Monday, November 06, 2006

Secrets: Addiction's Not So Secret Weapon

Ted Haggard has confessed to a struggle his whole adult life that has now destroyed his ministry and his reputation. In my last post I was pretty hard on Ted's friends and accountability partners. Over the weekend it came out that he intentionally deceived all those people driven by guilt over the dark truth about his addiction. Addicts are secretive, shame filled and often very successful people. No one can convince me that President Bill Clinton wasn't a sex addict. He is also one of the most effective politicians in this modern era. Ted Haggard is one of the most successful pastors, much the same as Jimmy Swaggart was a generation ago. He, too, fell prey to his secret sexual addictions.

This "moral failure" in Ted's life has nothing at all to do with sex. It has to do with the self-protective mechanism of addiction. Built into people in childhood, addiction is the human response to traumatic events. It's a deformed, unhealthy coping device that comes booby trapped with enough shame and guilt to keep a person from seeking real help and learning healthy ways of dealing with life. An addict truly believes the urges and behaviors they resort to in response to the challenges life throws at them are so awful and outside acceptable human norms that they can never admit them to anyone lest they be shunned by all humanity. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it's true. Just read Ted Haggard's apology letter to his congregation. You can tell he held onto a dark secret for his entire adult life, thirty years, rather than confess it to someone. He allowed that secret to destroy him in an ugly and public way rather than confess it privately. I believe in the power of secrets and addicts have secrets they are convinced will destroy them if they don't keep them hidden. The irony is, in keeping the secret such damage is done that, eventually, their greatest fears are realized.

I'm excited for Ted Haggard. Although he has been destroyed publicly, God will use this to restore him as a human being. I promise you that he had lost his humanity to his addiction(s). Now he has a chance to be whole. The power of his dark secrets has been destroyed. Secrets thrive in the darkness and die in the light. I pray for Ted that he has the courage to drag all his secrets into the light. I pray that for you, too, and that you heed the cautionary tale of the pastor who fell from the top of the world.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Here We Go Again

Once again a high profile Christian leader has publicly embarrassed himself and, by association, the church. This isn't going to be some scorching diatribe against Ted Haggard. I have no interest in adding to the pain and humiliation that he will experience because of his incredibly poor decisions. No, this is a chance to once again point out that church is an incredibly dangerous place. Often it is most dangerous for those in leadership. Interestingly, Ted appeared to have done things right. He had a four member oversight board and he had accountability partners. He also served as the lead pastor to a congregation of over 14,000 people, served as head of an organization representing 30,000,000 Christians, had national fame and recognition and the ear of the President of the United States.

How many of you can honestly say that wouldn't go to your head? I can't begin to understand the pressure that comes from having your Christian faith and walk in that kind of spotlight. I'm not excusing Ted Haggard even though I'm sure he came under some pretty vicious spiritual attacks. His situation does make me wonder who was watching out for him. In my experience pastors are often the lonliest people in the church. They are revered (hence the name Reverend) and respected and often avoided. People are often intimidated by "men of God" feeling they don't measure up and fear offending the pastor. So they avoid the pastor. Every pastor can tell you stories about being out with people when someone lets lose with a swear word or an off color joke then turns to apologize to the pastor as if they'd just ruined their chance to get to heaven.

Everyone wants their pastors and church workers to be healthy. I guarantee not a single person at Ted Haggard's church is enjoying this weekend. In my years as a church worker many people would tell me that I should take care of myself. They wanted me to spend time with my family, take my vacations, find time to play and not be overwhelmed by the job. With very rare exception, however, no one ever actually did anything to see that I followed through on their encouragement. In church work the truth is, if you show up on Sunday morning, make a few meetings during the week and put on a happy face when people are around, you can do whatever you want most the rest of the time. That combination of trust, respect, freedom and personal avoidance can leave a pastor awfully lonely, lost and vulnerable. Not everyone handles that well. Not everyone makes healthy choices when it comes to dealing with those feelings. Pastors are not immune to making bad choices...even great pastors who seemingly have the world by the tail. Emotional pain can do incredible damage in the life of someone with malformed coping mechanisms.

It's no longer acceptable, as if it ever was, to honor, revere and avoid our pastors as if they somehow live above the fray of human existence. Maybe if we got to know our pastors as people we could hold them accountable for the little things along the way and avoid the big disaster that puts their name on the front page of the paper. I don't know Ted Haggard at all and I don't know if he had any close friends who were watching out for him. But, if he did, I have to wonder why at least one of them didn't see this coming. The church needs to find healthy ways to care for our pastors and protect them...even from themselves!

Thursday, October 26, 2006

This is Steve

No scathing rant today, just something that strikes me as funny. My wife is doing some temp work cold calling churches. I know sales people aren't well received in this world, but I'm learning that churches aren't much different than average folks when it comes to cold calls. Pastors have been known to actually swear at callers, be generally abusive and hang up. I know these calls can be annoying, I dealt with them for years when I was in the church. But I never lost sight of the fact that, when someone calls a church, they expect to be talking to a Christ follower. Anyway, this call was just funny, and a bit indicative of how oblivious a pastor can be.

She called the number listed for the church and got this message, "Hi, this is Steve, please leave your message after the tone." Assuming she had a residential number instead of the church she called one of the other numbers listed. That, too was a residence so she moved on to the third number given for this particular account. This time she got a real person and shared her scripted information. She then mentioned that the primary church number seemed to be a personal phone. The lady on the other end asked my wife to repeat the number and assured her it was the church number but went directly to the pastor's voice mail if no one answered. She was sure the pastor would want to know that his message didn't contain any information about the fact, no indication it was a church at all. As a courtesy my wife redialed the number and the pastor picked up and it went something like this:

Pastor: "You just called here."
My wife: "Yes, I did."
Pastor: "You didn't leave a message."
My wife: "I thought I was calling a church but the voice message sounded like a personal phone."
Pastor: "I'm the pastor of the church."
My wife: "Your voice message just says, 'This is Steve' and doesn't indicate that I'm calling a church."
Pastor: "I know. I'm the pastor of the church."
My wife: "Thank you, very much, pastor. Have a nice day."

The man never seemed to catch on that anyone outside his small circle of parishoners and friends who knew for certain they were calling the church would ever know they'd reached a church. There was no information that would have helped them connect with that church if they were new to town or visiting. Like my wife, most strangers would assume they had reached a wrong number and move on to another call. Apparently, "This is Steve" was all the information Steve thought was necessary to share about his church when people called. It makes me wonder if anyone new ever makes it into his church. It makes me think about all the ineffective ways churches present themselves to strangers.

Friday, October 20, 2006

For the Sake of Christ

For the sake of Christ people claiming to follow him have done some pretty horrendous stuff. The bloody Crusades were undertaken in His name supposedly to reclaim Jerusalem and Israel from the heathens. To protect His truth the Spanish Inquisition saw people wrongly accused, tortured and publicly murdered in garish spectacles. The Conquistadors seized land, brought disease, slaughter and subjugation to whole races of people with a priest in the lead to bring them to Christ before killing or enslaving them. The good Christian people of Salem Massachusetts hunted down women, drowning and burning them as witches. A church in Kansas protests at military funerals and threatened to protest at the funerals of those poor, innocent Amish children a couple of weeks ago. I sometimes wonder why Christ hasn't returned yet, if for nothing else than to take his name back from the megalomaniacs who have abused it for so long.

This particular rant is triggered by my anger at one such megalomaniac who is destroying a church in my old hometown and the school where my children grew up. It's not a new phenomenon that self-righteous, deeply wounded, viciously myopic men (and some women, I suppose) rise to power within the church...locally, nationally or internationally. It's not even news when these men launch a campaign to so dominate and dictate from a privileged place of leadership that they destroy good people and cripple or kill the ministries entrusted to them. I've seen it happen over and over again. All the while these people claim to be advancing truth, doctrinal purity and theological accuracy. This particular pastor once told me that when all the people in the seats on Sunday morning reached spiritual maturity they would agree with him! This man sweats arrogance and glows with hubris. And he claims to represent Christ.

Well, people aren't waiting around long enough to achieve spiritual maturity. They're leaving in droves. Choosing, instead, to transfer to other churches led by lesser people. Some, I'm sure, are simply dropping out altogether and questioning the validity of Christian faith itself. In the wake of this megalomaniac's self-righteous domination a once large and thriving church is collapsing around him. A beloved school with a rich history of sharing Jesus with the community struggled to open its doors this year. All the while he blithely clings to his version of truth ignoring completely the fact that he has led a once thriving congregation to the edge of extinction. He and his shrinking band of "true believers" are baffled, I'm sure, that so many people can't handle the truth.

This is just one story among thousands of people who claim to speak for Christ while inflicting incredible wounds to His body. These are the stories that break my heart. These are the people who inspire this blog and make me want to set out on a campaign to cleanse them from the church completely. It's in those moments that God reminds me vengeance is His. If I were to act on my retributional urges I would be no better than those I decry. To be honest, in my own megalomanical moments I think I have all the right answers for the church. In the end, I trust God is working out His plan in, through and in spite of all of us, including the pastors who are leading their churches into irrelevance and extinction. It's beyond my capacity to understand exactly how that works. For now I'm satisfied with telling the world when I see things in the church that I don't like.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Interesting Weekend

Friends from Illinois were vacationing in Colorado last week and we had the chance to get together over the weekend. They are wonderful, prayerful people who both love to read and had a stack of books they brought along. I got the chance to finally start reading "Velvet Elvis" by Rob Bell, which will feed a few posts on this blog, I'm sure. My wife picked up "God Is Closer Than You Think" by John Ortberg. This book is about the different ways people connect with God. She read some passages to me and it was quite eye-opening. Ortberg contends that there are several different ways people naturally connect with God. I can't recite all seven, but there are two that resonated with me.

The first is service. No secret to anyone who reads my blog regularly that I think church should be all about serving others. Apparently that doesn't necessarily float everyone's boat. The second one that suits me is activism as defined as standing against injustice and railing against wrongs in the church. Again, no surprise for anyone who's read the subtitle of this blog. I've been asking why church isn't more relevant and meaningful since I was a teenager. The big red bow tied on top of this weekend of discovery came Sunday morning at church.

Our pastor is preaching through Ephesians. He's done quite a nice job, though last week I did post a comment about the ineffectiveness of long sermons in actually impacting people's lives. But, as sermons go, these have been pretty good. Sunday he had a rant near the end of his message about the church being God's preferred method to express his love and message to the world. He went so far as to say that Christians who reject the church are at odds with God's intention...perhaps at odds with God, Himself. That's how I heard it, anyway. He also pulled no punches about the church being filled with sinners, hypocrites, liars and trouble. I was glad to hear that part. That's why I call the church the most dangerous safe place. We are charged with being the hands and feet of Jesus and often do a miserable job. That said, there isn't anything our pastor said on Sunday that I would disagree with. The church is the place where God works. If I didn't think that I wouldn't bother with this blog. I want the church to be better for the sake of the Gospel. I want people in church to think deeply about how effective we are and ask the hard questions that will lead to being moreso.

I don't understand why God chose such a miserable, flawed system to communicate His glorious message. But then there's a lot about God I don't understand. This past weekend I did feel convicted that I've been standing outside of church recently trying to make things better from a distance. I suppose I could come up with all sorts of reasons why. The bottom line is, if Ortberg is right, I need to be serving somewhere to feel connected and I haven't jumped back into any meaningful church involvement since moving to Colorado. It's probably time to get back on the inside and make trouble there.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Unusual Conversations

Sunday after church my wife and I had the chance to meet a new couple over brunch. This past summer we were grouped with this couple and another one with the intention of getting together for a meal and conversation to build relationships. Our summer schedules never permitted us to get together. I must admit that this sort of thing is something the church does right, if not always well. Giving fellow Christ followers a chance to meet each other and develop relationships. The church does provide structure that is helpful, especially for new people like us, in meeting others. Often, however, the relationships never get very deep. I suppose this is just human nature but there may be something else.

Sunday our conversation got into some pretty personal topics. Personal enough that it's not appropriate to share any of it here. One point that became clear, though, is that, for all our years in the church between all of us at the table, this kind of frank and open conversation was unusual. Someone even admitted that what was shared had been held back at other such get togethers sponsored by the church. There was fear of being judged or ostracized.

It's sad that the prevailing wisdom, when it comes to church gatherings, small or large, is that you need to protect yourself. At church you may run the risk of being singled out if you admit your struggles and shortcomings in any specific way. Most who attend church admit to being sinners, but anything beyond this generic confession is difficult for most of us. Why is this so true? There are certainly stories we can tell where this isn't true, but they are the exception to the rule. Maybe it's just human nature to protect ourselves from what others may think. Maybe church is no different from any other social setting where people are cautious about revealing their struggles and pain. But, and here's my point, is that the way it should be or should the church be actively working to be different?

Friday, October 06, 2006

I did it myself

Last night I put the finishing touches on my new website design and published it to the world. I did it myself. I designed the site, built the links, uploaded the files, transferred it to the server and published a functional website that anyone can see and use. It took me a total of about ten hours and it's not nearly as flashy as a professional web designer might have come up with. But, I did it myself. A couple of times I called for help, I read tutorials online and I went to message boards to read answers to questions other people have asked about the same topics. I did all this, not to become an expert or to develop a skill I can offer to others, I did it because for the past year I've been waiting for my professional web designer to return my calls and fix the previous version of my website. And he never got around to me.

That's right. It took me ten hours to do something on my own that I've been waiting for over a year for someone else to do. I've gained a little more appreciation for the average church-going Christian. It was always so frustrating when I worked in the church that people would wait around for the pastor or another staff member to do something they were totally capable of doing themselves. We have become such a dependent culture, relying on experts to do even the most mundane things for us. It's gotten so bad that there are now companies built around decorating houses for Christmas and other holidays! Yes, you can now hire a professional to hang your Christmas lights and put fake reindeer in your front yard. There's not room to analyze all of this but, as far as church is concerned, here's a thought.

It's human nature to let someone else do things that are hard, intimidating, frustrating, time consuming, uncomfortable, unfamiliar, etc. When it comes to faith, religion, scripture and the mysteries of God there are very few people who feel equipped to deal with it. Along comes organized religion setting up schools to train experts. We build buildings, establish systems and install professionals to "run" the church. Over time we turn relationship into religion and let people off the hook for having to wrestle with the challenging intricacies of being in relationships with each other and with God. Eventually they come to us for every little thing, convinced that they can't truly understand anything without our help. While, on the surface, that frustrates those of us who are the experts, deep down inside we're happy with the way things are going and more than a little satisfied that "our flock" is so dependent on us. Let's face it, if we weren't we'd work harder to change it!

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Long Winded

This post starts with two disclaimers that you'll understand better once you've read the whole thing. First, I like our pastor. We've only been at this church a year and I haven't spent lots of time with him, but he seems to be a nice guy with a good heart who's a genuine follower of Jesus. Second, I really enjoy preaching. Much of my adult life was spent working in the church and every chance I got to get in front of a group of people and talk was fun...for me.

With that out of the way, let's talk about how ineffective the traditional sermon is. This is a topic I've blogged about before but worth mentioning again since hundreds of thousands of pastors will be doing it again this weekend. And it will be fun...for them. I was going to write about this Monday, but I didn't get around to blogging Monday. Ironically Seth Godin, one of my favorite bloggers, did and kind of stole my thunder. Apparently the sermon isn't the only "long talk" communication form that doesn't work anymore. Here's a snippet from his blog for those that don't want to read the whole thing:

Here’s my point: In our scan and skip world, in a world where technology makes it obvious that we can treat different people differently, how can we possibly justify teaching via a speech?

Speech is both linear and unpaceable. You can’t skip around and you can’t speed it up. When the speaker covers something you know, you are bored. When he quickly covers something you don’t understand, you are lost.

Our pastor said some good things on Sunday. It took him forty minutes to say them and he repeated his points in different ways a few times. I agreed with everything he said, though I couldn't tell you exactly what it was he said only three days later. During the message I looked around the room at the 300 or so folks sitting passively, facing forward and wondered why they were there. There are few places in our world today where people go and sit in front of a single speaker for a long speech voluntarily. School is mandatory, and increasingly ineffective.

The more we learn about how people learn and engage, the more we are coming to understand that sermons are about the least effective method we could use. If the goal of the church is to show Christ to a dying world, one person just talking about him and his teaching incessantly on a weekly basis seems like the worst possible way to accomplish this. But, in our culture, it is still the most recognizable form to both church goers and non-church goers alike. Unfortunately the latter of those two groups is the one that's growing most rapidly. I'll finish with a bit more from Seth:

If marketing is the art of spreading ideas, then teaching is a kind of marketing. And teaching to groups verbally is broken, perhaps beyond repair. Consumers of information won’t stand for it. We’re learning less every time we are confronted with this technique, because we’ve been spoiled by the remote control and the web.

If it’s worth teaching, it’s worth teaching well. If it’s worth investing the time of 30 or 230 or 3330 people, then it’s worth investing the effort to actually figure out how to get the message across. School is broken. Legislative politics are broken. Linear is broken.


Tuesday, October 03, 2006


This morning I'm rethinking the name of my blog. What could be safer than a little Amish schoolhouse surrounded by acres and acres of open fields under a gorgeous blue Pennsylvania sky? What could be more dangerous than a deranged maniac deeply wounded in childhood carrying loaded weapons? What could be safer than a school nestled in a winding mountain pass? What could be more dangerous than a lunatic bent on molesting girls and self-destruction?

I began my career as a grade school teacher and spent most of my life in youth ministry. I can remember where I was the day of the Columbine shootings (and it wasn't anywhere near Colorado) just as clearly as I remember 9/11/01. I'm deeply troubled by the events of this past week. I feel profoundly sad and incredibly angry and completely impotent. There are no words to offer that can adequately comfort those whose children have been viciously ripped from their lives. There's no way to make those school rooms feel safe again.

If one can be more troubling than the other, it would be yesterday's attack at the one room Amish schoolhouse. These are people who've set themselves apart from the culture. Their deep faith and the practice of it, means living in peace with all around them, eschewing modern day trappings and steeping their children in family values driven by God's word. None of that exempted them from living in the real world yesterday. I'm struck by a photo of two aging bearded men staring into the sky as helicopters whisked away their mortally wounded children. It was as if 2006 made a grim visit to 1806 and neither could quite make sense of it all.

How do Christians interact with a society where madmen shoot our children in the head? Yesterday we learned you can't remove yourself and know with certainty that you're safe. So, what now?

Friday, September 29, 2006


A recent denominational publication carried the annual statistical report. Just like every year for more than a decade, more like two or three, the numbers show declining membership. That's over twenty years of continuous, steady decline. This issue of the newspaper also reported the steady drop in contributions to the denominational church body. In urgent response I'm sure they'll commission another study and redouble their efforts to keep doing what hasn't worked for over twenty years.

There's a word people in recovery from addiction use for doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. Insanity. If this is accurate...and I believe it is...most major Christian denominations in the United States today are insane. Of course, if the goal is something other than growth, if they're not interested in adding to the number of people who know and follow Christ, then they should keep doing exactly what they're doing. It's apparently working! But, if stagnation and decline are acceptable, then why count? Some of the staunchest defenders of decline (they'll say they are protecting doctrinal purity, theological accuracy and the traditions of the denomination) will tell you that it's not about the numbers. These were the people in the 1980's and '90's who opposed the "Church Growth Movement", a radical attempt by some churches in the denomination to find out what might work to attract new people to Jesus Christ. If numbers aren't important and being attractive to those who don't know Christ so that you might welcome them into the family doesn't matter, I ask again, why count?

In business ignoring twenty years of steady decline is tantamount to signing your own death warrant. It's a tacit acceptance that your business is a failure and, if you don't make radical changes, it will cease to exist. The same is true for the church. Let's stop spiritualizing failure and start asking the really, really hard questions like, "why are we so completely ineffective in areas that really matter?" When we find answers, and we can find answers, the response cannot be doing more of the same.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

A Second Pull

In my new bathroom (we just moved into our new house) the drawers in the vanity are fake. In the house we rented for a year there really were drawers in the bathroom vanity. We've been in the new house about a month and yesterday I pulled the fake handle on the fake drawer...again...twice. It didn't budge on the first pull but I still gave it a second tug before my brain kicked-in reminding me that I'm in a new place that doesn't have drawers, even though it looks like it does. I was in the bathroom all by myself, but I still felt a little foolish. Why does it take two pulls for me to remember I'm in a new place? Then I thought of the church.

Churches have mastered the second pull. Truth be told, many churches stand at the drawer that isn't really there and pull and pull and pull and pull, pull, pull. It still looks like a drawer so why won't it open? While I hope, eventually, there'll come a time when I'll never even take the first tug on that fake drawer, I'm frustrated with churches that never stop long enough to realize the futility of their pulling. There is a world of people right outside our doors dying to know Jesus. People who need the love, compassion, hope, healing, grace and forgiveness that is found in relationship with him.

Let's admit that there's no longer anything where our drawers used to be. I guess it's okay to fondly remember where the drawers were and even leave the fake fronts and pretty handles. But, for the love of God, let's stop pulling on them as if they were real. Let's go find where the stuff that used to be in the drawers is now!

Monday, September 25, 2006

A Loss of Discipline

It's been over two months since I posted on this blog! I can't believe how quickly time passes. I know that sounds trite and cliche, but it's true. Have you ever been caught unaware of time passing? You know how it happens. You get caught up in one thing or another and, before you know it, weeks or months...even years...have passed. Along with the time you recognize lost opportunities. Big and little chances you missed to contribute, comment, impact or be involved. Up until the summer came I was really enjoying my regular posts to this blog. It was part of a discipline I had developed to get up early, share some thoughts, exercise, journal and get ready for a full day of work. These were good disciplines that were very healthy for me.

The reasons for losing these disciplines are all legitimate. My work gets very busy during the summer and, this past summer, included tons of travel all over the United States. My father-in-law died in the middle of summer with a trip to Chicago for the funeral. Once I got home from all my trips my wife and I closed on our new house and moved in. Three days after that my mother-in-law came to visit and stayed for over two weeks! Do you recognize those as compelling reasons for losing track of disciplines that were so helpful?

Here are some things that are also true. While on the road I always had my laptop with me and often had wireless internet access. When I was home my work day never started before 8 a.m. so I still had this early morning window available to me. Other than the few days when we were moving from our rental into our new home I didn't stay up any later than normal. While it would have taken more work to maintain my discipline of early rising, blogging, exercise and journaling, I could have done it. Is it really discipline if, at the first sign of difficulty, you stop doing it? Once you lose track of doing the right thing it's very hard to get back to it. That's what's happened to so many churches in this country.

I'm certain that nearly every church out there started with lots of energy, enthusiasm and discipline to do the right thing. The founders were bent on sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ and having a profound impact on the communities they served. Today, whether it's been fifteen years or one hundred fifty years, many of those churches have lost the discipline it takes to be healthy members of the body of Christ. All for legitimate reasons, on the face of it. The founding pastor died suddenly; they built beautiful buildings for ministry then were overwhelmed by the day-to-day operations; they grew too fast and didn't manage the growth well; they got burned helping people outside the church and began making policies that were exclusive and protectionist, not all at once, but little by little. Eventually almost every church comes to a place of rest from which they look back and see how much time has passed and how much they've lost. In these moments there is a choice. A church can admit the loss of discipline and do the hard work of reclaiming the passion that was theirs at the beginning or they can cling to all the legitimate reasons why they've come to where they are and remain ineffective, undisciplined and dying.

I'm choosing to get back to my blogging, exercise, journaling and discipline. I may lose it again and have to start back at the beginning. It's hard work, but for me, it's worth it. I'm hoping that every church that find's itself at a time of self-awareness and decision will do the hard work it takes to become truly effective for the sake of Christ...again.

Friday, July 14, 2006


I can't believe how long it's been since my last post. Sorry to leave all of you hanging for so long...see how I assume there are lots of people reading this blog? Anyway, it's the busiest season of the year for me and I've been travelling a lot. Even more than I expected and that was already a lot. Right now I'm in Massachusetts on my way to New Hampshire. Last week I was in Mississippi and I was again reminded just what suckers Christians can be.

I'm not trying to be mean, just honest. In my last post I mentioned my shock at the misappropriation of $1.4 billion hurricane relief dollars. The truth is, I wasn't all that shocked because I know that any time you pour that much money into a place as destroyed and disorganized as the gulf region there are plenty of people waiting to trundle off with wheelbarrows of cash for their own pockets. It's bad enough when that cash is government money (which is really our money, but once the government takes it out of our checks we seem to forget that) but what about the people down there who are ripping off churches? I had the unpleasant experience of meeting some folks in Mississippi who are fleecing well meaning church groups that are just looking for a way to help all those devastated by the hurricanes.

A group of "friends" got together and built a little "camp" and they're renting out space to church groups and others who want to help with the recovery effort. Large and well-known churches, like Willow Creek from South Barrington, Illinois, have sent teams to stay at the camp. The problem is, the leaders of this camp appear to be taking advantage of good-hearted church folk. They promise lodging and food for the fee they charge. However, the lodging is dangerous, with exposed electrical wiring and raw sewage spewing out into an open cesspool just in back of the cabins and much of the food appears to be donated goods that are past the expiration date and stored under a canopy outside in the hot, humid Mississippi summer. While other, legitimate outfits are providing fresh food prepared by paid staff and delivered by reputable food vendors, these bottom-feeders are serving donated food on donated plates relying on the volunteers to provide the labor and they're pocketing tens of thousands of dollars. Much of the money coming from well-meaning churches that don't seem to be demanding an explanation for the treatment they're receiving for what they've paid.

While I'm angry at these ammoral con artists lining their pockets off the misery of the poor souls in the Gulf region, I'm equally upset that churches have continued to go there for nearly ten months without taking any action to stop these people. Why is it that we, as Christians, seem inclined to let people kick us around and take advantage of us? There is nothing Biblical about allowing ourselves to be taken advantage of. The church could stand to grow a little spine when it comes to dealing with the world. There are those who will take all we have to give and laugh all the way to the bank. I'm not saying that Christians shouldn't help others. We should. And in the process we may, occasionally get taken advantage of. It's when we discover those who are willfully taking advantage of us and stealing resources that could be better used in service of those who truly need it that we should stand up and demand accountability. Unfortunately, the church often isn't practiced at asking for accountability from anyone...pastors, members, leaders, etc. so when the time comes to strenuously pursue it, we aren't very good at it. And the world sees us as a bunch of suckers. Maybe we are.

Jesus stormed the temple and demanded accountability from the money changers in the temple who were ripping people off in the name of religion. The practice he attacked had developed around people's need to keep the law. Since the temple in Jerusalem had become the only legitimate place of worship and sacrifice people needed to bring their animal sacrifices there. Bringing animals a long way on pilgrimage was difficult at best. So people would sell their best animals at home, carry the money to Jerusalem, exchange the money at the temple and buy an animal for sacrifice. A good plan until people started taking advantage. The money changers would manipulate the exchange rate so you got less money at the temple than you brought in (money changers have to make a profit). Then, the animal sellers weren't selling the best animals, they were selling blemished and lame animals for sacrifice. In the end the well-meaning folks trying to adhere to God's commands were giving up their best animals, losing money and ultimately offering an inferior sacrifice by the time the whole process was over. This whole process is being repeated in Mississippi...and elsewhere, I'd imagine.

Well-meaning churches following God's command to care for the lost, broken, hurting and homeless, are gathering funds at home, traveling to the Gulf and handing it over to charlatans. Their contribution is diminished by these criminals and I'm angry about that. I'm angry, too, that the church keeps letting it happen. Let's all continue to help, but let's call those who are profiting from this tragedy to account!

Thursday, June 15, 2006

People will

This evening I'm headed to Alaska. This trip is a home repair mission to a little town outside Anchorage. There will be nearly 300 of us spending a week sleeping on floors in a school and fixing the homes of elderly, disabled and disadvantaged people. This is a costly trip for everyone who is attending. Airfare to Alaska, especially in the summer, is ridiculously expensive. Then there is the cost of the mission experience itself. People have spent the better part of the last year preparing to go on this trip. They have raised money, attended meetings, prayed together, and made all the necessary adjustments to their schedules to go. They chose to do all this for the sake of making a difference in the lives of others.

People fascinate me. Given the right motivation or the right invitation people will do all sorts of things. This has contributed to humanity's greatest and most terrible moments. The outpouring of support for tsunami and hurricane victims is one example. And I'm not talking about money. We learned yesterday that money can be diverted and abused. How in the world does $1.4 billion get misappropriated? That's a tangent for another time. No, it's not money but the sacrifice of time and effort. Tens of thousands of people have left their churches and flooded the Gulf region with labor and love to help restore lives. But, on the flip side, we can look to stories like the Jim Jones debacle of the seventies where seemingly normal people followed a madman into the jungle and descended into a paroxysm of suicidal horror. That whole thing started as a fairly mainstream church in Indiana. Then there's David Koresh and Waco in the nineties. People sacrificed their own children in a fiery conflagration believing they were following God's call.

People will do the most outrageous and wonderful things...given the right circumstances. Knowing this, why is it that so many leaders in the church never truly challenge the people in the seats every Sunday to anything more than sitting still and listening attentively for an hour or two? Why don't we trust people to be world changers? And if we do trust them, why aren't we offering more challenges to actually prove it? I know plenty of churches that send mission teams, run homeless shelters, staff crisis pregnancy centers, provide elder care and on and on. I also know that, on average, only about 20% of the people fully engage and accomplish 80% of all this work. One hundred percent of those who were committed to the cause of Jim Jones followed him into the jungles of Guyana. I can't imagine the conditions. One hundred percent of those people drank the kool aid laced with poison. In the end, yes he needed armed guards to keep some of them there. My point is that in the beginning they followed. All of them. If that many people will follow a madman for the sake of evil, don't you think people will follow God fearing, Christ following leaders for the sake of good? I think they will...if we ask.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

True enough

I've heard that banks don't teach tellers how to spot counterfeit bills by showing them counterfeits. Instead they show them real money. Tellers handle real money over and over and over again. They become so familiar with what's genuine that when they encounter a fake it's immediately obvious. The key here is that the tellers handle the money. They experience it on a daily basis.

Along comes The DaVinci Code. Pastors and church leaders all around the world seemed to go into anaphylactic shock over this movie. The danger has passed now that the movie is out and people haven't abandoned church in least there's been no perceptible quickening of the already steady decline most churches are experiencing anyway. Many churches in my town have offered sermons on the movie. In some cases these are multiple week series. There's nothing wrong with confronting a counterfeit. When a bank teller finds one they report it immediately and point out the person who handed it to them to the authorities. We should identify untruth but, more importantly, people who claim to be Christ followers should be so intimately familiar with the truth that they reject counterfeits without needing a three-part sermon series to explain why.

I am concerned about those who don't know Christ, or have thus far rejected him, having one more excuse for avoiding the Christian church. But I wonder if the histrionics of church leaders over this movie don't reveal something deeper. Could it be that some are concerned their core constituency might be deceived? Is there a nagging suspicion that those who come to church week in and week out aren't really equipped to spot the blatant stupidity The DaVinci Code peddles? I'm wondering if the reaction to this movie is a tacit admission by church leaders that they haven't adequately done the job of leading people into a deep and intimate experience of what is true. Maybe it reveals that church leaders doubt the capacity of faithful people to think for themselves.

Whatever the reason for such a vitriolic response, it's curious. I hope the church will examine how it exposes people to truth. I hope we can find new ways to draw people into a personal experience of faith that penetrates their hearts. I look forward to the day when untruth in rejected by all who follow Christ without anyone launching a sermon series to tell them why.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Some encouragement

This blog has been very cathartic for me. I've had the chance to share my opinions, hopes, frustrations and experiences with the Christian church. One side benefit to all this is an increasing boldness to share my thoughts outside of this blog. Writing helps me develop ideas more fully and get a better grasp on what had been nebulous concepts floating around in my head. And I've been getting feedback from folks that is very encouraging.

Last week I had the chance to visit with a pastor who isn't pastoring right at the moment. He's fixing computers. He expects to be back in a church someday. We had a few minutes to reflect on how churches operate and agreed that there is lots of room for improvement. A few weeks ago a woman who participated in the youth ministry at my church years ago wrote a very encouraging note in response to this blog. She shared her frustration with the church and how she longed to be involved with a church all year long that had as much impact as the one week mission trip we took each year. She was thankful to read something that echoed her concerns about the seemingly ineffective way we do church.

I'm encouraged at what seems to be an undercurrent of dissatisfaction. I'm hopeful that this will turn into a groundswell and then a movement. I pray that there is a genuine revival coming that will revolutionize the church. I don't know what this revolution will look like or what the end result will be. I'm happy just knowing it's a possibility because I fear the track the church is on now is leading to oblivion or, at least, irrelevance. And isn't that really one and the same thing?

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Rocky Mountain high

Okay, it's a cliche. But cliches come from somewhere and when you're sitting in the middle of the Rocky Mountains you begin to understand what John Denver was singing about. That's where I am now. Sitting in the middle of the Rocky Mountains. I'm in Estes Park, Colorado at the YMCA of the Rockies. I'm looking out the window at the first few peaks of the Mummy Range and awestruck by God's glorious creation. I am also very hopeful for the church today.

The reason for this visit to the snowcapped environs of Estes Park is the annual training for the Summer Staff of Group Workcamps Foundation. This amazing group of young people come from all over the United States and from a wide variety of Christian denominations. They are preparing to go out across the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Belize this summer to change lives with the love of Jesus. They come from small Christian colleges and large state universities. They are passionate about following Jesus, excited about leading camps for nearly 30,000 teens and their adult leaders, committed to excellence and incredibly adept at building caring relationships. This is the Body of Christ at it's very best. Together they will see nearly 3000 homes repaired, many Vacation Bible School programs run, food banks staffed, nursing home residents visited, city parks cleaned, lawns mowed and love shared.

During the two weeks of training there won't be a single heated debate over being theologically correct. There won't be anyone who rejects another because they differ on this or that doctrinal point. There won't be any separation over dunking or dousing, wine or grape juice, contemporary or traditional worship style. There will be great companionship and a growing community focused on sharing the love of Jesus in ways that many local churches seem to have let slip out of focus. These young people give me hope. Young people have always given me hope. These two weeks remind me that the Body of Christ is just as alive, just as active, just as powerful as ever. And just like so many times in history, the Body of Christ is operating, in large part, outside the constraints of the traditional church. Praise the Lord!

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Addict incubators

Imagine this. You're in your early to mid-twenties. You've spent several years in academic pursuits surrounded by like minded people similar in age. You're invited to lead a group of people who want you to tell them what to do. This position comes with authority, prestige, respect, privilege and reverence...right out of the box...before you even arrive. Your training tells you that you are to remain somewhat distant from the people you lead so as to effectively exercise discipline. You are led to believe, though it may never be said explicitly, that you are God's representative in this community you've been given charge over. You come to believe that your personal struggles must be kept secret from the people you lead so as not to damage their confidence in your ability to lead them. You feel obligated to be an example so that they have something to aspire to.

This is the experience of a vast number of Christian pastors.

The office of pastor comes close to being one of the most perfect incubators for addiction that I've ever seen. The only ones better might be the entertainment industry and major league professional sports. Through the years I've met pastors who were drug addicts, sex addicts and alcoholics. Some of the most spectacular public flame-outs in our culture have been pastors whose addictions have been exposed (think Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart). Why are pastors such a sick lot?

That's a trick question. Pastors are no sicker than you or me. They are human beings stuck in a system that is designed to destroy them. Add to that the fact that people with a history of childhood trauma and struggles are often drawn to the helping professions (counseling, social work, psychology, and ministry). Which is okay if you recognize your own personal struggles and take steps to cope with them. A therapist I greatly admire once told his class that he doesn't allow anyone on the staff of his clinic who isn't in regular personal psychotherapy. In order to be truly helpful to others you must be healthy yourself. Our pastoral training programs encourage just the opposite. At least, they used to. I think some schools are now catching on. But that doesn't help the tens of thousands who've already been sent out to serve an unwitting public. So I'm not slamming pastors, here. I'm trying to save pastors and help the church move closer to being what God intended.

One of my very most favorite quotes from a television show comes from an episode of M*A*S*H. The psychotic Colonel Flagg and Frank are spying on Hawkeye and B.J. When Colonel Potter goes into their tent Flagg turns to Frank and says, "Aha! The fish stinks from the head down!"

Maybe our churches are struggling so mightily because our leaders are terribly unhealthy people. Maybe we've assured that these people will become and remain unhealthy through the training system we've created. Maybe it's time to take a serious look at how we recruit and train our pastors and what we expect from them. Perhaps the church has placed too much faith in pastors when we shouldn't place any faith in them at all. After all, they're only human.

Monday, May 15, 2006


In 1936 Edward VIII of England abdicated his throne. He gave up his rightful place in order to pursue a relationship with a divorced American woman, Wallis Simpson. Within a few years the Christian church in the United States began the process of abdicating their position to President Roosevelt and the U.S. government. Locked in the grip of the Great Depression, Roosevelt came up with the New Deal. This broad social program began the government takeover of the job that God assigned to families and churches.

"True religion is this, that you care for widows and orphans and to keep oneself from being corrupted by the world." James 1:27

I was once offered a job at a church with a school. Some of the teachers at the school were recipients of government food stamps. When confronted about this, one of the elders of the church said, "I'm glad they're taking advantage of that program, that's what it's there for." We don't even think about it anymore, but it's time we did. Over the last 60 years the church has become less and less relevant in the lives of people. Could this be due, in part, to our willing surrender of our genuine responsibilities? I'm wondering how much of our resources, on average, go to help widows and orphans today.

Last night I was watching Extreme Makeover: Home Edition on ABC. It struck me that, while this is a wonderful show, maybe the church is, once again, abdicating its responsibility. This time we're gladly letting Hollywood, Sears and Ty Pennington get all the credit for caring about families in need. In last night's episode the contractor that built the house was a guy who had just built the house the week before! He was tearfully thrilled to be making such a difference in the lives of people and rallied 400 workers to help. It got me to thinking.

What if churches could inspire the contractors, tradespeople, financiers, cooks, seamstresses, babysitters, etc., etc. within their congregations to donate time, materials, services and more for the sake of their neighbors? What if every church went out in their community on a weekly basis and selected a widow or a family and helped them? What if every church committed to at least painting, inside and out, one house each week in their community? How could we reclaim our place in this culture by helping the hurting, hopeless, damaged people all around us? And we should do all this, not to make these people followers of Jesus, but because we already are. I'm not saying we shouldn't tell them who we are and why we're doing what we're doing. I'm saying that we need to stop measuring our success on whether or not the people we help come to faith in Jesus. I'm convinced that if we start to really do what we're called to do, the Holy Spirit will take care of the rest.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Rapid response

We live in a world of immediacy. This is nothing new. The pace of our culture has been accelerating steadily for years. This isn't right or wrong, it's just true. We are finding faster and faster ways to generate information, resources, products and more. The twenty-four hour news cycle has revolutionized how our government operates and we elect our president based primarily on 30 second sound bites. We interact with everything from television shows (American Idol) to outdoor deck suppliers (I designed my own deck on At the same time, most church services are still one to two hours long with a substantial chunk of that time consumed by one person standing in front of everyone else telling them about God and how God wants them to live while they sit passively in their seats. These same church leaders bristle when someone suggests they might not be connecting to the culture in a relevant way.

Jesus Christ is alive, vibrant and engaged in the human experience. That's was. As a Christ follower I believe that Jesus rose from the dead and is alive, active, energetic and extremely relevant to every life on the planet. Here's a little story that illustrates why the church bearing his name doesn't always communicate that message very well. It relates to a specific denomination but applies universally.

The Missouri Synod Lutheran Church has joyfully announced the release of their new hymnal, the Lutheran Service Book (already dubbed LSB by Lutherans who have an aversion to using whole words lest someone understand what they're talking about). Work on this awesome new worship resource started with a mandate from the churches gathered in convention in 1998. That's right, do the math. Eight assemble a worship resource for churches. I'm guessing that much more than half the book is made up of hymns (songs) that have been in Lutheran hymnals since those songs were written 75 to 500 years ago. Do you remember what you were doing in 1998? Does a church that takes eight years to put together one book of songs and liturgies have any hope of connecting with your everyday life? Even more amazing to me is that there are some Lutheran churches that will not adopt this book because they've finally gotten used to the last new hymnal...the one that came out in 1981 (the Lutheran Book of Worship - LBW). Then, of course, there are those congregations that found even that switch too traumatic and continue to keep the 1947 hymnal (The Lutheran Hymnal - TLH) in their pews for weekly use.

Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not against hymnals or liturgies or denominations that publish worship resources to assist churches. (If you've read my blog regularly, you know I have a hard time with the way church is done in general.) I do want to know how a denominational church body in this day and age, serving in this culture, can take eight years to put a book together and ever hope to be seen as relevant. This mainline Christian denomination continues its decades long decline in membership. Operating funds are also declining as people seem to be voting with their feet and their wallets. This isn't about Lutherans. It's a cautionary tale to any church that is wondering why people might be losing interest in them. You may have the most awesome theology, the most accurate understanding of God, the best grasp of scripture and the most doctrinally correct song lyrics but if your method of delivery doesn't connect it just doesn't matter. We must learn to move at the pace of the culture or we will be left behind. The Body of Christ will always be relevant, but if the church keeps going the way it is, expect to see increasingly empty buildings littering the American landscape.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

No more inquisition...sadly

This past week I was out of town on business. This time it was a team of us and one night over dinner the conversation turned to church and religion. Our team leader, knowing I worked in the church for years, asked me a question about the Bible. He was wondering about where the people came from in Nod, the land east of Eden, that Cain went to live with after he killed Abel. I sensed from his tone that he didn't expect much of an answer. Over the course of our conversation that evening another tragedy of the way church is done became clear. The death of inquiry.

In our need to control the dialog about God the church has actually killed it. For way too long now the church has engaged in monologue. It will tell you what is right and true and, should you question it, you will be dealt with severely. You may not agree, but the message has gotten out loud and clear to the masses. Church is not a place where free discourse is welcomed. In the denomination I'm recovering from, for example, anyone who wants to have an open, frank discussion about the possibility of a woman serving as an ordained pastor is burned at the stake. Not literally...not yet, anyway...but figuratively. There are those who treat such conversation as reason enough to "defrock" any clergyman who dares discuss it.

It's no wonder people have stopped reading the Bible. Any sincere questions about what they read, when brought to a church leader, are often met with quick answers and comments that discourage further investigation. This is not right. God is big enough to handle our questions. He can even take our misunderstandings. We've filled our churches with people who have learned, from childhood, that questioning church doctrine, dogma and theology is tantamount to flagrant apostasy. Instead of inviting rigorous and searching inquiry, the church has developed pat answers. We've taught these answers in seminary and sent people out from these seminaries by the thousands to tell all the sheep what the answers are. That means most church leaders don't really think for themselves either because they've already been fed the answers.

A friend of mine, who is a true thinker and digs deeply into the Bible to find truth, often riles up groups of pastors when he talks to them because he takes approaches to scripture that fly in the face of their carefully crafted answers. They want to cast him out of the church for his heretical views. His retort? Study the scripture and share your opinion of what you find there. That often shuts them down because, after all, who wants to go to that much work? All Christ followers should be doing that much work! Dig into scripture. Wrestle with what you read there. Ask hard questions and demand meaningful conversation that doesn't always end in resolution. It is way past time for the inquisition to begin!

Monday, May 01, 2006

Expert advice

A couple my wife and I know from church invited us to dinner last night. There was one other couple invited and the six of us had a nice evening. At some point we got to talking about experts and consultants. It reminded me of a saying I heard years ago that anyone coming from ten miles or more away was an authority and coming from fifty miles or more away made them an expert. We all had a good laugh. The conversation was started when one of our hosts brought in a book she was thinking about reading and my wife commented that I was skeptical about books. She's right. I am skeptical when it comes to books that tell you how to do things "right", or propose some new concept. Ironically, I've often thought about writing just such a book. That's what makes me skeptical.

I've been an "expert" before. The guy who's flown in and presents a workshop or series of workshops. I have writings that have reached a national audience. I've received the phone calls from across the country asking for my advice. It can be very intoxicating. And I'm happy to share my insights and experiences. Unfortunately, people aren't looking for insights and experiences. Often consultants are called in because an organization is struggling and the cry is, "please save us!" An expert is no savior. Usually an expert is just a good communicator who, in many cases, has written a book or an article that gained some attention. Harry Beckwith is a marketing expert who has written several books and in one of them he openly admits that it was an article that became a book that launched his career as a consultant. One of his tips for promoting a company or organization is to have someone write a book. That makes them an expert and gets your company noticed.

There is a whole industry of consultants for churches. I ran across an announcement in an e-mail just this morning about a man who will be speaking in Illinois. He works for a Church Consulting company. A whole company dedicated to helping churches do church better. There's a wonderful Dilbert cartoon with Dogbert announcing that he's becoming a consultant because it appears to be the combination of con and insult, two things he loves to do. I don't mean to besmirch consultants, necessarily, but to point out that the church might do better with a lot fewer consultants and a lot more surrender to God's calling. In my experience, churches that are struggling and in need of a new direction are often led by people who can't or won't make the difficult decisions that change requires. They call in an expert as leverage to get people to do something they can't convince the congregation or it's leadership of on their own. Trouble is, after the expert gets back on a plane the effect of that expert fades and the leader who brought the expert in continues to lack sufficient influence to make any substantial changes. That's okay, though, because in a couple of years another expert will be hired and there are plenty to choose from.

There will always be people who are willing to tell you how to do your job. Doubly happy if you pay them to tell you. In the end, no amount of consultants and advisors can make the tough decisions for a church. Effective ministry involves risks. It will offend some and will cause others to actively come against you. Far too often churches work hard to see that no one is offended and that everyone is comfortable. (Read Mark Buchanan's book for a really good commentary on this.) When comfort and lack of offense doesn't work the experts are called in. Maybe it's time to stop taking men so seriously and start taking God more seriously.

That's my expert opinion.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Not my job

Freddie Prinze, Sr. was a rising young comedian in the 1970's. He had a hit TV show, Chico and the Man, and his catch-phrase that swept the country was, "Eez not my job, man." It's a phrase that could stand a revival among church leaders.

Years ago there was a news story that came across the radio that I'll never forget. A husband and wife team pastored a church in Chicago. One day they got into a heated debate that escalated to a shooting that left one of them dead. The argument? Who had saved more souls in their ministry! I wish I'd been there to answer the debate. Neither one of them had saved any souls. In fact, there is no church leader in the history of the Christian faith who has ever saved a soul. The salvation of every soul is the exclusive domain of Jesus Christ. And the question, who is saved and who isn't can only be answered by God, himself.

Throughout my years of ministry in Christian congregations there were regular occasions when parents implied that my ministry was not saving their children. The not so subtle pressure was being applied to get me to do something to attract their children into church. It was as if they expected my work to overcome years of poor parental role-modeling and centuries of ineffectual church services. They had the idea that church attendance equalled salvation and if I wasn't going to find some way to manipulate their children into the church building then I was as much as damning them to hell. For the most part, I dodged this popular guilt trip.

I'm not so sure everyone in church leadership has been as successful. Far too often we take it upon ourselves to save people. We carry the burden of seeing to it, by every standard we can measure, that the people in our care make it into heaven. There is so much wrong with that thought process that I can't even begin to dissect it. We stand in fear of the millstone passage in scripture. You know the one, it would be better for the person who misleads one of God's children to have a millstone hung around their neck and be thrown into the water. I agree. Those who mislead, on purpose due to lack of integrity or by ignorance due to lack of listening to God, will face consequences. But this verse is not putting the burden of salvation on our shoulders. Our job is to speak the truth as best we understand it. To speak this truth with great compassion, love, grace and humility. To speak this truth in actions far more often than words. We have an obligation not to manipulate those who are weaker in the faith or struggling with the difficulties of this life.

It is my sincere hope that the church stop trying to save people. That's a work that's already been done. Wouldn't it be great if we simply served people, opening the door for us to tell them about what's already been done for them? In my fondest dreams I see a world where every time someone, implicitly or explicitly, asks a follower of Christ to save them they get this simple reply, "Eez not my job, man."

Friday, April 28, 2006

It's elementary...not academic

I've said it before and I'll probably say it again. Church is not an academic institution. Yet churches spend the vast majority of the time people give them in academic pursuits. I know because I'm as guilty as anyone else. Every summer I would take our youth on a mission trip. It was wonderful and powerful. It was faith in action. Lives were changed forever. And we did it one week out of every year. What was I thinking? The other 51 weeks of the year I fell into the trap that nearly every church falls into. I "taught" about Jesus. In my really edgy moments I "taught" others how to "teach" about Jesus. I confess my sin of making church as boring and irrelevant as anybody I'v ranted about on this blog.

When will we learn that people learn by doing. Jesus, himself, sent his followers out to do what they had seen him doing and when he physically removed himself from the scene his charge was to go and do. Yes, he said "teaching everything I have commanded you", but his commands were, follow me, love your enemy, do to others what you would have them do to you, wash one another's feet, serve your neighbor, and all sorts of actions. He taught with stories and actions that demonstrated truth. Then he might say a few words of clarification if the disciples seemed confused. There is a time of preparation for action but eventually there must be a time for action. Jesus prepared complete novices in just three years then set them loose on the world. In some denominations today a total of eight years of academic study is required before you can go out with their stamp of approval to lead the church. And, like Jesus, we send leaders out in droves to do exactly what we've taught them by example. Only our example is deeply flawed.

After four to eight years of academic study in Bible college and/or seminary church leaders do as we've been taught. We herd everyone into rooms and expound on dogma, doctrine and theology. In small groups and large we make faith mostly about right thinking and exhaustive knowledge-gathering. On rare occasions we venture outside our doors to rake a lawn or serve up a bowl of soup. We create "trips of a lifetime" inviting people to go somewhere else in the world for a week or two and have their lives transformed. And they are, by the way. But we rarely seize the opportunity that transformation provides once we get back home. We go back into our classrooms drilling truth, justice and the American way (as understood by scripture) into people's heads. Except what really gets into their heads is that we're boring, irrelevant and disconnected from the realities of their everyday life.

I met a young man who is passionate about sharing Jesus with children. He seems absolutely convinced that the way to do this is to herd them into rooms (attracting them to these rooms with basketball, games and music) and tell them the deep truths about Jesus. I shouldn't be surprised, he went to Bible college. There's a lot more I want to say about this, but I'll save it for another time. For now, I'll leave you with this thought...What if Christians gathered in church every Sunday just long enough to pick up rakes or shovels or food baskets and went out into the community to rake lawns or shovel snow or deliver food? What if we did this every single Sunday of the year except for maybe Christmas and Easter when we would have a celebration? What if we all came back from our Sunday service (takes on a different meaning doesn't it?) and got together in small groups to share what we saw God doing that day? How long would your church be an unknown entity in the community and irrelevant in people's lives if this is how you did church?

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Squidoo Lens

Squidoo is a relatively new kid on the internet block. It's a cool resource that allows anyone to share their expertise on anything with the world. I've been playing around with it for about a month and experienced a few bugs that had to be worked out. As of today, it's running beautifully so I want you to check out my Squidoo lens. I think it's called a lens because it gives you a chance to share how you see the world. It also has tons of room for links, book recommendations, comments and tons more. It's free and it's fun. If you have something you think will advance the conversation I've started with this blog and you want it added to my lens, please let me know.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Starting a new church

Okay, so my last few posts have been pretty strong rants. They say that if you're going to criticize you should offer some options. I've had this idea for a couple of years now so I decided, in addition to my ranting, I would try a solution, as well. First, a story. Years ago I had the chance to catch up with my old grade school teacher and principal, Denny Vierk. I was going on and on about how Christian schools should be done differently. I told him how frustrated I was with the way churches took advantage of teachers in their schools paying poorly and expecting them to sacrifice everything for the sake of the school. He said that the best way for that to happen was for one person to do something. I got the point. Quit whining about what's wrong and do something to make a difference. Those words launched me into action. I ended up getting involved with a group that started a new Christian high school in suburban Chicago. I served as president of the corporation and chairman of the board for several years and we worked to do things differently in hopes of showing the way to others. Nothing goes completely as planned but that's a story for another day.

Today I launched First Church of the Internet. This is my dream of how church in the new millenium can be. A globally connected network of people who are following Jesus or wondering what it might be like to follow Jesus. An agile, responsive body that can mobilize on a moment's notice. A body of believers that isn't saddled with buildings or salaries, boards, committees or meetings. A community tied together by faith and the indwelling of the same Holy Spirit that relies wholly on that Spirit for direction, instruction, passion and compassion. A church that seeks permission from no one for its existence or direction. I'm excited and curious to see where this goes.


I'm going to church today...and I'm not sure why. There will be singing and some announcements. The pastor will share his latest thoughts on what he's been reading in the Bible. I'll see a few people I'm getting to know (I'm new in town) and only see on Sunday mornings. I've gone to church on Sunday mornings for nearly 48 years. That's nearly 2,500 church services. Add in the multiple services I attended when I worked in the church and all the Wednesday evening and special holiday services and I'll bet it's pretty close to 3,000 church services I've been in over the course of my life. Very little has changed. Why is that?

When I was a teenager I serioulsy questioned the relevance of church as it was commonly practiced. Thirty some years later here I am questioning the relevance of church as it's commonly practiced. Go back 100, 200, 300 years and you'll find Sunday morning church where people sing some songs, the pastor talks about what he's been reading in the Bible and you'll visit with people. True, the church used to be central to the community as a whole. There have been times when churches were of some consequence in the neighborhoods where they were located. Some still are. But what, exactly, is the point and purpose of the Sunday morning show? Is it a Biblical mandate that Christ followers flock together for an hour or two on Sunday? I haven't found that anywhere in scripture.

I'm not saying Christ followers shouldn't huddle up on a regular basis. There is a great benefit in coming together as a group. There is the chance for accountability, comfort, challenge and growth. We humans are a feeble minded lot and it's definitely helpful to be with others so we don't forget who's in charge and go wandering off a cliff somewhere. "All we like sheep..." and so forth. I'm just wondering if Sunday morning church is really accomplishing much of value for God or for the world. If our primary public presence is the Sunday church service that has gone on, substantially unchanged, week after week, year after year, decade after decade, millenia after millenia and the church is becoming increasingly irrelevant in the lives of people, isn't there something worth evaluating here?

I see all these new churches cropping up claiming to do church differently. They use clever catch phrases like, "This isn't your parent's church", or "Church for people who don't like church". By and large what that translates to is singing that's a little louder and played by a rock band and when the pastor gets up to share what he's been reading in the Bible this week he's wearing a Hawaiian shirt and Dockers. Oh, and there's a screen with cool graphics and maybe a video clip to help you connect the old stuffy Bible to your complex modern life. Tell me again, how is this different? I'd love it if someone could show me a group of Christ followers who really are doing something different on Sunday morning. If we really worked on it, I'm sure we could come up with something! For now, I've gotta go or I'll be late for church.

Friday, April 21, 2006

A church on every corner

It's been a while since my last post. That's because I've been travelling the last couple of weeks and just didn't take the time to blog. My travels included Jackson, Mississippi, a wonderful little city where I met some very earnest and dedicated people. I met folks who love their neighborhoods and are actively engaged in the process of trying to make a difference. I also ran into a phenomenon I've seen before. In one blighted neighborhood I visited there are 24 churches. Twenty-four! This isn't a total for the city, this is in one neighborhood. In this same neighborhood you'll find street after street of boarded up houses, abandonded shops and lost, crack smoking souls. While I was there the mayor told me that there are 86 properties in that neighborhood alone that he wants torn down.

This isn't the first time I've seen this sort of thing. When I was in the Chicago area I used to take teams into the inner city to help different ministries. One neighborhood we worked in for a couple of seasons had over 100 churches crammed into one square mile of the city. One hundred! I keep repeating the number of churches because it blows my mind that there are that many organizations that claim to represent Christ right in the middle of desperate, hopeless, crime-ridden wastelands and very, very few of them seem to be making a difference. If a church is the gathering place for Christ followers and following Christ means living as he lived yet the neighborhoods filled by these churches are as close as one might come to hell on earth, what, in God's Name, are these churches doing?

Lest you think I'm going to let affluent suburban churches off the hook...I lived and worked near Wheaton, Illinois for many years. Wheaton is where Billy Graham went to college and there you'll find churches on every corner, too. Only these are enormous, multi-million dollar complexes with huge budgets and staff rosters bigger than the entire memberships of some inner-city churches. And I'm not exaggerating, they are right across the streets from each other. In many cases they have little or nothing to do with each other when it comes to sharing in ministry. Worse than that, well over 50% of the population surrounding these behemoths never sets foot in a church...ever!

What is the church doing? There is charitable work, and food pantries, and homeless shelters and overseas missions. There are a lot of good things that churches do from their bunkers. But I am amazed at how little impact the church appears to have on the lives of those just outside the doors of our buildings. I marvel at the number of people who sit in the seats on Sunday morning then do absolutely nothing to truly impact the communities they live in. I'm appalled at the ministers who fight to protect their pensions, their property and their position but won't lift a finger on behalf of the abused, lost and broken people wandering the streets right outside their doors. We are not here to be the guardians of God's truth and the "keepers of right practice". We are the hands and feet of Jesus to a lost and lonely world. What the hell is our problem?

Sunday, April 09, 2006

The final answer

My wife and I saw Spielberg's latest film, Munich, last night. It's a complex bit of work that shows the struggles we humans go through when we take vengeance into our own hands. In the act of bringing retribution to those who were identified as responsible for the horrific events at the '72 Olympics the men assigned the job begin to unravel under the strain of being the instruments of their country's wrath. I walked away more convinced then ever that there will never be a resolution to the conflicts that have raged in the Middle East for thousands of years. There are few things more annoying to human beings than the lack of resolution. That's some of what has caused the church so much trouble through the years.

In my experience people want answers...more...they want resolution, final answers. The catch phrase made popular by Regis Philbin, "Is that your final answer," was alluring, not because of the money behind it, but the promise of finality. For centuries people have been asking church leaders the impossible. They want a final answer.
"Will my son, who committed suicide, go to heaven?"
"Is my Jewish grandfather saved?"
"Does God love homosexuals?"
"Can my infant be in heaven if she wasn't baptized?"
"Will I see my pet dog in heaven?"

Unfortunately far too many church leaders have fallen for these trick questions. The question behind these questions is, "Can you give me a final answer?" With all the bravado that comes from believing you are God's earthly stand-in, Christians have confidently answerd, "Yes! I can give you a final answer." That's a lie. These requests fall into the category I call God Questions. Meaning that the only true and final answer is God's to give, not ours. With a genuinely compassionate desire to help, we've usurped God's authority and claimed it as our own. Along the way we've misrepresented, offended and generally made the whole situation worse. It's as if those who are leaders in the church lack the capacity, genetically, to say, "I don't know, that's a God thing and I'm wrestling with that just like you."

In "Munich" there comes a point where it's obvious that there are people waiting in the wings to replace every person killed in retaliation for the Olympic massacre. When the hunters come to find out they are also being hunted, the futility of it all becomes starkly apparent. There's a reason God claims vengeance as his. When God exercises retribution there can be no argument. When God gives the final answer there are no competing choices. It is beyond the church's scope of responsibility to decide who is saved and who is not. It is enough for the church to speak the truth as they understand it based on our limited human capacity to grasp the word of God and, beyond that, God Himself. Far more important than answers is serving with love. The church must resist the temptation to answer questions only God can answer no matter how plaintively they are asked. If I can go to four different churches with the same question and get four different answers, are any of those answers final? Perhaps the world would take the church more seriously if it put away the crystal balls and academician's robes and donned some work gloves and a sturdy pair of steel-toed boots. There are many who are doing just that and, in my opinion, many more need to follow.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Truth in advertising

US Bank touts itself as providing "Five Star Customer Service Guaranteed". In the past few days I had the chance to test this claim and, I must say, they failed miserably. They assessed overdraft fees that amounted to over 1300% of the overdraft amount then refused to recognize that this might be a bit excessive. Along the way every "customer service" person claimed they weren't able to do anything about it. The truth is they weren't willing to offer any compromise, help in any way or even enter into any meaningful dialogue. Their rules are inviolable. No one in our family will ever darken the door of a US Bank facility again. But it got me to thinking...

The church sort of works like this sometimes. Churches talk about the love of Jesus and the hope of salvation. They tell wonderful stories about Jesus rescuing people who are lost and broken. Then along come people who believe the press releases. Broken, lonely, confused, hurting people decide to give God a chance by going to the place that claims to know him. In many cases these people actually find the comfort and hope that is promised. Just as, I'm sure, there are some US Bank customers who are satisfied they're getting "Five Star Service". But far too often those who are truly in need of the love and compassion of Jesus bump into the rules of the church. They are told that the church is "unable" to accept them unless they meet certain criteria. And the rules are fickle. For example, if you struggle with sexual issues you will, most probably, burn in hell. However, if gluttony is your thing the church has a pot-luck this afternoon and you're welcome to come.

The problem with representing God as a set of rules that must not be broken gives people the notion that there are those God accepts and those he rejects. God doesn't reject anyone. Jesus died for everyone so that they might know love, compassion, hope and freedom. God does reject sin and here in lies the great paradox. God declares that all people are sinners but that all are saved. How in the world does the church communicate this? Not always very well, I'm afraid.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Shining moments

A liitle girl from our church died last week. She was eight years old. She'd had heart trouble since birth and it just gave out on the playground one day. Yesterday, during our regular church service, our pastor talked about life and death and Sasha. This happens at churches. When the rhythms of life are jolted by something that seems out of sync with what we expect it causes most any human being or gathering of human beings to pause and consider the truth of our fragile existence. Near the end of the service a remarkable thing happened. Our pastor invited anyone who wanted to gather around the family while he prayed for God's comfort. Instantly people rose to their feet as if one body and made their way to the family. I wish I could have had an arial view. A grieving family at the center of a mass of people. This was a shining moment.

It's moments like this when I get a glimpse of what church could be all the time, a body that moves as one to comfort, serve, love and respond to the challenges we human beings face. The aftermath of the hurricanes in the Gulf Coast is another example of a shining moment. You'll never hear about it on the news, but there is a continuous flow of Christians that has been in the gulf region non-stop since the devastation. Without regard for denomination, worship practice or even any Christian faith at all, the Body is surrounding the hurting and lost. Homes are being restored and lives are being rebuilt by total strangers who are doing it simply because they are driven by compassion that is informed by their faith. And the church is the gathering place for supplies, materials, money, people and prayer.

A friend of mine heads an organization that responds immediately to the needs of others. Growing out of an intense study of the Bible, he has revived a fundraising organization into a service organism. His agency makes it possible for people to pour out all kinds of resources for the aid and comfort of individuals, families and whole communities. Just last night storms swept across the Midwest. Within the next twenty-four hours I expect to see my friend, Tim, making help and opportunities to help available to anyone who wants to join. This will be in addition to ongoing help for hurricane victims, an update on a woman with cancer who got housing and support for her very expensive treatments in Chicago, the latest on a family that just got a car donated to help them and on and on it goes.

I sometimes wonder why it takes hurricanes and dead little girls for the church to circle-up and be what it was meant to be. Maybe this isn't a church thing, maybe it's just being human. Does anyone remember how unified our whole country was for a few weeks after the attackes of 9/11? I remember being at a public high school football game where prayer was offered and everyone sang "God Bless America" the Friday after the attack. But if it's just human nature to rally when times are tough, what makes the church different? Maybe the church exists to be that caring and united all the time. What would it look like if the church shined for more than just moments?

Saturday, April 01, 2006


I'll explain in a minute. Before the Reformation there weren't a whole lot of choices when it came to church. The monolithic Holy Roman Catholic Church held control over much of the world. The church decided that Brazil would speak Portugese. (It's true, ask and I'll tell you.) As for God's word, it was in Latin and, if a local church even had a copy it was chained to a table and inaccessible to the common man. This gave the church leaders incredible control over the people. They spoke for God and kept his word a mystery only they could interpret.

All at the same time along comes Luther, Calvin, the Wesleys and Gutenberg. Four guys with access to the Bible and one guy who figured out a way to mass produce copies. Luther did the unthinkable. He translated scripture into the language of the people and declared that they should read it and think for themselves. He encouraged fathers to teach their children and families to gather around the word. He talked about a "Priesthood of all believers" and the Holy Roman Catholic Church lost control, literally and figuratively. They hunted Luther down and tried to have him killed. They didn't succeed, but even if they had the damage was done. The people had access to the Word of God without having to go through the church to get it. An explosive movement of faith followed. Along with it came all sorts of misunderstanding, heresy and false teaching. The church lost control of the body and some messes were made.

That's what incontinence is. When you lose control of your body and it makes messes that embarrass you. Today there are churches all over the place that are trying to keep people from embarrassing the Body of Christ. In so doing they work to exert control over what people think and do in regard to their faith. Much like the Holy Roman Catholic Church before the Reformers, major Christian denominations work hard to manage Biblical understanding. Many mainline Christian denominations have a process one must go through before being qualified, certified or ordained to lead people in the church. Most of this training has to do with being steeped in that denominations doctrine, dogma and theology.

Please don't get me wrong. I have nothing against people learning or the development of systems for preparing people to lead within your organization. I'm not advocating for anarchy in the church where there is no order or control. That's not Biblical. However, it's time to point out to those who consider themselves leaders in the church that their sense of control is an illusion. Much like the printing press, technology, in ever increasing ways, is taking control out of the hands of a few and putting it in the hands of the many. Advancing from print into radio, then television, the masses have had access to any number of theological viewpoints. The understanding of an average person sitting in the seats on a Sunday morning is a compilation of what their church teaches, the Joel Osteen book they just read, the Focus on the Family radio program they heard on Wednesday, what Pat Robertson said on the 700 Club Friday afternoon and whatever devotional book they're currently reading during morning quiet time. Then along comes the internet!

Now any crackpot with an opinion about God can broadcast it to the world for free (like I'm doing right now). Well meaning Christians who are wrestling with who God is and what it means to follow Jesus can now wrestle publicly. Self-righteous fiery evangelists can go into chat rooms and rail against the heathen in God's name. The Body of Christ has nearly unlimited opportunities to make embarrassing messes in public and there is nothing church leaders can do about it. So are we finally at a point in human history where we must fully and completely rely on the Holy Spirit? In other words, since I can't possibly control the flow of information and conversation about God, faith and following Jesus, maybe it's time to acknowledge that I was never really in control of anything in the first place.

Once the church can get to that point perhaps the question, "What should we do now?" will be seriously asked. How do churches interact with Body of Christ in this post-modern age? How does the traditional church model function in this strange new world where I have the potential to reach more people with this one blog post than Billy Graham reached in his entire ministry career? Here's a hint. I don't think it's about becoming more competitive. I think it's about becoming more engaging. More later...

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Form and function

The reason a place exists generally drives how it functions. For example, if it's my intention to manufacture widgets my building might have some office space up front with cubicles for my widget designers, sales force and my office from which I run my widget empire. In the back there will be a large space with widget building machinery, stockrooms for widget parts and a shipping bay from which my widgets are shipped worldwide. My operation would be in an industrial park near a lot of other places that looked like mine. If I am providing financial consulting services to wealthy clients my building will be in a different part of town. My office would be elegantly appointed with a large mahogany desk, leather chair and an array of computers tracking all the latest financial information. Here I would want my clients to feel comfortable that I could make their financial dreams come true. Different function, different form.

What does this have to do with church? When you misunderstand your function it's reflected in your form. I'm a big fan of Seth Godin. His genius is in marketing and his observations are incredibly insightful. He comments on businesses that misunderstand why they exist. It's my contention that, by and large, churches misunderstand why they exist. The function of the church is to be the body of Christ. Ask almost any Christian and they'll tell you that. It's reflexive, almost like flinching when a bug flies in your face. Christians have even written songs about it. A body is an organism. A living, breathing, active thing. Why is it, then, that most churches seem to be laying inert? Nearly every mainline Christian denomination in America is in decline. Some in steep decline. I think it may be that the church has created forms that don't fit its true function. Somewhere along the way churches became synagogues and that's when the wheels started coming off.

Synagogues were invented in Babylon. It's true! Round about 687 B.C.E. the Babylonians, empowered by God, inflicted his discipline on the people of the southern kingdom of Judah. Jerusalem was leveled and those who survived the attacks were carted off to live in Babylon for about 70 years. The Israelites, stunned by their reversal of fortune, started to gather and discuss what had happened to them. Believing that the only true place to worship God was in the Temple and only in Jerusalem, they had no "house of worship". Instead they created meeting places called synagogues. Here they gathered to have exhaustive discussions on what went wrong, how to do it right should they ever get the chance to try again, who should be invited into their club and who should be excluded. They developed an incredibly complex set of rules and regulations to insure that, once the Temple was restored, nothing like this would ever happen again. They read scripture, sang songs, listened to the learned ones and decided who was right and who was wrong. Sound familiar?

Jesus came along and told these folks that they misunderstood their function. They called on God and used his name in a variety of ways but did not know him. They missed the point of relationship with him. Jesus set things right and gave the body definition and purpose. He called people to follow him then he served. He went to the needy, poor, lame, blind, rejected and outcast. He irritated the religious by going against all the carefully developed rules they had been figuring out since the good old days in Babylon. Jesus "repurposed" believers and sent them out to serve the world. Somehow, along the way, these believers started building synagogues. Once this form became entrenched it wasn't too long before function started to follow. Today we have institutionalized religion. People spend an inordinate amount of time sitting around listening to learned folks and arguing over who's right, who's wrong, who's in, who's out and how do we keep the rules so God is happy with us.

Maybe it's time for the church to ask if it's function is really best served by mult-million dollar building complexes sitting on plots of land all over town. If a body is meant to be active and effective, able to move quickly as the head gives it signals, maybe having buildings, property and a mortgage isn't the best form. Imagine if all Christians came out of their synagogues and started to see each other as part of the same body. What might the church look like if the forms it used really fit the function it was meant for?

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Heretics, witches and marshmallows

Light a fire, somebody's gotta burn. There's no doubt that there are places in the Bible where false teaching and untruth was confronted. In every case, whether a warning to those listening or to those speaking, the consequence of false teaching was having to deal with God. Then the religious stepped in. Religious folks, for some reason or another, decided that God needed protecting from false teaching and misunderstanding. This is a dangerous, slippery slope and, this morning, I'm thinking it may be one of the reasons that church is so screwed up. I'm not denying that there are some pretty harsh punishments listed in scripture for misbehavior. But those are pretty much reserved for heinous crimes like murder, adultery and disrespecting your parents.

Labeling someone a heretic, a witch or a pagan and burning, boiling, flaying, drawing, quartering or drowning them (not enough room to list all the fun we've had with heretics, witches and pagans) is a sport developed by the church years after it was co-opted by Constantine. It's popularity has made quite an impression on human history and has often drowned out the still quiet voice that said "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." Maybe, after a careful review of the original languages, scholars discovered Jesus really said, "boil and flay your enemies and draw, quarter and drown those who persecute you," and I just lack sufficient scholarship to share an opinion with the world at large.

This little rant is driven by my personal exhaustion with all those saintly folks who have appointed themselves the guardians of truth at the door to God's throne room. The emergent church movement and a few who have gained some attention because of it are the latest inquirers who have stirred an inquisition. Rob Bell has written a book that has people calling him a heretic and dangerous. It consistently amazes me how many people out there resort to name calling, labeling and ostracizing instead of engaging in good, healthy conversation. Does Rob have it all right? No, I'm the only one who has all the right answers (just kidding). No human being ever has, nor ever will get their mind wrapped around God. Based on my understanding of scripture, the church was not formed to protect God from people who are trying to sort out who God is. The church was not formed as a teaching/scholarly institution (remind me to post more on how we've turned churches into synagogues). In fact, the Bible actually says that in the latter days (translate nowadays) there will no longer be a need to teach each other because the Holy Spirit will be poured out and he'll do a much better job of exposing God to people and people to God than we could ever do. It's true, look it up, and I'm not giving you chapter and verse because Biblical literacy has to start somewhere and I'm not spoon feeding you. The church is, at its very root, a service organization.

So am I saying all the people who disagree with Rob should shut-up? NO! I'm saying let's all relax and, when we're not out serving the lost, lonely, broken, hurting, homeless, imprisoned and rejected people of the world we can throw on our comfy sweaters and house slippers, sit 'round the fire and have friendly conversations about what we learned about God today. And if we should wholeheartedly disagree with one of our fellows on this journey...the fire's right there...but seriously, we sort it out and gently correct what might be wrong. At the same time we are fully willing to be gently corrected when our understanding wanders off point. (Note to some: disemboweling is not considered gentle.)

I think the whole world would be much more receptive to the love of Jesus if his followers weren't so vitriolic...but, hey, maybe I'm a heretic.