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...