Monday, October 30, 2006

I Insist

Read "Velvet Elvis" by Rob Bell.

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?