Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Quick Clarification

Having reread my post of yesterday I realize that I did not clearly indicate that the pastors are preaching that faith in Jesus Christ is our sole hope for salvation. Further, this faith is not anything we can acquire by our own effort. Salvation is our by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. So, they preach that, apart from God, we are hopelessly lost sinners unable to earn God's favor by our own effort or understanding. All of these things I wholeheartedly agree with. However, I believe that we're saved for a reason. God does expect us to be active and effective. Encouragement...even urging from the pulpit for people to examine their lives to see if the faith they proclaim is showing itself in their daily lives isn't a bad thing. It's okay to celebrate all that Christians gathered in community can accomplish with the gifts God gives them.

My experience is that these New Pharisees present themselves as the protectors of truth and, out of concern to not mislead people into believing they must work for salvation, communicate that the people in the pews have no responsibility to exercise their faith in real, tangible ways that can be measured or seen by others. That leads to churches full of people who have a strong grasp of right doctrine, believe their pastors are beyond reproach, think that getting baptized and taking communion from an ordained clergyman is all that's necessary to strengthen faith and ensure salvation and pretty much keep their faith from ever intruding on how they actually live their lives day to day.

I know this isn't the intention of the pastors. But it would be nice if they could see this "hidden curriculum" lurking behind their good intentions and consider there might be other approaches. However, the Pharisees never were much good at taking constructive criticism and considering where they may have misunderstood what God actually wanted from them. The New Pharisees may struggle with the same myopia.

Monday, September 08, 2008

New Pharisees

It's been a long and very busy summer. Enjoyable but quite hectic. Late in the summer I stumbled on this website. It's a place where a relatively small group of Lutheran pastors share their opinions on what's wrong with the Lutheran Church. Particularly the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. They seem to be relatively intelligent fellows. Some of them even hold doctorates.

They hold to a system of belief that, as far as I can tell, dictates that there are certain functions within the church that can only ever be performed by the ordained clergy. They contend that the primary...and perhaps...only role of the church is to preach the Word of God and administer the Sacraments (in protestant understanding those would be baptism and Holy Communion). If these two things are properly done, they insist, the people in the seats will become virtuous doers of good deeds, keepers of the truth, beacons of light in their communities, etc. All without ever being encouraged from the pulpit to actually do anything. Why not encourage, you might ask?

Good question. As far as I can tell they're extremely concerned that someone knowingly doing a good deed or being invited to do good deeds by the pastor might somehow stumble into thinking this is necessary for salvation. If you start thinking your work somehow saves you then you diminish the work of Christ. If you add to the work of Christ you demean it making it worthless. If you start thinking you're responsible for your own salvation you are, by extension, rejecting the salvation of Christ thereby condemning yourself to hell.

To avoid such dire consequences these good hearted men are happy to preach strong, deep theologically accurate sermons in the midst of services full of organ music and choir anthems (sung from behind you in the balcony lest any person should be seeking glory), and follow ancient liturgies pulled directly from Scripture. This is done in ways that are, as much as they're able, kept culturally irrelevant and completely disconnected from the reality of people's day to day lives. Wouldn't want anything secular polluting the sacred. The result of all this is the sanctification of people who, based on my experience, never quite make the connection between what happens on Sunday morning and the lives they live the other six days of the week. They are, however, encouraged that their salvation is secure without any effort or expectation on their part.

All of this is built on the notion that the men in the pulpit's have it all exactly right. They argue that they are the keepers of the Keys to the Kingdom and as such they must rightly preach a balance of Law and Gospel. They must exercise spiritual discipline over their flock. This assumes their knowledge of scripture is infallible. Now, I agree that the Word of God is infallible. I believe the Lutheran Confessions are quite an excellent human exposition of scriptural truth. But I don't agree that the men who have been ordained by a human institution built on the 500 year old teachings of another sinful human and explained by countless other human beings are infallible. I think there's room for discussion.

I see very little invitation for spirited discussion among these men. Instead there is an awful lot of finger pointing, belittling, accusation and hostility toward anyone who fails to agree 100% with their point of view. And a lot of demands that you seriously read scripture to deal with your ignorance of the truth. So, it occurs to me that these men insisting that the truth as they espouse it is the only truth, the sacraments as they bless and distribute them are the only legitimate sacraments and salvation on the narrow path they designate is the only true way to heaven are really nothing more than modern day Pharisees.

While decrying legalism and pietism (the idea that you have to follow a strict code of behavior to please God and assure salvation) these men passionately embrace a system that puts them completely in charge and condemns anyone who doesn't buy their approach lock, stock and barrel. How is that a demonstration of grace and where is the admission that they might, now and again, be dead wrong about something...or lots of things? Maybe someone can help me understand.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Into Battle

The ministry I work for is about to send over 100 19-24 year old college students out across the U.S., Canada, Puerto Rico, Belize and Peru where they'll lead mission experiences for junior high and high school students and their adult leaders all summer long. They are a wonderful group of people who are energetic, idealistic, enthusiastic and amazingly faithful Christ followers. As we prepare them for all the details there is one caution that is oft repeated. Be ready to be mistreated by church people. Often they're shocked to hear this warning but those who are veterans of previous summers confirm it.

The most difficult situations these young people will face are often triggered by the Christian adults who chaperon their youth on these trips. Christians who belittle our young leaders for being too young. Christians who angrily insist on getting their own way in the midst of a mission trip. Christians who threaten to quit early and go home with their young people because they're dissatisfied about something. Christians who insist they'll sue our ministry because the experience has disappointed them in some way. Christians who will make some of our enthusiastic and idealistic young people wonder why they would want to associate with Christians if this is how they behave!

I don't expect people who claim to be followers of Christ to be perfect. I do, however, expect them to be civil. I expect common courtesy and polite language and an attempt to understand all sides of a situation. I don't expect Christ followers to always be "nice" (whatever that means), but I do expect them to handle frustrations, disappointments, anger and dissatisfaction with us or anyone they encounter with graciousness that befits someone carrying Christ's name. A quick reading of 1 Corinthians 13 might provide a decent outline for how we who follow Christ should consider behaving in relationship to other people. That's my sincere hope.

For now, though, I'll continue to train these wonderful Christ followers to be prepared for all sorts of misbehavior and mistreatment at the hands of Christians. I've witnessed too much over my years in the church to do otherwise. Still, I hope and pray for the day when those who carry the name of Christ might actually live and look like him!!

Saturday, May 31, 2008


Spending time in the mountains with college students always gets me thinking. It's that time of year again where we train and equip college aged folks to lead mission trips all summer. The energy and idealism of 19 to 25 year-olds is such a breath of fresh air. It's also sobering to be with people who are deeply committed to Christ but quite willing to question and criticize the church. There really is an attitude of genuine concern that much of the church doesn't look much like what they're reading in the Bible.

Last night a bunch of us went out to the movies. Two rode along with me to the theater...about an hour ride one way. On the way back, as we climbed the mountain pass back to our training facility questions came up about the differences between certain Christian denominations. The two were truly uninformed about the issues that separate Christians into these closed systems that often seem hostile to one another. They both expressed great joy at the chance to work for an organization that provides opportunities for interdenominational missions. They've both benefited from working and spending time with other Christians outside their denominational upbringing.

As I shared the differences I was once again struck by just how ridiculous the things we as Christian denominations have chosen to focus on must seem to most people. Frankly, much of it seems ridiculous to me and I worked in one of those denominations for most of my adult life. It gets harder and harder to explain...much less defend...the behavior of denominations, and those who cling to them, to young people who are on fire for Jesus and wishing all of us would get off our doctrinally accurate and theologically sound butts and make some sort of difference in the world. While there is much good that comes out of the church, the damage done by our fractious nature often overshadows, if not obliterates, that good work. At least when it comes to the perception of those who'll have nothing to do with the church they see from the outside.

So, this morning upon waking it dawned on me that, in explaining denominations last night I spent much of the time talking about what we disagree about. Or at least what one group thinks as OPPOSED to another group. That word opposition is what hung me up this morning. Far too often we define ourselves as separate from others by focusing on what we disagree with or what we don't like about them. It's no wonder, then, that we can't work together. If I'm always looking at what I don't like about you or those points where we don't agree I'll never consider working alongside you. I'll never see the great qualities you have or the wonderful gifts you might bring to a relationship.

Here's what might be a dangerous experiment. For one week try focusing on the shortcomings of those you're closest to. Think about all the things you disagree about with your spouse, siblings and relatives. Don't soften or balance your thoughts with how much you might like them or any qualities you admire. Strictly keep your focus on where you differ and what bothers you about them. After one week I'd love to know how your attitude toward your family members has changed. After just one week I'd hazard a guess that there might be some significant damage that might need to be repaired. Not because the people you love are any different, but because you chose...consciously chose...to ignore all that was good and focus on the differences and irritations. Now imagine doing that same thing, not for weeks but for decades, centuries! It's not hard to see why denominations find it so difficult to play nice together.

Isn't it time to shift our focus? For the sake of the body of Christ shouldn't we start finding ways in which we agree? Isn't there a big wide world out there that could benefit immeasurably if this family could truly love, respect and, yes, even cherish each other? I, for one, think it's past time for denominations to get on with collapsing and dying so we can have a big reunion and get busy with what really matters.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Nicely Done

We joined a church here in town about four months ago. It was quite a process for us to finally find a place where we felt we belonged. Last Sunday I dropped a check in the offering plate. It was the first check since we became members. A couple days later I got a letter from the Senior Pastor. It was a delightful letter. It didn't acknowledge the amount of our gift...which leads me to believe that he doesn't even know how much it was. It simply said, "I've asked our treasurer to let me know when someone begins to contribute to our ministry...and I wanted to thank you." There were some other encouraging words about giving and supporting the work of the Lord and the blessings that come from giving.

What impressed me most about this letter is that, having gotten to know the pastor just a little bit, it seemed genuine and heartfelt. He really appreciates people supporting the ministry and goes out of his way to say so. It obviously helps the church but he knows it's an even greater blessing to those who give. He didn't have to say anything about our gift. We don't tithe to get a tax write-off or letters from the pastor. But the letter tells me that he has his head on straight about giving and those who give. He's positive, affirming and encouraging.

Years ago I sat in a church board meeting where people actually suggested that we leave the lights off and not play the organ on Sunday morning to let people know that if they didn't start giving more money we wouldn't be able to pay our electric bill! True story!! That's just one of many plans I've heard through the years from church people who were frustrated that the giving wasn't paying the bills. They missed the point completely that giving isn't about paying bills! Along the way those types of approaches give the impression that the church is desperate for people's money while not caring too very much for the people themselves.

I'm happy to be involved with a church that seems to communicate care for the people and gratitude when those people choose to bless the church financially, as well. It's nice when I get the chance to say to a church...nicely done.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Power of a Pastor

Just when we got to thinking that churches in general and pastors in particular may have lost some influence in our culture along comes Jeremiah Wright. The controversy surrounding what Barack Obama may or may not believe based on whether or not he sat in church every Sunday for the last 20 years listening to inflammatory sermons from Pastor Wright demonstrates, on some level, that people value what pastors have to say...doesn't it? Is this just politics or is it some strange affirmation for pastors that they are in fact people of influence in the lives of people in their communities? I think it's probably a little of both.

It's obviously politics as evidenced in the furor over Obama's candidacy. But if what a pastor said to a potential presidential candidate is that important doesn't it make sense that it's equally important to every other person sitting in the seats around that candidate? Pastor's get the unique opportunity every single week to speak into the lives of hundreds and even thousands of people. We willingly place ourselves in front of men and women who share their perspective on God's word. People we admire and respect. People we take seriously as Biblical scholars and spiritual mentors. In case there are any pastors out there who are discouraged or feeling unimportant I'd say you should be greatly encouraged by this whole Jeremiah Wright controversy.

Coincidentally I got a phone call yesterday from a good friend of mine. He's considering a network marketing opportunity. One of the intriguing parts of the opportunity is the chance to help churches raise funds. He has some familiarity with predominantly black churches in Chicago and he's convinced that if the pastor promotes any idea that the majority of the people will accept it. This is actually an old tactic among network marketers. Get the pastor to sell Amway or Shaklee or anything and you'll get the ear of the entire congregation. I can't tell you how many times I was approached by network marketers back when I was working in the church. People know that the pastor is a person of great influence. Pastors know that they are in a place of great responsibility.

So, if a pastor is worthy of respect and aware of the responsibility why is the church losing its influence in society? Why are congregations shrinking and denominations struggling? Is there something in what pastors are saying that's not being taken seriously anymore? Are there things pastors are not saying, for whatever reason, that they should be saying for the sake of their people and their communities? If we live in a society that still takes pastors as seriously as it appears in light of Jeremiah Wright what does that mean? These are questions I'm not sure I can answer but I sure hope we'll wrestle with them.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Just Visiting

Last Sunday I had the chance to visit a church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida while I was there on business. I chose a church in the denomination I worked in for 22 years. The message was delivered by the vicar (a seminary intern) who appeared to be a second career guy. I imagine his heart's in the right place but the message was very unsettling...and not in a good way.

I think his point was that, in the end, Jesus is the only way and he will triumph. But the way he got to this point was to give some statistics and history on the advance of Islam. He talked about battles and war and the dominance in the world of Muslim thought and political control. I think he was trying to demonstrate the ways in which Christianity has come under attack as a way of addressing concerns people might have so that he could assure all of us that, in the end, Christianity wins. It seemed very militaristic to me. I kept thinking that this kind of war rhetoric didn't seem to sync up with what Christ intended.

Language is so important. The words we use have incredible power. For decades, perhaps centuries, the church bearing Christ's name has used militaristic and war language in ways that are wholly inappropriate. Yes, we are at war. It's a spiritual war, however, not a war against other human beings. Jesus called his followers to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. It seems to me that pointing to Islam in a sermon about who wins in the end makes it much, much harder for Christians to love Muslims. It makes it even more challenging to reach out in loving service to those who are not Christian.

I believe we who follow Christ should be loving, serving and helping fellow human beings regardless of what they think of us, how they treat us, whether or not they ever come to a relationship with Jesus. Our service to other human beings is driven by our love of Jesus and his love for all human beings and should be absolutely unconditional. Expecting someone to come to Jesus, join your church or stop hating you are all conditions!

What would happen if Christian leaders, pastors, preachers and teachers completely abandoned battle and war metaphors? What would happen if all our talk was beneficial, loving, service oriented and encouraging when talking about those who don't believe in Jesus? What if our hearts ached for all mankind, even...maybe especially...those who hate us? I wonder.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

On Being Human

Last week I had the chance to attend the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia. For those who don't know, it's a golf thing. It was due to the very gracious gift of a friend that I was able to be there as it's not something I could ever afford on my own. It was about the best vacation I've ever had. It didn't beat some of the vacations I've had with my family, but as a strictly personal good time I can't remember a better one in my adulthood. Since most of my adulthood was spent working in the church I'm wondering if that had anything to do with it.

Anyway, part of the joy of the week for me was just being around other people and not having any sense of being responsible. By that I mean it wasn't up to me to see that anyone behaved, or had a good time, or stayed with the group...or anything. I was finally able to let go of my need to see that everything went well and everyone got along. I had a good time and I think everyone else did, too. But if they didn't that's not my concern. So, what does this have to do with being human?

One of the people in the group I was with is a pastor of a fairly large and successful church. I'd not met him before and we spent very, very little time talking about church or religion or God stuff. He and I took turns praying at a couple of the meals but that was about the extent of anything that might have looked pastoral. We were just two of the guys in the group having a great time at the Masters. A couple of times I found myself wondering what the members of his church would think if they saw him enjoying himself at the Masters. Now, I'm not implying in any way that he did anything immoral at all. He was just a guy hanging out with friends at a golf tournament. The fact that it occurred to me at all is a reminder of what it's like to be in leadership in a church. Very often pastors are not allowed to be human. An off color joke or enjoying a sophomoric movie or having a drink with friends are all little human pleasures that many pastors deny themselves, at least in public, for fear they might be "found out" by members of their church.

I see this as just one more symptom of what's wrong with the church. So many people come into a church building thinking they need to hide the reality of their lives from those sitting around them. They can't be real in church because they might be rejected. This is a legitimate fear because the church has a track record of villifying folks who dare to honestly share their struggles, shortcomings and basic humanity. Often the pastor is held high above everyone else as the person closest to God in behavior, demeanor and lifestyle. This is a burden no real human being should have to carry. It's a burden other human beings should never put on another person. Many pastors will tell you what an irritation it is when someone who's told an off color joke or used foul language around them then turns around and apologizes as if their tender ears can't bear such offense. People are different around those who work in the church and, frankly, it pisses off a lot of us.

Maybe the church would once again become attractive if everyone was allowed to be human. If we could all loosen up a little and enjoy one anothers company without having to monitor, evaluate, critique and control the church would become a place people want to be because they can be real. Maybe this starts by letting pastors be human.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Here's a Model

Check this church out! It's a new church plant doing what I've been saying churches should be doing. The actual name of the church is The Point is to Serve. What a cool name! I think this is where the church is...or should be...heading. Signs of hope are everywhere.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Declining Church

The latest issue of Rev! Magazine, published by the company where I work, has a cover story on the American Church in crisis. Here is yet more evidence of the changes that are happening in the church. Yesterday our pastor's sermon included some discussion about the difference between following Christ and getting involved in "organized religion". For years I've made no secret of my disdain for organized religion and the damage it's done to the good name of Jesus Christ. In fact, this entire blog has been dedicated to pointing out where the organized church has missed the mark when it comes to faithfully presenting Jesus to the world.

It's in our nature to organize. It could even be argued that it's Biblical that church happen in an orderly fashion. It's no surprise that when people start to organize we start to sort ourselves and, eventually, everyone get's assigned a position. Next thing you know there are desirable and less desirable positions within the organization. The Church is not immune to this very human proclivity. Over time, almost every individual church will turn in on itself and begin existing just for the sake of existing having lost all sense of it's original purpose. There will be leaders bent on protecting the church and it's rules, standards, doctrines and history. These are not bad people...usually...just people who've lost sight of what it means to be a follower of Christ. It doesn't take much from there for the larger church denomination to follow suit. Pretty soon local churches and whole denominations become inbred hotbeds of self-perpetuating dysfunction.

This process seems to take anywhere from 400 to 500 years. From the exile in Babylon to the coming of Christ it was between 400 and 500 years. Jesus confronted a religious system so entrenched and self-protective that they were blind to the fact that he was the chosen Messiah. About 500 years later the church had become entrenched with government. By the 1500's the church, primarily represented by the Roman Catholic denomination once again needed to be confronted with the truth of Jesus and went through a painful reformation.

So, here we are another 500 years into the story and organized religion is in crisis. Once again there are those pointing to the words of Christ and the truth of his ministry to offer correction to the official church...in all it's denominational forms. Those offering alternative thoughts on following Christ are, once again, being demonized and disregarded by the organized, corporate, church. It's not as bloody a battle as the last reformation...at least not yet. But, based on my study and observation, we are in the early days of the new epoch and what is challenging, new, even heretical is most likely laying the foundation for the church that will need reformation 400 years from now, should Christ delay his return. Thanks to Brian McLaren, Donald Miller, Rob Bell and others who are blazing a difficult but necessary trail into the future.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


This morning I woke up in Jamaica and tonight I'm in Puerto Rico where I went to the circus and sat right behind Sigfreid! Yes, that Sigfreid. Anyway, that's not what disturbed me. I just finished Brian McLaren's book "A New Kind of Christian". I love what he's writing and I find myself agreeing with most of it. But it is making me think long and hard about what's happening to the church. It confirms a lot of what I've been seeing and calling the "new reformation". This won't be easy, but there's nothing that will stop the changes that are coming.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Another Perspective

I'm in Costa Rica. It's business and I'm only here for a few days. Last month it was Ecuador and Guatemala. Next week it's Jamaica and Puerto Rico. I have to admit I love my job. Part of what I'm doing is developing future trips for Christians who want to do some volunteer work while on vacation. That means that I'm meeting some wonderful people who are doing incredible things in all these countries. I guess when the need is so glaringly obvious it's hard not to respond to it. It does my heart good to spend time with people who are rescuing children from a life spent on a garbage pile or breaking the cycle of violence and abuse or bringing food, water, electricity and hope to entire neighborhoods. All this good work is being done by Christians and Christian churches. I've noticed something interesting.

Today I met a wonderful group of people from the San Francisco Bay Area of California. They're renovating a house where at risk kids can live in a family setting. It's the fifth year this church has sent teams to Costa Rica. It's the same everywhere I go. There are wonderful American Christians helping provide for those in need in other countries. Because I spent so much time in U.S. churches I can pretty much say that there isn't the same amount of effort going into finding and helping similar kids within blocks of the churches these wonderful people attend. Why is it that, for most U.S. Christians, they need to go outside their own country...at great expense, I might add...to find people to help? Don't get me wrong, I think everyone should get out of the U.S. and experience another perspective on the world. I also think we should put just as much effort and resources into the needs right around our churches and stop pretending that everyone in the U.S. has had the chance to know the love of Jesus first hand and in person.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Old Shoes

This morning I went out running. It's the first time I've run outside since last fall. Most days I workout inside on an elliptical machine. I've had my running shoes for about a year now and I can tell they're about at the end of their useful life. They look fine and the tread is still okay but the way I can tell they need to be replaced is that, after my run this morning, my left knee hurt. When I run in new shoes my joints don't hurt. New shoes are expensive but very worth it. Pretty soon, if I want to successfully continue my training to run a 10k in May I'll have to pay the price for the right equipment. My body stays the same and running hasn't changed since the beginning of time but I need to regularly change my shoes.

Church is like that. The Gospel message hasn't changed in 2000 years. The need of the human race to be rescued from their sin is as pressing now as it's ever been. The tools the church uses to run this race need to be evaluated and replaced when no longer effective. So, here's my question: "How does a church know when they're running in old shoes?"

Wednesday, February 27, 2008


I've teamed up with a 13 year-old boy to write a book on fathering. He's not a father but he's had three different men in his life take on that role. He got excited about this book idea because he really wants his real father to get a clue. So every week on Tuesday night, at least the weeks we're both available, we get together at his house and work on the book. It's becoming less and less about the book each week as he gets more comfortable talking about...well, everything.

More than anything we talk about his future. We talk about God's calling on his life. He asks about how I've experienced God in my life. One night we actually got into the Bible. Not just the Bible but the Old Testament. We were into some heavy theological discussion. It's been a wonderful experience and a great reminder.

Far too often the church plays with middle schoolers. In my experience the Bible is only lightly touched on and much more time is spent on games, activities and recreation. Yet, here's a 13 year-old boy who is hungry...starving...for deep, meaningful conversation about God. About God's word, God's plan for him, God's intentions for his life, discerning God's call. And this isn't an overly studious or religious 13 year-old. He's a self-professed class clown and his parents told me his teachers were shocked to learn he's collaborating on a book. As far as I can tell he's just like most boys his age.

Young people this age and somewhat older need to be taken much more seriously by the church. It's time the church invited all the hard questions and uncomfortable conversations. It's time to dig deep into the Bible with young people and truly equip them for the challenges life is throwing at them. It's time to provide a good, solid steak and potatoes meal because they are hungry!

Monday, February 25, 2008

Buyer Beware

One of the downsides to the rampant religious freedom in this society is that absolutely anyone can call themselves a church. This isn't a rant on Scientology, but that's a "religion" made out of whole cloth by a science fiction writer so, c'mon, how much more proof do you need? So last week when I came across some YouTube videos about the Westboro Baptist Church my first reaction was extreme anger. WBC is the "church" that protests at funerals of soldiers and announces that "God hates fags"! What drew my attention was their announcement that they would protest at funerals and vigils for the slain students at Northern Illinois University. I spent my entire ministry career in Northern Illinois and some of my former youth group kids are still students at that school. The Valentine's Day shooting was very traumatic for me even though none of the kids I know were in that classroom.

So along comes this nut job "church" that primarily consists of "Pastor" Fred Phelps and his progeny calling themselves Christian and spewing hatred and vitriol backed by scripture. They've been denounced by every legitimate Christian organization I can think of, including the real Baptists. They come out of Kansas and make a name for themselves by claiming every human tragedy is somehow God's retribution for our tolerance of homosexuals. It makes me wonder if Fred Phelps is a latent homosexual trying to work out his own salvation by attacking his own kind.

Out of my anger I wanted to heap scripture and tons of righteous condemnation on Westboro Baptist Church. Then I took a breath (or two) and realized that this sad, pathetic man and his highly dysfunctional family aren't really a church. At least not a Christian church. They get to call themselves a church because we live in a country that allows freedom of religion. As a country we don't discriminate when it comes to calling some whacked out idea a church. That makes it all the more important that, as individuals, we are discriminating. Just because someone hangs a shingle out front that says "Church" doesn't mean that what's going on inside is Biblical, God honoring and Christ centered. Even churches that are connected to mainline Christian denominations can stray from the truth. No church is perfect.

The saddest part of all this is that Westboro Baptist Church often makes the news with their shenanigans. The news doesn't distinguish between real, loving, compassionate Christ following Christians and the WBC wackos. We all get lumped together and the non-believer's view of Christians takes another beating. I guess the bottom-line for me is that people know that no single individual, group or "church" is a fair representation of Jesus Christ. If you're looking for a body of believers to connect with be ready for a process that will take time, effort, thought and probably a very large dose of common sense on your part. Not everyone who claims the title Christian actually is...and that's a bit of wisdom straight out of the Bible!

Friday, February 22, 2008


This week I was invited to be part of a task force to launch a new youth ministry connected to our new church. The church has been meeting in our community for about five months and they're ready to get a youth ministry going. I say new insofar as it's new for this church. I say new church insofar as this particular group of people has been meeting in our town only a few months.

I really enjoyed being involved in the task force meeting and it's fun thinking about launching something new. But the truth is, there's nothing new in what we're proposing. It'll be based on relationships developed with current teens from the community. We'll seek their input on how we can effectively reach others their age. We'll strive to be relevant and connected in ways that will open doors for us to share the love of Jesus in meaningful ways with young people. We'll probably use Facebook and texting and tap into a network of connected teens to spread the word about what we're doing. Beyond a few modern techniques there's really nothing new.

That's how it is. Two thousand years ago Jesus sent out his followers to tell a story. It's a simple story. We're separated from our creator who loves us so much he sent his son to restore the connection. Jesus is God's redeemer sent to restore our relationship to him and reconnect us with each other. We are called to love our neighbors, serve the needy, connect with other human beings and walk humbly with God. Apart from the primary relationship with Jesus the rest of this isn't truly possible. We love Jesus and we love others. This isn't new. And it's not complicated.

Has the church, through the years, muddied this simple message to the point it's unrecognizable in the work they're doing now? Do new churches find initial success and energy because they don't have baggage to lug around? Are mainline churches in the U.S. declining because they've added so much to the simple message that they're alienating and confusing people? Do we have to blow up the church and start new every few years just to clean out the attic and shed unnecessary layers? I'm not sure of the answers to any of these questions but in my experience I've never really seen anything that's truly new.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Searching For God Knows What by Donald Miller

Why Join?

I had an interesting conversation with a co-worker yesterday. He attends the same church my wife and I just joined. He's been going there for about three years but he's never joined as a member. I was giving him a hard time inviting him to join my church even though we've only been attending since December. He said something that caught me by surprise. He asked, "What's the point of joining a church"? I'm pretty sure no one's ever asked that before. At least no one's asked me. It wasn't "why should I join your church?" It was more global. Why join any church? It's not like they won't let you in the door if you don't join.

He's absolutely right. I've been in a lot of churches and I've never been asked to show a membership card. But the reason the question caught me so off guard is that I come out of a denominational church where membership played a crucial role. The process of becoming a member included some sort of instruction on the basic doctrines and practices of the denomination in general and that congregation in particular. Our denomination honored congregational autonomy and decisions were made by congregational vote. If you weren't a member you didn't get to vote on the business of the church. In the more conservative congregations within the denomination you weren't allowed to take communion if you weren't a member of that church or a church within the denomination. That's why my half-joking response to my friend's question was that if you didn't join the church couldn't excommunicate you!

Now, all joking aside, ever since yesterday morning I've been thinking about that question..."Why join a church?" There are plenty of churches where you can attend, work as a volunteer, even take communion without signing your name to the membership roles. Part of the membership commitment is the promise to financially support the ministry of the church. But I know plenty of people who are church members but give little or nothing to the ministry. As of right now I'm not sure I have a very clear answer to the question. If you're a Christ follower then you're already a member of the Body of Christ, the Church. You can declare that publicly, worship with fellow Christians and do all that Christ calls you to do and never declare yourself a "member" of a local congregation. So...why join?

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Main Thing

About twelve years ago I worked briefly with a pastor who was fond of saying that we need to keep the main thing the main thing. It's kind of a cute phrase and it certainly sounds good. I mean, who wouldn't want the main thing to be the main thing? The church we joined this weekend actually uses this catch phrase quite prominently. The difference between now and twelve years ago is that the pastor at our new church actually defines what he means when he says the "main thing".

He identified...correctly in my opinion...that for some churches the main thing is right doctrine. For others the main thing is speaking in tongues. And for still others it's adherence to denominational standards. Our pastor makes it clear that the main thing he's talking about is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Word of God and exposing that word is central and drives everything the church does. At least that's what is being said. I'm sure they don't do it perfectly because there's no such thing as perfect in this existence.

Here's the thing about the main thing, being rooted and grounded in the Word is crucial to the healthy life of any church. This does not mean that the pastor is rooted and grounded in the word. It means that there is a passionate concern on the part of every single member of the church to learn, study and grow in their knowledge of scripture. It means that studying God's word isn't an optional activity and it's not a weekly activity. It's a daily pursuit of truth, knowledge and understanding. It's a seeking after the Holy Spirit to reveal, motivate and encourage through study of the word and lively interaction with others who follow Christ.

The sad truth is that right here in the United States our churches are filled with Biblical illiterates. If this sounds harsh, it's meant to be. I would hazard a guess that a majority of the people filling the seats on Sunday morning have only a passing familiarity with the Bible and probably not even that. The confirmation of this isn't the low attendance at Bible studies (although attendance is dramatically lower than for church service). It isn't an exhaustive survey I've done on what people know. No, the indication that people aren't passionately involved in studying God's word is that the church in America is declining. It's that there aren't people out helping the widowed, homeless, naked, imprisoned and orphaned in record numbers.

If church leaders were insisting and people were responding by getting deep into the Word of God there would be an explosion of faith like this country has never seen. Instead we're happy to read three sentences of scripture and hear 20 to 30 minutes of talk about those sentences each week. Here's a simple truth...the Word works if you work the Word. It works in your heart, in your life, in your family and in your community. It works because it is the living breathing power of God for the changing of hearts and minds. If more churches and church leaders stopped promoting the latest flavor of the month inspirational book/video/movie/etc. and started relentlessly promoting the Bible and the study of the Bible at all costs there would be and explosion of love, service and faith that would blow us all away. That's not my opinion. That's the truth.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Things Change and They Don't (part 2)

See! I promised it wouldn't be a year between posts again. My post yesterday went really long so I figured I'd break it into two parts. No need to recap because you can just look below and see what I said in part 1.

So, as we gained some distance from the church and started to dig a little into why it might be that, while the pastor had some great ideas, the congregation didn't seem to buy-in. Let me say first that what I'm about to share may not be the entire reason. I certainly haven't done a complete examination of every area of ministry. However, it seems to me that much of what's going on can be traced...as always...back to the pastor. It's one thing to be able to clearly articulate a vision for ministry. It's another to be able to manage that vision so that it actually has a chance to be realized. It appears that we've been involved with a church that puts on a great show but lacks the structure behind the scenes that could bring success.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that the staff isn't earnest in their beliefs or that the pastor doesn't passionately believe what he says every Sunday. I don't for one second believe there is any deceit going on here. What I do believe is that there has to be a strong, resilient, responsive, accountable structure built in order to support any compelling vision for ministry. One of my primary complaints about the Christian Church through the years is that the pastor and staff of a church are expected to carry the ministry. They teach the Bible studies, attend every meeting, and control much, if not all, of any meaningful ministry. Pastors have accepted and even contributed to this flawed system all the while complaining that none of the membership ever stepped up to help. Biblically the leadership of a church is there primarily to "equip the saints for ministry". This equipping includes giving away large chunks of ministry to the folks in the seats and trusting them to do it.

This is what appeared to be happening at the church we've attended for the last two years. The pastor urged people to take the lead. People were invited regularly to start their own groups on anything that interested them. Those who did went through a brief training and approval process with the pastor and launched their group. The church has an unusually large staff for the number of folks in worship (7 pastoral staff with about 300 in worship weekly). But, what I discovered is that there seems to be very little accountability, structure or support for all those people who want to lead ministry. People in leadership who struggle or may not be capable of leading are not regularly coached or, when necessary, removed from leadership. Ministries aren't exactly promoted from the pulpit and some of the groups that launch never really happen because the people in the seats don't show up.

So here's the dilemma. How do you give away ministry to people in ways that are actually real and empowering? My answer is that the pastoral staff must work at least twice as hard at giving away ministry as they used to doing ministry. The pastor and church staff must hold people accountable, provide in-depth training, regularly and frequently touchbase with those leading ministries, act quickly to remove those who aren't measuring up, coach those with potential, applaud those who get it right and otherwise spend nearly all their time cheerleading the folks in the trenches.

There's the key behind the struggles at the church we've been attending. My wife and I both moved into leadership positions in ministries. Over the course of a year the contact by pastoral staff was sporadic at best. No real supervision was provided. Issues among leadership that came up were not dealt with in a timely fashion or, in some cases, at all. It's unclear to me what exactly the seven pastors on staff actually filled their time with. Not saying they weren't busy but, in my humble opinion, they weren't busy being effective managing ministry.

My wife and I have over two decades of experience in churches and in church leadership. We have the skills to lead without much support needed and really, really wanted to contribute something meaningful to this church. If we were frustrated...and we were...I can't imagine what's happening to people with willing hearts but less experience. The ideas coming out on Sunday morning are laudable and everything I think the church should be. The structure to support these lofty ideals is nonexistent.

This Sunday my wife and I will be joining another church in the area.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Things Change and They Don't (Part 1)

Wow! It's been well over a year since I last posted to this blog. It's been over a year since I posted to any of my blogs so I'm not sure there's anyone out there who'll even find this to read. That's okay, I guess. I'm not sure how regular I'll be posting to this, but I'm planning to make an effort. It's not really a "resolution" because, in my experience those don't really work all that well.

I think one of the reasons I quit posting was I'd run out of emotional energy on the topic of how messed up churches are. After 22 years working in churches it felt like I could "talk" forever about how screwed up the church had become. Then I got sort of comfortable at a church and was enjoying my new job and all that concern about how churches need to do better sort of cooled down. Not that I think the Christian church has finally got it's act together. Trust me, it doesn't. There are still lots of problems with the organized church.

Still, it's the organism God designed to be his representation here on the earth. And there are some really dynamic Christians in some really awesome churches who are doing some incredible things in the name of Jesus. There's a lot of change happening in the church...and there's also not a lot of change happening in the church. I guess that's the nature of such a large and diverse organism. Some of it's changing and growing and some of it's atrophying and dieing. You know the old saying... the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Why post now, then? Well, for the last couple of years (since we moved to Colorado) my wife and I have been attending this church. We enjoyed it well enough and even got involved in some leadership stuff. But we never felt compelled to become members. I can't explain it except to say that every time we got ready to join there was some nagging feeling that it wasn't for us. We finally decided that it didn't make any sense not to join if we weren't going to go anywhere else. So we started visiting other places. We still helped in leadership and from that vantage point we started to see some things from the inside that concerned us.

Now, let me stop right here and say that we're not looking for the perfect church. We don't expect there not to be skeletons in the closet and we certainly don't want to stand in judgement on any church that's striving to follow God's lead. But we do recognize there are some churches that are doing it better than others.

Anyway, in the process of looking we started to realize...as we gained some distance...that, although the pastor of the churche we'd attended was saying all the right things, most the people in the seats weren't really doing much in response to his urging. It was weird, frankly. This pastor is a fine preacher and his messages were dead-on in terms of having a heart for the lost, reaching out to the community and being service and mission oriented. The messages just weren't catching on in the seats. That was perplexing to me because I always believed that leadership shapes the direction of the church. But here was a leader who seemed to be taking the charge but very few were following.

Maybe this is a broader problem than I realize. Maybe there are lots of fired-up, enthusiastic, mission-minded preachers out there in front of catatonic crowds. Maybe there's more to this leadership thing than just sharing inspirational messages every Sunday. Maybe the root of the problem still rested with leadership but at a much deeper level. A level most people couldn't see. What we discovered I'll share in my next post. And I promise not to wait a year before I share it...