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.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Old friends

I just got back from seeing Michael Bridges and George Baum, collectively known as Lost and Found. The play a deleriously fast style of music with amazing lyrics and a powerful message all wrapped up in fun and wonderful crowd interaction. You can buy their music online, but you won't appreciate it until you see them in person. They've been playing together for almost thirty years. When I was working in the church our youth group hosted them in for concerts a couple of times. They were, and still are, gracious, accommodating, kind and warm. They've been playing together since they were about 14 years old. They reminded me, again, that there are good Christian people out there with servant hearts who don't get too concerned about all the politics of church. They love the Lord, follow Jesus and tell everyone the simple truth. We are lost but found, sinners and saints. None of us have a corner on being right and all of us are forgiven and accepted by God. Isn't it about time we shared all that love and acceptance with everybody. I went to the concert with my good friend Doc who also has a long history of working in the church. To this day we still marvel at how petty and selfish Christians can be and we both found refreshment in the music, the energy, the love and the Spirit that was oozing out of Michael and George tonight. It makes me sad to think that kind of joy is the exception rather than the rule for so many people who will show up at church tomorrow morning.

This is NOT church bashing

Let me start this blog with a disclaimer. This is not a church-bashing blog. I'm a follower of Jesus Christ and served full-time in his church for nearly my entire adult life. It's that "insider" perspective that drives my passion to share the real truth about the church warts and all. There's an inside joke that you'll hear among the most dedicated churchgoers. "The church is the only place that shoots its wounded!" In church everyone's wounded. Some find healing, some find a place on a board or committee. There are many travesties inflicted on the human experience by church people. This blog is not, necessarily, an apology for that, though I may at times try. I've even toyed with the idea of writing a book about this. I've got a few chapters you can read at my Squidoo lens if you're interested. If you do read what I've written I'd love to hear what you think.

The Christian church is in the early stages of a cataclysmic revolution. The wrestling match is very well explained by Brian McLaren in A Generous Orthodoxy. Just the subtitle should give you a little idea what I'm talking about. A good friend of mine has a blog that also reflects the struggle of the next generation of Christians about faith and church and stuff. In fact there are a lot of great new voices engaged in the conversation about what church is, what it should be and what it will take to move forward.

I'm adding my voice to the fray. My contribution will be random thoughts, comments, rants and, every once in a while, an outright challenge to the status quo. I'm convinced that there is no human being who has everything exactly right. There is absolute truth, but no church has found it in its entirety and I don't believe any church ever will. Let's keep talking.