond” evokes mystery or suggests to our minds that we are on the edge of something important, then we need to look into abyss of where we are headed.
If modernity gave our culture a sense of individualism that has been ratcheted up beyond what either Bible or philosophers would ever recognize, postmodernity tells us that individual choice itself is relative. I don’t believe we should dismiss postmodernity with the derisive, and far too often unthinking, label of “moral relativism,” but there is within postmodernity’s deepest impulses the belief that universal truth and all-encompassing metanarratives can’t be had. We are too finite and when folks believe they’ve found the magical metanarrative for all, they abuse power and turn violent.
Well, yes, there’s some truth to that, but that’s the whole problem with postmodernity. Genuine insights become, paradoxically enough, all-encompassing metanarratives against all metanarratives. This tendency is one of postmodernity’s addictions.
So, here we are. Staring at a unique cultural product: humans turned inward investing sanctity in the Self. We have constructed a postmodern castle wall around that Self believing it is so sacred that no one may violate your choice – you determine what to believe and what is right and wrong. The Self is protected by the Wall of Individual Relative Choice.
The tragedy of the “self in a castle” is that we are blind to it – blind to see it in ourselves every time we choose to think we are the most progressive and wisest of all generations, every time we fool ourselves into thinking we have achieved levels of love that we call tolerance, which is a vapid imitation of what genuine love is, and every time we think our moral struggles rival the profound struggles of an Athanasius or an Augustine, a Luther or a Calvin, a Bonhoeffer or a Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Self is so large because our walls are so high, blinding us from seeing the Morning Light. That Light is the Light of All Light.
August 26, 2009
Online church is close enough to the real thing to be dangerous.
In the early 1950s when Robert Schuller and others across the nation combined a growing car culture with “Church,” they believed they were reaching a segment of the population traditional church wouldn’t or couldn’t. “Drive-In Church” allowed parishioners to hear a sermon, sing some songs, even receive communion and give—all without the fuss and muss of face-to-face interaction. Except for a through-the-window handshake from the pastor as they rolled away.
And while they may have been able to point to a number of folks who “attended” that otherwise might not have, the question of what was being formed in these car congregations through limited interaction, a completely passive experience, and a consumer-oriented “Come as you want/Have it your way” message, meant that (thankfully) after a brief period of vogue, “Drive-In Church” has remained a niche curiosity.
The problem with the drive-in church model isn’t that it isn’t church—it’s that it is just “church” enough to be dangerous. What this almost-church does is park people in a cul-de-sac where they have access to the easiest and most instantly satisfying parts of church while exempting them from the harder and more demanding parts of community.
And while I’m glad such an absurdity has remained on the fringe, as I watch the discussion about “internet campuses” I can’t shake a certain feeling of deja vu.
Following close on the heels of the video venue push is that of the internet campus: real-time streaming of a church service, but with the added features of “live interactive features like lobby chat room, message notes, communication card, raise a hand, say a prayer, and even online giving.” At least 35 churches in America are doing internet campuses, with more jumping on board all the time (http://digital.leadnet.org/2007/10/churches-with-a.html). By one estimate, 10 percent of Americans will rely solely on the internet for their “religious experience” as early as 2010.”(http://www.denverpost.com/technology/ci_7228105)
Is this a problem? Something we should be concerned about or resist? Absolutely. Because it’s malforming for those involved (whether they know it or not) and because it’s sub-biblical.
The problem, in my mind, with virtual community and internet campuses isn’t that it’s not church... it’s that it is just church enough to be dangerous. Because it has all the easiest and most instantly gratifying parts of community without the harder parts, it ends up misshaping us.
In an internet campus, for example, I never need to listen to so-and-so tell me about their hard week (again). I see no needs around me and so feel zero compulsion to move to meet them. And that’s the problem. The lack of all of that forms me in a good way.
Stay tuned for part 2 of Bob Hyatt's post.
July 6, 2009
Spiritual formation in internet church.
The following is an excerpt from a chapter called "Internet Campuses - Virtual or Real Reality?" in the book A Multi-Site Church Road Trip: Exploring the New Normal, by Geoff Surratt, Greg Ligon, and Warren Bird (Zondervan, 2009). This picks up mid-chapter; so to bring you up to speed, we're talking about the strengths and weaknesses of internet campuses as they relate to spiritual growth and formation.
Even if a church does a good job of creating an engaging and life-transforming online worship experience, it may not be enough. What about the rest of what it means to be the church? When I pressed Troy [Gramling, senior pastor of Flamingo Road Church in Florida] with this question, he said that both physical and internet campuses are trying to do the same thing: help people take the next step from where they are to where God is calling them. "The first step is accepting Christ," Troy explained. "That can happen anywhere. The next step is baptism, and we have discovered that can happen anywhere as well." Indeed, in 2007 Brian Vasil baptized a new believer online for the first time. They didn't use virtual water or a cheesy clip art graphic. It was the real thing.
A young woman from Georgia who had never attended any of Flamingo Road Church's physical campuses gave her life to Christ during a service on the internet campus. She wanted to be baptized, so she contacted her campus pastor, Brian, via email. He spoke with her on the phone about her decision to accept Christ and about her desire to be baptized. Then he helped coordinate the event. She was baptized by her mother-in-law in the family Jacuzzi tub with the Flamingo Road internet family watching via webcam and rejoicing in the significant moment for one of their peers. That's taking the next step. For those involved with the church, it was the real thing.
Troy indicated that the church's internet team gets emails and calls all the time about similar decisions in people's lives. He emphasized, "It's cool when you see people take those steps. Even though it is online, it provides the experience of being part of the community."
The next steps people are encouraged to take are bringing their lost friends to church and serving. The value of the internet campus in evangelism is immeasurable. And there are plenty of opportunities for people to serve, both virtually and in the physical neighborhoods of internet campus attenders. Online at Flamingo, people serve as greeters in the chat rooms. They pray with people following the services, and they do visitor follow-up during the week. These are just a few of the many opportunities to serve.
Some churches have even created scenarios that allow them to share in the sacrament of Communion online. Other churches are developing additional facets of ministry beyond weekend worship services. Some of the most promising initial developments have been in the direction of online small groups. Flamingo Road's online small group ministry comes live from Brian's home. Other churches have established online student and children's ministries where kids, students, and parents are engaging in the life of the church.
In a bricks-and-mortar church, leaders can limit distractions and use a variety of tools to create experiences to connect people emotionally to the music and message. With an online church, that is much harder to do. The people attending your church online might be doing a million different things in the background while the service is in progress. Or they might be in an environment filled with distractions. The growth edge for internet campuses is their need to move their attenders to full engagement. Perhaps the most challenging part of the internet campus idea is the reality that when people aren't physically in the room, as they are in a church sanctuary, you can't control the environment.
Some of you may still be skeptical (as I was before I experienced church online). The question asked most often is, "How do you know that disciples of Jesus Christ are actually being made?" When I asked Troy, he brought me back to his definition of church as a process of taking one step after another along the faith journey. As a church, Flamingo Road measures growth and discipleship through steps taken. Baptism is a discipleship step. Financial giving is a discipleship step. Serving is a discipleship step. Inviting friends to church and talking to them about Christ are also discipleship steps. Many of these discipleship steps are no different than the steps used to gauge growth at a church with a physical campus. In some cases they are even measured or tracked in the same way.
Troy sees the use of internet campuses as an outpouring of his pastoral heart. He views them as a tool to reach and disciple people all over the world. "Now it's hard for me to say I don't care about what happens in Oklahoma or Idaho or England or Peru," he says, "when I have the technology in my hands that can help me reach people in those neighborhoods."
April 2, 2009
How you present the gospel may matter more than what you actually say.
February 25, 2009
Reverent silence as one antidote to Consumer Christianity.
The following is an excerpt from chapter two of Skye Jethani's new book The Divine Commodity: Discovering a Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity (Zondervan, 2009).
My brother and sister-in-law took me to a concert at the Hollywood Bowl while I was visiting Southern California recently. The renowned outdoor amphitheater is nestled into the hills of Hollywood creating a scenic environment for 18,000 people to enjoy an evening of music under the stars. As the sun was setting, the members of the orchestra began taking their seats in the white band shell. The sound of the musicians tuning their instruments was odd. Screeching strings echoed. Blasts came from the wind section. It was chaotic and unpleasant.
Finally, the conductor emerged from stage left. The audience erupted in applause as he took his position on the conductor's platform. He calmly raised his arms over his noisy orchestra. Silence. The time for tuning their instruments was over. After a few moments of quiet anticipation the conductor's arms moved and the soul-stirring music began.
Like an orchestra tuning their instruments, consumer Christianity is producing chaotic and unpleasant noise about God. The prevailing view of God as an alienated commodity has fueled endless pontificating about his ways and character. This noise reveals a failure of reverence toward the one who declared, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways?for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts."
Rather than adding to the noise perhaps it is time for us to finally be silent, be still, and wait in quit anticipation for God to begin a new work. Leopold Stokowski, the composer who founded the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in 1945, once said, "A painter paints his pictures on canvas. But musicians paint their pictures on silence." Maybe God is waiting for us to be silent long enough so he may begin painting a new picture in our imaginations; to begin transforming our image of a manageable deity into one that can truly inspire.
To start reversing our malformed view of God, perhaps we need to cover our mouths with our hands and humbly confess our ignorance like Job, "I have uttered what I did not know." Strangely, our first step beyond consumer Christianity may be toward agnosticism. An agnostic is literally someone who says "I don't know." The word comes from the Greek a-gnostos meaning "not-knowing." It is commonly used to mean one who neither affirms nor denies the existence of God. Divine agnosticism, the sort I'm advocating, differs in that it affirms the existence of God but then acknowledges our human inability to fully grasp his infinite nature.
Does this mean we can know nothing about God apart from his existence? Of course not. But there is an important hierarchy to knowing; before we can know anything about God we must first humbly confess that we know nothing. Divine agnosticism simply recognizes what Kierkegaard called the "infinite qualitative difference" between God and man. Like Job, an honest relationship with God begins when we accept our finite condition as a creature and cease our futile attempts to contain God with our noisy words.
Job's humble silence before the grandeur of the Almighty was not an isolated event. The same human response has been recorded numerous times in both scripture and history. Thomas Aquinas was one of the greatest theologians of the Middle Ages. His Summa Theologia addresses ten thousand objections to the Christian faith. Some have called it one of the greatest intellectual achievements of western civilization. But on December 6, 1273 Aquinas abruptly announced to his secretary that he would write no more. While worshipping in the chapel of Saint Nicholas, Aquinas had an intense experience with God. "I can do no more," he said, "such things have been revealed to me that all I have written seems to me as so much straw."
More recently Karl Barth, arguably the 20th century's most celebrated and prolific theologian, also came to recognize the limits and inadequacy of his words about God. Barth envisioned entering heaven pushing a cart full of his books and hearing the angels laugh. He said, "In heaven we shall know all that is necessary, and we shall not have to write on paper or read more?.Indeed, I shall be able to dump even the Church Dogmatics, over the growth of which the angels have long been amazed, on some heavenly floor as a pile of waste paper."
Consumerism, with its never-ending noise about its consumable god, has led us to believe that our words and notions about God are of supreme importance. It has made the church into a noisy orchestra without harmony and fearful of silence. But humble silence offers us liberation from our digital cocoons to experience wonder once again. Silence allows us the space to contemplate the vastness of the heavens and the God beyond them. Silence can shatter the trivialized deity that has occupied our imaginations, and provide God the canvas to begin a new work in our souls.
You can read the full introduction to The Divine Commodity on Skye's blog.
January 30, 2009
Church leaders are focused on best practices and missional theory, but what really matters is often overlooked.
by Skye Jethani
At any given moment we are each engaged in three dramas, but only one of them ultimately matters.
But there is a second drama that many practical actors ignore - the drama of the theoretical. While we are busy living our lives and doing our ministry, there is a deeper drama informing and guiding our decisions. This drama of the theoretical is where our assumptions and beliefs are at play; where our often unspoken philosophy of ministry is behind the scenes pulling the levers and pushing the buttons - what we believe about the church, mission, culture, and theology. Those with more reflective faculties are able to speak and identify this drama of the theoretical in a way many practical dramatists simply cannot. For this reason, as my college professor used to say, they often find themselves writing about the world rather than running it.
Most pastors and church leaders, as well as the resources created to help them, are primarily concerned with these two dramas - the practical and the theoretical. What should I think and what should I do? For this reason we often ask secular experts in the practical and theoretical to help us lead our churches. But we deceive ourselves if we believe these two dramas comprise the bulk of our life or significance. Because behind the drama of the practical, and far deeper than the drama of the theoretical, there lies a third drama more powerful than either and whose outcome controls them both - the drama of the eternal.
The Quaker missionary and scholar Thomas Kelly wrote about this deeper drama as World War II was escalating:
Out in front of us is the drama of men and of nations, seething, struggling, laboring, dying. Upon this tragic drama in these days our eyes are all set in anxious watchfulness and in prayer. But within the silences of the souls of men an eternal drama is ever being enacted, in these days as well as in others. And on the outcome of this inner drama rests, ultimately, the outer pageant of history. It is the drama of the Hound of Heaven baying relentlessly upon the track of man.
We are not merely managers of religious institutions with practical duties. Neither are we merely thought-leaders living on the rarified air of theory and vision. We are spiritual leaders called to shepherd the souls of women, men, and children. Of all people we are called to be most aware and sensitive to the drama of the eternal. And yet I hear so little about this responsibility among church leaders today because playing in the drama of the eternal is something secular leadership gurus and cultural pundits cannot teach us. But if we, the leaders of the church, will not take up this responsibility then who will?
Of course, before we can hope to see into the "silences of the souls of men" we must learn to discern the secret things that move within our own souls. For weeks on this blog people have debated the merits of missional verses attractional church models (an exercise in the drama of the theoretical). But can we see how our advocacy of one model or the other is linked to the eternal drama at play deeper within? What does attracting a crowd to hear me speak do to satisfy my insecure identity? How might an aggressively missional model fuel my need for accomplishment? We are na?ve to think the drama of the eternal isn't in some way impacting the drama of the theoretical.
Likewise, our energetic and often frenzied pace in ministry (the drama of the practical) also finds its headwaters in the drama of the eternal. Do our actions, even the busy ones, flow from a soul at peace in the presence of the Lord, or are we accomplishing objectives from an idolatrous desire to serve our ego? The resolution of this inner drama, as Kelly remarks, will ultimately determine the outer pageant of our lives and ministries.
Ted Haggard's step back into the spotlight vividly illustrates this truth. No one doubts Haggard's expertise in the drama of the practical - he grew a very large church. Many have celebrated his ability to engage the drama of the theoretical - he became a leader in the evangelical political and cultural movement. But it was the drama of the eternal in his soul that defined his destiny and leaves me to wonder - could the very same wound in his soul that led to drug abuse and sexual misconduct have been what fueled his celebrated practical and theoretical achievements as well?
When we take our gaze off the celebrity pastors (practical dramatists) and the ministry pundits (theoretical dramatists) and we fix our eyes once again on Jesus, we'll discover a spiritual leader with the wisdom to focus on the only drama that really matters. Jesus lived and served from a soul at one with the Father and an identity secure in his love. From this inner place he drew the strength to do might works (drama of the practical) and teach profound truths (drama of the theoretical), but more importantly he found the courage to endure outward failure, ridicule, and abandonment. The drama of the eternal, his inner communion with his Father, defined and determined the outward drama of his life. Unfortunately, too many of us in ministry have it the other way around.
At any given moment we are each engaged in three dramas, but only one of them ultimately matters.
January 27, 2009
Busyness is evidence of unhealthy appetites.
A paradox has emerged in this new millennium: people have enhanced quality of life, but at the same time they are adding to their stress levels by taking on more than they have resources to handle. It's as though their eyes were bigger than their stomachs.
- David Allen, Getting Things Done
It's more than likely that you've heard a message, read a book, or done some thinking about "busyness" in the last year or two. Slightly less likely, but still entirely possible, is that you've heard a message, read a book, or done some thinking on "gluttony" during the same time.
It's highly unlikely that the two were connected. But maybe they should have been.
Why do we say yes to so much? Is it because we are guilt-ridden, co-dependent angst monkeys who lack the willpower to say no? No. We say no to a million things a day. Usually to things that are good for us, but still...when we want to, we know how to say no just fine, thank you.
Is it because we have a drive towards self justification that works itself out in our work and an ever-increasing load of commitments through which we seek to earn the favor of others and God? In part, yes...
But maybe it also has something to do with our appetites.
You know, our appetites for recognition and "importance." To be liked, appreciated, admired. Even our appetite to "get things done." And honestly, there's nothing inherently wrong with that. But like all things in this broken world, left unchecked by the Spirit and un-submitted to God, our appetite to be liked and our desire to achieve will run out of control.
I've been thinking about busyness as though it is a problem to be managed - increase my productivity and I could, of course, accept and keep more commitments, more on my plate... more to feed my ego.
Maybe the problem with busyness isn't it. Maybe it's me. Me and my ego and pride.
Conceived of this way, busyness isn't an issue of time management and productivity, it's an issue of desire. When is enough, enough? When am I doing enough good things through which that God-given desire to feel productive and useful in this world can be fulfilled? When do I cross the line between finding satisfaction in the good day's work I put in and trying to find my identity through an ever-increasing load of ego-enhancing commitments?
I spend a lot of time thinking about how people can be more productive in ministry. And don't get me wrong, I want to continue to work on productivity/time management and all the rest. But until I work through the inner issues of why I try to do so much, all the productivity hacks in the word really just add up to enabling.
In other words, most days I don't need any more help being productive or managing the stress of work. I think I need help in managing my appetite for applause and the stress of opportunity.
I fear my busyness is simply a sign of my gluttony.
November 18, 2008
by Dave Gibbons
I imagine you may be paying more attention to the market news. Our 401Ks have turned into a 201Ks! The markets are in transition. Most likely this recession will not be quickly fixed with bailouts and the lowering of interest rates. The unraveling of our security seems to be happening at unprecedented speed, leaving many disoriented and stressed.
This is affecting churches too. Giving is down. Layoffs are happening not only among our members but also our church staffs. I spoke to one friend who said their giving is over thirty percent below what was expected. Many of us in church leadership are facing hard decisions. To avoid some of these hard choices by closing our eyes only delays the inevitable pain.
When chaos happens it's easy to just hunker down, think of quick strategies to get out of the mess, or make rash choices. But perhaps slowing down for a season of reflection would do us well. What might God be saying to me, to our country? While we gravitate quickly to happy endings and stories of inspiration, perhaps a period of confession and repentance is also in order. Could this be a disciplining from God?for America?for our churches? for me?
Sure it's easy to shamelessly wag our finger at Wall Street bankers, traders, and lenders. Their avarice, greed, and ostentatious ways are notorious. But before we strain our finger, let's not forgot who they've been working for. We're also involved in their trades, their transactions, and the thirst for MORE. The hard reality is, we are Wall Street. We are the lenders, we are the traders, and now we are the debtors.
The church is not untainted by this. I understand a need to be a healthy and purposeful church, but have we gone overboard with our focus on formulas, numbers, size, influence, marketing techniques, and branding? Have we forgotten what makes the church the church? At the end of the day, are we really driven by God's heart? Are we really motivated by Christ's love and not the money or the numbers?
Of late the church has become increasingly "cause" focused. Justice and advocacy is our mantra, but how much do we need to pour into advertising this? I thought the right hand wasn't supposed to know what the left hand was doing? How much do we really need to be spending on self-promotion within the church?
While in Thailand, the Muslims we worked with on one of the southern islands were sick of the Western "help" they received. They said after the tsunami, "western Christians came to give us things without asking what we needed, and then they took pictures with their banners and left." Their conclusion, "The Christians used us."
Perhaps just as these economic times reflect the greed and lusts of our capital markets, they also shed light upon the darkness of the church. I'm writing this in an airplane knowing that I too struggle with affections that cause me to drift away from my God. Given to my own thirst for material items and the good life, I too can forget the true wealth I have in Christ.
Then I remembered this mystical, unexpected encounter of the Spirit from earlier in the week. I had a sacred moment that came upon me and overwhelmed me with emotion. Two young men shared with me some temptations they were dealing with. In that moment as they were sharing, I was quickly reminded of what my father-in-law told me twenty years ago before I entered the pastorate. He said, "Dave, be careful of the big three: money, interactions with women, and pride." As I recalled his words with these two promising leaders whom I deeply love, the words from I John 2:15-17 flooded my soul.
Love not the world. Neither the things in the world. For anyone that loves the world, the love of the Father is not in Him. For all that is in the world,
The Lust of the Flesh.
The Lust of the Eyes.
And the Pride of Life.
Is not of the Father but is of the world.
And the world passes away and the lusts thereof. . . But he that does the will of God abides forever.
As I shared this passage, I felt God's presence much like I did when I first read those words in Telluride, Colorado, at a youth retreat in the middle of the Rockies. I vividly remember God speaking with me in the midst of the chaos of my parent's divorce and the fracturing of our home, the loss of our socio-economic standing, the deafening sound of a family devastated by broken dreams: "?and the world passes away but he that does the will of God abides forever." It was an invitation into an unshakeable kingdom, a bed-rock of safety in the midst of a long nightmare.
July 8, 2008
What church leaders can learn through literature.
This is a highly unscientific observation, but I stand by it: In my scouring of bookshelves in pastor's studies and church libraries, I regularly find volumes from the corporate world about how to be an effective leader and efficient administrator; studies from the humanities about human psychology and sexuality; and manuals from the financial and legal sectors about budgeting, zoning, and liability issues. What I seldom, if ever, find is fiction. And I think that's a shame.
For much of their history, many evangelicals have considered novels to be either immoral or simply a waste of time. (To be fair, there are a good many novels that are both.) But good fiction (an entirely subjective category, I admit) can help a minister better understand the people to whom he or she is ministering - people struggling with doubt, addictions, or questions about calling and vocation. Here's a list of a few novels I think every minister should read, along with a few reasons why.
The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde - a great look at how a person's spirit can be tormented by secret sin.
Wealthy and conceited Dorian Gray wants to be young forever. He commissions an artist to paint his portrait. Then wishes that his portrait would age and bear the evidence of his dissipation and loose living, but that he would stay young forever. He gets what he asks for. His struggle with sin is powerful (and never explicit, by the way).
Continue reading at www.OfftheAgenda.com.
May 30, 2008
Do our spiritual practices insulate us from the benefits of pain?
In a recent issue of New York magazine, Adam Sternbergh accuses, "You Walk Wrong." And I can't help but think that his insight into feet has spiritual application for Western Christians.
As the title suggests, Sternbergh claims that none of us walks correctly. But it's not our fault; it's shoes. "Shoes are bad," he claims. In fact, he cites researcher William Rossi as saying, "Natural gait is biomechanically impossible for any shoe-wearing person." After comparing the feet of 180 people from different cultures, along with a few feet from 2,000-year-old skeletons, researchers concluded that feet were healthier before shoes became fashionable (the skeleton feet were better off). And people who don't wear shoes - Zulus, in this case - have healthier feet than we Westerners. Athletes who wear cheaper, less padded, shoes have fewer injuries. Elderly people with back, knee, and hip problems report less pain when barefoot. This is, to oversimplify, because feet absorb shock better than shoes (because they flex) and because we walk lighter when barefoot (because we can feel the ground).
Growing up, I loved the feeling of shag carpet and cool mud between my toes and feeling the earth as God made it, with all its points and sharp edges. So I was particularly pleased at Sternbergh's conclusion: that our feet - and the rest of our ambulating parts by extension - are healthier when we avoid the temptation to wrap them in foam. Lacing up to avoid the momentary discomforts of walking unshod causes long-term problems, because although our feet adjust to walking without shoes, our joints never adjust to walking with them.
Now for the spiritual application.
Our culture is determined to mediate its own experiences, so that we feel what we want when we want. That explains my frustration with NetFlix. Who knows what kind of mood I'll be in by the time I get a movie in the mail? Will I want to laugh or think or cry on Friday evening two weeks from now? Or to take another example, when my wife brings up a difficult conversation (like the family budget) at an inconvenient time, I'm tempted to say, "I can't deal with this right now." It's as if I have some right to determine when to face difficulty and what emotions to engage.
This impulse appears in broader Christian culture. The title of a book by the bestselling author of Boundaries (Zondervan, 2002) says it all: Safe People: How to Find Relationships That Are Good for You and Avoid Those That Aren't (Zondervan, 1996). We've learned to protect ourselves with spiritual gifts inventories: "I'm afraid I can't help in the youth group; it's not my gift." We consider things edifying if they reinforce what we think, not if they unsettle us (I had this conversation with Christians concerning Pedro the Lion.)
Churches, too, can further insulate their members by catering to these tendencies. Instead of encouraging parishioners to submit to the congregation, an elder, or mentor, churches often teach them to self-diagnose and self-prescribe their spiritual formation regimen. Or they offer a variety of service times and styles to prevent congregants from making difficult (and formative) decisions about priorities.
When you walk without the insulation of shoes, you don't have the privilege of deciding when to tread rocky ground or cool mud or warm sand. But that's just what makes our feet resilient. We take the rough terrain when it comes and learn balance in the process. Similarly, if I lived without spiritual insulation, I would learn balance by adjusting my stride to account for difficulties when they arise, not by avoiding them until I'm ready to face them. My spiritual feet would toughen and I would be healthier for it.
What's the solution? Spiritual disciplines are a great place to start. We can slip off our shoes and maneuver uncomfortable ground through fasting, silence, and giving. Over time - according to the saints who do this sort of thing - you find the periods of discipline more natural than indulgence, and your feet stay bare more often.
For myself, I've found liturgical worship and following the Church calendar to do much the same thing. Pentecost Sunday - regardless of how I feel about my finances or family issues - is a cause for celebration. I may not feel the presence of the Holy Spirit, but I am directed to rejoice in it nonetheless. Conversely, whatever my personal victories, Good Friday is a time to mourn.
In The Gift of Pain (Zondervan, 1993) Paul Brand (with Philip Yancey), explains that insensitivity to pain has serious medical consequences:
Without this chorus of pain, a leprosy patient lives in constant peril. He will wear too-tight shoes all day. He will walk five, ten, fifteen miles without changing gait or shifting weight. And?even if sores break open inside his shoe, he will not limp.
Does the same not apply to our souls? What do we risk by ignoring the "indispensable protection of pain?"
April 29, 2008
What will your church members do with their “economic stimulus” checks?
"I thought that spending my check from the government was supposed to be the patriotic thing to do, but I'm not sure it's the Kingdom thing to do." That is how my friend Chuck began explaining his idea about what our congregation could do with the economic stimulus payments that begin arriving in the mail this week. After hearing so much about the sluggish economy and our responsibility to jumpstart it through consumption, he was wondering if there might be a better way to invest Uncle Sam's rebate.
On Sunday, I invited Chuck to join me in front of our church. I asked him to explain why spending the money on himself was not the best thing he could do with it. "As I read about the government's plan in the news, the more the idea of spending money on myself seemed to be at odds with the values of God's kingdom," he said. He told us he'd been reading Jesus' words in Luke 12 and it appeared to be opposed to the message that we can spend our way to prosperity, security, and happiness.
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear? Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted.
Chuck said that Kingdom investment doesn't necessarily mean giving money to the church.
Maybe there is a neighbor who needs some help. Maybe there is a ministry that could use some financial generosity. "The important thing," Chuck told the congregation, "is to ask God what his plans are for this money."
Next Sunday our church will use more time talking about this. The congregation will be encouraged to pray about the best way to invest their rebate. It's exciting to consider how the thousands of dollars represented in our local congregation could be creatively invested in ways that reflect and advance God's Kingdom.
Is your church talking about the Economic Stimulus Package? Has your congregation spent time imagining how our government's plan to stimulate the economy might be an opportunity to demonstrate God's alternative economy? Or, are you staying clear of anything that smacks of government and politics?
What about churches in urban or poorer rural communities - are these checks a small taste of justice for those left behind by our full-speed economy? Will people in your church spend the money on themselves, or will you also encourage them to invest it in God's kingdom?
Share what your church is doing with the stimulus package checks - the editors would love to hear.
December 3, 2007
How is your church combating the busyness and materialism of the season?
Last week my wife and I got all of our Christmas shopping done - in one day. This blitzkrieg approach has become a tradition for us. It's like pulling a tooth; better to have the whole thing out at once. In the evening we treated ourselves to a victory dinner at a restaurant. While savoring my accomplishment and my meal, I watched A Charlie Brown Christmas on the television above the bar. Ah, Christmas in America - spend all day battling the crowds at the mall and have Luke chapter 2 recited to you by a cartoon character at night.
Many have lamented the way our culture has "taken Christ out of Christmas," and in recent years we've heard conservative pundits freak out when retailers wish customers a "Happy Holiday" rather than "Merry Christmas." But even for those of us in the church, aware of the season's spiritual significance, and determined to celebrate the advent of the Messiah, this month still poses many challenges. Let's face it, focusing on God in our society is always difficult and the added stress of the holidays only makes things harder.
Four years ago we decided to shift the way our church engaged Advent. We came to see that December posed unique challenges for our people, and if these obstacles were left unchecked they would significantly interrupt our mission to be formed into the image of Christ. For this reason our church is taking some intentional steps to help people commune with God this Christmas in a counter-cultural way.
The first obstacle we identified was busyness. Ask anyone in my church, on any day, what keeps them from communing with God and chances are they'll say busyness. But during December it really gets out of control. Beyond ordinary obligations schedules also fill up with numerous parties, school holiday programs, shopping excursions, vacations, and family gatherings with Cousin Eddie. During a season when we are supposed to slow down and commune deeply with Christ and family we can hardly find time to breathe.
We decided the church should combat this tendency rather than contribute to it. So, instead of adding programs and activities during December we've actually reduced them. For example, we've stayed away from large Christmas productions for children or adults. These events, while beautiful and worshipful, often take weeks of preparation that fill up the calendar with practices which separate families. We also suspend most adult and children's classes on Sunday so families can worship together, and we provide at-home Advent family devotionals and encourage heads of households to gather their clan weekly.
In addition, beginning in late October we start encouraging everyone to complete their Christmas shopping before December 1. This frees up time during Advent to connect with others, and hours that would otherwise be spent at the mall can now be used to serve someone in the name of Christ. It seems so simple, but I can't tell you how many people have been blessed by this suggestion.
The second obstacle we identified was materialism. You know consumption is a problem in society when the first day of the Christmas shopping season is known as "Black Friday." It is so called because it's the day most retailers discover if they will make a profit for the year (be in the black). Our entire economy hinges on whether or not people celebrate Christmas by purchasing ChiaPets and little dancing Santas. But all of the focus on "stuff" distracts us from focusing on Christ. (If you haven't heard about it already, check out the site for What Would Jesus Buy? - a new film debuting this month.)
To address this obstacle we encourage our community to reduce their shopping expenses and match whatever they spend by giving to a compassion or missions project. This year we're highlighting two projects in particular. The first is in partnership with our missionaries in Cambodia working with AIDS patients. The other is an urban ministry in Chicago we've been connected with for years. There are other projects available, and a number involve more than giving money. Many small groups, for example, take time to engage a local service project together and children are encouraged to participate as well.
To be honest, not everyone has appreciated this approach. Some come to our church with expectations of an elaborate Christmas pageant, and others don't want to be challenged every week to shop earlier and spend less. But our desire is simple - to release time for communion with God and service to others, and to refocus our attention away from the kitsch and onto Christ.
That's our attempt to overcome the obstacles of Advent. What is you're church doing?
October 1, 2007
Why are we so good at leading people to faith and so bad at prodding them to maturity?
Gordon MacDonald's column for October is my own lament: Why are there so many spiritual babies? And why don't the mature believers do something about it? We're really good at bringing people into the kingdom, Gordon says, but lousy at prodding them to maturity. Our sage is not afraid to point fingers.
I have been musing on the words of Martin Thornton: "A walloping great congregation," he wrote, "is fine and fun, but what most communities really need is a couple of saints.
The tragedy is that they may well be there in embryo, waiting to be discovered, waiting for sound training, waiting to be emancipated from the cult of the mediocre."
"Saints," he says. Mature Christians: people who are "grown-up" in their faith, to whom one assigns descriptors such as holy, Christ-like, Godly, or men or women of God.
Now mature, in my book does not mean the "churchly," those who have mastered the vocabulary and the litany of church life, who come alive only when the church doors open. Rather, I have in mind those who walk through all the corridors of the larger life - the market-place, the home and community, the playing fields - and do it in such a way that, sooner or later, it is concluded that Jesus' fingerprints are all over them.
I have concluded that our branch of the Christian movement (sometimes called Evangelical) is pretty good at wooing people across the line into faith in Jesus. And we're also not bad at helping new-believers become acquainted with the rudiments of a life of faith: devotional exercise, church involvement, and basic Bible information - something you could call Christian infancy.
But what our tradition lacks of late - my opinion anyway - is knowing how to prod and poke people past the "infancy" and into Christian maturity.
A definition of a mature Christian is lacking. Best to say that you know a mature Christian when you see one. They're in the New Testament. Barnabas is one. Aquila and Priscilla are others. Onesiphorous impresses me. And so is the mother of Rufus of whom Paul said, "she has been a mother to me." That's a short list.
The marks of maturity? Self-sustaining in spiritual devotions. Wise in human relationships. Humble and serving. Comfortable and functional in the everyday world where people of faith can be in short supply. Substantial in conversation; prudent in acquisition; respectful in conflict; faithful in commitments.
Take a few minutes and ask how many people you know who would fit such a description. How many? Apparently, Paul, pondered the question when he thought about Corinthian Christians and said, "I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly - mere infants in Christ."
As usual, I'm long on questions and short on answers. Right now I'm wondering - assuming that Martin Thornton is right - if we church people have forgotten how to raise saints. And if the question is worthy, then what's been going wrong? Bad preaching? Shallow books? Too much emphasis on a problem-solving, self-help kind of faith?
Maybe the answer is deeper or more profound that that.
Continue reading Gordon MacDonald's column at LeadershipJournal.net.
Pastor and author Gordon MacDonald is chair of World Relief and editor-at-large of Leadership.
June 21, 2007
Reading God's Word with no artificial additives.
Previously, John Dunham from the International Bible Society wrote about the unintended impact of having scripture divided by chapters and verses. It's led to what he calls "verse jacking," taking scripture out of context and using it for a purpose it was never intended. In this follow up post Dunham responds to some of your comments, and introduces an alternative way to read the Bible.
Commenting on my previous post, Glenn Krobel wrote:
There are too many Christians in ministry today who thrive off attacking our heritage without offering a solutions to problems they address.
Thanks for bringing that up, Glenn. I agree. And despite many people thinking the current system is too ingrained to move away from, I think it's worth a try. On August 1, International Bible Society will release The Books of The Bible. Chapter and verse numbers? Gone. Topical section headers? Gone. Extra columns? Gone. On the page helps? Gone. Footnotes? Moved to the back of each book. What you are left with is a no-additives edition of the Bible.
Not only have we taken out the dubiously beneficial additives, but we have also humbly attempted to bring a more faithful structure to today's Bible. There is no doubt the Holy Spirit has worked powerfully throughout the centuries through God's word in the Messiah's church, no matter what form his word has taken. But form does matter as we display the beauty of God's word.
Topical section headers are shortcuts for finding a verse or letting us know what's going on. Therein is the problem. Too often we rely on them to tell us how to interpret a passage without regard to the larger story, and sometimes these breaks come at the worst spots. While trained leaders may easily look past them, most readers are better off without them. The Books of The Bible allows the literary structure of a book to spring out by inserting appropriate amounts of white space in places where the author shows a transition (e.g., the toledot formulae in the Torah or Matthew's five sections of Jesus' activity and teaching).
A single-column typesetting is what we expect when we open any non-fiction book or novel. But most Bibles have two columns. Rick Shott correctly commented that this is for conserving space and reducing white space. This ends up saving publishers about fifteen to twenty percent on paper. But at what cost? Books like the Psalms are absolutely decimated with no reasonable way of making sense of the poetic structure. A single-column text displays poetry more clearly and narrative more naturally.
At times throughout the Bible's development limits in technology forced scribes to separate books that were meant to be one. For example, the books we know today as 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings were originally a unified book telling a single narrative. In The Books of The Bible, Samuel?Kings is presented as the one book that it is. Luke and Acts are two volumes of a single history, so they have been placed together.
Historians have documented over 70 different orders of the books of the Bible. In the current Protestant Bible, poetry and wisdom literature are mixed up with each other and prophets are generally grouped together by the size of the books, the four gospels are grouped together, and Paul's letters are placed in the order of their length. As the reformers did, we asked, "Is this tradition helpful?" In The Books of The Bible, we have put poetry books in a group and wisdom books in another. We have put the prophets in historical order, and the same goes for Paul's letters. And we've honored the fourfold gospel tradition by grouping each gospel with other New Testament books by theme or audience. To see the complete table of contents, visit www.thebooksofthebible.info.
To revisit chapters and verses, in many ways they have become a crutch for us to quickly locate a passage. But recall what Jesus did in Luke's account: "He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: ?The Spirit of the Lord is on me . . .' " Our Lord did not use a handy reference system. He had devoted his life to the study of Scripture and was able to find passages based solely on context.
I crave that sort of familiarity with the Bible, and I think it will help all people. In sermons and Bible studies, one can locate a section like any book club would: "Turn to page 362, second paragraph, where it says . . ." We already do just fine without chapters and verses in every other area of life. (We recognize, however, that chapters and verses are of limited benefit, so we have retained a chapter and verse range at the bottom of each page.)
We hope that God's image bearers will use this new (and in many ways, old) format of the Scripture to engage in more and better Bible reading. There is no question that God has worked in amazing ways throughout the history of the Bible. But it is time to revisit how we print and read sacred Scripture. By liberating God's word from some of the formatting constraints that have been placed on it, his people will be better equipped to tell his awesome story of redemption.
June 7, 2007
Having a "successful ministry" can keep pastors from the hard work of character transformation.
This week I am attending the Midwest Regional Spiritual Formation Forum at Elmbrook Church near Milwaukee. The conference theme is "spiritual formation and the mission of the church." Most interpret "mission" to mean a measurable impact in the world. Are people coming to Christ? Is the church making a difference? But the first plenary speaker, Dave Johnson - pastor of Church of the Open Door in Maple Grove, Minnesota - says our desire for external impact should take a back seat to internal transformation.
Johnson spoke about the pressure that comes from being anointed for ministry. When God empowers us with the skills to powerfully carry out his purposes it is like a weight being put upon us, and it takes real interior strength to carry it for any amount of time. This interior strength is a character formed in the image of Christ.
Drawing from the life and downfall of Samson, he went on to tell the stories of men and women who were used powerfully by God to accomplish even miraculous things, but who eventually collapsed because their characters simply could not carry the weight of their anointing. These leaders had not made the transformation of their characters the first priority in their life and ministry.
The reason many of us ignore the formation of our character, says Johnson, is because it will slow us down. Many ministry leaders want success, a big church, or a crowd. But how many of us want a real life? How many of us want a life in God? We can have that, Johnson believes. We can have a character that produces love, peace, patience, kindness?but it will slow us down. It might mean the church won't grow as big as quickly. It might mean the crowd will get smaller.
But the alternative is both devastating and all too common. The alternative is a ministry of high impact but shallow character. As only Johnson could say it, "In the bible it was a miracle when God spoke through an ass. Now it happens everyday." Translation: God is speaking powerfully through many pastors, but their characters show nothing of God's life. These leaders, along with their anger, pride, bitterness, and cynicism, are tolerated by many churches because they are able to "fill the room." Their powerful spiritual gifts, like Samson's, deflect the flaws of their characters.
Johnson believes that many of us opt to ignore the slow, hard work of character formation because we simply don't want it. It is a matter of intention. We don't want to be slowed down in our pursuit of ministry impact and tangible achievement. In order to have a life in God, a life full of his character, we have to want it more than anything else.
Johnson concluded with this simple but haunting question - What do you want?
June 5, 2007
Is verse-by-verse bible teaching nutritious?
There are many dangers in ministry. Jesus warned about the yeast of the Pharisees. Paul warned about engaging foolish controversies. But what about enumerated chapters and verses in the Bible-are those numbers added by editors a threat to sound teaching? John Dunham from the International Bible Society addresses their unexpected impact.
What was the last thing you ate? If it came from a package, you could probably scan down the list of ingredients and find high fructose corn syrup. What is that stuff anyway? Suffice it to say, it's a readily available, cheap substance that makes food taste good. A manufacturer's dream. But is it good for you? Does it harm you? Think for a moment how ubiquitous this stuff is. We take for granted that our food will have high fructose corn syrup, so we eat it without a second thought.
You know what else is like that? The chapters and verses in the Bible. What was the last Scripture passage you read? While you were reading, you probably encountered various numbers strewn throughout. If you had seen those numbers in any other book, it would have seemed odd. But chapter and verse numbers have become part of the fabric of the Bible over the last few centuries. Are these numbers good for you? Will they harm your Bible reading? Chapter and verse markings have become ubiquitous, and people rarely stop to question the ramifications of their inclusion in the sacred text.
So why do we have them anyway? Chapter numbers were first added to the Bible in the 1200s to facilitate the process of reading Scripture publicly. The breaks were inserted to make the readings approximately the same length. Verse numbers entered in the 1500s in order to help scholars locate specific phrases as they worked in the burgeoning field of biblical commentary.
These additions to the text came from good motives, and were undoubtedly helpful to the people who used them for the reasons above. But are they helpful in all the ways we use them today? It's not like they are an inspired part of the text. There were, in fact, various number systems developed for Scripture. (Did you know that one version of Matthew had 68 chapters?) But once a particular system became standardized, we never looked back. Chapters and verses were here to stay.
Some people have recognized the deleterious effects of these numbers over the last few generations. (See for instance The Message or The Bible to Be Read as Living Literature.) Sometimes sentences are broken in unnatural places. Verse numbers cause oral readers to insert breaks where none was intended. And perhaps worst of all, the story of God and his creation becomes chopped into little bits as "God's Owner's Manual for Life" or "Bible Promises for Expectant Mothers Named Cathy." People naturally look to their favorite verses to provide comfort or instruction without regard to the author's point in the surrounding context. Similarly, chapters tell me where to stop reading, sometimes at the most inopportune times.
Verse jacking, taking verses and using them for something other than what was intended, is endemic to our culture.
I hear people quote from Isaiah (55:11, for those keeping score at home) all the time saying, "God says his word won't return to him empty." I too have used that sentence to assure people that their quoting a Bible "verse" will surely be effective given this promise. But what happens if we look at the context? When you read the surrounding stanzas of the oracle, it emerges that God is foretelling his people's return from exile, and further, even the removal of the curse from the creation. From Genesis and John we see that the very word of God is effective in creation. Isaiah says that God's word will bring about re-creation, restoration and renewal.
Think about the storied approach to the Bible versus the spoon-fed bits approach in the context of discipleship. When you started ministering in your current church, did you sit a staff member down and ask them to list all the inside jokes you might encounter? More than likely, you let the jokes happen, and as they did, someone explained to you why they were funny. They told a story. They discipled you in the story of your staff. Similarly, as you lead your church in seeing what God is doing in the Bible, help them to engage the story organically, not as a laundry list of anecdotes.
While a smaller understanding of a phrase of Scripture may be technically correct, it is tremendously helpful, actually necessary, to see it within the context of God's bigger story. In our bumper sticker culture, that's a tall order, but it's like choosing a natural sweetener over a cheap substitute. It's just better in the long run.
John Dunham is a WordWright at International Bible Society. He lives in Colorado Springs with his wife Susan and learned recently that whitewater kayaking is really hard work if you paddle improperly.
April 13, 2007
How we label others and ourselves gives life and takes it away.
What is a Christian response to the flap over radio personality Don Imus's description of the Rutgers women's basketball team? Is his firing a concession to pressure groups or an appropriate judgment? In this debate, is there something deeper to be said about language and the coarseness of public conversation? This column by Mark Labberton, appearing in the Spring issue of Leadership and arriving in mailboxes this week, was written before current controversy. In it Labberton speaks to the deeper issues of naming and labeling. He offers a biblical perspective on the words we apply to others and to ourselves.
Every day our naming of the people around us gives life and takes it away. Really? Really.
Being rightly named means being truly known. It changes our lives. Embedded in our words, and in our actions, are the names we give to and receive from others. Gestures of value, nods of recognition, glances of curiosity, looks of compassion, signs of paying attention build one another up.
God created by naming: "Let there by light," and "let us make humankind in our image." In turn, the human beings named with unflinching instinct, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh." Yet right from the start our very capacity for rightly naming includes our freedom to misname. "Did God really say . . ." are words that rename God's intent, and reality cracks. "This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh" easily becomes, "The woman you gave me."
Misnaming misidentifies who we are and our relation to others. The tragic consequences are everywhere.
Power can be measured by our capacity to give names that stick. Middle school teaches us this, if nothing else. If we carry the wrong name given us through some powerful voice at some vulnerable moment, we can be crippled.
Every time the church gathers in worship, we gather as those bearing names not our own: Inadequate. Failure. Bad Parent. Fat. Together. We can be deluded or oppressed by the naming and misnaming we experience and perpetrate on others.
Suffering, individually and collectively, intensifies when it's not named or wrongly named. Injustice wracks our world with the complex legacy of God's treasured creatures misnaming God, misnaming ourselves, and misnaming our neighbor. This abuse of power is our undoing.
Dalits ("Untouchables") in India are required by Hindu law to be given one name, and it must be derogatory: Ugly, Stupid, Dung. Imagine the transformation when they discover that in Jesus, God came as a dalit (itself an extraordinary shock of rightly, if unexpectedly naming, God), and that he has the power to rename them: Chosen. Holy. Beloved.
"Behold, all things are new." Indeed.
As pastors and leaders, ours is a vocation of naming. By God's grace, our calling is to live into our own real names as we help others discover theirs, so that in turn they can so live and name the people and the world around them that what has been lost is found, that those who are blind may see. When we live this way, we participate in "doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly before our God."
Mark Labberton is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, California.
March 27, 2007
Why do churches have such low expectations?
Dallas Willard has said, "We fail to be disciples only because we do not decide to be. We do not intend to be disciples." But which is the greater problem, the person who does not intend to be a disciple or the church that never expects him to be one? Dave Johnson, senior pastor of Church of the Open Door in Maple Grove, Minnesota, shares about a man from his childhood church. Ray was an elder who showed no evidence of transformation, and the church never seemed disturbed by that fact. Johnson asks the obvious question: What's up with that?
His name was Ray. He sat in the 3rd row on the aisle seat of the church I grew up in. Every Sunday, there he was - watching, critiquing, making sure my father said it right. Ray's Bible was a thing to behold. Words underlined and circled with arrows pointing to other words - notes in the margin of almost every page. I think he knew the Bible better than God.
Ray was a church guy. When I was 10, he scared me. When I was 20, after my father had begun to share with me the inside story of life in ministry, I came to realize that Ray scared him too. My dad was the pastor of our church. Ray was one of his elders - at least for a time - and he wasn't a happy guy. The Spirit's fruit, like love and joy, rarely showed up in him in any discernable way, and he didn't much like it if showed up in yours.
Sometimes I wonder if I've been too hard on Ray. He's somehow become the composite of every rigid, narrow minded person I've ever met in church. No matter - Ray's dead now - long gone - in heaven, no doubt. At least that's what we all thought, because Ray prayed the prayer. He believed all the right things about Jesus (His death, resurrection, 2nd coming, all that), and would fight you if you didn't. Like I said, Ray was a church guy. He just wasn't a good guy.
So here's my question: "What's up with that?" In all his years in church and in "the Word", Ray never became a different kind of person. He never changed. He never became more loving, gentle, peaceful, or patient. Indeed, he only seemed to become more angry and rigid as time went on. He became harder to be around. What's more, no one seemed to be bothered by that, as though something were out of the ordinary. No one wondered if maybe Ray had somehow missed the point.
In other words, not only did Ray never change but no one seemed to expect him to. Ray was just being Ray. He prayed the prayer, he believed the right stuff about Jesus, he was irritated with people who didn't, and he went to heaven when he died. So again the question: "What's up with that?"
Dave Johnson is the senior pastor of Church of the Open Door in Maple Grove, Minnesota. An interview with Johnson is featured in the upcoming spring issue of Leadership. He will also be a featured presenter at the 2007 Spiritual Formation Forum in Milwaukee June 6-8. You can learn more and register at the Spiritual Formation Forum website.
March 22, 2007
It�s more than what we do when no one is looking.��
The spring issue of Leadership is just a few weeks away from the mailbox. The issue focuses upon the formation of the pastor's soul and character; the behind-the-scenes work of God in the lives of very public church leaders. Matt Branaugh, our colleague at Christianity Today International, recently attended a ministry conference where his assumptions about character were challenged. In this post he shares his new, broader, perspective on what a leader with character looks like.
"Our character," goes the quote often attributed to H. Jackson Browne, "is what we do when we think no one is looking." That's how I've typically defined character. But not anymore.
Last week, I heard Dr. Henry Cloud speak at Willow Creek's Children's Ministry Conference. The psychologist, author, and speaker said how we define character is at the core of understanding why leadership problems develop in the church and beyond. "Character equals the ability to meet the demands of reality," Cloud told the gathering of about 3,500 people.
Based upon his own research and consulting experience, Cloud said problems of character in situations he's asked to help repair rarely have to do with a lack of brains, competency, or even honesty with the leader.
Instead, he believes a leader with character displays these six traits:
1. You create and maintain trust by making sure your people know that you understand their opinions and concerns;
2. You view truthfulness as more than just honesty, genuinely longing to digest information and adjust to the realities around you;
3. You make a genuine effort to be results-oriented, and not just grace-oriented;
4. You embrace bad news. You get it and get moving;
5. You don't maintain your leadership abilities. You grow them.
6. You accept the question of transcendence - you say you're not God and act like it.
I agree with Cloud. Doing these things says a lot about the stuff we're made of in the volatile world of leadership. Plus, my previous definition seemed a little trite. Character should require more than just watching what I'm doing when no one else is looking.
Matt Branaugh is editor of Ministry Resources and BuildingChurchLeaders.com at Christianity Today International.
February 27, 2007
Our fractured lifestyles pose new challenges for small group ministries.
Sam O'Neal, our colleague at Christianity Today International and the managing editor of ministry resources, recently participated in the small groups conference at Saddleback Church. In this report, O'Neal shares insights from two presentations. One highlighted the challenge small groups face in our culture, and the other presents an ancient alternative.
Last week, I had the privilege of representing Building Small Groups at the first-ever Purpose Driven Small Groups conference, hosted by Saddleback Church in sunny Lake Forest, California. Because the Purpose Driven folks were running the show, I've returned home with a great deal of useful information, almost all of it nicely packaged into acronyms and "pathways."
But I was most impressed by two presentations that drifted outside the Purpose Driven model. Both of them picked up the gauntlet thrown down by noted church consultant Lyle E. Schaller, who said: "The biggest challenge facing the church is to address the fragmentation and discontinuity of the American lifestyle."
Early Tuesday morning, Randy Frazee spoke on the call to community. According to Frazee, the average American family manages 35 separate relationships on a day-to-day basis - children, extended family, neighbors, government, school, friends, work, Starbucks employees, landlords, telemarketers, etc. And this is before that family gets invited to church, which usually adds another 6 connections - at least.
As a result, Americans are knee-deep in the unprecedented phenomenon of grouped isolation - what Frazee refers to as "crowded loneliness." We are in desperate need of meaningful relationships, yet too busy and too pulled to maintain them.
Even worse, our attempts to relieve our sense of isolation often contribute to our fragmentation. We might join a small group, for example. We'll get in contact with 3 to 11 other dedicated Christians and commit to meet and study the Bible every week.
But what happens? Those 3 to 11 people become another chunk of relationships that we have to manage - relationships that require phone calls, polite questions on Sunday morning, and Christmas gifts. That weekly Bible study devolves into thirty minutes of preparation, thirty minutes in the car driving to and from the appointed house, thirty minutes of genial conversation, thirty minutes of discussion, thirty minutes of prayer, and thirty dollars to pay the babysitter. In other words, our attempts to forge meaningful relationships often add up being "just another thing to do."
Randy Frazee did such a good job of highlighting the problems facing American small groups, and the perfunctory way we engage them, that I began to recognize a few disquieting patterns in my own life. How often have I approached the Bible as just another book to read? How often have I looked at Jesus as just another morning conversation?
These questions helped pique my curiosity about a workshop I spotted on Wednesday afternoon. It was called "Be Still." The presenters for the workshop were Judge Reinhold and his wife, Amy. You may be familiar with Judge from his roles in movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Beverly Hills Cop. He was also Aaron, the "close-talker" from Seinfeld. I just had to check out what he was going to say.
It turns out that he and his wife have produced a documentary on contemplative prayer with Scripture, otherwise known as lectio divina. The DVD, also called Be Still, features some of the most prominent Christian thinkers of our time - Dallas Willard, Calvin Miller, Beth Moore, Max Lucado, and Jerry Root, among others.
And yet, as much as I appreciated what each of those people had to say, what I found most valuable was taking the final 10 minutes to practice the discipline of lectio divina myself. The experience was very, very cool.
I alternated between listening to Matthew 11:28?30 (read by Richard Foster, no less) and sitting quietly for several minutes at a time, allowing the Holy Spirit to seep through the tangled clutter of my thoughts and nurture me with his Word. I was surprised at how natural the experience was - at how easily the words of Jesus settled into a place of prominence once I pushed everything else out of the way.
While Randy Frazee's talk helped me recognize the hectic and fractured reality of our lives, the Reinhold's workshop revealed an alternative way. In Amy Reinhold's words, we need to give ourselves "permission to stop." Permission to put everything else on hold and experience the presence, power, and direction of the Living God.
February 15, 2007
What practices keep your soul fueled for ministry?
Dallas Willard has written about the importance of soul care for those of us in ministry. He says,
The call of God to minister the gospel is a high honor and a noble challenge. It carries with it unique opportunities as well as special burdens and dangers for members of the clergy as well as their families. These burdens can be fruitfully born and the dangers triumphantly overcome. But that will not happen unless the minister's "inner person" (2 Cor. 4:16) is constantly renewed by accessing the riches of God and His kingdom in the inner person.
Willard's words are beautifully optimistic, but how exactly does a minister "access the riches of God and His kingdom in the inner person"? I don't recall that class being offered in seminary. Perhaps that's why spiritual directors are becoming so popular, but a good spiritual director can be difficult to find. It's not as easy as putting a personal ad in the paper:
SWM (Soul Weary Minister) seeks SMF (Spiritually Mature Friend) to help my inner person access God's riches and experience triumph in my soul. I like long prayer walks in the park, guided sabbatical retreats, and reciting the daily offices. My turn offs are elder board meetings, church budgets, and Mrs. Clark's mystery casserole. Please respond quickly, my soul needs urgent care.
Because the pastor's soul is a vital component of ministry, and caring for it can be a challenging responsibility, we'll be tackling the subject in an upcoming issue of Leadership. What keeps our souls fueled for ministry? What bleeds them dry? And what can we do to maintain our soul's health and vitality? These are questions many of us might ask a spiritual director, but they are also questions pastors should be asking each other.
So, we are inviting you to share the practices you engage to keep your soul healthy and equipped for ministry. Tell us about the practice, how it nourishes your soul, and why other pastors should consider it for themselves. Be sure to include your name, your church, and your city. We'll be compiling the list of soul-feeding spiritual practices in the spring issue of Leadership.
February 9, 2007
Last year at the National Pastors Convention, Dallas Willard spoke at an early morning Bible study gathering. Unlike the main sessions the Bible study had no music, no flashing lights, no massive screen. There was nothing remotely worshipful or stimulating about the physical setting. Still, I recall feeling most blessed and caught up into something divine during that simple lesson by Dr. Willard.
Yesterday morning I had a similar experience. For the second year I have been blessed by a soft-spoken, gray haired sage. This morning it was Eugene Peterson. In the same bland ballroom Peterson opened the Bible to share his reflections on prayer. There was nothing spectacular about his presentation, but it carried the gravity of a godly life.
Peterson spoke about the prayer he begins every day with as he walks the quarter mile from his front door to retrieve his newspaper. Living amid the natural beauty of Montana, Peterson greets the squirrels and the deer as he recites the words of Zachariah in Luke 1:68-79.
The first eight verses of this prayer focus most heavily on what God does, he said. There are ten verbs that speak of God's actions, and there is only one verb to describe ours, "serve." Peterson said this helps clarify our identity - God does ten things and we do one.
In verses 76-77, Zechariah speaks of his newborn son, John:
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
For you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him;
To give to His people the knowledge of salvation
By the forgiveness of their sins.
Most interesting is that while reciting these verses Peterson inserts his own name for "child." He reminds himself that our calling as pastors is to be a prophet - one who speaks God's word into our world - to prepare the way for the Lord. We are not the Lord, and we do not accomplish what he accomplishes. All we can do is prepare people to encounter the Lord. The outcome rests in his hands, not ours.
The final verse of the prayer speaks of Jesus coming as the Sunrise, or Daybreak. Peterson often says these verses as the sun peaks over the Montana horizon flooding the landscape with light. He says it reminds him of the sight of God over all things. Everywhere we move we are within his Kingdom.
These are simple ideas, but what I cannot capture in a blog post is the poise and substance of Peterson as he spoke. He taught as one whose inner spirit has been shaped by the prayer he cited. I suppose that is what the people meant when they marveled at Jesus' teaching - he taught as one with authority, not like the other scribes (Matt 7:29). It is the intangible authority of an integrated life.
Conferences like NPC are billed as action-packed events, gatherings to acquire skills to impact your ministry, and a place to have an invigorating and energetic experience. Fine. But what isn't publicized are the quiet moments of inspiration. These moments are not prepackaged or choreographed. They are not projected onto huge screens or screaming to be heard. They are the unassuming pockets of God's grace content to stay hidden amid the commotion, but longing to be found.
I suppose these graces don't only exist at conferences. They must be strewn throughout my days. Sages like Dallas Willard and Eugene Peterson have inspired me to search more expectantly for them.
November 14, 2006
Practical disciplines to keep church leaders in the race.
The phenomenon of celebrity pastors in the American church cuts two ways. When a mega-pastor succeeds everyone buys their book, attends their seminar, and emulates their strategy. And when a mega-pastor falls we all look into our own souls for evidence of similar frailty. Although the Ted Haggard story has been all but forgotten by the popular media since the election, there are many church leaders still reeling from the revelations. In this post we highlight insights from other blogs about how pastors can guard their souls from the self-destructive power of immorality.
Professor Scot McKnight address how the environment created by evangelicalism contributes to pastors hiding their sins, and the importance of developing the discipline of confession:
In evangelicalism, and the charismatic stream in which Ted Haggard swims, sin is bad and sin by leaders is real bad. This leads to a complex of features that creates a serious problem.1. Christians, and not just pastors, do not feel free to disclose sins to anyone.2. Christians, including pastors, sin and sin all the time.3. Christians, including pastors, in evangelicalism do not have a mechanism of confession.4. Christians and pastors, because of the environment of condemnation of sin and the absence of a mechanism of confession, bottle up their sins, hide their sins, and create around themselves an apparent purity and a reality of unconfessed/unadmitted sin.5. When Christians do confess, and it is often only after getting caught, they are eaten alive by fellow evangelicals - thus leading some to deeper levels of secrecy and deceit.
Read more of Scot McKnight's post.
Pastor of Mars Hill Church, Mark Driscoll, outlines the precautions he takes to avoid compromising situations with women in his church:Pastors should have their office at the church and their study at home. There is no reason a pastor should be sitting alone at the church at odd hours (e.g., early morning and late evening) to study when anyone can drop in for any reason and have access to him. Instead, a pastor should come into the office for scheduled meetings and work from home on tasks such as emails, planning, studying, sermon preparation, etc. I spend the vast majority of my time working from home. Some years ago when I did not, I found that lonely people, some of them hurting single moms wanting a strong man to speak into their life, would show up to hang out and catch time with me. It was shortly thereafter that I brought my books home and purchased a laptop and cell phone so that I was not tied to the church office.
Read more of Mark Driscoll's post.
Finally, Jenell Paris shares about the five sex scandals she's witnessed in the seven evangelical churches she's been a part of. This pattern, she says, is more than coincidence:Their abuse was allowed to continue, in part, because of evangelical practice. We expect our leaders to be morally superior to the masses, and in order to preserve our expectation, we believe this to be so. We often allow pastors privacy in travel, expenses, and other arenas that we wouldn't allow to others. We often believe men in positions of power more than we believe the women and children who cry out against them. We prevent women from becoming true peers and colleagues to men, and so inhibit the formation of checks and balances that draw on the strengths of all people.
Read more of Jenell Paris' post.
November 10, 2006
A reflection on the assassins within us all.
Daniel Haase, a professor at Wheaton College, is a frequent visitor to Ur. The last time he shared one of his poems with us it was after a heated conversation on the blog that turned ugly. Haase has composed another poem in the wake of the Ted Haggard scandal.
After reading Gordon MacDonald's recent post about Ted Haggard, I have been reminded how knit together and effected we are by the actions of others. As John Donne puts it, "No man is an island." This in turn has led to a reflection on my own actions and the "assassins" I allow within my heart and mind. What follows is a poem that has been written as a prayer of lamentation. I hope it might lead to a prayerful reflection of our own darkened corners and hidden places.
The Liar's Lament
I am sitting in a chair attempting prayer.
The assassins within make their way to the rooftops of my mind.
Anger is camouflaged in kindness.
They position themselves in the bushes of my conscious.
Impatience wears a smile and is dressed as a gardener.
Fear roams the street; he is carrying a newspaper ?
Headline reads: EXECUTION IMMINENT
A shot rings out from the bushes.
A flash of light from the rooftop.
What was quiet has turned so loud.
I rise out of the chair.
Am I a dead man walking?
October 12, 2006
Our Good Friday this year included no sermon, no worship team, no cutting edge technology or lavish drama. And still people lingered for hours to pray, teenagers returned later in the night with their friends, and children begged their parents for the opportunity to stay longer. Why? I believe it's because our church chose to nourish the most emaciated aspect of people's spiritual lives - their imaginations.
Traditionally discipleship has focused upon two areas - knowledge and skills. Churches have poured enormous energy into communicating knowledge about God through preaching, classes, and small groups. In recent years an increasing number of voices have challenged the effectiveness of information based discipleship. That has resulted in churches shifting their focus to skill driven formation - "how to" have a healthy marriage, share the gospel, or parent difficult teenagers.
However, knowledge and skill based models, while necessary components of spiritual formation, both miss the imaginative aspect of the human spirit. And by ignoring the intuitive capacity of the mind the church has essentially surrendered people's imaginations to the pop secular culture without a fight.
In his stirring book The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann says, "We need to ask if our consciousness and imagination have been so assaulted and co-opted by the royal consciousness [popular culture] that we have been robbed of the courage or power to think an alternative thought." Those filling the pews every Sunday may be full of information about God, and they may be expertly trained to obey God, but without an imagination enraptured by God they will be powerless to live the life he's called them to. They simply cannot imagine living any differently than the culture around them.
Without significant re-cultivation and sanctification of the imagination, aided by God's Spirit, a disciple will be incapable of weeding out sin and living obediently. Oswald Chambers understood this reality. He knew that if "your imagination of God is starved then when you come up against difficulties, you have no power, you can only endure in darkness."
Thankfully many are coming to recognize the importance of imagination in spiritual formation. Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer, author of The Drama of Doctrine and professor of systematic theology says:
"Imagination has been a dirty word for too long?The imagination enables us to see the parts of the Bible as forming a meaningful whole. But we can go further still. The imagination also enables us to see our lives as part of that same meaningful whole. This is absolutely crucial. Christians don't need more information about the Bible, trivial or otherwise. What the church needs today is the ability to indwell or inhabit the text."
Using the imagination to inhabit scripture may seem like a new idea to American evangelicals, but the practice is far from original. Since the middle ages practitioners of Ignatian spirituality have used their imaginations to enter biblical narratives, and Brother Lawrence has instructed Christians for centuries to practice the presence of the Lord with their intuitive senses. The beauty of these ancient models of spiritual formation is that they require no technology, no monstrous church building, not even a digital projector.
On Good Friday we helped people enter the biblical narrative with their imaginations by adapting the traditional stations of the cross into an experiential journey with Jesus from Gethsemane to the grave. While holding a bag of silver coins people contemplated what they valued more than Christ. Children, using a stool if they were too short, lifted a cross suspended from the ceiling while considering if they would have helped Jesus carry his burden. Newcomers jumped as someone nailed a spike into a beam while Isaiah 53 was softly read. Some adults who have known the story since childhood were brought to tears as their imaginations, perhaps for the first time, traveled with Jesus through the suffering.
Ultimately, we do not need multi-sensory events or media saturated worship to engage the imagination. Sometimes we just need the space (devoid of noise and clutter) and the permission (from leaders who affirm the importance of the imagination) to apprehend God and his story intuitively. When biblical knowledge and pragmatic skills are linked once again to an imagination ravished by God, we may finally find the power to obey.
Read more about the imagination's role in spiritual formation in the Fall issue of Leadership.
July 23, 2006
Recently friends from a major publisher of Sunday school curriculum called me. They were researching trends in spiritual formation, they said, and they thought I might help them.
After a few warm-up questions, they got to the heart of the matter: "What would you recommend for spiritual formation in our time?"
"The monastery," I said.
There was a long pause.
"I'm serious," I said.
Another long pause. "You're going to have to unpack that for us," they finally said.
"It's a proven model," I pointed out, "a model that includes everything we know brings about transformation. What would happen to your life" (I was now turning the question on them) "if you lived in close geographical community and relationship with other people; if you lived in submission to authority; if you practiced silence and simplicity and discipline; if you regularly read the Bible and prayed and meditated on what you read; if you made study part of your life; and if you worked hard in some daily occupation, seeing your labor as full of dignity and offering it to God?"
(I thought, but didn't say, that this is the same general approach followed by YWAM, which started in 1960 and now has 1,000 locations in 149 countries.)
"But not everyone can move into a monastery," they said. True, but we already have the solution: they're called oblates or tertiaries, people who live outside the monastery but who in their daily lives follow the same ideals of sacrifice, simplicity, and service. Or consider the parallel model of Opus Dei, the Catholic organization founded less than a hundred years ago: of its 87,000 members, both men and women, 98 percent are laypeople, and most of those are married.
In fact, to the extent that our local churches are changing people's lives, they're usually approximating this monastic ideal, recreating it on a smaller scale and adapting it for, say, married people who live in subdivisions.
"Okay, but what about the children?" they asked. "What do you do with the children?"
"Actually, monasteries were full of children," I said, "though usually starting at the age of elementary school. From the years 600 to 1000, a period that's been called ?the Benedictine centuries,' the monasteries provided much of the education in Western Europe. And any other questions about what to do with children have already been worked on by the cell-church and house-church movements."
My friendly questioners had a third and final concern: "But you're making it seem as if the culture is something Christians should retreat from, while the emerging church is interested in engaging that culture."
This took some explanation. I do think that as evangelicals we consistently underestimate the power of culture, and our attempts to "be relevant" usually end up as our weakness rather than our strength. But I believe in a certain type of counterculture - in Tim Keller's immortal phrase, "A counterculture for the common good." We create alternate communities that not only pray for the wider world, but also serve that wider world in acts of mercy and justice. Take The Salvation Army--an evangelical approximation of monastic counterculture and discipline, complete with distinctive clothing. In the mid-1880s the Salvation Army took on the audacious goal to end unemployment in Britain. They didn't succeed, but their experiment led to thousands of urban ministries today.
So I return to my original question: What would happen to your life if you lived in close geographical community and relationship with other people; if you lived in submission to authority; if you practiced silence and simplicity and discipline; if you regularly read the Bible and prayed and meditated on what you read; if you made study part of your life; and if you worked hard in some daily occupation, seeing your labor as full of dignity and offering it to God?
At least Saint Benedict thinks you'd become a healthier human being and godlier Christian. And 1,500 years of history would prove him right.
June 23, 2006
Some churches are more unstable than others. This may not be the result of impulsive leadership or poor planning, but rather the life stage of the congregation. Dave Terpstra pastors The Next Level Church in Denver, a community comprised primarily of young singles and families. Here, Dave compares the instability of church attendance to the half-life of radioactive material and gives some helpful suggestions from his own experience.
I have noticed a trend in the churches of which I have been a part. Most church attenders have a half-life. In other words, on average, one can predict the longevity of an individual's participation in the church by their life stage. [I'm going to be using general terms and rough numbers so please don't get lost in the details, but try and stick with the overarching analogy.]
After high school students graduate from high school, about half of them will leave the church. After college students graduate, about half of them will leave. When a college grad takes a career, again half of them leave the church. When they get married, when they have kids, when they become empty nesters, when they retire?half, half, half, half.
Chances are more than half leave after high school and maybe more than half stay from empty-nester to retirement. However, the phenomenon of church members leaving at life's natural transition points still exists. So what does that mean for us as church leaders?
1. Just like in radioactive material, the more "half-lives" the material has made it through, the more stable the material. Therefore, retired people are the most stable, followed by empty-nesters. High school and college students are terribly unstable (in case you didn't already know).
2. Churches that target young families are targeting those who may be stable for the longest period of time. A family with a newborn will potentially stay for 18 years until their child graduates from high school and they become empty nesters.
3. If the numbers turned out to be true based that means only one out of 64 high school students will actually make it to retirement in the church.
4. Radioactive material doesn't disappear all at once. The material transforms over time. Don't expect all of the transitions to take place at once, but they will take place.
Since my church is full of students and singles it is more unstable than a church full of empty-nesters and retirees. However, instability and radioactivity can produce a lot of energy as well. So remember that there are costs and benefits to both sides.
But since most churches seem to go after families, allow me to give some more general challenges and warnings.
1. Don't just go after the "easy" target of young families. Students and singles need the church too. Especially considering how unstable their lives are, perhaps they need us even more than young families. Deal with the instability and reach young people for the Kingdom!
2. Give your youth pastor, college pastor, and young adult pastor a break! You cannot expect them to be able to retain every student and individual that was at the previous stage. Even the best senior leaders don't keep everyone who becomes and empty-nester. Cut them some slack.
3. Pay attention to an increased adult population nearing a transition point. If a couple of families every year become empty-nesters that may not be a significant change. If 1/2 of all your families go through that transition in three years time, you may see a major drop in attendance or participation.
4. Constantly go after individuals on the lower end of each half-life cycle. Remember, you can't just expect everyone to transition from one stage to the next.
5. Pay attention to staff members going through transition points as well. It should not be a surprise when a staff member leaves after getting married, having kids, or becoming an empty nester. Life transitions lead to job transitions as well.
I recognize I am not speaking with hard data to back up my conclusions. I am simply making observations. But I am interested if there are churches that have mastered the art of retaining people in their community from one stage to the next. I'm curious if this is just a large church phenomenon or if smaller churches experience it too. I'm most curious about churches that are able to help someone make it from being a college student to a young family - the most unstable life stage of all.
February 8, 2006
In his earlier post, Dave Terpstra described why the spiritually mature find most churches ill-equipped to assist them in their growth. This, he says, is why the more mature often leave the church or disengage from active service. After reading your responses, Dave has returned with further thoughts about spiritual growth within, and without, the church.
When my friend's dad died it was a challenge to his faith to say the least. His dad was a long time follower of Christ and had been in full-time ministry for years. He seemed to be at the height of his ministry career. The he got sick and died. My friend didn't officially "leave" our church. But as best as I can remember he stopped serving. He stopped participating in programs. I rarely saw him at worship services. I'm sure he missed more than he made. But God was up to something amazing in his life and with his faith.
Some of the comments in response to my original article seemed to hold the viewpoint that my friend was being spiritually immature because he stopped serving. But to cut straight to the point, I trust his maturity more than those who would question it simply because he stopped serving for an indefinite period of time.
It has been my experience that everyone who matures in their faith has times where God grows them tremendously through basic discipleship and service. I would hope that those are maturing elements of our faith to varying degrees throughout our lives. However, I disagree with those who would argue those are the only times and ways in which we grow. I believe in the same way we experience times of transformation through discipleship and serving, we also experience times of inner transformation that are not initially outwardly expressed.
In Galatians 1:15-17 Paul writes, "But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus."
According to scholars Paul spent a couple of years in Arabia. He was not doing the externals of the faith, being discipled in church services or serving. Paul was receiving the gospel straight from heaven. That seems to be quite a journey inward to me.
Why is it that when someone tells us they need to take a break from serving or from the programs of our churches we become so defensive? Was Paul being selfish because he took two years off from helping in children's ministry? I think my defensiveness towards those who might leave my church is wrapped up in a healthy sense of wanting what's best for them, and an unhealthy desire that I (or even my well programmed church?) have failed them.
No, I am not creating victims. No, I am not excusing selfishness. I am questioning the mentality of myself and other church leaders who so quickly assume that a time of disconnect from the programs of the modern (or postmodern) church immediately indicates apostasy.
My friend who "left" our church has come back. He is now an elder. He is one of the most spiritually mature men I have met for his age. He serves and disciples in ways he never could have before his inward journey. He is moving on to the selflessness of stages 5 and 6 where his faith and service are out of a deep friendship with God.
If our greatest strength is found where Christ is made strong in us (2 Cor. 12:10), then perhaps as church leaders we should delight when others experience the weaknesses that come from not growing through our teaching or the service opportunities we provide. Perhaps God has them on a journey we can't draft on the white boards of our meeting rooms or diagram in a membership manual. We can plant. We can water. But let's trust God to make people grow.
February 1, 2006
Last month we looked at George Barna's new book, Revolution, which reveals that a growing number of people are seeking spiritual growth outside the institutional church. In this post Dave Terpstra, pastor at The Next Level Church in Denver and a regular contributor to Ur, explores why Barna may be correct. Although many will say preaching, music, or programs are why they left a church, Terpstra wonders if more people are simply outgrowing the church's ability to spiritually nourish their faith.
I'm sure there are just as many reasons that people leave churches as there are people who leave them. Perhaps more. In this consumer culture I'm sure that many people who leave churches are going to search for a better or newer "product." But recently I've wondered if some followers of Christ simply outgrow churches.
If you haven 't read the book The Critical Journey by Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich (Second Edition, Sheffield Publishing 2005) you need to pick up a copy. Although the book's subject is spiritual formation and not church dynamics, it gives great insights into why people leave the church - reasons many pastors have likely never considered.
Hagberg and Guelich propose that most spiritual journeys tend to move in six distinct stages. The first three are easy to see and hard to argue with: (1) Recognition of God, (2)The Life of Discipleship, and (3) The Productive Life. Certainly after most people become followers of Christ (stage 1) they begin to absorb as much content (stage 2) as possible. Then sometime later they begin to serve (stage 3). And since the authors propose that the stages are cumulative, people of faith continue to be good at these stages over the long haul. I believe these are the three stages of faith where our churches excel and where most church leadership energy is expended.
But Hagberg and Guelich suggest there are still three stages to go, and it is the fourth I want to focus on. The fourth stage is called "The Journey Inward." The authors suggest that at some point our faith shifts focus from the externals of discipleship and service and begins to become internalized. We begin to redefine our impressions of the faith and to some degree even our theology as we mature.
This fourth stage is where my experience (and the authors') reveals the church's weakness. Speaking in generalities, churches do not specialize in people who have been following Christ for years and who are deeply questioning and reexamining their beliefs. It's especially difficult when people who reach stage four are in positions of influence and leadership. Churches, from the mega to the mini, are designed to help people mature in the external areas of service and discipleship, not the internal struggles of identity and meaning.
So what happens when people get burnt out on the basic teaching and serving. Some go looking for fresh new content and areas of service. Some discover a new teacher across town who "really" teaches the Bible. Some discover service to the under-resourced or in foreign countries. While their true need may be for something deeper, they settle for at least something different.
Chances are you have not only seen these attempts at continued growth in stages two and three, but you have experienced them yourself. Maybe you have even suggested them to others. But if you have experienced stage four yourself then you know what comes at the end: "The Wall." Our attempts to continue to grow in discipleship and service eventually wear out. Many people become so disillusioned they leave the church (physically or at least metaphorically by "checking out").
Obviously churches can't stop evangelizing and doing the basics of discipleship. After all, most of our people are in stages 1, 2, or 3. But how do we walk alongside those on the Journey Inward. What do we do when someone hits the spiritual wall. What happens when we as leaders reach that place? I believe it is this moment in our journey when we need the church most; so what's a local church to do?