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 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 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...