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.