October 7, 2011
God meets our fears with a gospel invitation: Fear not for I am with you.
Now I know why people enjoy listening to Mark Driscoll. He’s engaging, funny, provocative, pastoral, and so darn interesting. Here are a few of his best one-liners:
•"Some people deal with fear by reading books on the rapture and continually asking, ‘Are we freakin’ done yet?’ No, we’re going to be here for a while, so put a cup on, kid.”
•“The New York Yankees lost last night [in a playoff game against the Detroit Tigers] which proves two things: God is sovereign and he loves us.”
•“You don’t have to fear death because when we die we’re going to be with Jesus. So is death really that bad? It’s not like we’ll die and go to Detroit.” After a smattering of boos, Driscoll said, “Hey, I don’t write the mail; I just deliver it. There’s a reason why we’re not having this conference in Detroit.”
You can either love or hate the guy, but he'll never bore you.
As a preacher, Driscoll is simple, clear, and utterly gospel-centered. He started with a human problem: we’re afraid. Then he relentlessly exposed the idolatry underneath our fear. The real question for leaders to ask is not “What are you afraid of?” but “Who are you afraid of?” Then he offered the following diagnostic questions for every leader:
1. Whose opinion matters way too much to you?
2. Is my appetite for praise unhealthy?
3. Am I overly devastated by criticism?
Whenever we lead with fear we allow other people to become our functional god. We live under their sovereign rule. We are holding that person in awe, and by fearing them we cannot love them. When we live with fear we have vision without hope. We see the future, but God isn’t in it.
But here’s what I loved about Driscoll’s message: he didn’t just preach Law—as in, just stop being afraid. Instead, he preached the gospel.
The good news isn’t just a law or good advice; it’s Jesus. All throughout the Bible, God says, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.” It’s not about facing our fear; it’s about being with the God who keeps saying, “I am with you.” And he keeps saying it to us because he’s gracious and we keep forgetting.
Don’t you love that about God? He ruthlessly exposes our fears so he can offer us true healing.
October 6, 2011
On learning to trust unlikely leaders and mentors
I realize I’m surrounded by young Christian leaders, but I have a confession to make: as a general rule, I haven't always fully trusted leaders under 29. I know many who are brilliant, creative, fun, and spiritually deep, but I guess my predjudice is two-fold. First, they haven’t suffered or failed enough. Second, I can’t get over how immature I was at 29—or even at 39! (I finally started to grow up largely under the tutelage of two great mentors: suffering and failure.) But, alas, Catalyst is messing with my long-standing assumption about young leaders.
Here’s a good case in point: Katie Davis. In 2006, at the age of 18, she took a short-term missions trip to Uganda. Then she returned to Uganda for a year. Now, at the age of 22, she’s already established Amazima Ministries, a non-profit ministry in Uganda that seeks to meet the physical, spiritual, and emotional needs of over 450 children. Most of the children are orphans. On top of that, she adopted 14 Ugandan children.
But I was most impressed not with her accomplishments but with the simplicity and depth of her faith in Christ. When she was told that 14 adopted kids seems like a huge commitment, she laughed it off and said, “Well, not when you compare 14 children to tens of thousands of orphans.”
When asked what we could do about huge world problems, she replied, “See the one person in front of you, and treat that one person just like you’d want to treat Jesus himself. Be faithful to the open doors in front of your life.” In her new book, "Kisses From Katie," she writes: “Courage is not about knowing the path; it is about taking the first step.” That’s not only challenging, but it’s also an utterly doable approach to the spiritual life in Christ—even for “ordinary” people.
I’m tempted to say something like, “I love this kid,” but that’s far too condescending. She isn’t a kid. She’s a heroine of the faith. She’s a spiritual and biological mother to many. She’s a leader. She’s our mentor.
So who are the underutilized mentors in your life? Specifically, who are the people that the church seems to neglect as potential leaders, mentors, and heroes? In our quest for bigger, better, cooler, hipper, and louder, who do we shove aside? The developmentally disabled? The elderly—(who are just a wee bit underrepresented here at Catalyst)? The poor? The uncool? What do you think?
October 7, 2010
Reflections from Andy Stanley
“The tension is good.” That’s the theme of this year’s Catalyst Conference, and Andy Stanley’s opening session talk described the tensions caused by our appetites: “Food and sex, and food and sex, and the guys in the room are saying ‘I’m sure there’s more … oh, yeah, and sleep,’ ” deadpanned Andy, before pointing out that our appetites create an inner tension. They always want “more.”
In leaders, appetites are heightened beyond normal person’s, especially appetites for progress, greater responsibility, the desire to be envied, the desire to be loved and admired. No matter what we accomplish, we still want more.
All of this is a reflection of the image of God.
1. God created them, sin distorted them.
2. Appetites are never fully and finally satisfied. Ever.
3. Appetites always whisper Now and never Later.
These will always create tensions, temptations. This is part of being human, but you can’t let appetites rule your life.
Andy then reflected on Genesis 25 and Esau’s appetite for a bowl of stew, for which he was willing to give up his birthright with its financial benefits, its family authority, and the blessing of God. Esau gave up something of inestimable value for something that would disappear in a few minutes.
“Who would throw away their future for something as temporary as a bowl of stew?” Andy asked, before answering, “You would, if it was the right bowl of stew.” Appetites are powerful.
This tension will never go away. You must reframe your appetites in the larger picture of what God wants you to be, and to do.
His closing challenge: Write down “Ten years from now …” and then jot down what do you want to see God do through you. This reframes your appetites in light of God’s larger purposes.
October 6, 2010
Reflections from Atlanta and Pete Wilson.
Perhaps my favorite lab of the day was led by Pete Wilson, pastor of Cross Point Church in Nashville. He titled the session: “Temptations in the Dip,” and by that he means seasons of life when things aren’t going well.
He pointed out that ideas and images are the means Satan most often uses when he wants to tempt us. We are vulnerable to certain ideas when we’re in a ministry downturn. Here are some of the tempting ideas that Satan uses against leaders in such times.
1. We are tempted to think that we are in control. We begin to think we can determine outcomes (that actually are beyond my control). Our role is to abide in Christ. To be still and remain in Christ. To confess our radical dependence upon God.
2. We are tempted to pretend we will succeed immediately. Leadership is defining reality. The Stockdale Paradox (from Collins’s Good to Great) means combining truth about the brutal facts of the current reality AND an abiding faith in the ultimate triumph.
3. We are tempted to ditch our God-given values in pursuit of our God-given dreams. Don’t elevate your dream above God himself. Even good things (ambitions, family, ministry), if we make them ultimate things, become idols. For instance, there’s big difference between loving others and trying to be loved.
4. We are tempted to feel abandoned. When ministry doesn’t turn out the way you thought, you’re tempted to feel alone, forgotten by God. The truth is that God is most powerfully present even when he seems absent.
God communicates over and over and over again, “I am with you. Will you be with me?” When we decide to be with him, it means we trust his identity, not just his activity. And even when we don’t see his activity improving the situations, we still rely on his identity and abiding presence. “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”
Reflections from Atlanta and Gayle Haggard.
Tomorrow is the first day of Catalyst, and today Nate Johnson and I from Leadership went to Atlanta for the pre-day of “labs,” Catalyst’s term for their workshops. This year’s theme: “The Tension Is Good.”
Several of the labs I attended were thought provoking, including Gayle Haggard’s account of her own crisis when she learned of her husband, Ted Haggard’s, moral failure, which was widely publicized three years ago. Gayle described the anger and betrayal she felt when she learned the sordid details, but said she realized, “This is my moment to confess to the whole world what I really believe.” This was not a time to abandon her faith, so she asked, “What is Jesus telling me to do?” She said the only thing she saw from Jesus was love and forgiveness. “And I can’t just say it; I have to do it.” So she has stayed with and stood with her husband.
She lamented that the church is often a difficult place to admit the need for help, especially for its leaders. “The church should be a safe place to admit temptations, sins, and struggles, but in many cases it’s not,” she said. “And so until it is, it’s important for leaders to find someplace safe to confess these things and get help.”
Yes, there is indeed a tension here: the degree to which leaders can publicly air their temptations and sins. But total transparency and complete disclosure, in some setting, is essential. Despite the problems of the formal confessional, as the Catholic Church has witnessed in recent years, the need for honest confession, on a regular basis, remains.
November 5, 2009
We've got more important matters to discuss.
May I vent for a moment? If I stumble onto another blog, article, or conference advertisement for anything having to do with video venues or multi-site models of church growth, I just might lose it. Everywhere I look within our odd little subculture these days I’m barraged by debates and diatribes about the glorious merits or awful shortcomings of venues and sites. On one side are proponents who seem to believe that only really good sliced bread can compete with their innovative ministry models for the title of “greatest thing ever.” Opposing these trendsetters are Marshall McLuhan’s disciples, those who fear the Good News message has been distorted by an unholy medium.
To be clear, I understand the nuanced distinctions between multiple sites and multiple video screens. I get that there are theological concerns embedded within this conversation that bring out the passionate sides of characteristically composed people. To be honest, I’ve followed this debate with some interest and could earnestly argue my own position about these ministry models. But I don’t want to. In fact, at this point I’d rather talk about almost anything else. Here’s why:
1. It simply doesn’t matter to most of us. A well known pastor and early adopter of video venues and the multi-site model recently wrote on his blog that, “What was initially considered a wacky idea has become the new normal…” Really? The norm for American churches is multiple campuses with preaching beamed in from the mother ship? I doubt this pastor or other multi-site proponents mean to overlook the vast majority of small and medium-sized churches for whom multi sites and video venues make no sense. But the message some of these smaller churches are hearing is about significance and effectiveness. Want to make a difference for Jesus in 2009? You’d better launch a new campus, or at least broadcast the sermon to the fellowship hall for those who want doughnuts and coffee with their preaching.
2. It’s embarrassing. Have we stopped to think about what this debate sounds like to those who don’t share our Christian faith and Evangelical zeal? The conversation is no longer a private one among family members when “multi-site church” has its own Wikipedia entry. Those who don’t share our commitments are nonetheless privy to our silly quibbles and regrettable blog comments. Again, I realize the importance of these issues and the theological repercussions of seemingly pragmatic decisions. But a survey of our corner of the blogosphere would lead you to believe that this is one of the most significant issues facing the church right now. I’m not sure that’s the case, and it leads to my next reason we ought to redirect our attention.
3. It’s not very important. If we survey Christian history we can quickly distinguish the arguments that were worth having. Justification by grace through faith? Really important. The number of angels who can fit on a pin’s head? Not so important. There is no shortage of significant issues for our contemporary churches to address. Are the efficacies of multi-site and video venue models of church among those issues? If so, they must be towards the bottom of the list.
I can think of a few things I’d prefer that we were talking about. How about articulating a theology that addresses the plight of millions of uninsured Americans? What about expressing the intrinsic worth of the undocumented immigrants who live in the shadows of our multi-site churches but never enter to see our impressive hi-def video preachers. What about a global conversation about ways the Majority World can influence evangelism in our increasingly post-Christian nation? One day someone will look back at our movement in the early 2000s and judge our priorities. I doubt they will find our current infatuation with sites and venues will all that important.
So how about a breather? For a small percentage of churches, the issues associated with launching a new site or venue are critical to their mission. But can we stop pretending like these questions are so significant to the rest of us? I’m going to trust that those churches in the position to launch new campuses and install video projectors are doing so with theological clarity and Holy Spirit-led conviction. And I’m also going to trust that those of us for whom this conversation is largely irrelevant are going to wrestle with our own questions and challenges—those things that have Gospel importance within our contexts.
November 4, 2009
The downside of trying to re-brand your Christian identity.
Anyone can understand the desire for an alternative to the word “Christian.” There are plenty of “Christians” I’d rather not be associated with. I’d much prefer to maintain my relationship with Jesus while making clear to others I am not in relationship to Pat Robertson or Jack Spong.
Lisa Miller, true to form as an excellent religion journalist, has brought attention to efforts to follow Jesus without calling oneself a “Christian.” Non-Christian Christ-followers even seem to have some scripture on their side. The first name of the Jesus movement in the book of Acts is “followers of the Way.” There are plenty of other fully-biblical alternatives: disciples, apostles, friends of God. Apparently the movement has legs: more than 900 Facebook groups call themselves some variant of “follower of Jesus.”
There’s some sleight of hand here. Imagine a banker in the current financial crisis objecting when you name her job description. “I’m not a banker, I’m a cashier.” You would be unimpressed. Or a Major League Baseball player seeking distance from the steroid scandal this way: “No no no, I’m not a baseball player, I’m a second baseman.” It’s as if my alma mater, Davidson College, disgraced itself in some horrible way. When people cluck their tongues at me, I cleverly respond: “Not me, I’m innocent, I’m not from Davidson, I’m just a Wildcat.” I’d be fooling no one. So too with these non-Christian Christians.
More importantly, Christians believe our baptism is not just a set of beliefs. One could come up with some new way to follow Abraham Lincoln or Ayn Rand and give it a brand new title. But Christianity joins us to a body of other believers. This biblical description of the “body” is so basic to the faith it’s almost not a metaphor: a new member is healthy tissue grafted onto a wound. The loss of a member is like the tearing away of flesh. Christ himself is our head, and we belong to one another. The very word “religion” has the same root as the word “ligament.” We are quite physically bound to one another.
This is especially important to reassert when we are tempted to say we’re with the head, but not the other parts of the body. We are all tempted to pick and choose our fellows, buffet-style. “I’m with Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and Mother Teresa, but not the Southern Baptists.” No! We’re part of this body, with all its dazzling glory and all its tragic flaws, and cannot claim the former without the latter. Further, we are responsible for those parts presently misbehaving, and for its misdeeds through time—if we want credit for its virtues.
This is the part that really irks me the most on eschewing “Christian.” It’s as though we get off scot-free for historical Christian sins (the crusades, racism, you name it) by just calling ourselves something else. Christians believe there is a way to forgiveness and purity—but it passes through confession, restoration, and repaired relationship. The much more costly way to disassociate from those who have done ill in Christ’s name is to set about loving as fanatically as they hated.
It is striking just how popular Jesus still is. It still seems to make sense to love Jesus while hating the church. This view assumes Jesus popped into history fully formed as though from the head of Zeus, with no history, no people, no story. But Jesus is a Jew. And the effort to uproot Jesus from the church makes as much sense as loving someone’s head, but not their body; or admiring Thomas Jefferson and sneering at the Constitution. Jesus is the foundation and cornerstone and head of the church. Without the people Jesus comes from, without the people Jesus births into the world, there is no Jesus. The people Jesus births into the world are called “Christian.”
More power to the people looking for alternative biblical descriptions of Christians. We can all use those—they awaken our imagination to fresh evocations of our faith. But the choice of one such term need not—can not—excise another.
Those who disagree are still members of this family. They can’t disown me anymore than I can them. Weekly we have family reunions in buildings, big and small, all over the world. And I sure hope they’ll join the rest of us at one of them from time to time. The rest of us aren’t complete without them.
October 7, 2009
Jessica Jackley no longer feels badly for the poor. She's doing something better.
Jessica Jackley was in first grade when she became aware of how the poor were being presented to her. She saw ads for parachurch organizations and appeals for missions groups that featured photographs of impoverished children with distended bellies and flies in the eyes.
She realized even at that young age that those pictures made her feel bad, and they caused her and her friends to give money just to make the bad feelings go away.
As she got older and had more awareness of the pervasiveness of poverty, and gained firsthand experience working with the poor, she realized that appeals that provoke pity and guilt were not pointing in the right direction. To get people to respond simply to ease their own discomfort was actually counterproductive. Such appeals don't help the poor long-term; these appeals eventually just make people calloused and cynical or at the least able to view such presentations with very little impact.
Jackley learned that what the poor really needed was not pity, but something much more useful.
The poor are often very intelligent and resourceful people. Many have entrepreneurial skills. They don't need handouts--they need resources, often relatively modest resources, to allow them to develop a business to sustain themselves.
So Jackley became the cofounder of Kiva.com, the amazingly effective network of person-to-person microloans. A loan of as little as $25 can make a huge difference to a Sudanese goat herder, or a Peruvian seamstress.
We don't need presentations that communicate only despair. Jackley points to the many stories of hope that emerge from the right kind of assistance.
What the poor need is not our pity but our partnership.
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/
August 31, 2009
Three reasons John Calvin would be opposed to online churches.
(Read part 1)
Calvin’s definition of “church” is where the Word is preached, the sacraments are received, and church discipline practiced. That’s a good summary of the defining characteristics of the New Testament ecclesia and a good summary of the main problems with internet church.
Is the word preached “at” an internet campus? Absolutely. In fact, the Word preached becomes the centerpiece. Church is boiled down to singing a few songs and hearing a message.
And while internet campuses provide a great sermon delivery vehicle, and even allow you to virtually raise your hand in response, what they don’t do is allow you to be known and missed. You can’t stand at the end of the gathering and ask for help moving. You can’t help tear things down and clean up afterwards. You can’t look after someone’s kids while they pray with someone else. You can’t take a visitor out to lunch. How can our community be a sign and foretaste of the kingdom when our method of gathering keeps us from ever physically serving, loving, or being present to one another? I know how participating in a congregation begins to make me more like Jesus. I’m unsure how that happens with an internet campus.
I know that “virtual” baptisms are practiced online. I know too that every week thousands in virtual communities practice virtual communion, if not together, then at least simultaneously. And I have to wonder, Why can’t they see that’s not enough? That simultaneous is not the same as together, and that taking communion in this way completely misses the whole point?
As for discipline and accountability, some say that online churches encourage more transparency in the chat rooms and virtual lobbies of internet campuses. But how is the pastoral care of prayer and recommending a good book, accountability, in-depth counseling, and church discipline practiced? Short answer: it can’t be. Because of the nature of internet relationships, only what people choose to reveal will ever be known. Internet churches are no help for the wife whose husband really needs someone to open a can of Driscoll on him—unless, of course, you can get him to wander into the virtual lobby.
As for equipping: How does one become a leader in an internet church? Is it being made a moderator of the chat room? What does it mean to “desire to be an elder”? How am I confirmed in my gifts in an internet church? How do I exercise them?
The internet may present a wonderful way for me to connect with the larger Church, but it can’t—and shouldn’t—replace connection with a local church community. My fear is that like the drive-in church, internet campuses have that potential to make half-formed Christians who believe one of the highest values is convenience, not service—what I can get, not what I can give.
In a world struggling to retain its humanity while being drowned in technology, and in a culture fighting to remain deeply connected to a few while filtering through thousands of Facebook “friends,” the Church can and should be a counter-culture. We should use technology, but we must not let it shape (or misshape) us.
July 21, 2009
The Bishop of Durham says ordination is a gift not a right.
The leadership of the Episcopal Church has voted to remove any restrictions on the ordination of clergy in same-sex relationships. The battle over gay ordination has been fierce within the worldwide Anglican communion for years, but this new development may finally lead to the schism many have been predicting. Writing in The Times of London, Bishop N.T. Wright has reacted strongly to the American church's decision. Here is an excerpt:
The appeal to justice as a way of cutting the ethical knot in favour of including active homosexuals in Christian ministry simply begs the question. Nobody has a right to be ordained: it is always a gift of sheer and unmerited grace. The appeal also seriously misrepresents the notion of justice itself, not just in the Christian tradition of Augustine, Aquinas and others, but in the wider philosophical discussion from Aristotle to John Rawls. Justice never means "treating everybody the same way", but "treating people appropriately", which involves making distinctions between different people and situations. Justice has never meant "the right to give active expression to any and every sexual desire".
Such a novel usage would also raise the further question of identity. It is a very recent innovation to consider sexual preferences as a marker of "identity" parallel to, say, being male or female, English or African, rich or poor. Within the "gay community" much postmodern reflection has turned away from "identity" as a modernist fiction. We simply "construct" ourselves from day to day.
We must insist, too, on the distinction between inclination and desire on the one hand and activity on the other - a distinction regularly obscured by references to "homosexual clergy" and so on. We all have all kinds of deep-rooted inclinations and desires. The question is, what shall we do with them? One of the great Prayer Book collects asks God that we may "love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise". That is always tough, for all of us. Much easier to ask God to command what we already love, and promise what we already desire. But much less like the challenge of the Gospel.
Read Wright's entire editorial here.
June 22, 2009
Does all our online chatter about being missional keep us from being missional?
I was a guest speaker at a church, waiting for my time to go up to the platform. That's when I saw something curious. The staff person responsible for coordinating the worship service was busy typing away on her laptop. Perhaps a last minute change to the PowerPoint, I thought. But as I walked behind her, I saw that she was consumed with typing a message on someone's Facebook wall. It felt out of place to me, given that she was the person responsible for leading God's people in worship but she seemed mentally someplace else.
I had a similar experience while visiting a Christian college. Sitting in the back of the classroom, I noticed that about a third of the students were surfing Facebook or MySpace while the professor was passionately teaching the New Testament. He probably assumed they were busy taking notes.
I cannot be too hard on the worship coordinator or the college students. I've noticed the same tendency in myself lately. A few Sundays ago, I was heading home after preaching three times. I was tired and looking forward to opening my laptop and reading my favorite blogsÃ‘particularly ones focused on missional theology and leadership. Just then I received a text message from a friend. He was inviting me to a club to see a band with a number of non-Christians, including one I had been trying to build a relationship with.
I suddenly faced a decision. Do I go home and read blogs about being missional, or do I go to the club and actually be missional? It sounds like an easy decision, but it wasn't. In all honesty, part of me truly wanted to go to the comfort of home and just sit in front of my laptop.
That moment forced me to begin reflecting on how much time I spend on blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and other online social networking sites. I wondered, If I spent less time online, could I be spending more time building friendships? Have I become so consumed with reading about mission that I've forgotten to actually engage it? As these questions arose, I started to get uncomfortable.
Don't misunderstand me. I find blogs quite encouraging. I've learned a lot about missional living by reading insightful bloggers. I have even gotten reacquainted with non-Christian friends from years ago on Facebook. But in truth, the bulk of my Facebook time is spent conversing with Christian friends and other church leaders. And most of the missional discussion I read online does not include stories of people coming to faith, but theoretical definitions and debates about what being missional actually means.
Theories and definitions and debates are good, and they have their place, but could they be getting in the way of actually being on mission? After reflecting on my own habits, I concluded that in my life they were. I realized that I had subtly gotten drawn into the very thing I found so troubling about the Facebooking worship leader and the inattentive college students. I still read blogs and write one, too. But I'm trying to be much more intentional about finding balance and keeping my priorities right.
After wrestling with whether to go home and blog or go to the club and engage with my non-Christian friend, I finally came to the right decision. When I walked into the club, my friend saw me and immediately brought over a drink. We caught up on life, and after the show, he thanked me multiple times for coming. When his tour ends, we have plans to spend more time together. A friendship was deepened and an opportunity for the gospel was expanded, all because I chose to be missional rather than just blog about it.
June 17, 2009
What happens when our people do what we ask?
No, this post isn't about growing pains as your church gets bigger and bigger or what to do with the budget surplus all that extra tithing is leaving you with (though if your problem is the latter, email me).
I've been thinking this week about the cost we pastors and our communities pay when people actually begin to do what we're asking them do to: "Go in peace to love and serve the Lord."
So far this year, we've had a hard time making budget just about every month. And as a smaller church, that matters. As I looked at the numbers, I began to wonder what was happening. Were people giving less because of the financial crisis? Were we angering people and provoking a "hold back" response in giving?
But as I tried to see the big picture of where our community is, I realized we're actually just paying the price of success.
Recently we've sent some wonderful folks around the world - One family to Glasgow, Scotland, for church planting. One couple to Sudan to do medical and relief work for some of the poorest of the poor. Another couple to Bangladesh to rescue women from the sex trade and to help people begin businesses that will enable them to pull themselves out of poverty.
All these people have taken with them not just the hearts and prayers of our community. They've taken our financial support and the financial support of many members of our community.
In other words, giving isn't down. I have a feeling that, on the whole, we're actually giving more. It just doesn't show up on our books.
We started a Kiva group to enable Evergreen people to participate in micro loans to the poor around the world and so see the standard of living of some of the world's working poor increase. What can a $25 or $50 dollar loan do in Africa or South America? A whole lot, it turns out.
But that's $50 that won't come through our church's budget, right?
Of course, the cost isn't simply financial. These folks we've sent out represent some of the most committed, most Jesus-loving people I've met yet. We recently sent one of our elders to be the teaching pastor of a church in another state. Another is working in Pretoria. For each, a unique hole has opened in our community. Our community won't benefit from these wonderful, Jesus-and-people-loving folk anymore. But other communities will.
And there's more. I began to realize that often the reason we have a hard time getting folks out to things, to commit to serving here or there, is that they are already busy serving elsewhere, here in our own city. Our people are running community gardens, they are helping establish low cost counseling centers, providing medical and dental care for the poor. Beyond serving in places as far and wide as Haiti and South Africa, they are praying and working for the peace of our city, right here. Looked at that way, it becomes a bit harder for me to ask the question "When are we going to DO something?" We're already "doing" a lot. Just not in a way our church may be able to take credit for.
We ask people to love their neighbors. But what if that means they need to be less involved in church activities? Is that okay? Of course it's okay. But for us - internally - is it okay?
I remember a lot of talk in seminary about the 80:20 problem. You know, 20 percent of the people do 80 percent (or more) of the work in a church community, leaving the other 80 percent doing...not much. It had been my hope in starting Evergreen to do church in such a way that turned the 80:20 thing on its head. The picture in my mind was of a community where 80 percent of the people did about 100 percent of the work of ministry and the other 20 percent was comprised of new folks on a journey towards Jesus and just getting started, people recovering from significant hurt, or in some other situation that made our community say, "Just rest right now. Don't feel like you have to do anything."
It's a great mental picture, but it's just not reality. Why? Because the fact is many of those people you consider part of the 80 percent of folks in your church who don't do much are someone's 20 percent. That is, they may be in the 80 percent of folks in our community who don't make much happen, but that's probably not true in every area of their lives. Whether at work, in their extended family, in school or civic organizations, I'm finding these folks are doing a lot that matters there. And that means they can't do it here. They are out there, living out the love of Jesus in very practical ways. And more and more I'm realizing that it is okay. In fact, it's fantastic, and I'm trying to find ways we as a church community can highlight, support, and celebrate missional living by our people.
If you are truly successful as a church, the result may not necessarily be "more people" and "bigger budgets." It may even, at times, look like the opposite.
Jesus describes the Spirit like a wind that blows where he wills, and blows us where he wills. Sometimes he blows people into ministry within the church "walls." And sometimes he blows them (and their money) out into a needy and broken world.
Be careful before you challenge people to follow God out into that broken world to "live missionally." They may just take you up on it.
May 15, 2009
A new survey shows most churchgoers support torture. What should pastors say?
A political dissident is arrested for leading a movement that threatens the stability of a region. He is ambushed and apprehended by his enemies, detained without a public trail, and tortured by soldiers at the command of their political leaders. No, I'm not describing Kalid Sheikh Mohammad or any other detainee held at the prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. I'm speaking of Jesus of Nazareth.
The fact that Christians draw their faith, life, and identity from a Messiah who was the victim of political torture seems ironic in light of new research by the Pew Forum that indicates 62 percent of white evangelicals believe torture of suspected terrorists is "often" or "sometimes" justified. The research shows that people who attend church regularly were more likely to rationalize torture than those who do not go to church.
How do we explain these findings? Are Christians being more influenced by Jack Bauer than Jesus Christ?
Lurking behind this passive support of government torture is a utilitarian ethic that believes the ends justify the means - torture is justifiable if the information attained will save innocent lives. But David Neff, editor of Christianity Today, points out a problem with this argument:
Evangelicals have been eager to reject utilitarian ethics when addressing other issues - embryonic stem-cell research, for example. Even if embryonic stem-cell research turned out to be the best way to cure Parkinson's disease, most evangelicals would oppose it, just as we would oppose abortion even if it were shown to reduce, say, food insecurity.
When it comes to defending the lives of the unborn, most evangelicals utterly reject utilitarian ethics. Life is sacred, and all people - even the unborn - are created in the image of God. But this belief is put to the test when the life in question is that of a suspected terrorist. Do we really believe all human life is sacred or only innocent life? Are all people created in God's image or only those not labeled "enemy combatants"?
Perhaps the condemnation of abortion and justification of torture found among our congregants is the result of pastoral teaching that is losing the forest for the trees. We have taught our people to oppose abortion, but have we failed to lift up the larger ethic of life's sanctity which applies far beyond the first, second, or third trimester? Maybe it's time for us to preach an ethic of life that stretches from the womb to the tomb - one that even encompasses the prison camps the lie in between.
May 6, 2009
I spent a semester abroad in Edinburgh, Scotland, during college and attended a great church there. On my first visit to the head deacon's house for dinner, he asked me what I'd like to drink. I asked him what my options were. "Well," he said, "we have beer, lager, ale, stout, scotch, sherry, wine - whatever you like."
"I'll have water, please."
It became more obvious the longer I was in Edinburgh that abstinence from alcohol was not a Christian distinctive. Christians decried drunkenness. But the pubs were where they had spiritual conversation and met for small group.
I chalked up the differences between my teetotalling background and Scottish license to cultural differences. A lot changes when you cross the Big Pond. But now a growing number of American pastors are passing the bottle in the name of Christian liberty. As Eric Reed reports, the changes may be leading to a new battle over prohibition.
The excerpt below is from Eric's article, "Trouble Brewing." Follow the link below for the full text.
It's not just Baptists who are wrestling anew with the issue of alcohol. Pastors in a variety of traditions - some teetotaling, some not - are dealing with new issues raised by the drinking debate.
For some, it's whether to go against their denominations when the written policy differs from Christian positions held before Prohibition. For others, it's the conflict felt by pastoring people who officially espouse abstinence but still lift a glass to personal freedom now and again (46 percent of Southern Baptists imbide, according to a survey in the 1990s). For still others, it's reaching a position on alcohol that is biblical, moral, and defensible.
And for everyone there is this question: How do we take a stance on alcohol that does not distance us from the very people we are trying to reach with the gospel, and without compromising the gospel or our personal witness?
These issues may be grouped in a few categories:
Text and context
Mark Driscoll is a lightning rod for controversy, so it's not surprising that his stance on drinking clergy has become central in the renewed debate. His better contribution to the argument is on the larger issue of contextualization of the gospel in a society of drinkers.
Driscoll agrees that the Scripture opposes drunkenness. He says drinking itself is not a sin, as prohibitionists would contend. He argues that it is unreasonable to be captive to others because of the possibility of their weakness, as abstentionists would advocate. Driscoll says moderationists "rightly teach that drinking is not a sin and that each person must let Christian conscience guide them without judging others."
Driscoll's position has been commended, even by some who disagree with his conclusion, as being biblically reasoned and unhindered by his personal baggage: "Driscoll did not come to his conclusions lightly," reports one mission-focused blog. "Sadly many of us proclaim and hold to legalistic positions regarding alcohol use. (Is anybody else tired of the 'My daddy was a drunkard, so every use of alcoholic beverage will lead to people becoming like my daddy.' If so, note that Driscoll came from an entire family of abusive alcoholics, and he does not have the same conclusion.)"
Driscoll outlines three categories of faulty contextualization:
1. Pharasaic separation from culture: creation of laws that keep people from getting too close to sin;
2. Sadducaic syncretism: adopting compromising behaviors for the sake of speaking to the culture;
3. Zealous domination: enforcing moral laws through political means that may inoculate people against the gospel.
In Reformission, Driscoll concludes that these faulty forms of contextualization will lead to either sectarianism or syncretism. "Sectarians love God but fail to love their neighbor. Syncretists love their neighbor but fail to love God. Jesus expects us to love him and our neighbor (including our enemies) and says that if we fail to do so, we are no better than the godless pagans who love their drinking and strip-poker playing buddies (Matt. 5:43-57). To love our neighbors, we must meet them in their culture. To love our neighbors, we must call them to repent of sin and be transformed by Jesus."
But critics may respond, Can we really call people to repentance while nursing a rum and Coke?
Read the full text of "Trouble Brewing" here.
April 30, 2009
What our design says about our values.
I was sick in bed, my poor wife by my side, during a class reunion weekend in South Carolina this past weekend. I usually make sure I get the remote control quickly in hand, so I can steer the programming toward the exercising of my mind: ESPN and Fox Sports are two of my top choices. But my wife beat me to the coveted piece of gadgetry in our hotel room. So I spent the day watching or hearing HGTV design shows. I had nausea when they started, but after awhile watching design shows, I told my wife it was getting worse.
Really I did like some of the shows, like Color Splash by this cool Asian guy with tats on his arm. But the take away after a saturation of design tips and styles were some thoughts on how design is a reflection of us, how we see ourselves, and who we want to become.
Have you ever wondered what your church space says about you and God? We often pick our cars based upon our personalities. (Is that why we get so offended when someone cuts us off? In the Middle East and Asia, this happens every two seconds. They don't seem to care.)
We can look at our homes and see what type of people we are by the way we arrange furniture, paint or don't paint walls, the type of art we have, what we use as our focal point for guests to see, the rooms that we care about usually get more resource dollars.
How about the church? The truth about design is that it reflects values, perspectives, priorities and beliefs. Design is also a good way to define the reality of your heart. When many of the early missional movements began, the focus was on resourcing the people in optimum settings of growth with tools to enable them. The focus in these movements isn't physical structures as much as it is human beings.
Again, questions may lead us to answers. Instead of just giving a few thoughts on what I believe about space perhaps some questions may guide us to a reality that we didn't know existed. It may be different depending upon the culture we live in. We may soon discover as we ponder these questions, termites have been quietly eating away the very values we said our buildings were built with and some fissures have appeared in that firm foundation.
Here are some questions that can help define reality:
? Do people mostly refer to your building as the "church?"
? What does the design of our space tell us about where and how we see the maximum growth happening?
? What does the allocation of the dollars you spend on your space indicate about your priorities? Is it where you want it to be? How does this jive with movements historically?
? How does the Internet reshape your values towards space, especially since the emerging generation doesn't see a difference between their on-line and off-line life?
? When people look at the design focal points of your facility, what do they feel you focus upon? Is this where you want the primary focus to be?
? What creative space around you - outside the walls of the facility you rent or own - can you use for free or very low costs?
? Do you need pastoral offices?
? Can we show better stewardship in how we share space with our people?
? Do you have a room for innovation? In the past, people created "WAR rooms". I think it may be time for some new metaphors as well. How about rooms for Creativity, Innovation, Research, Design and Development? Can you think of new rooms or spaces that would clearly articulate what you value?
? Are you reduplicating what Disney can do better? Is it necessary?
? Do the spaces in your church represent a passion for a Volunteer Revolution? How?
? What parking space do you park in at your facility? Where is it?
? What building or space are we to focus on designing anyway?
There was an incredible statistic an entrepreneurial kingdom-minded friend, Bernard Moon, sent me. Did you see it? Here it is: The church spends an average of $347,000 per baptism.
Okay, I know souls are priceless. But this number begs for us to look at how we may have gone down a road we didn't really want to take. Nike spends $100 per customer for what they call customer acquisition costs. What do you spend to see a life radically transformed?
Flip the Script
What if we turned this thing around and understood the primary buildings we are called to build are the living temples walking around us? What would happen if we put as much emphasis in actually equipping our people with customized assessments, close mentoring, residencies, tools, and other experiences that may not be captured primarily inside a weekend experience or a large group setting or one space?
Maybe it's time we do a hard assessment of what we've already designed and let an outsider or a group of them come in, people who aren't Christians and ask them as they walk around your facility what does your space say about your values. You may be surprised at how your design really does define what you believe.
April 24, 2009
Mulling the "degree of difficulty" and the Great Judge
My son is a gymnast, so I've had to learn about "difficulty factor." That means a judge gives a gymnast better scores for harder routines. For instance, if your dismount from the high bar involves a double back flip with a twist, your difficulty factor, and thus your potential score, is greater than if your dismount is merely a single flip with no twist.
Today's sessions at Catalyst West never used the term, but "difficulty factor" was the common theme as speakers described the various levels of response to the gospel. The question they did NOT address was how the Judge will evaluate the lives of people who attempt the various levels of difficulty.
Craig Groeschel, pastor of LifeChurch.tv, for instance, talked about "Line 3 believers."
By his categorization, those who step up to line one, "believe in the gospel enough to benefit from it." They're involved with the gospel because they like the church, the community, the sense of forgiveness and purpose and meaning that it gives them.
Others step up to line two and "believe in the gospel enough to contribute comfortably."
These are the believers who give a modest amount of time and money in service, but aren't about to give to the point of discomfort.
Those who reach line three "believe in the gospel enough to sacrifice their lives for it." Groeschel described his turnabout in how he presents the gospel. He said he's no longer satisfied with presenting just the "safe gospel," that offers benefits but no cost. Now he's challenging people to a dangerous life of following Jesus no matter where it leads.
Rick Warren spoke right before Groeschel and touched on the same theme. Warren itemized the increasingly demanding invitations that the Gospels present to would-be disciples, from "Come and see" (non-threatening) to "continue in me" to "If you love me, you are my disciple" to "If you eat my body and drink my blood, you are my disciple" (which cost him lots of followers) to "Take up your cross daily and follow me" (being willing to die for the cause)."
He said, "Some congregations are great ?come and see' churches, but they never develop disciples who are willing to die. Others churches focus on ?come and die' and have serious disciples, but they never bring anyone to Christ. We've got to reach people all along the range of commitment."
These graduated levels of intensity and costliness are all part of the gospel. Now the question is how to present them all to a congregation of people at various places on the spectrum.
And, of course, the biggest question of all: does the Judge's score depend upon the degree of difficulty?
April 22, 2009
Last week, blogger and author Anne Jackson stopped by the Out of Ur offices. Anne runs the popular blog FlowerDust.net and recently published Mad Church Disease: Overcoming the Burnout Epidemic with Zondervan.
Anne began struggling with an Internet porn addiction at a young age. To help us with our ongoing conversation about dealing with addictions, Anne spoke to Skye and Brandon about her journey and what the church can do to help others in her situation.
March 31, 2009
Avoiding the pitfalls of special services.
As we journey through Lent toward Easter, I want to be mindful of the dangers that surround this season and threaten the soul of a community and the soul of a pastor.
What danger? The temptation to bait and switch.
Every year I need to remind myself that Easter is not a marketing opportunity. The resurrection of the Son of God is not an opportunity to market our programs or build "my" church, even under the guise of concern for lost.
And as I feel the pressure to create a winning, life-changing sermon for those who may only come this one time a year, I especially have to remember: It's not about me. (Please wait a minute while I repeat that to myself a few times.) Why? Because heaven forbid we should ever do community in such a way that communicates that our main avenue for people coming to Christ is hearing the Gospel preached from the mouth of one person, rather than hearing it preached from the mouths (and lives) of the whole community. If, in your community, more people are becoming Christians on Sunday than during the rest of the week, I think you may have a problem.
Times like Easter and Christmas are dangerous for us because we begin to see them as something different from what they really are for the life of a community. This is where a more robust engagement with the Christian calendar really helps. It focuses our communal life on the events of the life of Christ all year around, and keeps us from seeing "two big outreach event Sundays!" every year in Christmas and Easter.
Yes, a lot of people come to a Sunday service once or twice a year, and they are more likely to come on Easter than just about any other time. And yes, the Holy Spirit is amazing, drawing people to Himself even through our goofy Easter pageants and songs (or our smoke machines and laser shows, if that's your thing).
The danger in giving in to the impulse to do something radically different, humongously big and special at these times is what we communicate both to our community and those we are inviting to become a part of our community. What we subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) communicate to our people is that their job is to invite people who are not in our churches to come on Easter Sunday morning so that the pastor and the drama team and the worship guy and (possibly) the Holy Spirit can take a whack at them.
I know that's overstating, but believe me - I've been there. And that's what "event evangelism" and "big" Sundays communicate, I think. Regardless of what we teach about reaching out to others, what we say through our Sunday Show actions communicates that it's not the job of the average person to introduce people to Jesus. Leave it to the pros with the degrees and the training and the gifts.
In other words, "You get ?em to church, we'll get ?em to Jesus!" How empowering is that for people?
I would much prefer we both explicitly and implicitly communicate a model that includes befriending people; enfolding them into the rhythms of our lives; sharing the highs and lows (and how our faith informs those) with them; and integrating them into home groups, dinner times, and the big and small events of our lives. How natural would it be after all that love and enfolding that they become a part of our community, even before they believe? And when they believe, they believe because they've seen and tested the reality of a life of faith, as opposed to simply watching a special Sunday morning service where the band rocks extra hard and the pastor has a few more funny stories than normal.
Easter is dangerous because it's here that the attractional model reaches its zenith - or maybe its nadir - every year, as thousands of churches try to do "something special" in the hopes that their people will invite others to come and be bait-n-switched into a relationship with Jesus. And we all see what other communities do and are tempted to compete in the misguided effort to keep up.
Yes, I said "bait-n-switch," because that's what it is. If we're not careful, we could end up really disappointing some people. How? By "offering" them less on subsequent visits. Less pizzazz, less oomph. I'd be pretty disappointed if I got Cirque Du Soleil the first time I went to your church and the next week I got Phil and Ted's Bargain Circus.
I was super impressed to see another church planter dial it down a couple of years ago after hearing about the disappointment of some people who came to Easter services one year and came back the next week to a completely different (and less exciting) show.
Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying we shouldn't take advantage of increased visitor attendance and preach the Gospel and hope that God does something amazing in people's lives. I'm just saying that if your strategy is to wait for someone to wander within range of your homiletical canon and then fire on them in hopes of scoring a hit, or worse yet, doing some cool things in the hopes that they might be lured within range, then I think there's a better way. Less defined, less able to be controlled by the pastors, less likely to be bragged about at pastor's conferences or to be written about in a book, but better - people loving people into your community and into relationship with Jesus.
It doesn't take mailers, banners, lightshows, and lasers every week; just a bunch of loving, welcoming Christ followers. People who genuinely care. People who are seeking relationships with other people and sharing life with them. A competent all-community gathering where things work well, so as not to be a distraction from what God wants to do that morning, sure. But less of a focus on Sunday mornings as the center of community and more of a focus on the spiritually-forming life of the community that revolves around Jesus Himself.
And all of this is vital for us to think through at Easter because I remain convinced that what we win people with, we win them to.
January 29, 2009
How can communal living enhance ministry?
On my bookshelf here at my Leadership office is a growing collection of books about intentional living--about new friars and new monastics and communes made up of multiple families under one roof. As with all such things, we wanted to get some perspective on the issue. So I spent an afternoon not long ago visiting with Jon Trott, a 30-year member of Jesus People USA (JPUSA) in Chicago. Since Jon has been living the communal life for three decades now, I asked him a few questions about life in community and for his perspective on the "new monasticism."
To hear more from Jon, check out the Winter 2009 issue of Leadership.
To download this episode of Audio Ur, click here.
November 14, 2008
What the election says about our progress and decline.
by Skye Jethani
Amazing. How else can you describe what happened last week when Barack Obama became the first African American elected President of the United States? However you voted, whatever your politics, the election reveals something about the progress of our society. As George W. Bush said the morning after the election, it "showed a watching world the vitality of America's democracy and the strides we have made toward a more perfect union."
Amid the reflections there have been numerous references to Martin Luther King Jr.'s pioneering civil rights movement and his "dream." One Chicago news commentator on election night said the day King delivered his famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial he could not have known that a two year old boy in Hawaii would become the fulfillment of his dream. That got me wondering - is Barack Obama really the fulfillment of King's dream?
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November 7, 2008
For many evangelicals, justice ministry is nothing new.
We evangelical folk love conferences. We'll attend one across the country or host one in our spiffy new sanctuary--er, auditorium. Shoot, we'll even blog about a conference for those who couldn't make it. I've attended my fair share of these get-togethers, from California to Michigan, and blogged about them along the way. Perhaps that early American phenomenon--the frontier camp meeting--lingers in our memory and has found new expression at mega-churches and sports arenas around the country.
During my suburban ministry years, many of the conferences I attended were of the how-to variety. Think "This Old House" with Bob Villa, but substitute house with "small group," "sermon," or "assimilation plan" and Villa with (mostly) white pastors and theologians who write books.
This conference-going tendency must run in our evangelical genes, because the folks at my urban church also make these events a priority. Here's the difference: instead of learning how to improve their church, these city-dwellers are interested in improving their neighborhoods and city. The half-dozen people from our congregation who just returned from the Christian Community Development Association conference in Miami attended workshops that focused on bridging racial divides, homelessness prevention, and immigration issues.
To be fair, this focus on justice has recently made an appearance on the wider conference circuit. I remember my surprise at Bono's video appearance at a Willow Creek conference a couple of years ago. His appeal for American churches to get involved in combating global poverty was warmly received. Leadership journal's managing editor, Skye Jethani, has noticed the arrival of all-things-justice at recent conferences and wonders about the origins of this development.
We've successfully reintroduced justice to a new generation of evangelicals, but is it being rooted in a fuller, wider, more Christ-centered gospel? Are we seeing justice ministries at conferences?because our view of the world, God, and the gospel has really matured? Or are we seeing justice ministries at events?because wider global awareness has simply awakened our affluent Western Christian guilt?
So, why the emphasis on justice at evangelical churches and conferences of late? As Skye points out, perhaps the American church feels guilty as we recognize the extent of our power and affluence. Knowing that churches in India are being burned down can make it hard to enjoy a latte from the church coffee bar.
This awareness of the global church may also lead to a higher emphasis on community. While our country sometimes operates unilaterally, the American church generally appreciates our place within the wider Christian community. More recently, we are coming to value the diverse theological perspective of our global family, much of which challenges our individualist and spiritual understanding of the gospel.
It's also possible that this justice discovery relates to a generation of leaders who haven't been shaped by the Protestant battles of yesteryear that pitted mainline justice-oriented churches against conservative evangelism-oriented churches. Having avoided debates about the social gospel's slippery slope, these younger evangelical leaders are confused by the neglect for ministries of justice and mercy.
Whether it's a theological discovery, sociological development or the latest pendulum swing, justice ministry has arrived in a big way. Suburban churches are supporting AIDS orphans through Compassion International and development efforts through Samaritan's Purse. Many congregations have begun partnering with other churches for a day of service to local public schools and park districts. As more immigrants bypass cities to settle in suburbia, churches are offering language and citizenship classes.
This development among suburban churches should be commended, even as we question the motivation and staying power. However, as we notice the arrival of suburban justice ministries, we should also remember that many urban churches never had the luxury of laying aside this essential component of our faith.
Take my adopted city, Chicago, for example. Since 1950, people across America have tuned in to Unshackled, that conversion-centered radio drama with the spooky organ music. Lesser known than the show is its host, The Pacific Garden Mission, which has been ministering to the homeless, imprisoned, and hungry since 1877. Or consider the great migration of the early 20th century when thousands of African Americans fled the south's Jim Crow laws for a new life in Chicago. Hundreds of gospel-centered churches sprung up on the city's south side to minister to the spiritual and physical needs of these newcomers. One of these south side pastors, James Meeks, now serves in the state senate and recently made headlines for his impassioned call for equal funding for Illinois' public schools.
Two of the oldest ministries at the seven-year-old church I serve are to the city's homeless and those in need of legal counsel. Members of the congregation provide a safe place for homeless men and women to gather during the day, meet their homeless friends at Burger King for Sunday lunch, and often walk the underpasses at night providing food and blankets for those sleeping outside. Our congregation's lawyers team up with Spanish interpreters to offer legal counsel to Hispanic folks in our immigrant-rich neighborhood. This is a church of gospel proclamation, expectation of spiritual new birth, and the occasional altar call. In other words, we're quite evangelical. Like many other urban churches, ours cannot separate gospel proclamation from the pursuit of justice.
While God's care for the poor and oppressed may be a new discovery for some, others have known it to be at the heart of gospel ministry for a very long time. There will come a time when justice looses its sexy veneer. We are, after all, a latest and greatest kind of people and another fad will undoubtedly come along to fill conference exhibits and book tables. That is, of course, unless we recall what urban Christians have always known: the Gospel of Jesus Christ makes a difference in our lives today, and the needs of today are great indeed.
October 31, 2008
Temper fashionable cynicism by focusing on our strengths.
I'm proud to be an evangelical. I think we do many things well.
Some will roll their eyes at those first two statements. Why? Criticizing evangelicalism is fashionable and evangelicals have joined the fashion, sometimes with apocalyptic fervor. I wonder if the relentless critique of (sometimes hardheaded) evangelical pastors, theologians, and authors--not to mention blogs and internet sites--is not the place we ought to urge the beginnings of reform. I'm sure that most critics have their heart in the right place: they want evangelicalism to be more biblical and more robust. (I hope those are my motivations in my own critiques.) But there sure are a lot of critics. This is what I mean:
Some evangelicals think evangelicalism is not Reformed enough because it has lost touch with its Reformed roots. Some think evangelicalism ignores its Wesleyan heritage. Indeed, it would not be hard to find an evangelical survey that omits John Wesley. Some think we have fallen prey to political parties. Others think we need to recover the liturgy and lectionary, while others think we need to re-embrace the lost heritage of the Great Traditions of the classic creeds. Some think evangelicals have forfeited intellectual rigor as a populist movement, while others think evangelicals have become far too theological, creedal, and intellectual. Some think we have failed to preach prophetic texts and have lost enthusiasm for the Second Coming while others disparage every attempt even to suffer such literalism. Some think we'd be much better off if we were all charismatic, while others think charismatics are not real evangelicals. Some think we need to be more socially active while others raise the red flag at the first sign of the social gospel.
Some think evangelicalism is on its deathbed and that the only way forward is the emerging movement, while others think the emerging movement is dancing with the devil. Some think seeker services are the cat's meow, others the end before the end. The worship wars get at least two responses: a hearty, dismissive "Get over it!" and a "Dig in your heels because if we give in here we will slide down the slippery slope!" For some, prohibiting entrance of women into ministry is the litmus test for fidelity, while for others it's so utterly obvious that opposition is Luddite. Some today draw swords to affirm complementarian male-female relationships in the home and the church, while others think of the issue, "Times have changed."
Yes, we can always do better. But I've got a question for you: What do you think (we) evangelicals do well? I will mention a few--more could be listed--but I'm asking you to speak up in the comments section, because this is a post for evangelicalism.
We are good at being properly ecumenical. Evangelicalism is a movement and not a denomination. We align ourselves with others--all others, in fact--who embrace the gospel. Because of this conviction, evangelicals are found working across denominational lines, forming parachurch organizations united around a common gospel theology, and joining hands in public with whoever wants to work with us. A genuine evangelical transcends her or his denomination in the unity only the gospel can bring. Think Christianity Today and John Stott.
We are good at urging everyone to experience the new birth. The irreducible minimum of evangelicalism is the gospel and the need to respond to it and the work of God through the new birth. So, we preach the gospel and we evangelize with that goal in mind. We pray that God will anoint our lives and our words so that others might be born from above. Think Billy Graham and the urgings of youth leaders.
We are good at recognizing the importance of theology. Evangelicals believe the Bible and in the hard-fought conclusions of Christian orthodoxy. And we believe those ideas really do matter. What we believe is more than what we happen to think. We believe the truth of God can be put into living statements for our day. Think Carl Henry and our publishing houses.
We are good at the need for personal transformation. Evangelicals expect Christians to be good and to be holy and to be loving and, if they are not, we know there's something wrong. We stare at the pages of the Bible that call for moral transformation in the power of the Spirit, and we believe it can happen today. Think Dallas Willard and the spiritual formation movement.
Yes, we can do better. I wish a recognizable woman's name would have come to mind for two of those categories. But we are doing well.
What do you think we do well? Here's the test: Can you affirm what we are doing well without saying one critical word? Try it. I think we'd all like to hear what you have to say.
October 24, 2008
Scot McKnight offers great insights into reading the Bible
In an earlier post, I outlined the content of Scot McKnight's new book, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking how you read the Bible. Here are a few reflections on what I consider the book's primary strengths and weaknesses.
First the strengths.
There is much about The Blue Parakeet that is praiseworthy. McKnight's conversation about reading the Bible as story is immensely helpful. I was in college before I learned (in a Bible interpretation class) that the Good Book is really one giant narrative that runs from Genesis to Revelation. That insight changed the way I understood and approached the Scriptures. What McKnight adds to that observation is the idea that each of the 66 books of the canon is a wiki-story - a unique retelling of the metanarrative.
The major benefit of thinking about the Bible in this way is that it forces us to recognize that the later writers (like Paul) are translating and applying the older writers (like Moses). Growing up, I thought of the relationship between the books of the Bible in this way: picture all the authors of the Bible standing on the platform at your church. When Moses finishes his part of the story, he hands the microphone to the writer of Joshua, who talks for a while, passes the mic down the aisle, and so on until Paul takes over the story. If each author is simply giving one part of the whole story, then it gets really confusing when the author's seem to contradict each other. But if we think of each author as retelling the single, major story from his unique context and perspective, then we get a real sense of the way God's relationship with his people has developed over time. So Paul doesn't contradict Moses' teaching on the Law; he interprets it in the first century.
On a practical level, that gives us great biblical examples of how God's people have had to reconsider how to live the Bible message in each generation. If you've had some exegesis classes and have gotten the sneaking suspicion that Paul would have failed Interp 101, you'll probably appreciate McKnight's insights on this point.
The second great aspect of The Blue Parakeet is its consistent emphasis on behavior. McKnight is clearly concerned about how we apply Scripture, and that is evident from the first page to the last. It's refreshing to read a book about the Bible that isn't as concerned with explicating every detail as it is with making sure that Christians are equipped to live Christianly. The overall effect this commitment has on the reader is to demystify the interpretation process so that it doesn't feel like the job of professionals and specialists. McKnight offers a vision of exegesis that makes the Bible accessible to everyone.
I benefited from McKnight's discussion on reading the Bible as story and his insistence that the reason we read the Bible is so that we can live rightly. He also convinced me of the final (and overarching) point of his book - interpreting a story can be messy business. Because the Bible is not full of rules to retrieve, knowing how to apply it requires discernment. Indeed, none of us is consistent in how we choose what to apply and what to ignore.
In this final section on discernment, the book almost communicates this: we all pick and choose what parts and in what ways we apply the Bible, so let's just be honest about it. And this is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, the author describes several ways Christians have historically discerned appropriate positions on difficult topics - what he calls "patterns of discernment." And these are helpful. But when all is said and done, I am still unclear about how to apply McKnight's ideas to other controversial issues.
For example, he models his methodology in the extended treatment of women in ministry at the end of the book. But there he also introduces new variables - Greek exegesis and surveys of Roman texts from the first century - that he doesn't address anywhere else in his book. Clearly these resources make up an important part of the discernment process. But to know how to incorporate them into McKnight's overall vision for interpretation on another issue - say, homosexuality in the twenty-first century - I would need to hear him talk more explicitly about them. At the point where his other excellent insights converge, I left needing more to understand exactly how they fit together.
That brings up the issue of audience. Who is this book for? As you might imagine, it is not for people looking for a clear methodology. That's not necessarily a shortcoming of the book. But it's something to consider before you read it. It is also probably not best for a brand-new Christian, someone for whom understanding the Bible may already be a problem. In my opinion, there's not enough here for a new Bible reader to hang her hat on (it might be great, though, if it were paired with another more "how-to" guide on the subject). On other hand, this book would be great for Christians who think they have it all figured out - people who need to have the process problematized. It's an excellent corrective for those who try to lift a passage out of its context and apply it without discernment in the present. It's great for people who are inconsistent in their interpretation but don't recognize it.
We all get lazy in our Bible reading. Scot McKnight holds our feet to the fire and points out our shortcuts, shortcomings, and inconsistencies. That is a much-needed service that makes The Blue Parakeet an excellent contribution to an important conversation.
October 17, 2008
Our choice of president is less important than our integrity.
Election time again and, once more, we face a big decision. No, not the decision about our vote. That one is big, but this one is even bigger. It's the decision about our integrity.
I watch in amazement as every four years, well-meaning Christians who are otherwise committed to values of truth and controlling our tongues descend into the pit of partisanship, smears, and tale-bearing. You know how it goes. You have genuine concerns about the other guy (or gal) and so, with few qualms, repeat whatever was told to you by someone in the parking lot or that you heard on the talk radio show or read on that extremely well fact-checked source, the Internet. Of course, all the stuff the other side is saying about your candidate? Yellow journalism and lies.
People who balked at the Left's mention of George Bush's alcoholism repeat at the drop of a hat Obama's admission of drug use in his younger days. And people who on any other day are likely to decry the sexism of American politics suddenly become concerned that Palin went back to work too quickly after giving birth and that she can't be both VP and a mother of a special-needs child.
We believe whatever our side says, refuse to even listen to the other side, and generally put critical thinking aside.
I'm sad to say that over the last few months, I've seen good Christians who genuinely love Jesus repeat tale after tale (many later proven false or exaggerated) about both major tickets in this election--all with the intention of making others think less of the one being talked about.
Didn't we use to call that gossip? And, actually, wouldn't we still call it gossip if someone in our church was saying similar things about someone else in our church? Can anyone tell me how it's any different during an election? I understand these are important decisions about public officials, and character matters. I know. I just think that's all the more reason to be careful, to check the facts before repeating the tale. Character matters in both the ones being voted for and the ones doing the voting.
Read something about Obama on a Republican site? Great. Before you believe it, check out how the Democrats are explaining it. And vice-versa. Or better yet, bookmark an objective site that holds the feet of both candidates to the fire on issue of truth and spin.
Does John McCain really want to apply "Wall Street de-regulation" to health care? No.
Did Obama really vote against funding our troops? No. According to FactCheck.org:
McCain has made multiple false representations of Obama's tax proposals. Obama has made false claims about McCain's stance on Social Security. Both McCain and Obama have traded some whoppers about their energy policies, about Iraq, and about Iran, and about supporting troops.
Politicians lie. It's what they do. Don't make the mistake of thinking your guy is different. And don't make the mistake of thinking that any issue you are passionate about, whether abortion or the poor, is worth your joining them in their half-truths, deceptions, and spin. Shouldn't people who follow the One who called Himself the Truth (John 14:6), who told us that it was in truth that our freedom would be found (John 8:32), be a bit more careful about the "facts" we repeat? Shouldn't we refuse to serve the interests of political parties by refusing to parrot talking point after talking point and, instead, using a bit of discernment?
Here's what I want to see: Christians who can speak as eloquently about the good qualities of the candidate that they aren't supporting as they can about the one they are, and who can speak as candidly about their candidates shortcomings as they do about the other guy's. Christians who make decisions about whom to vote for based on issues, not rumors. Christians who take a stand and refuse to participate in political gossip and character assassination.
After all, what would it profit us to win the whole election and still lose our integrity?
September 12, 2008
Jesus and the deconstruction of authenticity.
Sometime last year, a short passage of Scripture lodged in my brain. It's been rubbing and needling there ever since and challenging the way I think about ministry.
The passage is from Isaiah 42. Describing Jesus, the Suffering Servant, the prophet says: "A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out." These beautiful snapshots of compassion and tenderness bring to mind the ministry Henri Nouwen describes in The Wounded Healer (Image, 1979). They present a vision of Christian service that suits my personality. That's why I find it so troubling how discordant this sentiment is with the following words of Jesus: "You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?"
To put the matter bluntly, this offends my understanding of authenticity. When I think of someone being "real," I usually have in mind that said person behaves the same way around everyone. He's confident "being himself." That's what makes the TV doctor House so endearing. He's a jerk, sure; but he's a jerk everywhere and always. He's so authentic. And, because authenticity is such a central cultural value for people my age, it's easy for me to adopt the mantra, Be yourself. If you're nothing else, be real. But Jesus - he interacted with some people in one way and others in another. That's the textbook (if junior-high) definition of "inauthentic."
I take issue with Jesus' apparent schizophrenia for another reason. I'm a writer and a (some-time) minister trying to make a name for myself in a marketplace - even if it's a Christian marketplace - that rewards people who have a distinct voice, angle, or shtick. It's important for me - and for you, if you want to succeed publicly - to solidify that voice, angle, or shtick and reinforce it consistently so that everyone recognizes my "brand." For some, the shtick is being deeply convicted, confrontational, and brash. For others, it's being open minded, relevant, and chill. Whole product lines and cottage industries are built on these brands, so that the personalities behind them dare not change.
As important as these values - authenticity and consistent branding - are to us, they did not concern Jesus all that much. He did not conduct his ministry according what suited his tastes or personality. He wasn't worried about being "himself." Instead, he did whatever the Father expected him to do (John 6:38). And he didn't present a consistent brand. For the stiff-necked and self-righteous, he narrowed the requirements for participation in the kingdom. For the bruised reed, he opened them. Such inconsistency hurt his fan base. Some people thought he was self-righteous ("Isn't this the carpenter's son?"); others thought he was licentious ("This man welcomes sinners and eats with them"). He didn't seem to care what they thought.
Rather, Jesus was truly himself because he did the will of God; he was most authentic when he was least concerned with doing things that suited his personality (Luke 22:42). There's an important lesson here for Christian ministry. Our ministry should not simply flow naturally out of our personality. Our being real can't mean that we only focus on what comes naturally to us, our strengths. We are not our own ambassadors. We are Christ's. If God the Father opposes the proud but lifts up the humble and Jesus does, too, then maybe the Christian minister, who is an ambassador for Christ and who bears the image of God, should understand in these examples a rule for ministry: to the lowly we show mercy; to the stiff-necked, we offer rebuke. Perhaps one or the other of those activities will come more naturally to us. It doesn't really matter. It's the world, not Jesus, that calls us to be ourselves.
If we find our authenticity and identity in Christ, we'll have to be prepared to stop judging our effectiveness by how people respond to us. We'll no doubt be misunderstood by some. But we won't, as some people fear, be disregarded or discredited for speaking or acting in each given situation according to the need. That doesn't make us hypocrites. In fact, people are more likely to question your motives if you're always affirming, always in-your-face, always cool and groovy.
A dear friend of mine from college exemplifies what I'm trying to capture here. He was the only man I've ever met who has literally wept with me as I confessed a sin, doubt, or concern. He's also the only man that's ever taken me by the shoulders and told me (in a different circumstance) to get my act together. He wasn't terribly concerned about the consistency of his behavior from one situation to the next; he wasn't concerned about my feelings, really. He knew what I needed and gave it to me. He's the most authentic person I know.
It's hard to know how to develop my ministry skills if I'm to be less concerned with consistency and authenticity and more concerned with serving out of my identity as an imago Christi. I'll keep reading Nouwen's books like they're going out of style, because I think he understood Christian service better than most. But I'll have to remember not to be conformed into the imago Nouwen (or the imago Mohler, imago Calvin, or imago McLaren). But, to be quite honest, it frightens me to be the disciple of a Prince of Peace who said, "I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!"
July 3, 2008
Does the Bible command us to love our country?
I've got a special treat for you to commemorate Independence Day - a preview of the summer issue of Leadership due out later this month. The issue focuses on the intersection of church ministry and politics (not an irrelevant subject this year). Here is a snippet featuring Charles Colson and Gregory Boyd debating the biblical basis for loving one's country:
Charles Colson: I don't think that you can simply forget the fact that we live in a kingdom and a state. Our job is to make the state as righteous and conformed to God's standards as possible. But you can love the Lord your God with your heart, mind, and soul and also love your country as a way of loving your neighbor.
Gregory Boyd: This is the fundamental difference between us. In your book you speak a lot about our dual commitments, our dual allegiances to God and country. I just don't know where in the New Testament you get that. I can't imagine Jesus or Paul saying such a thing. God tells us to obey the laws of the land and to pray for peace. Those are our two engagements. But I don't feel we have any kind of duty to love or defend our country.
As you can see, this issue is sure to spark some debate. Share your thoughts here, and look for more thought provoking discussion on Out of Ur in the coming weeks.
April 11, 2008
Four critical questions about how we do youth ministry, and all ministry.
If there is one thing that everyone in youth ministry seems to be talking about it's how to keep students following Christ after high school. That's been a hot topic here at Shift, and this morning Kara Powell addressed the problem head on. As the executive director of the Center for Youth and Family Ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, Powell knows the sobering statistics.
Her data reveals that 50% of high school students who had been deeply involved in a church's youth ministry will not be serving God 18 months after graduation. And that's not counting the many other high school students who are only going to church because their parents are forcing them. She also cited the LifeWay study that was highlighted on Ur last year.
Powell stood next to a table piled high with ministry books and resources. She asked, with so many resources available to us why are our students falling away at such alarming rates? Her thought: the more resources we have the less desperate and dependent upon God we feel. And we begin making "mindless, automatic decisions about our ministries." She called for an end to "autopilot" youth ministry, and for us to start asking hard questions about what we're doing.
Here are Kara Powell's four critical questions:
1. What gospel are we feeding kids?
She says that a lot of what students are fed is a guilt based gospel - what Dallas Willard calls the "gospel of sin management." Powell compared it to a diet of Red Bull. It's fast, energetic, and easy, but not very nourishing. And after the rush is over you deflate. We've fed students a gospel of rights and wrongs, but nothing nourishing that they can internalize and grow from. No wonder they fall away shortly after graduation. The buzz is over.
2. Are students' doubts welcome at our table?
Powell's research shows that the students who were able to express their doubts and problems about faith in high school were more likely to endure through college. She shared about girls in her youth ministry talking about homosexuality. Rather than shutting down the conversation with fast answers from Romans 1, she let girls share openly. Eventually two expressed their own feelings of possibly being gay. Are we secure enough to let these kinds of conversations occur in our churches?
3. How can kids take their place at God's diverse kingdom table?
Kara said that the church is suffering from a new kind of segregation - not racial or economic, but age. The youth ministry functions like the "kids' table" at Thanksgiving. But her research shows that students who have meaningful engagement with the adults at church do far better post high school. She called for a new 5:1 ratio - not five students per adult, but five adults per student.
4. How can we train students to feed themselves after graduation?
Echoing the sentiments shared by Greg Hawkins presentation on REVEAL, Powell called for youth ministers to teach their students how to feed themselves spiritually. They can become totally dependent on the youth ministry for their spiritual nourishment, and when that resource is disrupted when they leave for college everything falls apart. Rather than making kids dependents on us we need to make them independent. A simple but often overlooked goal.
While Powell was addressing youth ministry and youth workers, I was struck by how relevant her words are to every pastor. The drop off rate seen among high school graduates is forcing youth pastors to reevaluate their approach to ministry. But shouldn't we all be concerned? 48 year olds may not be leaving the church the way 18 year olds are, but are they really growing? Are we feeding them a Red Bull gospel? Are we teaching them to be self-feeders? Are their doubts and struggles welcomed? These are great questions for us all.
April 4, 2008
Is having an ethnically diverse church a biblical mandate?
I recently returned to my native Arkansas - a world much less ablaze with all the conversations about emergent, missional, monastic, anti-institutional, and ancient-future Christianity. As much as I appreciate those dialogues, a heavy dose of them can obscure the fact that there are many local congregations nationwide that are not clinging to a sinking institution, are not confronted with a thoroughly postmodern youth culture, and are not terribly concerned with relevance (as such). They are, nevertheless, participating in great advances for the kingdom of God.
Take Mosaic Church of Central Arkansas, for example. Located in the University District of Little Rock's south midtown, the church enjoys a prime location - for burglary, murder, and carjacking. It's in that part of town you wouldn't loiter in on Saturday night (I suppose all the evildoers sleep late on Sunday morning). But its location is strategic. In neither inner city nor suburb, and just across the street from the Little Rock campus of the University of Arkansas(UALR), the church's neighbors represent a diversity of ethnic and economic backgrounds. More importantly, the church's membership faithfully reflects the district's demographics.
As a lifelong Arkansan, I can testify that the joyful multi-ethnic and economically diverse fellowship that takes place at Mosaic is a monumental accomplishment.
The small town I lived in nearby not long ago was home to a white First Baptist Church and a black First Baptist Church, each of which was located appropriately on its own side of town. Keep in mind it was only 50 years ago that Little Rock's Central High School defied a federal order to integrate. And while laws have changed in that half century, many - perhaps most - hearts have not.
That's why I was so surprised during my experience in worship at Mosaic to discover that, while it is a healthily intergenerational bunch, the congregation is not led by young, inclusive postmoderns, but by middle-aged, working class black, white, and Latino men and women. According to the latest buzz, these folks are supposed to be dying for lack of vision.
Teaching pastors Mark DeYmaz and Harry Li are quick to attribute Mosaic's growth and vibrancy to God's blessing. In fact, in a generation when traditional churches are dying, they are doing nearly everything wrong - they meet in a building, they hand out bulletins, they have a mission statement, and they run programs. But they leave success in the Lord's hands. DeYmaz, who spent nearly a decade on staff at a large, homogeneous church in town, explained, "The hardest thing about this ministry is that we know how to grow a church big and fast, but we refuse to do it. We don't use church-growth strategies; we don't market ourselves. We could grow the ministry fast. But we'd rather grow it biblically."
DeYmaz explains what he means by biblical growth in his 2007 book Building a Healthy Multi-ethnic Church (Jossey-Bass). Based largely on John 17, Ephesians 2, and the pattern of the church at Antioch (Acts 13), DeYmaz argues that "a house of prayer for all people" is best led by a ministry team made up of "all people." Because a church led by a white pastor will likely only reach white people, Mosaic is committed to maintaining an ethnic balance on its staff (for more on this, see "Ethnic Blends" in the upcoming issue of Leadership). They do this because they consider the multi-ethnic church as more than an effort at racial reconciliation or liberal dogoodism. It is a biblical mandate - a New Testament commandment that, because in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, Greek or barbarian, then God's church should look like God's kingdom: full of people from every ethnic and economic class (and, in Mosaic's case, with physical and mental disabilities).
DeYmaz is careful not to criticize homogeneous churches in his book, but he does warn, "I believe the homogeneous church will increasingly struggle in the twenty-first century with credibility, that is, in proclaiming a message of God's love for all people from an environment in which a love for all people cannot otherwise be observed" (14).
What do you think? Is inter-ethnic ministry a biblical mandate? Or is it simply a new strategy (however noble) for church growth? And what does all this mean for your church if, like mine, it's full of white folks who welcome worshipers of other ethnic backgrounds, but only (as DeYmaz observes) they agree to worship the way we do and not cause a fuss?
March 25, 2008
Have Christians forgotten that discipline is a gift from God?
For the past couple of weeks, Ur-banites have been wrestling with questions about church membership. Below, Ken Sande, president of Peacemaker Ministries, takes one of the big questions head on: how does a church discipline its members?
On January 18, 2008, The Wall Street Journal Online published an article by Alexandra Alter on church discipline entitled Banned from Church. When Alexandra interviewed me before writing the article, I explained the biblical basis for church discipline and acknowledged how churches have sometimes neglected or abused the process. I also described how properly applied accountability can help people break free from sinful and destructive conduct. I even provided examples of churches that had used loving discipline to stop crooks from defrauding elderly people, protect lonely women from being seduced, and move child sexual abusers to confess their crimes ("A Better Way to Handle Abuse").
Despite our conversation, Alexandra chose to paint an entirely negative picture of discipline by using the example of a 71-year-old woman who had been removed from her church for questioning her pastor's leadership. Examples of protecting the elderly, the lonely, and the helpless from abuse apparently did not fit into her preconceived notions of church discipline.
I'm sad, but not surprised, when secular writers present a negative stereotype of church discipline. What troubles me far more is how many Christians share these distorted views.
Like Ms. Alter, most Christians seem to see church discipline either as a harsh, legalistic, and unloving process, which true followers of Christ should never practice, or (also well illustrated in the WSJ article) as a handy tool for getting rid of inquisitive, irritating, or challenging members.
Neither of these views is biblical.
The Bible never presents church discipline as being negative, legalistic or harsh. True discipline originates from God himself and is always presented as a sign of genuine love. Consider these three verses: "The Lord disciplines those he loves" (Heb. 12:6). "Blessed is the man you discipline, O LORD, the man you teach from your law" (Ps. 94:12). "Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline" (Rev. 3:19).
God's discipline in the church, like the discipline in a good family, is intended to be primarily positive, instructive, and encouraging. This process, which is sometimes referred to as "formative discipline," involves preaching, teaching, prayer, personal Bible study, small group fellowship, and countless other enjoyable activities that challenge and encourage us to love and serve God more wholeheartedly.
On rare occasions, God's discipline, like the discipline in a family with growing children, also may have a corrective purpose. When we forget or disobey what God has taught us, he corrects us. One way he does this is to call the church to lead us back onto the right track. This process of "corrective" or "restorative" discipline is likened in Scripture to a shepherd seeking after a lost sheep (Matt. 18:12?13).
Thus, neither restorative nor corrective discipline is ever to be done in an unloving, vengeful, or self-righteous manner. It is always to be carried out in humility and love, with the goals of restoring someone to a close walk with Christ (Matt. 18:15; Gal. 6:1), protecting others from harm (1 Cor. 5:6), and showing respect for the honor and glory of God's name (1 Pet. 2:12).
Biblical discipline is similar to the discipline we value in other aspects of life. We admire parents who consistently teach their children how to behave properly and lovingly discipline them when they disobey. We value music teachers who bring out the best in their students by teaching them proper technique and consistently pointing out their errors, so they can play a piece properly. We applaud athletic coaches who diligently teach their players to do what is right and correct them when they fumble, so that the team works well together.
The same principles apply to the family of God. We, too, need to be taught what is right and to be lovingly corrected when we do something contrary to what God teaches us in his Word. When this is done as God commands, it usually leads to repentance, change, and restored relationships (see 2 Cor. 2:5?11). But when people harden their hearts, it is entirely appropriate for a church to take the rare but necessary step of removing them from fellowship, both as a warning about the gravity of their sin and as a means to protect the innocent and weak from harm.
Practically, it is important to consider such things as legal liability issues and how to secure informed consent to a church's disciplinary practices. But the most important questions to ask are: Why has the church bought into the world's view of church discipline? Why are we afraid of carrying out a process that Jesus himself has commanded us to follow in order to protect his church and retrieve his lost sheep? And what can we do to show our people and the world that redemptive church discipline is truly God's gift and blessing to his church?
Ken Sande is the president of Peacemaker Ministries?, a lawyer, and the author of The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict (Baker, 2004).
March 12, 2008
Moving toward a "man-max" philosophy of ministry.
In the first part of this post, I discussed my suspicion that we have confused the church (the community of God's people) with the church institution (the 501c3 tax-exempt organization). This leads to a myopic understanding of Christian mission and service. We can slip into the idea that the only legitimate use of one's gifts, time, and energy is within the institutional structures of the church organization. In part two I want to explore why we may have fallen into this mindset, and how we can begin to think differently.
Without doubt there are numerous factors behind our exaltation of the church institution above the community of saints that created it, but one critical component may be cultural. In our consumer culture we've come to believe that institutions are the vessels of God's Spirit and power. (The reason for this is a subject I explore in more depth in my book due out next year.) The assumption is that with the right curriculum, the right principles, and the right programs, values, and goals, the Spirit will act to produce the ministry outcomes we envision. This plug-and-play approach to ministry makes God a predictable, mechanical device and it assumes his Spirit resides within organizations and systems rather than people.
You often see this mindset after the death or departure of a godly leader. A man or woman powerfully filled with the Spirit's breath demonstrates amazing ministry for Christ. Others are attracted to the leader and over time a community forms. But once the Spirit-filled leader is gone, those remaining assume his or her ministry can and should be perpetuated. The wind of the Spirit may have shifted, but they want it to keep blowing in the same direction. So, an institution is established based on the departed leader's purpose, vision, and values. If these are rigorously maintained, it is believed, then the same Spirit-empowered results that were evident in the leader's life will continue through the institution. Many ministries and denominations originated in just this way--with success defined not merely by faithfulness but by longevity.
But what we often fail to see is that the Spirit was not unleashed in the leader's life because he or she had the right values or employed the right strategy. The "fire of God," as Dallas Willard calls it, was in their soul because of their intense love of Jesus Christ. Rather than focusing on reproducing a leader's methodology by constructing an institution, we ought to focus on reproducing his or her devotion to God - but that is a far more challenging task. As Willard writes, "One cannot write a recipe for this, for it is a highly personal matter, permitting of much individual variation and freedom. It also is dependent upon grace - that is, upon God acting in our lives to accomplish what we cannot accomplish on our own."
This is what highly institutional consumer Christianity fails to grasp. It reduces ministry to a predictable machine where the right input results in the desired output, and then invites religious consumers to engage the test-engineered institution for their spiritual nourishment. It is also the assumption behind a good number of the ministry books, conferences, and resources we produce every year. But I don't believe the Spirit of God is laying dormant waiting for the institutional church to compose the right BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) so he can be unleashed the way a pagan god is conjured by an incantation. God is a person, not a force. And his Spirit does not empower programs or inhabit institutions but people who were created in God's image to be the vessels of his glory.
As I stated in part one, this does not mean structures and organizations are evil. It simple means that institutional structures should exist to support the Spirit-filled people so they can advance the mission of God through human relationships. It's not about either people or the institution, but about getting the order right. The institution exists to resource the people. People do not exist to resource the institution.
My Honda Civic serves as a helpful metaphor. Decades ago Honda began using an engineering philosophy referred to as "man-max, machine-min." The idea was to design cars by allocating maximum space for the human occupants and minimal space for the mechanical components. It sounds intuitive, but in the 1970s - the age of gas-guzzling land yachts - it was a radical approach for an automaker. Since then the notion of ergonomics and user-friendly technology has become pervasive.
What if we approached our mission with a similar philosophy: "man-max, institution-min"? This is not an anti-institutional philosophy of ministry any more than Honda is an anti-mechanical car manufacturer. It simply recognizes that people are both the instruments and objects of God's mission in the world. Human beings are the vessels of his Spirit, not organizations or institutions. This would mean asking new questions when the church (the community of believers) seeks to advance the mission of the Gospel:
Not: How do we grow the institution?
But: How do we grow people?
Not: How do we motivate people to serve in the church/institution?
But: How do we equip people and release them to serve outside the church/institution?
Not: How do we convince more people to come?
But: How do we inspire more people to go?
Not: How many programs can the church start?
But: How many programs have other churches started that we can help support?
Not: How many people have a committed relationship with our institution?
But: How many people have a committed relationship with another brother or sister in Christ?
Not: How do we make people dependent on the institution for their growth?
But: How do we equip people to grow independent of the institution?
Not: How much revenue can the institution generate?
But: How much revenue can the institution give away?
Not: How many buildings, pastors, and programs are necessary for the institution to have maximum exposure in the community?
But: How few buildings, pastors, and programs are necessary for God's people to have time and energy to engage the community?
How these questions are answered will vary from place to place and church to church. How the Spirit of God leads one community of believer to engage the mission will look different than another. I'm not attempting to prescribe a single institutional model as normative for all. What I'm trying to do is challenge the assumptions behind the pervasive belief that sees institutions rather than people as the vessels and instruments of God's power in the world. Learning to think "man-max, institution-min" may be the first step toward becoming a truly missional, rather than institutional, community.
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March 10, 2008
Have we confused the community of God’s people with the structures that support it?
Dan Kimball, a regular contributor to Leadership and Out of Ur, has written a book titled, They Like Jesus but Not the Church: Insights from emerging generations. The book chronicles the attitudes of younger seekers - they feel a strong affection for Jesus but they harbor distrust, even disgust, for the church.
I can relate to that perspective. In college I studied in the comparative religion department of a secular university and was closely involved with a parachurch ministry. During those years my fascination with Christ and my devotion to him was budding. But I carried a lingering resentment toward the church. For a number of legitimate (in my mind) and illegitimate reasons, I had pushed the church to periphery of my life. I saw it as a superfluous appendage to faith; like a sixth finger or third nipple - pretty harmless but best removed or kept hidden to avoid embarrassment.
That sentiment changed in me, however, through prayerfully reading the New Testament. I came to see that is was impossible to love Jesus but not his church. As the "Body of Christ," the community of believers is at the center of God's mission and work in the world. As Saint Augustine says, "You cannot have God as your Father and not have the Church as your mother."
I repented. I prayed for weeks asking God to fill me with a love for his church that I knew was absent from my soul. In time my heart caught up with the biblical truth my mind had already conceded.
Fifteen years later I now find myself struggling with a new dilemma. As a young Christian I loved Jesus but not the church. As a more mature believer, I now describe myself as one who loves the church but not the institution. Let me explain.
I genuinely love the church; the community of God's people who are together striving, and often failing, to pursue Christ and his mission. I love the men, women, and children that I share my life with, worship with, and serve alongside. I have even found myself feeling an unexpected love (although not always) for a critical church member complaining in my office, or the cantankerous person who seems to delight in disagreeing with my perspective on even mundane issues. Admittedly, mine is an imperfect love of the church, but it is real.
What I don't love is the 501c3 tax-exempt institution we incorrectly refer to as "the church." For decades we've heard the old adage, "the church isn't a building, it's the people." We've come to recognize that the brick and mortar structure isn't the church, but somehow we haven't had the same epiphany about the intangible structures of the institution. In many peoples' imaginations the church remains a bundle of programs, committees, policies, teams, ministries, initiatives, budgets, and events. Most people speak of "the church" the same way they refer to "the government" - it's a hierarchy of leaders managing an organization that they engage but remain apart from.
I see this dichotomy most clearly when it comes to volunteer service. As church leaders we often feel compelled to draw more people into the institution's programs to serve. I have, like many of you, scanned the membership roster and marked possible recruits who are not presently "serving the church." Those focused on the financial end of things keep track of who is "giving to the church." Even the use of words like "churched" and "unchurched" testifies to the centrality of the institution in our imagination and mission.
But is it possible for faithful and obedient Christians to be using their spiritual gifts, actively serving others, advancing God's mission, and financially giving their wealth outside the institutional structures we've created? Are we able and willing to celebrate these things, or has our vision become so institutionally bound that we can only champion what occurs under the banner of our ministry's logo?
Sometimes I wonder if we have so confused these two entities - the church and the institution - that our mission becomes the growth and advancement of the later rather than the former. When attendance at a church program is large we say, "the church is growing," and when attendance is poor we say, "the church is failing." But is that really accurate? Is the church growing or failing, or merely the institution? Can we even tell the difference anymore?
I am not anti-institution. I am not one of those rabid fluid-organic-anti-linear-pomo-loosy goosey-anti-establishment church people. I believe structure is necessary. Structure is good and even God-ordained. We see organization and structure from the very foundation of the church in Acts. But these structures always existed to serve God's people in the fulfillment of their mission. Today, it seems like God's people exist to serve the institution in the fulfillment of its mission (which is usually to become a bigger institution). Most of the curricula available to pastors on spiritual gifts and service focus on getting people to serve within their institution. Rarely does a church recruit, equip, and release saints to serve the mission outside its own immediate structure. (Imago Dei Community in Portland, Oregon, is a refreshing exception.)
This is the heart of my dilemma. I sometimes feel the energies and time I pour into the institution doesn't translate into God's people being more equipped for the ministry of loving God and neighbor. Could my spiritual and personal resources bear more fruit if poured into real people (the church), rather than into the institutional trough they feed from on Sundays? I'm haunted by that question.
I know some of you will dismiss me as a cynic that's spent too many evenings away from his young family trapped in church business meetings. Touch?. But the ranks of those who love the church but not the institution is growing. Willow Creek's REVEAL study, which has been the focus of relentless conversation on this blog, testifies to the dissatisfaction more mature believers feel toward the institution. I don't believe they're rejecting the church. The study shows these believers continue to grow spiritually by serving others and through meaningful relationships with other believers. In other words, they are growing by engaging the church. What they've realized they can do without is the institution. George Barna's 2005 book, Revolution, documents a similar trend.
This is my dilemma. I love the church but not the institution. I want to give my life to serving Christ's people and equipping them to accomplish the work of ministry. I want to use my Spirit-given gifts to build up the Body of Christ and edify the holy catholic Church whose faithful members surround us as a great cloud of witnesses. But I don't want to give my life to a temporal institution. For the sake of argument I've constructed this as an either-or dichotomy, which it is not. I can be a part of the church (institution) and still faithfully pour my life into the church (God's people). Discovering exactly how to do that remains the problem.
Continue reading part two of "They Love the Church but Not the Institution."
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February 5, 2008
The outspoken Southern Baptist says it’s time for Christians to abandon public schools.
Al Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, has a reputation for diving fearlessly into controversial issues. A visit to his Wikipedia page reveals his history of treading into cultural minefields and not leaving until every bomb has detonated. His penchant for pyrotechnics continues with his latest book, Culture Shift: Engaging Current Issues with Timeless Truth (Multnomah, 2008). Mohler addresses issues like faith and politics, morality and law, war and terror, homosexuality, and abortion - that's a lot of mines to detonate in 160 very small pages.
In a chapter entitled "Needed: An Exit Strategy from Public Schools," Mohler argues that "public schools are prime battlegrounds for cultural conflict." In Massachusetts, for example, children as young as seven years old have been assigned a book called King & King, in which a homosexual prince falls in love with another prince and, one assumes, lives happily ever after. Because same-sex marriage is legal in Massachusetts, educators insist that a homosexual lifestyle be presented in public schools as normal and, as a result, they affirm the districts' decision to require the book. Many Christians object to this sort of curriculum, but what can be done?
Mohler suggests the following:
I am convinced that the time has come for Christians to develop an exit strategy from the public schools. Some parents made this decision long ago. The Christian school and home school movements are among the most significant cultural developments of the last thirty years. Other parents are not there yet. In any event, an exit strategy should be in place.
This suggestion elicits questions about Christian mission and presence in the world. Will the darkness become even more pervasive if we stage a mass exodus from public school systems? On the other hand, do we risk the souls of our children for the sake of outreach?
But Mohler's solution also has implications for church leadership. He continues:
This strategy would affirm the basic and ultimate responsibility of Christian parents to take charge of the education of their own children. The strategy would also affirm the responsibility of churches to equip parents, support families, and offer alternatives.
I'd like to hear what all of you Ur-banites think. Do churches have a responsibility to offer alternatives to public education? Is it appropriate for church leaders to decide for their congregations whether their children ought to remain in public schools or move to a private or home school environment?
Mohler is certainly right about one thing; it is only a matter of time before Christians in every region of the country face challenges like the one described above. He is also right that churches are responsible for equipping parents to respond to their children's difficult questions. But how? How can church leaders equip believers - including their very youngest members - to follow Jesus and be salt and light? And what does that mean for our relationship to public schools?
January 7, 2008
Can a church support a presidential candidate without jeopardizing its tax-exempt status?
The race is on for the White House and it began with excitement last week in Iowa. Tomorrow it's New Hampshire's turn, and on February 5, "Super Tuesday," near half of the country will be voting to select the Democratic and Republican nominees. With one of the most open races in recent history many Christians are still undecided, and some are looking to their church and pastors for direction. Should the church wade into the murky waters of politics? And if it does what is the risk? Allen R. Bevere, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Cambridge, Ohio, and contributor to RedBlueChristian.com, has written to share what a church is legally allowed to do in this political season.
The Associated Press has reported that several pastors in Iowa, who have publicly supported Governor Mike Huckabee for President have received anonymous letters warning them that their churches are in danger of losing their nonprofit status. The fact that the letters are anonymous means that they are probably from someone opposed to Huckabee, who wants to silence these ministers who support him.
There is great misunderstanding, even in government, as to what tax-exempt status does and does not mean in reference to what churches are and are not allowed to say and do when it comes to politics and elections in particular.
First, for some history:
Historically there was no law in the United States restricting any church or other nonprofit organization from endorsing or opposing a candidate for political office.
In 1954, after being opposed by a nonprofit organization, then Senator Lyndon Johnson proposed legislation prohibiting nonprofits from either opposing or endorsing any candidate (which did not and still does not apply to appointed offices such as Supreme Court Justices). The code was amended without debate. Since that time, the political landscape has changed.
So, exactly what is it that pastors and churches are allowed to do politically?
Churches may not directly endorse or oppose a political candidate. The key word is "directly." No church may officially say, "We endorse Jane Doe." "We oppose John Doe." In addition, the pastor should not send out a personal written endorsement on church letterhead. Political signs should not be displayed on the lawn of the church. "Indirect" participation is allowed and includes the following:
1. Pastors may personally endorse a candidate. The office of pastor does not exclude clergy from expressing their personal views. Everyone has that right. The IRS explicitly states that, while a pastor may endorse or oppose a candidate in the parking lot of the church or in the local grocery store in conversation, he or she may not directly endorse or oppose a candidate from the pulpit. There are many who believe, however, that such a view is unconstitutional. At the very least it is problematic from a polity standpoint in that, even in the pulpit, most pastors do not speak officially for their congregations.
2.Pastors may also personally work for a candidate and contribute financially to his or her campaign. No church may contribute to a campaign.
3. Pastors may even endorse a candidate in print, such as in a newspaper ad. The pastor's title and the church s/he is affiliated with may also be listed for the purposes of identification.
4. Pastors may also preach on moral and social issues (abortion, gay marriage, economic matters, etc.) which, depending on the pastor's views, may by implication throw support behind one candidate over another. It is wise, however, not to connect any one candidate to any one position during the sermon. Churches may also take official positions on such issues, as long as they don't directly endorse or oppose a candidate in the process.
5. Churches may organize voter registrations and drives as long as they are directed at all eligible voters and not only toward voters of one political party.
6. Churches may hold forums where candidates address the issues.
7. If a candidate visits a church during worship, he or she may be introduced publicly.
8. Churches may host candidates who may speak from the pulpit, as long as that candidate is not directly endorsed or urges the congregation to vote for her/him.
9. Churches may distribute non-partisan voter guide giving information on where each candidate stands on the issues. Churches should be warned about using guides that come from outside sources as they may be deemed to be partisan.
10. Churches may use their premises as voting stations.
Whether or not it is a good idea for a pastor to personally endorse a political candidate or not, and exactly how far a church should go in getting involved in the political process is another post for another time; but for those pastors and churches that are so inclined, it is helpful to know what the rules are as Caesar continues to domesticate the church into doing his bidding; whether it is in threatening the church's tax-exempt status, or in so sucking us into the partisan political process in both parties, that we forget the church's more profound political task of reminding the nations of the world that it is God who reigns and they are on borrowed time.
Allan R. Bevere is the pastor of First United Methodist Church in Cambridge, Ohio, and a Professional Fellow in Theology at Ashland Theological Seminary in Ashland, Ohio.
November 9, 2007
The Senate investigates “possible misuse of donations” by television preachers.
I come from a diverse family where few are Christians and even fewer venture into the curious sub-culture of evangelicalism. For this reason a number of my relatives have an impression of Christianity based largely upon what they see while surfing the television - an impression that I do not fit and work hard to deconstruct. Televangelists are loud and energetic; I'm rarely the life of the party. Televangelists have big hair; I have no hair. Televangelists fly around in private jets; I ride a bike to work to save on gas.
My work to deconstruct the image of gold-gilded Christianity appears to be getting some help from the United States Senate. Senator Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, is investigating possible financial shenanigans on the part of six widely known TV preachers. From Ted Olsen's article at ChristianityToday.com:
"Recent articles and news reports regarding possible misuse of donations made to religious organizations have caused some concern for the Finance Committee," Grassley wrote to the ministries in letters asking for detailed financial records.
None of the ministries targeted - those led by Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar, Benny Hinn, Eddie Long, Joyce Meyer, and Randy and Paula White - are required to file the financial disclosure Form 990 with the IRS because they are designated as churches.
The ministries have until December 6 to submit audited financial statements, compensation reports, records for ministry jet travel, and other documents.
Read Ted Olsen's full article here.
The Tampa Tribune has also published the letters sent by Sen. Grassley to each of the ministries concerning his investigation.
If your perspective and temperament is anything like mine, when you first heard about the Senate investigation you may have thought, It's about time! After all, the ministries listed are not exactly the Salvation Army. Most are identified as "prosperity preachers" who flamboyantly practice what they preach. Sen. Grassley cited $10 million private jets and $23,000 toilets as part of his investigation.
If there has been a violation of the law, and not merely stewardship, then we should not mourn to see these ministries held accountable. But there's another benefit to the truth being brought into the light. How many struggling people are suckered into sacrificially giving to these ministries in the hope of receiving God's blessing? How many people are led astray? And how many non-Christians are given a false impression of Christ, the Bible, and his Church?
But after my initial reaction I had second thoughts. This investigation may have a downside. First there is the "slippery slope" scenario. (We evangelicals are trained from childhood to spot slippery slopes.) If the government begins to investigate these ministries will it eventually be looking at my church too? Will the Senate, IRS, or other agency demand my church's expense reports? Admittedly, this kind of paranoia is what leads people to live in "compounds" and stock firearms next to their communion cups, but it's something to think about. In the U.S. churches enjoy significant independence. Could the (alleged) abuses of a few high profile preachers impact us all?
But there is also a more personal angle for me. Many in my family don't grasp the nuances and divergent streams of evangelicalism - let alone broader American Christianity. When any church scandal hits the media, they see it as an indictment on the whole faith the same way some Christians, unaware of the divergent beliefs of Muslims, can dismiss Islam as a faith of terrorists. To be honest, I'm just not looking forward to talking about yet another Christian scandal, no matter how overdue it may be.
October 30, 2007
John Piper says we shouldn’t let guilt over sexual sin derail our ministry.
There is no need to reiterate the statistics on sexual immorality among clergy. We all know them. And we also know that addiction to pornography is at epidemic levels even within the church. But do we know how many gifted young leaders never answer their call into ministry because of the guilt they feel over past sexual sins?
John Piper has written an article for Christianity Today addressing this problem. He says:
?so many young people are being lost to the cause of Christ's mission because they are not taught how to deal with the guilt of sexual failure. The problem is not just how not to fail. The problem is how to deal with failure so that it doesn't sweep away your whole life into wasted mediocrity with no impact for Christ. The great tragedy is not masturbation or fornication or pornography. The tragedy is that Satan uses guilt from these failures to strip you of every radical dream you ever had or might have. In their place, he gives you a happy, safe, secure, American life of superficial pleasures, until you die in your lakeside rocking chair.
It's no surprise that Dr. Piper's prescription for overcoming a guilty conscience is a heavy dose of Reformed theology. "Take two doctrines and call me in the morning," seems to be his answer:
With this passionately embraced theology - the magnificent doctrines of substitutionary atonement and justification by faith (even if you don't remember the names) - you can conquer the Devil tomorrow morning when he lies to you about your hopelessness.
Agree or disagree with Piper's solution, the problem he is addressing is important. As our culture becomes increasingly sexually charged Christians will need the tools to not only fight temptation but also the means to recover from failure. When facing an epidemic preventative medicine alone isn't enough.
Similarly, how do we help young people find balance when many gage the health of their relationship with Christ on a single issue - their sexual purity? A friend working at a Christian college has noticed this trend in recent years. Incoming freshmen are the first generation to have grown up since grade school with internet access. Many have been exposed to massive quantities of pornography since their pre-pubescent years. By age eighteen some young men are already sexual addicts. But many others have been formed to measure their spirituality based solely on their sexual self-control. When a single issue carries so much weight the guilt of failure can overwhelm.
Is Piper right? Are we at risk of losing a generation of Christian leaders not because of sexual failure but because they haven't been taught to fight the aftershock of guilt? And is embracing a passionate theology of justification and atonement the solution? I encourage you to read Piper's entire article here, and post your thoughts below.
October 29, 2007
Have I nurtured my spouse's personality, or buried it?
When I get home tonight, I'll think awhile about Gordon MacDonald's new column. In fact, I think most pastors and leaders should think hard on his thesis: What has the dominant, big-personality, leader type squelched in his spouse? I may muster the courage to ask my wife what she thinks about it.
Those of us who have spent our lives getting close to people for pastoral reasons are quite well acquainted with the grief that floods the life of one who has lost a dearly loved spouse. We've observed the paralyzing sadness and sense of loss and know that only time will dull the pain. There are a plethora of books and seminars that speak about this experience.
What is less talked or written about is the opposite of such grief. The word that comes to me is liberation. In some cases the death of a spouse actually liberates the surviving spouse to remove something like a disguise and become a new person.
I once stood near enough to overhear a conversation between a woman and two of her adult children soon after the funeral and burial services for her husband (and their father) had concluded. Apparently, either the son or the daughter, thinking they were offering a kind of protective love to the mother, tried to take charge and tell her something that she should or shouldn't do.
The mother (freshly a widow, remember!) reacted with words wrapped in anger. "Now let's get something straight right this minute. No one! No one is going to tell me what to do any longer. I've been doing what everyone else wanted (alluding no doubt to her deceased husband) for fifty years. Now it's my turn. I'll make my own decisions from here on out. Is this understood?" I had the feeling these words has been rehearsed and that it was only a matter of time until they came out. Now they did.
They came from a small-statured woman who had always seemed content to live as a loving and serving wife in the shadow of her more-dominating husband. As far as I could tell she had always seemed happy with her marriage arrangements. Now I had some doubt.
More than a few times, I have seen surviving spouses who - soon after a period of mourning - seem to change dramatically. They buy new clothes, begin to travel (or stop traveling), redecorate their home, join organizations or find new ways to make money. They deepen spiritually or (and this shouldn't surprise) do just the opposite. Anyway, a new person emerges. A new person? Or the hidden one?
What I have learned from watching episodes like this is that many people apparently harbor a secret person inside of themselves that never sees the light of day. That hidden "person" is intimidated or refused by someone near who controls all the airspace of the relationship.
Someone, by the way, will point out that this is most certainly true in many acrimonious divorces. Terminate the relationship and you have no idea what new person may emerge.
Of course there is a corollary to all of this for which I do not have space except to mention. Sometimes the survivor goes into a kind of character or spiritual disintegration and you realize that what they were was being propped up or held together by the one who had just passed on. This scenario is not pretty.
Having seen one more of these hidden persons emerge in just the past few months, I was pressed to engage in some reflective thinking about my own marriage. Could there ever be such a person hiding in my wife, Gail? Someone that I have refused to recognize and welcome over the years of our marriage? Put another way: is this woman whom I dearly love everything she is capable of being partly through my encouragement and affirmation? Or - and this is hard to write - would my departure be that "person's" liberation? I'd like to think that the answer is a resounding "no!" There is nothing in Gail that needs to hide. Nevertheless, it is a question worth asking myself (no matter how morose) so that I can be the more sure that I have encouraged her (as well as all my friends) to be all that God meant her (and them) to be.
A wonderful read: Jonathan Aitken's John Newton (Crossway, 2007) is a marvelous biography. I'll never sing again Amazing Grace without remembering the power of Christian conversion as it was so remarkably evidenced in Newton's life. Before Aitken's book, I thought I'd covered the bases on John Newton. Not so. He's a fresh new hero to me now.
An irritating read: Jim and Casper Go to Church, by Jim Henderson and Matt Casper (BarnaBooks, 2007). A brilliant idea for a book. Two guys (one an out-of-the-closet-atheist) visit various well-known churches in America at worship time. The atheist, Casper, offers the Christian, Jim, a fresh-eyed view of what he is seeing as people gather and sing and listen to sermons. I guess I'm glad they didn't come anywhere near where I preach - although I probably would have learned a lot.
I wish the book could be rewritten with an eye toward more depth in the subject matter. There weren't a lot of surprises about what one might experience if he visits a congregation at worship for the first time. Still, the value of the book was in its reminder that some things done in church must seem pretty bizarre to the critic who stands outside the faith.
The price of the book is in the question that Casper asks Jim several times after leaving various churches to which they have traveled. "Is this really what Jesus told you guys to do?" Casper seems incredulous.
A prayer request. This was a wonderful weekend in New England: the foliage remains brilliant; the Red Sox won the World Series; the Patriots are undefeated; and Boston College is number two in the nation. We need humility. Right now it's a spiritual battle for all of us. A spiritual battle I would be happy to entertain into the foreseeable future.
Gordon MacDonald is Leadership's editor at large
October 9, 2007
Leading believers to embrace a simpler life.
Chad Hall is experiencing the simpler life. Intentionally. And he's wondering what effect his quest for less has on those he leads. And he has three questions we can ask.
Everywhere I go these days, big is in. My combo meal is super-sized, my SUV is third row, and the TV of my dreams is 62-inch plasma. We Americans are big eaters, big spenders, and big wasters. Even our churches are into big, enlarging auditoriums, renting big malls and even bigger coliseums in order to accommodate big crowds and enable big growth. Like the population at large, we Christians seem to have a growing acceptance of the bigger is better credo.
But all this growth might be creating some big problems.
Our society and systems seem incapable of handling the never-ceasing expansion of want and need. Our souls are groaning and the planet is buckling beneath the collateral damage of growth. Landfills are full, the air is thick, and we cannot drink from many of our streams.
In light of our growing problems, maybe the church should give small a chance. I propose that ministry leaders are just the ones to help Christ followers exchange big for small. After all, leaders are supposed to help usher others toward something better (not just something bigger), so maybe we should start ushering folks toward living lives that are less hectic, less cluttered, less selfish, less toxic. And maybe instead of a big ad campaign advertising "LESS!" we should start living with less ourselves. Instead of just preaching it from the pulpit, maybe some personal choices would help slow down the growth, bring some sanity to our lives and make the world more livable.
Give less a chance
Our family recently decided to sell our riding mower because its impact on the environment was not offset by its necessity. Shortly after, my wife quipped, "I think we're becoming tree-huggers."
How had it come to this? After all, I have a strong dislike of Birkenstocks, I think Michael Moore is a narcissist, and I appreciate creature comforts every bit as much as the next guy. So why is my family choosing to push-mow the lawn, ditch the extra television, and experiment with line-drying our clothes? I'm not sure how it all began or where it's going, but we've adopted a series of small questions that are redirecting our souls and may be benefiting the world around us.
Three small questions
Not to cast blame, but my journey toward less started with Randy Frazee. Prior to a conference in 2003, Randy and I had a dinner conversation during which he shared with me the somewhat radical lifestyle changes his family had made in order to make room for real relationships.
A few months later Randy wrote the book Making Room for Life.
When my wife and I read that book, we started talking and eventually began asking the question of simplification, "Even though something is commonplace, do we really need it in our lives?"
With that question in mind, all sorts of things were up for grabs: buying a house in the "right" school district, needing two incomes, cell phones, minivans, and even (hold your breath!) signing our kids up for soccer. It was like a little compact fluorescent light bulb turned on to illuminate some of the chains of conformity we had allowed to make our decisions for us. We began to see how deeply we'd bought into culture's code of success being equated with more and more. The results of all this "more" were clutter and confusion and so we decided to simplify our lives. Removing some of the typical suburban clutter was a bit scary, but over the course of a few years, it really has begun to make room for life.
We soon discovered the joy of having fewer bills to pay, fewer trips to make, fewer calendars to juggle, and fewer agendas to manage. Lurking amid the resource of free time, we discovered the pleasure of not just having neighbors, but of knowing our neighbors. Our lives soon began to revolve more and more around the half dozen or so families we considered to be our neighbors.
We soon recognized that our role as good neighbors meant significantly other than trying to get someone to attend this or that church. As we experienced the inherent value of people and place, we began to ask, "How can we live so that when Christ returns he won't have to work so hard to redeem our neighborhood?" This became our family's question of significance. We want to add kingdom value to the relational, spiritual and even physical environment we inhabit. Our interactions with neighbors have gone from enjoying their company to co-laboring with them for the good of our little corner of creation. Campfires in the backyard, pizza on Sunday nights, and building a tree house all took on kingdom significance because we were contributing to making things in our acres of earth a little more as they are in heaven.
Continue reading Chad Hall's article at LeadershipJournal.net
Chad Hall is a coach/consultant living in Cary, North Carolina, and the co-author of Coaching for Christian Leaders: A Practical Guide.
September 25, 2007
How can you pass the plate to people who don't carry cash? You can't. So the next big wave may be the "Giving Kiosk" in your church's lobby.
"A lot of people no longer carry cash or a checkbook," says Marty Baker, pastor of Stevens Creek Church in Augusta, Georgia. So he installed two ATMs in 2005. The experiment has been a success.
During the first year, the kiosks processed over $100,000 in donations at Stevens Creek. In 2006, that number increased to just over $200,000, representing more than 25 percent of the church's total income. Even more impressive is the fact that giving as a whole increased 18 percent since the ATMs were installed. "It's a safe, convenient way for people to donate to their church," Baker notes, "and it meets people where they are today."
These positive returns encouraged Baker to launch SecureGive, a for-profit company that produces and maintains several different versions of the giving kiosks. "We knew that if this concept and technology was so beneficial for our church, others could benefit from it as well," says Baker.
SecureGive currently operates in 25 churches around the country. One of them is Family Church in West Monroe, Louisiana, where Terry Taylor is the executive pastor. "We wanted to help those who were not giving to start walking in obedience," says Taylor. "We feel that is being achieved."
Princeton Pike Church of God in Hamilton, Ohio, had featured online giving for years, but the service was used consistently by only ten families. The church engaged SecureGive in January and now has more than 150 families contributing regularly through the giving kiosk.
The company points out an array of practical advantages. One example is a decreased risk of embezzlement, since donated funds are transferred directly into a church's bank account, bypassing the counting committee. And the kiosk documents satisfy Internal Revenue Service regulations requiring taxpayers to present a written statement from a bank or charitable organization when claiming a deduction on their returns.
Phil Martin of the National Association of Church Business Administrators says that Automated Tithing Machines might only be the beginning. "Whether we'll have an offering plate with a card reader one day, who knows," he said. "But we're certainly not far from that."
April 3, 2007
His unreliable Ford helped Gordon MacDonald understand brokenness.
Leadership's editor-at-large, Gordon MacDonald, is back with further reflections on life and faith. This time he addresses the nature of spiritual brokenness - a truth incarnated by his temperamental 1950 Ford. (Sorry, I have a weakness for bad puns.)
My first car was an 8-year old 1950 Ford (stick shift on the steering column) purchased for $200. Its mileage was north of 100,000. To call it a lemon is not an exaggeration. The starting motor was a fifty-percenter, meaning frequent pushes. The radiator leaked like a sieve. The fuel gauge was accurate to the nearest 25 gallons. The engine drank a quart of oil every 200 miles. The tires were bald, and the muffler was absent without leave.
On cold winter nights, I had to park the Ford at the crest of a hill near my college apartment and drain the water from radiator to prevent a freeze-up. In the morning I would refill the radiator, nudge the car downhill, release the clutch and hope that the engine would leap into life. No amount of prayer seemed to directly affect the success of this process.
I used to imagine that the Ford talked to itself when it saw me coming. "Looks like he's in a hurry today. I'll slow ?em down." Or, "he looks like he's dressed for a date. Probably wants to impress a pretty girl. He's toast." I tell you, it was not hard to believe that the Ford despised me.
The Ford was, in a word, broken, and I had to accept its mechanical eccentricities as a normal part of my life. I couldn't fix it because I wasn't a mechanic, and I couldn't afford someone who was. Add to that my suspicion that the Ford didn't want to be fixed because its brokenness gave it a strange kind of "control" over me.
Today, decades later, I drive a relatively new vehicle (a Suburu Outback). Every time I turn the ignition key and the Outback starts, I am freshly surprised because I still (to this day!) instinctively anticipate the "click" of a balky starting motor. I believe that, unlike the Ford, the Outback likes me and thinks nice things when it sees me coming. It appears committed to my happiness.
Nevertheless, if I had to liken myself to a car, I'd have to identify with the broken Ford and less the friendly Suburu (this side of Heaven anyway). I know I'm supposed to say that I'm a sinner (because I am), but it's more helpful to me to regard myself as broken - a person far, far less functional than God designed me to be and in possession of the same rebellious spirit I once imagined to be in the Ford.
Perhaps we are all like broken Fords who sometimes start and sometimes don't, who may make it to an intended destination but, then again, maybe not. We'd like to appear as if we just came from the showroom. But the truth is that most of the time, we deserve to be towed to the junk yard.
The 12-stepper understands this rationale every time he introduces himself with the words, "Hi, my name is ________, and I'm an alcoholic." Which is not unlike saying, "My name is Gordon, and I'm broken."
Thinking like this helps me to appreciate the remarkable grace and kindness of the Savior, Jesus, who searched for and loved broken "Fords" (then and now) and enjoyed rebuilding them and increasing their reliability factor. And thinking like this helps me to look at others (and at myself) with the understanding that they - like me - sometimes have more characteristics befitting an old broken Ford than a brand new Outback.
When seeing things from that perspective, one can get excited when anybody (beginning with myself) actually starts up and gets where they are supposed to go. You could have a pretty fine church if everyone saw each other like this.
March 13, 2007
Restoring the prophetic ministry of the local church.
While studying for my ordination a few years ago I was required to read Oswald Sanders' classic book, Spiritual Leadership. I've forgotten most of his practical advice about leading a church, but one short section has stayed with me. Sanders talks about the choice pastors face between being a popular leader or an unpopular prophet.
The logic seems rooted in the Old Testament differentiation of these roles. The kings of Israel served as leaders over God's people. They used their power to pull wires and drive the nation forward. The prophets, on the other hand, served as correctors. They came down from the hills to tell everyone what they were doing wrong. And after being rejected, stoned, and thoroughly despised they returned to the hills. Quoting A.C. Dixon, Sanders says, "If [the pastor] seeks to be a prophet and a leader, he is apt to make a failure of both."
Prior to reading Sanders I had already been wondering why few pastors led with any prophetic energy. Scanning my favorite books on my shelf, typically ones with a provocative challenge for the church, I realized that virtually all of them were written by professors. Few, if any, were composed by pastors. Where were the voices of correction in the local church? Where were the sermons calling God's people in a new direction? Where was there a pulpit challenging our popular assumptions about church, mission, and discipleship? Reading Sanders helped me see that we've driven the prophets out of the local church and into academia.
A recent post by David Fitch cited a new leadership model gaining popularity among missional churches. Referred to as APEPT by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch in their book, The Shaping of Things to Come, it is pulled from Ephesians 4:11. Paul says God has given the church apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. Frost and Hirsch, among other advocates of the model, say the contemporary church has focused its leadership almost exclusively on pastors and teachers while ignoring the contribution of evangelists, prophets, and apostles.
With structures intolerant of these other leadership functions the evangelists abandon local church ministry for para-church groups, apostles are driven to missions agencies, and prophets take their provocative ideas to academia. But, say Frost and Hirsch, "only when all five are operating in unity and harmony can we see effective missional engagement begin to occur."
So, why has the local church been so unwelcoming to prophets, and how do we get them back? I'd like to suggest a few ideas. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but just a start.
1. Seminaries are not training prophets
My seminary education (and I assume my experience was not too different than most church leaders') primarily equipped me to teach the Bible. Professors taught me Greek and Hebrew, historical theology, hermeneutics - everything was designed to help me exegete the text, but no one equipped me to exegete the culture. Correction - one professor did, but his course was an elective not seen as essential for pastors. With seminaries churning out teachers we shouldn't be surprised that few prophetic voices are heard in the local church setting.
A first step toward reintroducing prophets is for seminary programs to value this calling. Since I left seminary I believe more schools are doing this. Tracks are now available in some progressive schools that focus on cultural engagement and discerning social phenomena. We need more pastors who can engage ministry ideas and not simply discern if they work, but if they are right.
2. Church structures are unsafe for prophets
A prophet by definition is going to disturb the status quo, make people uncomfortable, and rock the boat. But when a pastor with a prophetic function is completely dependant upon the congregation for his/her livelihood it creates a conflict of interests. Hirsch and Frost state the problem well:
Centralized funding makes the minister or leader economically subservient to the dominant interests of the group. It's very hard to have a prophetic ministry to the group that provides your salary. And this incapacity to cultivate an authentic prophetic ministry contributes directly to the institutionalization of ministry and the church. Leadership is thus always hostage to the reactionary groups in the congregation. Change becomes inordinately hard.
One way to overcome this problem is to decentralize funding for church leaders. David Fitch wrote about the value of bi-vocational pastors, and Hirsch and Frost recommend more leaders consider raising their support from outside their congregation the way missionaries do. Certainly, these ideas raise other challenges but they might allow a prophetic voice to once again be heard within the local church.
3. Ministries evaluate size not depth
Dallas Willard refers to them as the ABCs of ministry: Attendance, Buildings, and Cash. These are what we measure to determine if our ministry is effective and successful. The ability to increase these quantifiable elements is not the strength of a prophet. In fact, an unrestrained prophet is a sure to diminish attendance, buildings, and cash. For example, Greg Boyd, senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, preached a prophetic series on the dangers of confusing the kingdom of God with partisan politics. As a result 20% of his congregation (about one thousand people) left the church.
If we only see success in ministry as numerical growth we'll never tolerate the ministry of prophets. Their role is not to add people to the church; that function belongs to the evangelist. Prophets bring depth and discernment to the community, they correct our course when we get off track, and they warn us when pragmatism begins to overshadow faithfulness.
Ultimately, if we have any hope of restoring a prophetic ministry to the local church we need to abandon our either-or thinking. We mustn't require pastors to be either leaders or prophets. We cannot value either expansion or depth. And we must not see the role of pastors as being either to comfort the flock or correct it. Both are necessary for meaningful and balanced ministry.
March 8, 2007
Have you ever heard of Nikolai Velimirovic? I hadn't either until Brian McLaren introduced me to a prayer written by the Serbian Orthodox bishop. McLaren credits the bishop with helping him process the increasing criticism he's received in recent years. In this interview, McLaren shares his thoughts about the blessing of having both friends and enemies.
How do you handle criticism? Did your years as a pastor prepare you for what you're now experiencing?
As you know, I have people writing books and saying very critical things about me, but in some ways it's no harder then being a pastor was. In fact, it might even be easier. Many pastors know what it's like to have people they've cared for - people they've married, and baptized, and counseled - come up and say, "You're not meeting our needs anymore, and we're leaving." It's wounding. It's very, very hard.
When we hear criticism, it can echo in our minds for days. On one hand, we can't stop beating ourselves up and second-guessing. On the other, we're tempted to get revenge. We torture ourselves. What I found I need to do is retrain my instinct to defend myself. Of course that is what Jesus was talking about when he says to turn the other cheek.
The second thing I've learned is to process the criticism with God. The prayer by the Serbian bishop has helped me do this. The bishop was taken to a concentration camp for speaking out against the Nazis. His own people betrayed him. But in his prayer he asks the Lord to bless his enemies, and he recognized how they actually help him. That has been incredibly helpful for me.
How do you think your critics have helped you?
We all want people to think we're better than we actually are. I want people to think I'm more holy than I actually am, more knowledgeable than I actually am. Well, a critic comes along, and they don't give me a chance to inflate my image. And in that way, if I can learn to live with a lower image through criticism, then maybe I won't be so prone to inflate my image in other circumstances. Critics teach us humility.
If we should thank God for our enemies, what about our friends? How do they help us grow?
I think we all need non-utilitarian friendships. In ministry it's easy for us to use people - to see them as a way of advancing our ministry or our agenda. And there are many ways people want to use us. A non-utilitarian friendship is where we build a relationship because I like the person and I'm not trying to use them for my success, and they're not trying to use me.
C.S. Lewis talked about this in idea in The Four Loves. These kinds of friends are not looking at each other. They stand side by side looking at the world because with that friend they have someone who loves the same things they love. It's about companionship. That's what I mean by a non-utilitarian friendship.
When I was a young Christian I went through a period of doubt. I just wasn't sure I believed anything anymore. I shared this with a good friend and mentor and he said to me, "I just want to assure you, Brian, I'll be your friend even if you become an atheist." That helped me believe in God more, because I felt the unconditional love of God through him. If he'd threatened me or put a lot of pressure on me, that would have made it harder to believe in God. To me there is something about unconditional friendship that demonstrates the grace of God.
December 26, 2006
Making a resolution for 2007? Before you do, check out the resolutions of one of America's most celebrated pastors. Eric Reed shares with us Jonathan Edwards' effective resolutions.
Jonathan Edwards was a serious man. Even at 19, the young man who would become a leading figure in the First Great Awakening took his faith seriously. In several sittings over a one-year period, Edwards drafted 70 resolutions by which he governed his life and ministry.
For such a young man, he wrote a life's code that was amazingly well-rounded. He addressed personal spiritual growth and physical temperance, and matters of attitude, behavior, and relationship. Edwards wanted to live as if he had "already seen the happiness of heaven, and hell torments."
He pledged that he would "never speak anything but the pure and simple verity." "Let there be something of benevolence in all that I speak." In a pledge that he would speak evil of no one, Edwards added the caveat, "except I have some particular good call for it."
Some might say Edwards was too serious. Although not in the Resolutions, his pledge to spend 13 hours a day in the study of Scripture isolated him from his congregation, and indulged his solitary nature and his tendency to melancholy. Some in his congregation complained about his absence from their daily lives - they were accustomed to the regular rounds of most parsons - but they could not complain about his moral integrity or his commitment to the pulpit. Edwards reviewed his code of ethics weekly, and subjected himself to rigorous spiritual examination.
His commitment "towards making, maintaining, establishing, and preserving peace" was ultimately tested when, after 23 years of ministry among them, Edwards was terminated by his congregation on account of a nasty doctrinal disagreement.
One of the most devout pastors in American history, and one of our greatest theologians, was canned. Even so, he stayed on and filled the pulpit, until the church called a replacement.
Edwards later took the pulpit of a tiny frontier church. He pastored there six years, a productive period for Edwards the writer, until he was called as president of Princeton University.
Edwards served but six months, felled by a smallpox vaccination at age 54.
Let's consider a few of the resolutions that guided Edward's ministry:
Being sensible that I am unable to do any thing without God's help, I do humbly intreat him by his grace to enable me to keep these resolutions, so far as they are agreeable to His will, for Christ's sake.
Resolved, That I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God's glory, and my own good, profit and pleasure, in the whole of my duration.
Resolved to do whatever I think to be my duty, and most for the good and advantage of mankind in general.
Resolved to do this, whatever difficulties I meet with, how many and how great soever.
Resolved, Never to lose one moment of time, but improve it the most profitable way I possibly can.
Resolved, Never to do any thing, which I should be afraid to do, if it were the last hour of my life.
Resolved, To be endeavoring to find out fit objects of charity and liberality.
Resolved, To maintain the strictest temperance in eating and drinking.
Resolved, Never to do any thing, which if I should see in another, I should count a just occasion to despise Him for, or to think any way the more meanly of Him.
Resolved, To study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly and frequently, as that I may find, and plainly perceive myself to grow in the knowledge of the same.
Resolved, To strive to my utmost every week to be brought higher in religion, and to a higher excercise of grace, than I was the week before.
Resolved, To ask myself at the end of every day, week, month and year, wherein I could possibly in any respect have done better.
Resolved, Frequently to renew the dedication of myself to God, which was made at my baptism, which I solemnly renewed, when I was received into the communion of the church; and which I have solemnly re-made this twelfth day of January, 1722-3.
Resolved, Never hence-forward, till I die, to act as if I were any way my own, but entirely and altogether God's.
Resolved, I will act so as I think I shall judge would have been best, and most prudent, when I come into the future world.
Resolved, Never to give over, nor in the least to slacken my fight with my corruptions, however unsuccessful I may be.
Resolved, After afflictions, to inquire, what I am the better for them, what good I have got by them, and what I might have got by them.
December 1, 2006
This morning I attended a prayer breakfast in my town for World AIDS Day. Despite the blizzard conditions, leaders from local churches, schools, and relief organizations gathered for the event. More than a few people remarked about the odd group. My table had three evangelical pastors, a newspaper reporter, and a board member from an organization led by a gay man. Across from us were Roman Catholic nuns in their habits, Wheaton College students, and leaders of the gay community.
The two main speakers represented the polarity of the group. Ruth Bell Olsson is the leader of the HIV/AIDS ministry at Mars Hill Church near Grand Rapids, Michigan. Ruth comes with solidly evangelical credentials, and she also happens to be Pastor Rob Bell's sister. The second speaker was Dan Pallotta, founder of AIDSRides and Breast Cancer Walks. Pallotta's passion for AIDS awareness stems from his own experience as a gay man in Los Angeles watching many in his community die from the disease.
In a time when cultural divisions are as distinct as blue and red, the coming together of liberals and conservatives, evangelicals and gays, was refreshing - at least to me. But not everyone is happy about the emerging connection between evangelicals and those outside the conservative camp. Rick Warren, for example, has taken flak for inviting pro-choice Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) to Saddleback to speak at the HIV/AIDS summit today. Saddleback responded to the critics:
"We do not expect all participants in the Summit discussion to agree with all of our Evangelical beliefs. However, the HIV/AIDS pandemic cannot be fought by Evangelicals alone. It will take the cooperation of all ? government, business, NGOs and the church. That is the purpose of this Summit."
[Read more about Senator Obama's remarks and Saddleback's AIDS Summit here]
I applaud Rick Warren, Saddleback, and those in my own town who are defying cultural divisions in order to tackle the issue of AIDS locally and globally. I am amazed when Christians refuse to participate in the fight against the pandemic because others in the trenches don't agree with them politically or theologically. 8,000 people die everyday from AIDS. Eight thousand! As a friend reminded me this morning, for the church to sit on the sidelines is tantamount to a New York firefighter refusing to enter the burning World Trade Center because another firefighter voted for Hillary.
Anyone who has been to the front lines of the AIDS battle knows it is not simply a political, moral, social, or theological issue. AIDS is a human issue. My first encounter with AIDS was in college. A young man with HIV came to our state university to talk about being a Christian with the disease. He had contracted the virus from a blood transfusion, not through sexual contact. I suppose that made him more acceptable in Christian circles. But he challenged the Christians on campus to reach out to everyone affected by HIV/AIDS, including gays and lesbians.
While in seminary, I served as a hospice chaplain visiting dying patients in the poorer neighborhoods of Chicago. That was the first time I saw the devastating final stages of AIDS mingled with the dehumanizing effects of poverty. I sat with one woman, a mother in her forties, as she cried about her children. She feared they would be lost to gangs after she died. Her emaciated hand clasped mine with meager strength as I prayed for her.
Last year I had a similar experience, but on the other side of the world. In a tiny village outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I held another mother's hand as she wept for her children. Her husband had died of AIDS just weeks earlier, and now she was in the final stages - confined to her dirt and grass hut. Her four-year-old daughter (the same age as my little girl) was being held by my friend. "I know my mommy will be the next to die," she said.
The tiny village, in which every adult had AIDS, was organized by missionaries. The Christians cared for the suffering, sought desperately to acquire drugs to slow the progression of the disease, and ran an orphanage for the abandoned children. They also held funerals, sometimes multiple services a day, and cremated the bodies of the parents as the children watched.
Whether it's a neighborhood just minutes from my home or a village half a world away, AIDS is destroying lives and families everywhere. As followers of Jesus Christ, our participation in this battle is a test of our claim to be "pro-life." To quote Saddleback's statement again, to truly be pro-life "means far more than opposing abortion. It also means doing everything in our power to keep people alive, so they might respond to the grace of Jesus Christ. Sometimes that means working with people you disagree with. With AIDS killing 8,000 people a day, saving lives is more important to us than political alignment." Amen.
November 8, 2006
What are the tangible evidences of repentance?
In the wake of serious moral failure, church leaders are quickly asked about "restoration." What does a person have to do to be deemed worthy of reinstatement as a church leader?
In many ways, the question is premature, like asking a toddler to decide on a college major. Too much has to happen, too many decisions along the way have to be made, a new direction of life has to be established before it's even appropriate to weigh the possibilities of restoration.
And yet, the process is important. A direction does need to be pointed toward.
Author Chris Maxwell quotes one fallen minister:
"When a pastor commits a moral sin, the magnitude of that sin is so great that is has the capabilities of destroying the calling itself, the ministry, the man, his marriage, his family, his legacy and the community where that moral failure took place. In disgrace, humiliation, heartbreak and nearly being tarred and feathered, one man did that and was thrown out of town. I was that man.
"I needed to lay aside ministry and regroup. In reality I was a man without a ministry, a church and an income. Not a nice place to be. The transition from the religious/spiritual world to the secular/non-religious world was not difficult. It was the secular world that brought out innate skills that ultimately would make me a better man ? if only I could survive the eight-year ordeal of getting my life back on track. It's called Restoration.
"During this eight-year wilderness journey, there were six individuals who were used by God to be part of His restoration process. My life now of 69 years is a valid example of the concept that even though we humans ?miss the mark': God uses people, not the religious institution to restore us back into His favor. This process is called God's grace" (from Changing My Mind by Chris Maxwell).
This man's test, the apt root of the word testimony, prompts some key questions. During this hiatus from ministry, what are the issues that need to be dealt with by the group that oversees the fallen brother? What are the evidences that repentance is taking place and that grace is having its intended effect? Here are five evidences I'd look for before ever considering any restoration to ministry leadership:
1. Is he rebuilding the broken trust with his wife and children? His marriage vows and his relationships at home were clearly damaged. What progress has he made to restore the damage at home that his actions caused?
2. Has the sin been confessed in a way that shows he understands the deeper issues involved? Confession is not simply "I've done something wrong." It's an awareness of both the depth of the damage done AND the depth of the sin embedded in his soul. Any healing will involve a sharper clarity of the motivations, drives, and character issues at work.
3. Has he taken clear and specific steps to address the deficits in spiritual, relational, and emotional health? Without identifying, confessing, and correcting the root causes of his behavior, no change can be lasting.
4. Has he willingly relinquished his claim to position, privilege, and power? Any sense that "I'm doing what you've told me to do; now when can I get back into leadership?" is a red flag.
5. Has enough time passed that it's clear that his life has taken a new direction, that repentance (the "turning") is lasting, and that the soul and relationships have been cleansed?
What other evidences would you be looking for?
November 5, 2006
What are Christian leaders to make of the spectacularly painful experience of watching Ted Haggard this past week? The president of the National Association of Evangelicals and pastor of giga-church New Life Community in Colorado Springs, Colorado, gradually admitted to purchasing methamphetamines and the services of a male prostitute. We asked Leadership editor-at-large Gordon MacDonald to reflect on what we should learn from this episode.
It is difficult beyond description to watch Ted Haggard's name and face dragged across the TV screen every hour on the news shows. But as my friend, Tony Campolo said in an interview last week, when we spend our lives seizing the microphone to speak to the world of our opinions and judgments, we should not surprised when the system redirects its spotlight to us, justly or unjustly, in our bad moments.
We are still in the process of learning what has actually transpired over the past many months on the secret side of Ted's life. In just the last few hours the leadership of New Life Church has announced that he has been asked to resign. His ministry at New Life Church and as leader of the NAE is over.
I've spent more than a little time trying to understand how and why some men/women in all kinds of leadership get themselves into trouble whether the issues be moral, financial, or the abuse of power and ego. I am no stranger to failure and public humiliation. From those terrible moments of twenty years ago in my own life I have come to believe that there is a deeper person in many of us who is not unlike an assassin.
This deeper person (like a contentious board member) can be the source of attitudes and behaviors we normally stand against in our conscious being. But it seeks to destroy us and masses energies that - unrestrained - tempt us to do the very things we "believe against." If you have been burned as deeply as I (and my loved ones) have, you never live a day without remembering that there is something within that, left unguarded, will go on the rampage. Wallace Hamilton once wrote, "Within each of us there is a herd of wild horses all wanting to run loose."
It seems to me that when people become leaders of outsized organizations and movements, when they become famous and their opinions are constantly sought by the media, we ought to begin to become cautious. The very drive that propels some leaders toward extraordinary levels of achievement is a drive that often keeps expanding even after reasonable goals and objectives have been achieved. Like a river that breaks its levy, that drive often strays into areas of excitement and risk that can be dangerous and destructive. Sometimes the drive appears to be unstoppable. This seems to have been the experience of the Older Testament David and his wandering eyes, Uzziah in his boredom, and Solomon with his insatiable hunger for wealth, wives and horses. They seem to have been questing - addictively? - for more thrills or trying to meet deeper personal needs, and the normal ways that satisfy most people became inadequate for them.
When I see a leader who becomes stubborn and rigid, who becomes increasingly less compassionate toward his adversaries, increasingly tyrannical in his own organization, who rouses anger and arrogance in others, I wonder if he is not generating all of this heat because he is trying so hard to say "no" to something surging deep within his own soul. Are his words and deeds not so much directed against an enemy "out there" as they are against a much more cunning enemy within his own soul. More than once I have visited with pastors who have spent hours immersed in pornography and then gone on to preach their most "spirit-filled" sermons against immorality a day or two later. It's a disconnect that boggles the rational mind.
No amount of accountability seems to be adequate to contain a person living with such inner conflict. Neither can it contain a person who needs continuous adrenalin highs to trump the highs of yesterday. Maybe this is one of the geniuses of Jesus: he knew when to stop, how to refuse the cocktail of privilege, fame and applause that distorts one's ability to think wisely and to master self.
More than once we've seen the truth of a person's life come out, not all at once, but in a series of disclosures, each an admission of further culpability which had been denied just a day or two before. Perhaps inability to tell the full truth is a sign that one is actually lying to himself and cannot face the full truth of the behavior in his own soul.
But then all sin begins with lies told to oneself. The cardinal lies of a failed leader? I give and give and give in this position; I deserve special privileges - perhaps even the privilege of living above the rules. Or, I have enough charm and enough smooth words that I can talk anything (even my innocence) into reality. Or, so much of my life is lived above the line of holiness that I can be excused this one little faux pas. Or, I have done so much for these people; now it's their time to do something for me - like forgiving me and giving a second chance.
I am heart-broken for Ted Haggard and his wife and family. I cannot imagine the torture they are living through at this very moment. Toppled from national esteem and regard in a matter of hours, they must adjust to wondering who their real friends are now. They have to be asking how these events - known by the world - will affect their children. Mrs. Haggard will not be able to go the local WalMart without wondering who she may bump into when she turns into Aisle 3 (A reporter? A church member? A critic?). Both Haggards will face cameras every time they emerge from their home in the next few days until the media finds another person with whom to have its sport.
The travel, the connections, the interviews, the applause of the congregation, the organizational power, the perks and privileges, the honor: gone! The introit to people of position/power: gone! The opportunity to say an influential word each day into the lives of teachable younger people: gone! The certainty that God has anointed one for such a time as this: gone? And what will grow each day is the numbing realization of regret and loss. In time they will be approached by people who will say in one way or another, "I used to trust you, but what you've done has made me very angry?.you've turned my son away from the gospel?.I thought I knew you, but I guess I didn't." It will be a long time before either of the Haggards feel safe again. Suffering over this will last most of a lifetime even after some sort of restoration is rendered. How I wish this could all be lifted from them.
Perhaps there will come a day down the pathway when there will be some kind of return to influence. But right now it is - or should be - a long way in the distance.
Among my prayers is that the leadership of New Life Church will not assume that "restoration" means getting Ted back into the pulpit as soon as possible. The worst thing in the world would be to raise his hopes that just because he models a contrite spirit he can return to public life in the near future. He, for his own sake, must take a long time to work through the causative factors in this situation. He will not resolve whatever is wrong in his own soul by going back to work. He and his wife must set aside a long, long time to allow their personal relationship to heal. Forgiveness is a long healing, not a momentary one. And there are those five children. Thinking of them makes me want to weep. And then there are countless people in and beyond their church who must take a long time to figure out what all of this means. No, the worst things Ted's friends and overseers can do is to try and bring him back from this prematurely. The best thing they can do is ask him to retreat into silence with those he loves the most and listen - to God, to trusted elders.
The statement issued by the NAE Executive Committee late Friday afternoon seems flat to me. It appears to have been written by savvy PR people who wanted to say all the nice and appropriate things which might mollify the media and cause no heartburn for the lawyers. The burden of the statement seems to be that the NAE is already on to the question of who the next leader will be. The fact is that, all too often, we have seen the President of NAE on the news and talk shows speaking as the leader of so-called 33 million evangelicals. I'm not sure that most of us were polled as to whether or not we wanted Ted Haggard (or anyone) speaking for us. I know that last time I felt safe about anyone speaking for evangelicals as a whole was when Billy Graham talked on our behalf. But, as of late, an illusion was permitted to grow: that the NAE was a well-organized, highly networked movement of American evangelicals headed by Ted Haggard who, when he spoke, spoke for all of us. Now, unfortunately, that voice has misspoken, and our movement has to live with the consequences.
I have a fairly poor batting average when it comes to predicting the future. But my own sense is that the NAE (as we know it) will probably not recover from this awful moment. Should it? Leaders of various NAE constituencies are likely to believe that their fortunes are better served by new and fresher alliances.
Ever since the beginning of the Bush administration, I have worried over the tendency of certain Evangelical personalities to go public every time they visited the White House or had a phone conference with an administration official. I know it has wonderful fund-raising capabilities. And I know the temptation to ego-expansion when one feels that he has the ear of the President. But the result is that we are now part of an evangelical movement that is greatly compromised?.identified in the eyes of the public as deep in the hip pockets of the Republican party and administration. My own belief? Our movement has been used. There are hints that the movement - once cobbled together by Billy Graham and Harold Ockenga - is beginning to fragment because it is more identified by a political agenda that seems to be failing and less identified by a commitment to Jesus and his kingdom.
Like it or not, we are pictured as those who support war, torture, and a go-it-alone (bullying) posture in international relationships. Any of us who travel internationally have tasted the global hostility toward our government and the suspicion that our President's policies reflect the real tenets of Evangelical faith. And I might add that there is considerable disillusionment on the part of many of our Christian brothers/sisters in other countries who are mystified as to where American evangelicals are in all of this. Our movement may have its Supreme Court appointments, but it may also have compromised its historic center of Biblical faith. Is it time to let the larger public know that some larger-than-life evangelical personalities with radio and TV shows do not speak for all of us?
And so I pray: Lord and Father, how sad you must be when you see the most powerful and the weakest of your children fall prey to the energy of sin and evil. There is nothing any one has ever done that we ?each of us - is not capable of doing. So when we pray for our brother, Ted Haggard, we pray not out of pity or self-righteousness but with a humble spirit because we stand with him on level ground before the cross. Father, give this man and his wife the gift of your grace. Protect them from the constant accusations of the evil one who will seek to deny them sleep, tempt them to talk too much to the public, arouse conflict between them as a couple and with their children. Send the right people into their lives who can provide the correct mixture of hope and healing love. Deliver them from people who will curry their favor by telling them things they should not hear. Restrain them from making poor judgments in their most fearful moments.
Lord, be present to the leaders and people of the New Life Church. And to the NAE leadership which has to live with the side-effects of this tragedy. And to people in the evangelical tradition who are wondering today who they can trust. What more can we pray for? You know all things. We so very little. Amen.
October 22, 2006
Okay, so no one's had the chutzpah to frame the question so baldly. But each group seems to assume the answer in its favor--at least, that's the impression you'd get from some emergent critiques of traditional evangelicals and from some traditional-evangelical critiques of emergents. But what if we asked the question directly, and tried to answer it just as directly: Who is more spiritually mature? On the whole, are emergent believers or traditional evangelicals more faithful in their following of Christ?
To answer, we need a clear standard for measuring Christian spirituality. The best one is given by Jesus (Mark 12:29-31), but presumably both emergents and traditionals have already read that and used that for their critiques of the other. Could we find a standard of Christian spirituality that encompasses Jesus' teaching yet offers fresh points of differentiation? We might consider the four "nonnegotiable essentials" of Christian spirituality laid out by Ronald Rolheiser in The Holy Longing:
1. Private prayer and private morality: "In many of the spiritual classics of Christian literature, the writers ? suggest that we will make progress in the spiritual life only if we, daily, do an extended period of private prayer, and only if we practice a scrupulous vigilance in regards to all the moral areas within our private lives. In essence, that is the first nonnegotiable within the spiritual life."
2. Social justice: "? according to the Jewish prophets, where we stand with God depends not just upon prayer and sincerity of heart but also on where we stand with the poor. ? All Christian churches have always taught this, in one way or the other, and they have also always, in their best expressions, lived it out."
3. Mellowness of heart and spirit: "Both as liberals and conservatives we too easily write off this third prong of the spiritual life, rationalizing that our causes are so urgent, we are so wounded, and our world is so bad, that, in our situation, anger and bitterness are justified. But we are wrong?"
4. Community as a constitutive element of true worship: "? anyone who claims to love God who is invisible but refuses to deal with a visible neighbor is a liar, for one can only really love a God who is love if one is concretely involved with a real community (ultimately an ?ecclesial community') on earth."
Being fool enough to set out on a fool's errand, I now offer my thoughts as to whether traditionals or emergents better capture these essentials.
On "private prayer and private morality," I give the nod to traditionals, who have strongly emphasized daily "quiet times" and published multitudinous devotional books and guides, as well as scrupulously observed not swearing, not watching movies that might incline one to lust, and so on. Score so far: Traditionals 1, Emergents 0.
On "social justice," I give the nod to emergents, who from the beginning have emphasized the missio dei, the mission of God to the world in compassion and justice, and who have called congregations not so much to church growth as to church giving. Emergents have also readily and in widespread ways engaged the problems of AIDS, global warming, and Darfur. Score so far: Traditionals 1, Emergents 1.
The category "mellowness of heart and spirit" does not play to traditionals' strengths, given their more immediate descent from fundamentalism, which needed to oppose the corrosive effects of modernism, plus traditionals' many parachurch ministries, which require fundraising appeals to survive. The Emergents move ahead, 2-1.
In the final category, "Community as a constitutive element of true worship," however, traditionals lead. Though emergents desire authenticity and community, several emergent-flavored books (like this one) make it seem like you can set up your own organic alternatives to a local church that has pastoral oversight, a connection to tradition, and the sacraments. Bad idea. Traditionals tie it up in the fourth quarter: 2-2.
A tie. Hmmm.
If this assessment has any value (and many, I'm sure, will say it doesn't), it would say the following:
? If traditional evangelicals want to grow in the areas of social justice and "mellowness of heart and spirit," one of their best teachers would be emergents.
? Conversely, if emergents want to grow in the area of private prayer and private morality, and "community as a constitutive element of true worship," they might find tutoring at the knee of traditionals.
? Therefore, if we were to redo this assessment in five years, the group that will be "most spiritual" will be the one who learns the most from the other.
October 16, 2006
Regular Out of Ur contributor David Fitch is back to share his thoughts on church shopping, staying put, and ecumenism. And what's with all the evangelicals going high-church anyway?
I'd like to say some things about the evangelicals going high church and even the emerging church folks rejecting their denominations of origin. I have been tempted many times to leave evangelicalism for a lot of reasons. At times, I have been tempted to leave for more substantive worship or to avoid the narrow minded cheesy ways of selling Jesus. But I think to just leave one's inherited church, without being asked to leave, is a strike against the cause of ecumenism. What? Yeah ecumenism, the unity of the church. So I stay put.
There are good reasons for leaving churches, and also for having no denominational affiliation. Yet the trend of evangelicals leaving their church of birth for high-church traditions seems to be growing. Colleen Carroll, in her book The New Faithful, records this phenomenon. At my own alma mater, Wheaton College, many students raised as evangelicals are "converting" to either Anglo Catholicism or even Roman Catholicism. (I wonder if the Catholics count these converts like we do when it happens in reverse. The Generous Orthodoxy blog has some great discussion on the topic.)
To me this is one more expression of the historical game of musical chairs. At first it was Roman Catholics leaving for Reformed churches. Those Reformed churches came to the New World and weren't individualistic enough, so we had Great Awakenings and folks left to join revivalist churches. Now we have people doing the reverse - leaving evangelicalism for high church traditions. They are sick of the thin insubstantial theologies and narcissistic forms of Christianity that have evolved out of evangelicalism's individualism.
Ironically, its often the theologians who critique the consumerist habits of evangelicals and mega churches that move to the high church traditions. They "church shop" for a more substantial vision rather than help us evangelicals out of our quandary. I wonder how long it will be before the ancestors of these folks complain about rote liturgy and leave for "more authentic" version of Christianity again, and the whole cycle starts again?
I propose we give up the musical chairs and simply stay put. Let us all seek to be faithful and trust the Spirit to work where God has put us. It is slow but I believe this strategy could lead us toward a renewed unity of the church.
Alasdair Macintyre writes in After Virtue:
"The story of my life is always embedded in the story of those communities from which I derive my identity. I was born with a past, and to try to cut myself off from that past, in the individualist mode, is to deform my present relationships.? I find myself part of a history and that is generally to say, whether I like it or not, whether I recognize it or not, one of the bearers of tradition."
I believe God's calling upon us starts where we are born. And we are to work within that tradition, or the tradition by which we first were brought into the gospel, until informed otherwise (i.e. kicked out). We are to work for its reform from within. And just perhaps, if we stay put and keep working long enough, a true ecumenism can happen that brings all traditions together in a grand convergence of the Spirit.
I would ask evangelicals who see the value of the high church liturgical traditions not to leave, but rather bring that understanding to bear on their evangelical practices. And Catholics, who see the problems of inaccessible or dead liturgy in their church, don't leave, but bring these insights to bear on their church. The same holds true for other doctrinal issues and other traditions. If we all stayed put and worked for reform from within rather than abandon our churches, the traditions might converge by the Holy Spirit. We're already seeing it between Catholics and evangelicals as Scot McKnight has blogged about. We're already seeing it as more evangelicals and emerging churches see the value of historical forms of worship. We're already seeing it as more evangelical traditions are working together.
By staying within our respective traditions we can build the bridges necessary to bring liturgy to evangelicals, community to Catholics and white evangelicals, justice to the mega-churches, and mission to the Catholics. In this way, if we emerging folk would stay in our traditions and denominations we might become a force for ecumenism among the Christian traditions.
September 20, 2006
Last week a study was released by economists called "No Booze? You May Lose." Researches found that people who drink alcohol make more money and may have an advantage in social settings. But does the same hold true for pastors? Author, professor, pastor, and regular contribut-Ur, David Fitch is back to discuss the popular restriction on clergy to abstain from alcohol and tobacco. Are such rules helpful, and could they possibly be making us fat?
On August 25th, Chicago Sun Times religion columnist Cathleen Falsani wrote a piece entitled "Weighty Matter: Is religion making us fat?" In the piece, she recited Adam Ant's lyrics in the 80's "Don't drink, don't smoke, what do ya do?" She raised the question whether those Christian denominations that prohibit drinking and smoking are abusing food as a substitute for these other prohibited pleasures. For support, Falsani quotes a Purdue University study that concluded (after accounting for several other factors) that some kinds of churches seem to encourage the problem of obesity. In fact, the study states that churches where drinking alcohol, smoking, and even dancing are prohibited, "overeating has become the accepted vice."
My denomination, along with others rooted in the old holiness movements, still hangs on to the holiness codes that prohibit alcohol and tobacco for its clergy. I consider this to be "an adventure in missing the point," to quote Brian McLaren, and I believe Falsani helps us see why. Let me explain.
If we prohibit certain behaviors for pastoral ministry, are we not really revealing the fear that we lack the mature character for ministry in the first place? If drunkenness and chemical addiction is what we fear, why not name drunkenness and addiction as the symptoms that require discernment? By totally prohibiting alcohol and tobacco we are not really dealing with the issue of whether our clergy has mature character. We are just providing conditions to displace the lack of character (if it exists) to some other object that is safer, i.e. from tobacco or alcohol to food.
I want to be careful here about painting a broad-brush stroke across all of us who have struggled with weight. That's not my point. I am someone who's had food and weight problems. And I've had my own recent crisis with diabetes as a result. Rather, what I am trying to show here is how the holiness codes of my denomination and others do not address the issue, they merely reveal the symptom of the "Real" underlying problem.
Slavoj Zizek, post postmodernist (if there is such a thing) cultural critic, is famous for helping us see the ways cultures can manifest symptoms of the "Real" in ways that surprise us. I might just suggest a Zizekian view of our denominational holiness codes - over eating is the symptom of the Real. The zeal of evangelicals to be different than culture by forbidding alcohol and tobacco, has in essence revealed that nothing is really different. Instead the "hard kernel of the Real" has erupted in the obesity epidemic in our holiness coded churches. As a result, the holiness codes reveal the Truth. In Zizek's words, "we overlook the way our act is already part of the state of things we are looking at, the way our error is part of the Truth itself.
In the end, character is about the ordering of one's appetites towards God's purposes in creation through a purified vision of Christ and His glory. If such desires are not ordered, if such desires are not integrated, holiness codes can only cover up the existing problem. The holiness codes then become a case of misrecognition. And as Zizek states, "the Truth arises from misrecognition." Thus we have obesity as an epidemic in our churches.
More and more, the new generations cannot stomach these holiness codes. I have regularly met with outstanding candidates for ministry who raise their eyebrow at my denomination's persistence on its holiness codes for clergy. This is because these codes are not holy. Instead, they trivialize holiness. The real question for us holiness denominations, if we are ever to be taken seriously by the postmodern generations (and our credibility slips everyday we hold onto to these "legalistic and unbiblical" codes of behavior - e.g. there is no Bible verse prohibiting drinking alcohol, quite the contrary), is whether we have the wherewithal to be sanctified in such a way as to be trusted with a drink or a stogie.
The real issue that our denominational leaders should focus on concerning the fitness of clergy is the commitment to a holy life and what that looks like in community. Obviously this refers to issues like drunkenness, addictions that reveal our lack of dependence upon God including tobacco, pornography, gambling, and yes, food! But this should also include how we handle money, how we engage the poor, how we speak to our neighbors, whether we engage in conflict in holy and Christ like ways. We should not resort to legalism! To the postmodern generations, "no alcohol, no tobacco" speaks only of rules, not holiness.
April 30, 2006
In part 1 of his post, Andy Rowell lamented the preoccupation his generation has for image management, and the way GenX church leaders have adopted this vice. In part 2 Andy offers a few antidotes to younger church leaders seeking a more genuine spirituality.
I think there are three dangers we need to be vigilant about. First, we need to beware of the tendency to be image-strong and content-weak. GenX ministries need to be careful about distinguishing themselves solely by their name and website. We want to convey, "This is not your average church." But we want to be better than the average church in substantial ways. In the end, it is not these three that remain: websites, jargon, and coffee. Let us teach better, worship better, and love better than the "average" church.
Second, we need to beware of our attention-getting tendencies.
Right now, Generation Xers are between the ages of 23-38. Not many of us are senior pastors, denominational leaders, authors, magazine editors, spiritual directors, or seminary professors. But we are longing to be in those positions, to make a name for ourselves, to make an impact. There is nothing wrong in itself with those desires. But we have to remind ourselves that sometimes our desire to draw people to Christ can get mixed up with our motivation to draw people to our ministry and thus get attention for ourselves. That doesn't mean we stop doing evangelism or making ourselves attractive to outsiders in every way we can. But it does mean, we keep doing our "closet work"?prayer, study, and pursuing deep relationships to keep us honest.
Third, we need to beware of a lack of transparency. My earlier description of "event preparation" almost sounds like Screwtape's advice to a younger devil learning his trade?"Deceive! Don't tell the audience your secrets. Manipulate what they experience." We may be image-conscious, but we do not want to be working for the Deceiver.
Transparency is the antidote. We must not do anything we wouldn't want exposed to the light. In fact, we should be intentional about exposing our ideas to other respected Christians for their input. And though it is tempting to fudge the truth, we need to be prepared to candidly report what we have done and what is going on. If we are doing the following sort of things, we need to be able to admit them. Use the following as practice statements:
- "We hired that guitar player for $500."
- "That projection equipment cost $30,000."
- "I worked 35 hours on that message and didn't spend a lot of time with my family because I wanted to make it good."
- "My staff expenses this year were $2,000."
- "We paid a professional $1000 to come up with that logo."
- "I only spent an hour on that message last night because I didn't prioritize my time well."
- "I will be taking four weeks of vacation."
- "As a worship team, we are having a difficult time understanding one another and it has been painful for all of us."
- "I am seeing a counselor."
Honesty needs to be habitual for us. We must schedule regular times to communicate with people about what is going on in our ministries. We need to meet with individuals as well as hold "town hall meetings." Transparency is the hardest when the people have been kept in the dark for a long time. Regular transparency will protect us from letting image lead us down a path of habitual deception.
Today, at the coffee shops and conferences, GenX pastors compare ministry coffee bars, digital presentations, and narrative preaching styles but my hope is that more and more we will discuss these things with each other:
? Beyond the gimmicks, how is your ministry really different?
? What are you learning from your time in the closet?
? How are you seeking to be transparent about the running of the ministry?
Some wonder about the future of the church. Some wonder about the future of its leaders. If image-conscious GenX pastors start to ask each other these questions, I will be hopeful for the future of both.
April 27, 2006
Not long ago I attended a young adult ministry conference. My wife commented that I looked out of place because none of my clothing was torn. I showed her the frayed cuffs of my pants to verify my young-church-leader credentials. Andy Rowell was associate pastor at Granville Chapel, Vancouver, British Columbia, and recently became visiting instructor in biblical studies, Christian education, and philosophy at Taylor University in Indiana. Here Andy shares his concern over the image management that he sees driving the younger generation of pastors.
Perhaps you have noticed at your most recent pastor's conference that a number of young pastors have slipped away together. If you had followed them, you might have found them in a plain church basement room with chairs circled around together. And if you drew close enough to overhear them speaking, you might have heard, "Hello, my name is _________ and I'm an Image-Conscious GenX pastor." Unbeknownst to you, you would have stumbled into the latest booming group therapy movement.
All joking aside, I can't help but recognize the unease in my conscience about how image-conscious we are becoming as young pastors. I want to share with you some examples of the importance of image as well as some of my concerns about this tendency.
First, GenX pastors want a cool sounding name for our new ministries. We name it something like Axis or Mars Hill or The Inn or The Place or The Tapestry. (Many start with "The _____" perhaps likening back to "The Way" in the book of Acts?) Why the catchy name? People have become desensitized to much of what is presented before them. Therefore the image, the name, is important. Sadly, people are not likely going to read the ministry's statement of faith. As shallow as it seems, it is probably true that some will give the fresh-named ministry a second look based solely on its name. In this sense, GenX pastors subscribe to the clich? "always make a good first impression."
Though we may rightly question whether the name will still sound cool in ten years, the fresh names stem from good evangelistic motivations. These names are intended to be pre-evangelism. They intend to communicate to the skeptical seeker, "This is not the church you're used to. Give us a shot."
Second, GenX pastors put a huge emphasis on having a sharp-looking website, preferably with lots of digital effects and edgy photos. The logo needs to be professionally designed if at all possible and the color scheme chosen carefully. Black is always a popular choice. Above all else, "Thou shalt not be tacky."
The reasoning for the great website is similar to the "cool-sounding name." Make a good first impression. More and more frequently, people searching for a church are using their web browser to "do the walking" rather than visiting a church themselves. If the website is not lame or offensive, they may come to visit on a Sunday morning.
Third, GenX pastors want people to experience something real and fresh in worship. Maybe some other GenX worship planners can identify with the following kind of thinking:
Though you are seeking excellence, make sure no one knows how much work you have put in. This takes away from the impact. Make it look effortless and that it was just thrown together. People will believe that the assembled talent and brilliance made the experience "just happen." If people see how much work and planning went into it, they may feel like you manufactured the experience?that you are trying to orchestrate something?or force something on them. They want "organic" experiences. So, spend the money you need to spend to make it happen. Then, plan and prepare like crazy late into the night with the most talented people you can find (musicians, technical folks, presenters, set designers, chefs).
When it is event time, put on your jeans (frayed and faded when purchased), mess up your hair, stick on your tight t-shirt, have a coffee in your hand, and saunter into the room as if you didn't have a care in the world. When people are amazed at the profundity and power of what they experience, just shrug and tell them, "I guess it worked. It just happened."
Our generation has been profoundly moved and affected by movies. Not unlike Steven Spielberg, the GenX pastor wants the people attending to be inspired and to be touched by the story, music, and message presented. The idea is to present a message powerfully in order to make a deep and lasting impression on the audience.
Maybe some of what I have described thus far bothers you. Aren't we as Christians supposed to be less focused on appearances and more concerned with the heart? Aren't some of the practices I described verging on dishonesty? GenX pastors I know are troubled by these same concerns. I'm not alone in feeling conscience-stricken by the emphasis on projecting a great image. There is widespread unease about it. But what can we do about it?
In part two of Andy Rowell's post he'll discuss some ways to overcome a preoccupation with image.
March 31, 2006
When Gregory Boyd, pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, preached about the danger of mingling the mission of the church with conservative politics he ignited passionate responses on both sides, and 1,000 people left the church. In part two of an excerpt from Boyd's new book, The Myth of a Christian Nation (Zondervan 2006), he says much of this passion is fueled by the false belief that America is a Christian nation and that the church's role is to reinforce that belief.
What gives the connection between Christianity and politics such strong emotional force in the U.S.? I believe it is the longstanding myth that America is a Christian nation.
From the start, we have tended to believe that God's will was manifested in the conquest and founding of our country - and that it is still manifested in our actions around the globe. Throughout our history, most Americans have assumed our nation's causes and wars were righteous and just, and that "God is on our side." In our minds - as so often in our sanctuaries - the cross and the American flag stand side by side. Our allegiance to God tends to go hand in hand with our allegiance to country. Consequently, many Christians who take their faith seriously see themselves as the religious guardians of a Christian homeland. America, they believe, is a holy city "set on a hill," and the church's job is to keep it shining.
The negative reaction to my sermons made it clear that this foundational myth is alive and well in the evangelical community - and not just in its fundamentalist fringes. That reaction leads me to suspect that this myth is being embraced more intensely and widely now than in the past precisely because evangelicals sense that it is being threatened. The truth is that the concept of America as a Christian nation, with all that accompanies that myth, is actually losing its grip on the collective national psyche, and as America becomes increasingly pluralistic and secularized, the civil religion of Christianity is losing its force. Understandably, this produces consternation among those who identify themselves as the nation's religious guardians.
So, when the shepherd of a flock of these religious guardians stands up - in the pulpit no less - and suggests that this foundational American myth is, in fact, untrue, that America is not now and never was a Christian nation, that God is not necessarily on America's side, and that the kingdom of God we are called to advance is not about "taking America back for God" - well, for some, that's tantamount to going AWOL.
The myth of America as a Christian nation, with the church as its guardian, has been, and continues to be, damaging both to the church and to the advancement of God's kingdom. Among other things, this nationalistic myth blinds us to the way in which our most basic and most cherished cultural assumptions are diametrically opposed to the kingdom way of life taught by Jesus and his disciples.
Instead of living out the radically countercultural mandate of the kingdom of God, this myth has inclined us to Christianize many pagan aspects of our culture. Instead of providing the culture with a radically alternative way of life, we largely present it with a religious version of what it already is. The myth clouds our vision of God's distinctly beautiful kingdom and thereby undermines our motivation to live as set-apart (holy) disciples of this kingdom.
Even more fundamentally, because this myth links the kingdom of God with certain political stances within American politics, it has greatly compromised the holy beauty of the kingdom of God to non-Christians. This myth harms the church's primary mission.
For many in America and around the world, the American flag has smothered the glory of the cross, and the ugliness of our American version of Caesar has squelched the radiant love of Christ. Because the myth that America is a Christian nation has led many to associate America with Christ, many now hear the good news of Jesus only as American news, capitalistic news, imperialistic news, exploitive news, antigay news, or Republican news. And whether justified or not, many people want nothing to do with any of it.
The kingdom Jesus came to establish is "not from this world" (John 18:36), for it operates differently than the governments of the world do. While all the versions of the kingdom of the world acquire and exercise power over others, the kingdom of God, incarnated and modeled in the person of Jesus Christ, advances only by exercising power under others. It expands by manifesting the power of self-sacrificial, Calvary-like love.
To put it differently, the governments of the world seek to establish, protect, and advance their ideals and agendas. It's in the fallen nature of all those governments to want to "win." By contrast, the kingdom Jesus established and modeled with his life, death, and resurrection doesn't seek to "win" by any criteria the world would use. Rather, it seeks to be faithful. It demonstrates the reign of God by manifesting the sacrificial character of God, and in the process, it reveals the most beautiful, dynamic, and transformative power in the universe. It testifies that this power alone - the power to transform people from the inside out by coming under them - holds the hope of the world. Everything the church is about, I argue, hangs on preserving the radical uniqueness of this kingdom in contrast to the kingdom of the world.
[Taken from Myth of a Christian Nation by GREGORY A. BOYD. Copyright ? 2006 by Gregory A. Boyd. Used by permission of The Zondervan Corporation.]
March 29, 2006
Midterm elections are heating up across the country, and many analysts expect evangelical voters to remain a potent political force. But not everyone is encouraged by the church's ascent in recent years to political power. Gregory Boyd, senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, has written a new book addressing the dangers of intermingling the gospel and the GOP. The Myth of a Christian Nation (Zondervan, 2006), outlines Boyd's concerns and chronicles his pastoral attempts to extricate the cross from the flag. Below is an excerpt.
Like many evangelical pastors in the months before the 2004 election, I felt pressure from a number of right-wing political and religious sources, as well as from some people in my own congregation, to "shepherd my flock" into voting for "the right candidate" and "the right position." Among other things, I was asked to hand out leaflets, to draw attention to various political events, and to have our church members sign petitions, make pledges, and so on. Increasingly, some in our church grew irate because of my refusal (supported by the church board) to have the church participate in these activities.
In April of 2004, as the religious buzz was escalating, I felt it necessary to preach a series of sermons that would provide a biblical explanation for why our church should not join the rising chorus of right-wing political activity. I also decided this would be a good opportunity to expose the danger of associating the Christian faith too closely with any political point of view, whether conservative or liberal. The series was entitled, "The Cross and the Sword."
The response surprised me.
For one thing, I had never received so much positive feedback. Some people literally wept with gratitude, saying that they had always felt like outsiders in the evangelical community for not "toeing the conservative party line." Others reported that their eyes had been opened to how they had unwittingly allowed political and national agendas to cloud their vision of the uniquely beautiful kingdom of God.
But neither had I ever received so much intensely negative feedback. I felt as though I'd stuck a stick in a hornet's nest! About 20 percent of my congregation (roughly a thousand people) left the church.
Many who left sincerely believe there is little ambiguity in how true Christian faith translates into politics. Since God is against abortion, Christians should vote for the pro-life candidate, they believe - and the preacher should say so. Since God is against homosexuality, Christians should vote for the candidate who supports the marriage amendment act - and a Bible-believing pastor should proclaim this. Since God is for personal freedom, Christians should vote for the candidate who will fulfill "America's mission" to bring freedom to the world - and any American pastor, like myself, should use his "God-given authority and responsibility" to make this known. "It's that simple," I was told. To insist that it's not, some suggested, is to be (as I was variously described) a liberal, a compromiser, wishy-washy, unpatriotic, afraid to take a stand, or simply on the side of Satan.
My thesis, which caused such an uproar, is this: I believe a significant segment of American evangelicalism is guilty of nationalistic and political idolatry. To a frightful degree, I think, evangelicals fuse the kingdom of God with a preferred version of the kingdom of the world (whether it's our national interests, a particular form of government, a particular political program, or so on). Rather than focusing our understanding of God's kingdom on the person of Jesus - who, incidentally, never allowed himself to get pulled into the political disputes of his day - I believe many of us American evangelicals have allowed our understanding of the kingdom of God to be polluted with political ideals, agendas, and issues.
For some evangelicals, the kingdom of God is largely about, if not centered on, "taking America back for God," voting for the Christian candidate, outlawing abortion, outlawing gay marriage, winning the culture war, defending political freedom at home and abroad, keeping the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, fighting for prayer in the public schools and at public events, and fighting to display the Ten Commandments in government buildings.
I believe that this perspective is misguided, that fusing together the kingdom of God with this or any other version of the kingdom of the world is idolatrous and that this fusion is having serious negative consequences for Christ's church and for the advancement of God's kingdom.
I do not argue that those political positions are either wrong or right. Nor do I argue that Christians shouldn't be involved in politics. While people whose faith has been politicized may well interpret me along such lines, I assure you that this is not what I'm saying. The issue is far more fundamental than how we should vote or participate in government. Rather, I want to challenge the assumption that finding the right political path has anything to do with advancing the kingdom of God.
[Taken from The Myth of a Christian Nation by GREGORY A. BOYD. Copyright ? 2006 by Gregory A. Boyd. Used by permission of The Zondervan Corporation.]
March 28, 2006
In January, Out of Ur ran an editorial written by Brian McLaren on a pastoral response to homosexuality. Hundreds of readers posted comments either supporting or condemning McLaren's perspective. But none caused as much uproar as the rant written by Mark Driscoll.
Driscoll, who is pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, now regrets the tone of his remarks as well as taking what he calls "cheap shots" at Brian McLaren and Emergent pastor Doug Pagitt. On Monday, Mark Driscoll issued an apology to McLaren, Pagitt, and readers offended by his comments. You may read his full apology at his blog, Resurgence. Driscoll writes:
And after listening to the concerns of the board members of the Acts 29 Church Planting Network that I lead, and of some of the elders and deacons at Mars Hill Church that I pastor, I have come to see that my comments were sinful and in poor taste.
Therefore, I am publicly asking for forgiveness from both Brian and Doug because I was wrong for attacking them personally and I was wrong for the way in which I confronted positions with which I still disagree. I also ask forgiveness from those who were justifiably offended at the way I chose to address the disagreement.
Jay Rosen declared in 2004 that blogging has shifted the media from a lecture to a conversation. The problem with conversation, both the old fashioned and the new digital variety, is the likelihood that eventually we'll say something we regret. That likelihood only increases when the subject of conversation is controversial and passionately debated.
Dr. Craig Blomberg from Denver Seminary wrote a piece for Out of Ur questioning the benefit of blogging for Christians. "With unprecedented ease of access comes the temptation to ?shoot from the hip' and respond with little thought or care for how one comes across." Dr. Blomberg reminds us that the blogosphere is a dangerous realm where temptation lurks behind every "submit" button, and we must rely upon the Spirit of Christ not only to control our tongues but also our keyboards.
One visitor to Out of Ur during January described the experience as like being in a foxhole during a gun battle - he was hesitant to post a comment fearing he'd get hit in the crossfire. Others disturbed by the conversation disengaged entirely. But Mark Driscoll's apology reveals there may be a redemptive blessing to remaining engaged. Sure, blogging can lead to regretful or even harmful dialogue, but within failure is always the opportunity for growth.
Henri Nouwen said that, "Community is the place where the person you least want to live with always lives." This observation takes on new meaning when applied to a Christian blog. We are guaranteed to encounter brothers and sisters online with divergent opinions, theologies, and perspectives, and passionate conversation is unavoidable. Some of what we read may bother us, some things may infuriate us. Still, engaging in dialogue with a diverse community, although challenging, provides us the opportunity to grow in tolerance, patience, and even humility by apologizing when necessary.
February 21, 2006
Many of the most prominent and influential ministries in the world are not churches. But, the spread of parachurch ministries in recent decades has caused some to wonder: do parachurches help or hurt local congregations? Dave Terpstra, pastor of The Next Level Church in Denver, believes he has found the perfect parachurch model.
Most churches offer a wide variety of ministries to various demographics: men, women, children, youth, etc. Some even specialize more than that: singles, divorc?s, re-marrieds, single mothers, etc. Some even go above and beyond with ministries outside of their church: prison ministry, homeless ministry, food closets, etc. But for every ministry inside of a local church, there are dozens of ministries that meet those needs outside of the church. There is Promise Keepers for men, Women of Faith for women, Young Life for the youth, Focus on the Family for the whole family ? I think you get the idea.
But do these ministries supplement the local church, or take from them?
Perhaps you have had this conversation before with someone in your church. I had one recently.
Friend: I'm thinking about starting a parachurch ministry.
Me: Oh yeah, what sort of ministry?
Friend: Well, from my perspective the local church isn't doing its job with [fill in the blank].
Me: Well how do you propose we fix that?
Friend: I'm going to start a paraministry that focuses on [fill in the blank].
Me: How is that going to help the local church with its problem?
Friend: It's going to address [fill in the blank] so the local church doesn't have to.
Me: That doesn't really sound like you are helping the local church at all.
Most parachurch organizations I encounter are noble and have godly missions. They are trying to advance God's Kingdom and fill in the gaps for the local church. But in an effort to fill in the gaps, it seems to me that many parachurch organizations have, for some individuals, inadvertently taken the place of the local church. I would like to quickly add that I am not accusing the ministries I listed above of doing this; they are simply illustrative.
But let's play make-believe for a moment. What if we could snap our fingers and make all parachurch organizations go away? What if we could take all of the energies and leadership of parachurch organizations and put those resources back in the local church? Which would we choose? Would we go back to the world of the parachurch, or would we be excited to see the reengagement of those individuals in the local church?
It is not my intention to pick on any organization, but just to wonder aloud. If all of the Young Life leaders in America served in local churches' youth ministries, would that be better? If the thousands of volunteers who put on Promise Keepers and Women of Faith events invested those energies in their local churches, would the men and women of their church experience a greater impact? I don't know, but I wonder.
I've encountered what I believe to be the perfect parachurch. It's a local ministry here in Denver called Where Grace Abounds (www.wheregraceabounds.org). Their mission statement is:
Where Grace Abounds exists to guide and support men and women who seek to understand sexuality and relationship, and to inspire all people to know and personally appropriate God's plan for their sexuality and relationships
Certainly they are tackling a tough area that many churches have a difficult time handling. However, if you search their website and other materials you will find statements like this: "WGA comes alongside the church to help it minister to people with sexual and relational conflicts." And they mean it, too. They regularly have workshops and seminars for ministry professionals on how to address sexuality in their churches.
It was at one of these seminars that I heard a line that changed my perspective on parachurch ministry. The leader of the workshop said, "Our hope is that we would be able to have enough of an influence on the local churches and their leaders in Denver that we would go out of business sometime in the future. The local church would be addressing the sexuality of their people as well as we could."
WGA is a parachurch that sees itself purely as a support for local churches. Have I found the perfect parachurch?
January 31, 2006
Wheaton College professor, and guest poet of Ur, Dan Haase has been watching our conversation from a distance. Dan sent along this short piece to help us pause and think. It has made me wonder, should this blog be seeking to elevate the dialogue among brothers and sister in Christ--a place for us to grow through the spiritual discipline of conversation? Or, should this forum simply reflect the character of the church today--both its decency and decay? Perhaps Dan's words will help us all think more carefully before we submit comments in the future.
Genus: Blog, Species: Comment
Some come like snakes –
Through cracks, and holes,
and misconceptions of argument –
Hissing out their truth,
causing dust to rise,
into the eyes and nostrils –
Then, in clouded mind,
With venom in the veins,
The BODY dies.
November 8, 2005
Leadership associate editor Skye Jethani tells the story Mike Sares shared with him at a conference earlier this year. Tell us what you would do if you were Mike.
A few days before Christmas, pastor Mike Sares got a call from his associate. "Mike," he said, "Mary Kate Makkai has agreed to read one of her poems at the Christmas Eve service. It's really, really good, but it's got the F-bomb in it several times, and I just thought I should check with you about that."
Sares first told me his unexpected "F-bomb story" last March at the FutureGen conference in Orlando. We've all heard the tales of pastors accidentally detonating a vulgar ordnance from the pulpit (everyone's recent favorite being Blake Bergstrom's infamous "pitch your tents" faux pas). But the dropping of multiple F-bombs during a Christmas Eve service with laser guided premeditation? That is nothing to laugh about.
Mike Sares pastors a congregation called "Scum of the Earth" in Denver, Colorado. No, Scum of the Earth is not your typical congregation. Scum calls itself "a church for the right brained and the left out." They embrace authenticity, creativity, and those who are on the margins of society. That explains why Sares didn't immediately take the nuclear option off the table. But he wasn't quite ready to push the button either.
"My inclination on the phone was to say ?go ahead and do it,'" says Sares. "I like to give artists a lot of freedom, but on this one I just wasn't sure. I told my associate that I couldn't give him an answer yet."
Mary Kate Makkai, the poet under consideration, was a young woman Sares had known for years. She was on a long prodigal journey with her faith, and was just re-entering the church after years of living in the "far country." Along with sensing the fragile state of her faith, Sares also recognized Makkai was an incredibly gifted poet.
Before coming to Scum, Makkai had been doing poetry therapy with juvenile delinquents. It was while working with those broken and angry young men that she recognized her own need for God. The poem she composed for Christmas Eve chronicled her own journey back to God. In it she quoted some of the raw language of the boys from her therapy group. Although sympathetic to Makkai, Sares sought advice before making a final decision.
"I called two pastor friends of mine, I called a seminary professor, and I called some of my supporters (pastors at Scum raise their own support). The two supporters were dead set against allowing the F-word. These were good people whose combined time in the faith had been seventy years. They simply thought it was inappropriate for that kind of word to ever be used in the context of a worship service. I got a big fat ?no' from them.
"However, the pastors were a bit more gray about it. They saw that Mary Kate was at a critical stage in her journey back to God, and they advised me to be careful not to squelch her. I felt that asking Mary Kate to clean this poem up before presenting it in church would be like asking the widow to wipe off her coins before dropping them in the offering plate."
Beyond the pastoral implications of his decision, Sares also explored the theological and biblical issues with Dr. Craig Blomberg from Denver Seminary. "Dr. Blomberg said that the Bible is obviously a wonderful book, but if you take some parts out of the broader context you're going to find some fairly dark things: incest, sodomy, murder - all sorts of terrible things. Mary Kate's poem was about someone coming back to the Lord, which is a wonderful context. In the middle of that context, she quotes someone else who is very angry at life. Context became central to our discussion.
"The other consideration was the Ephesians 5 passage about foolish talk and coarse joking. Dr. Blomberg and I went over different ways to understand this passage, using the Greek, and we didn't feel the poem fell under any of them. The poem was not a crude attempt at humor, and it was not immoral. In terms of obscenity, you've got to think of what might be considered obscene in your own congregation. In our setting, the F-bomb is just another noun/adjective/verb that expresses frustration for many people. It's not cursing in terms of taking God's name in vain, or asking God to damn someone to hell. This poem was being spoken as an honest hymn of redemption."
Satisfied that there existed no scriptural prohibition against reading the poem, Sares finally considered the inevitable fallout the F-bomb would produce. "I knew it was going to offend people, and could really hurt my relationships with some of my supporters. Allowing Mary Kate to read that poem would probably hurt me in the pocketbook, too."
What was he to do?
What would you do? Post your comments and come back soon for part two.
November 3, 2005
The following is by Abram Book, Leadership editorial resident, who reported the nationwide Narnia promotion campaign that rolled out last month in Wheaton, Illinois, now the home of C.S. Lewis's wardrobe. OK, one of several such wardrobes. This one has a solid wood back, we're told, behind the fur coats.
The marketing machine for the big C.S. Lewis Narnia movie is just getting cranked up, and they're using all the tactics that made The Passion of the Christ a blockbuster. But as sample marketing materials for use in churches and as preacher's magazines with Narnia covers arrive in our office mailbox, and as attenders at the Catalyst conference for church leaders were treated to Narnia previews and promo tools, we have to wonder, Is the church being used? Or more precisely, How crassly is the church being used?
After a promotional stop that brought C.S. Lewis's stepson and a slew of marketers to the platform of a nearby church in October, I asked Quentin Schultze, professor of communication at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, whether the church's cooperation with Hollywood in movie marketing is a trend.
"I don't think there is any particular trend toward religious movies or even toward Christian themes in movies," Schultze responded. "Just take a look at the current lineup in most theaters. A couple of movies do not make a trend in an industry that cranks out hundreds of them annually. Moreover, both of these types of religious films (The Passion and Narnia) have been addressed before, although not necessarily with the same styles or budgets."
Maybe. Maybe not.
Two movies may not make a trend, but the church's teaming with the Walt Disney Company in promotion of Narnia certainly represents a shift in thinking, and a growing acceptance of Hollywood by church leaders. Until recently, Disney was the subject of a boycott by Southern Baptists and other conservative groups for their perceived perversion of family values. Now that the moguls and marketers have discovered the power of the Christian community to boost their box office, they will no doubt want to make the most of the alliance.
One recent example, related by colleagues in my office, was the promotion of Cinderella Man at a convention of Christian journalists this spring. The film had some religious elements (the trailers showed people praying for the boxing contender), but moviegoers reported Cinderella Man had a really foul mouth, objectionable to many Christians, and to say the movie had Christian themes was a stretch.
Church leaders and churchgoers alike must be discerning about such marketing alliances. Whether the film is overtly Christian, as in The Passion, has Christian themes, or merely upholds values Christians support, church leaders must be careful about endorsing Hollywood productions and the degree to which their support is expressed in their local congregations. There is, after all, considerable difference between referencing a current movie in a sermon and supplying the congregation with mass-produced study guides and small group materials. There is ponderable difference between supporting a movie about the Crucifixion that had input from a broad range of Christian scholars, and endorsing a film that will be seen by some as Christian allegory, or, eventually, nice movies that have vague Judeo-Christian underpinnings.
Christians may welcome a better relationship between our community and the dominant media of the day; we can appreciate the opportunity for the Church to influence the types of films that the machine produces; but such influence comes at a price.
Some Christian leaders tell me they are uncomfortable about the Narnia deal, not because of the promotion of this particular film within the church, but because of the next church-Hollywood collaboration this campaign may encourage. Where do you think this road will take us?
October 26, 2005
(Our friend Angie Ward is a writer, mentor, and ministry leader in North Carolina. She is the founder of Forward Leadership, a ministry coaching ministry. She is also a regular contributor to Leadership journal and our e-newsletter, Leadership Weekly.)
When I worked at a camp in northern Wisconsin, my fellow staff members often told a story about a cat that had lived on the campgrounds for many years. When the cat died, one prankster decided to have the cat stuffed, then placed it in strategic locations to startle other staff members and visitors. (I swear I am not making this up.)
Apparently, the cat appeared serenely napping on a car dashboard, cuddled at the feet of a secretary, and propped up with a sign directing visitors to the camp office before it was kidnapped (or should I say cat-napped?), never to be seen again.
I was reminded of this story when I read that actor Alan Alda, most famously of the TV show "M*A*S*H" and more recently of "The West Wing," recently wrote a book entitled, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: And Other Things I've Learned. In it, Alda talks about how he had a beloved pet dog when he was eight years old. When the dog died, Alda was so sad about burying it that his father decided to have the dog stuffed instead.
"We kept it on the porch and deliverymen were afraid to make deliveries," Alda recalled in an interview with Newsweek. He then continued, "There are a lot of ways we stuff the dog, trying to avoid change, hanging on to a moment that's passed."
Churches seem to have a special proclivity toward "stuffing the dog," maintaining programs, buildings, and even members in an attempt to forestall necessary change. In the short term, it's sometimes much easier to stuff a church's pets than to acknowledge their death, grieve their loss, and give them an appropriate burial.
Like Alda's dog and the camp cat, stuffed animals might bring temporary comfort to those inside the organization, but they may actually turn off or even frighten newcomers who aren't familiar with the history and meaning behind them. Whether it's a particular worship style, a ritual, an outdated program, or even a powerful clique within the church, visitors will usually be quick to notice that something's not quite right. They may not stick around to find out what, or why.
One of the key tasks of a good leader is to acknowledge reality. Sometimes, that means burying a beloved pet, rather than propping it up in denial of its passing, even if it's your pet.
For the ministry leader, a potential danger is to bury the ministerial dog without telling anyone that it died, or worse, without even acknowledging that it existed. Burying a dead dog does not diminish its significance to the church family. On the contrary, a proper burial should include celebration of the metaphorical pet's impact, as well as acknowledgement that some people will need to grieve the loss over a period of time. Even when everyone agrees that an animal is dead, a wise leader will allow time to process the loss, instead of just bringing home a new pet.
This is especially true for young leaders like me, who can be quick to implement change without fully understanding the history of an organization or acknowledging the emotional and spiritual impact - both positive and negative - of past pets. Whether a church's "pet" is significant to you personally, you need to realize that there may be a lot of emotion stirred up by its passing. Recognize the loss, but celebrate the life, as well.
But keeping your dog's picture on your desk is much different than keeping the actual dead dog on your desk, at your feet, or propped up in your leadership meetings or even the church foyer. In a healthy church, only the nursery will have stuffed animals.
October 24, 2005
(Here is the remainder of James MacDonald's commentary on emerging culture. MacDonald is pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel in Rolling Meadows, Illinois, and its several satellite locations. He is also the featured preacher on the radio program Walk in the Word. )
4. Because the answer is Jesus, not cultural analysis.
Several times in the past few years we have baptized more than 200 adults in our church in a single weekend. When you listen to so many concurrent stories of conversion to Christ in such a short period of time, you get a clear picture of how it happens. "I was going along thinking I was ?too sexy for my shirt,' and God dropped a boulder on my life to break me down and get my attention." While the label on the boulder may change, the story does not. Bottom line: God uses the painful circumstances of life to soften human hearts and bring people to faith in Christ.
In the past few years we have analyzed our culture ad nauseum. Cultures don't come to Christ, individuals do and the fields are more ripe for harvest than ever before.
Our endless discussion of culture has become just an elitist substitute for rolling up our sleeves and getting the Good News to the people who are hurting right now! Baby Boomer, GenX, Postmodern, blah, blah, blah. The discussion itself is modernistic and we're just talking to ourselves. How about a more compassionate extension of our own life in Christ and please . . . a lot less perpetual babbling about culture, which even when rightly observed is not the answer, duh - Jesus is!
5. Because Jesus is the purpose for the party, not the surprise hiding in the closet of respectability.
If you have not traveled to the places in our world where the Gospel of Christ is spreading like wildfire, I covet that opportunity for you. What you find there is not careful connoisseurs of some Rodeo Drive Jesus, but flag-waving, flame-throwing, on-fire followers of Christ. The power of God's Spirit is moving because Jesus is experienced, adored and proclaimed in all of His transcendent glory.
Why do so many of the emerging church websites speak of God/Father and less overtly or not at all about Jesus Christ the Lord? Claiming to be postmodern we are still marketing Jesus and hiding Him in the closet of respectability until we feel like people are ready to handle Him. Jesus can't be handled and He doesn't need spin doctors. I know we're pretty fussy about music forms, but let's bring back an old chorus, This Little Light of Mine, and in case we've forgotten the answer to "hide it under a bushel?" is NO!
Anyway . . .
I am thankful for the honest and often accurate critiques of current western Christianity flowing from the emerging church movement. I strongly desire to see them show greater promise in the arena of solutions or at least be more open to analysis from outside their community than they have been to date. (Witness the harsh rejection, rather than careful analysis of D.A. Carson's book, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church on many emergent blogs.)
These are some of the factors affecting my decision not to emerge. What I am doing is hoping, praying and spending myself, along with many others, for "revival in the church in America in our lifetime." The problems in the western church are extreme: legalism or license, dead orthodoxy or compromised consumerism, professional entertainers with pop psychology or angry disregard for the sinful world Jesus weeps for. The western church in our lifetime has become an awful mess, but Jesus is not giving up on her and neither should we.
Now hear this: the answer we desperately need is a fresh move of God. We need a renewed vision of God's exalted, infinite holiness. We need an overwhelming sense of our own pride and personal sinfulness. We need our eyes lifted from the bankruptcy of cultural reflection to the crucified, risen, glorified Christ. There must be a returning to the centrality of the unadorned Gospel and the power of God's Spirit to redeem, restore and rebuild broken lives. We need men and women on fire with passionate confidence in the power of God's Word proclaimed; not because pagans say they want it, but because God promises to bless it. In short, what we need, what we desperately need is a renewing work of God that will cut a swath of revival across our land like a tornado across a Kansas wheat field.
That's what we need and nothing else will do. In fact, anything else is window dressing.
Most urgently I am praying that we will repent and turn from the horizontal, man-centered focus that grieves God's Spirit and prevents the presence of Christ from emerging more fully in our midst.
October 17, 2005
(James MacDonald is pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel in Rolling Meadows, Illinois, and its several satellite campuses. His preaching is featured on the radio program Walk in the Word. His is another perspective in the postmodern, emergent church dialogue.)
Let me begin with a word of personal appreciation for the current leaders of the emerging church movement. I am deeply grateful for your courage in standing against the many shortcomings of the modern Western church. Thanks for insisting that authenticity in relationship is the foundation of genuine Christian community. Thanks for standing against the formulaic/instant Gospel which fills our churches with tares and insulates the human heart from a genuine transformational encounter with the living Christ. Thanks also for daring to believe that failure is not final and that Christ yet longs for His bride to function with the health and wholeness He created it to enjoy.
In case you are wondering why my gratitude for the leaders of the emerging church does not translate into enthusiasm for their current emphasis and direction let me take a few words to explain why I am not emerging.
1. Because observing the bad is not a credential for guiding us to the good.
Even if every placard-carrying protestor across from the White House has a legitimate complaint they will not soon be invited to cross the street and participate in governing our nation. The hippies of the late sixties told us that the choice to "make love, not war" would go a long way toward solving society's ills. We now know however that free love is a fast track to rampant perversion and escalating victimization of the innocent among us. History is replete with proof that those most articulate about our shortcomings are often least able to bring balanced, objective solutions.
I resonate deeply with much of the criticism flowing from the emerging church against current Western Christianity, but I am deeply grieved to see the emergent remedies accepted so uncritically by those who feel gratified by the accuracy of their critiques. Knowing the soup is bad does not make one a chef. If successful diagnosis was a license to treat the patient every lab technician would be a surgeon . . . scary.
2. Because God is looking for obedience to revealed truth, not just sincerity.
I have had numerous interactions with and time to personally observe several of the key emerging leaders such as Chris Seay, Carol Childress, Dave Travis, Leonard Sweet, Brian McLaren, and Rob Bell. Some I have only spoken with, others I consider to be dear friends, but each that I have been exposed to gives strong evidence that they are sincere and genuinely committed to Jesus Christ. If all that Christ asked of us was a gracious, kind demeanor they would be exemplary indeed; however the Lord is asking for much more.
In John 14:21 Jesus taught "he who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me." We are expected to obey our Master and to accept His Word without equivocation. Cavalier questioning of the explicit statements of Scripture regarding the necessity of the new birth, the priority of biblical proclamation or the binding authority and sufficiency of Scripture cannot build a stronger, more Christ-honoring church no matter how sincere the messengers. Critiquing the church is good; disregarding or diminishing the revealed truth of our Founder is not good, no matter how ?nice' the people are who do it.
3. Because Christ's is a kingdom of substance, not style.
Candles and bells, paintings and sculpture, incense and chanting--great! Let's bring back the best of all those offerings of worship, but let's not confuse style and substance. According to Jesus it's still truth that sets you free, not artistic expression. Wearing suits and ties is certainly not necessary and it can be contrived and unnatural, but wearing jeans and sandals is not a means to the revealed presence of Christ. John 14:21 teaches that obedience to the substance of Christ's teaching brings His "manifest presence," not forms--old or new. In most of these discussions we are simply inserting an ancient-dead form in place of a modern-dead one. The former feels new because it's so ancient, as in "wow, we lit candles and sat in circles at church--that was so powerful." Or wait, was it the form that was powerful or just the broken routine that allowed my heart to worship with fresh sincerity? The renewed, ancient forms of worship are powerful if they are offered in spirit and truth and will become just as worthless as they become routine.
The power of Christ is not experienced in style, but in heart-felt substance and to miss that point is to set the stage for Emerging Church II when our kids get sick of the currently cool. Style is fun and fresh methods can promote sincerity, but the manifest presence of Christ which is the life of the church comes in response to biblical substance from the heart, not surface adjustments which can quickly become an end in themselves.
Coming: Part 2
October 7, 2005
(Here's a post from Cory Whitehead, editor of the Building Church Leaders newsletter, one our Leadership guys on site at the Catalyst conference here in Atlanta.)
Integrity. We hear all about it today, or at least the lack thereof. Enron, Martha, fallen church leaders. We hear about the breakdown of integrity constantly, but we don't hear much about the upright, about those that do not and will not compromise their integrity. Those stories usually have to come out in our personal conversations and experiences.
At this year's Catalyst Conference, Andy Stanley spoke about integrity. In 1 Samuel 24:1-4a, David had the perfect opportunity to kill Saul, stop living like a bandit, and take over the leadership of Israel as God had promised. David had the opportunity to put an end to it when, in the only place in the Bible that it speaks of "relieving oneself," Saul enters a cave to do so. Consequently, Saul enters the cave that David and his men are hiding in.
But David didn't take offense. The perfect opportunity to move forward, to make progress, to "follow God's will," but he didn't take it. Why?
He showed tremendous restraint. He decided to wait on God to crown him king, not to take matters into his own hands. He didn't kill the king because, after all, God had a law against killing. He didn't bypass the law and principles of God. And He trusted God's greater wisdom and plan.
We like to take matters into our own hands and to progress. We like to call some opportunities "open doors" in order to make progress. But "open doors" aren't always an invitation from God, said Stanley. Not when they're against God's laws, principles, and wisdom.
Stanley reminded me that I'm not too good at evaluating my circumstances. I get emotional and saturated by my environment. Stanley made a good point, something I need to remember when it looks like the stars are aligning and "God is opening a door." He said "opportunities must be weighed against something other than the uniqueness of the circumstances surrounding them."
We like to make progress, so when something looks, feels, sounds like a God thing, we chalk it up to what? A God thing. But in 1 Samuel 24, David says this to Saul, "May the Lord judge between you and me. And may the Lord avenge the wrongs you have done to me, but my hand will not touch you.
David waits. And through waiting, his situation later turned out better than if he would have been crowned king by means of assassination. Stanley and King David reminded me that the most direct route to what I want is RARELY the best route.
How have I comprised my integrity lately and chalked it up to a God thing? How have I practiced the God-talk, but really I was compromising my integrity by defying the laws, principles, and greater wisdom of God. How have you?