Thursday, December 23, 2010

Welcome - Other Churches Suck

Last Sunday I dropped in on a church I like to visit occasionally. It's been nearly a year since visiting and a new pastor has come on board. So I filled out a visitor card. In part I wanted to let them know I visited and in part I was curious to see what their follow-up process was. Thankfully, they did follow-up with a letter that came today. But there's something strange about the letter and thought it was worth sharing here. It's another one of those things that highlights how weird church can be.

After a brief opening paragraph thanking me for visiting and making the church part of my weekend plans the very next paragraph was this...

"In an age and culture when many church services seem to lose their focus on Jesus Christ, we are grateful for the opportunity to gather each week and receive the gifts our Lord has for us all in His Word and Sacraments. At [church name] we are proud of our heritage and unashamed of our confession, and so we make use of a historical form of worship that invites meaningful participation from the congregation and unites Christians of all generations and cultures. Most importantly, the service focuses all that we do and say on Jesus Christ and Him crucified for our sins."

Okay, let that soak in for a minute. Remember, this is a letter sent as first contact from a church to a visitor...very possibly a first time visitor. Here's my question, and it's one of several. If you had a chance, maybe just one chance, to introduce your church in a winsome and invitational way to a visitor would you, after dispensing with pleasantries, slam other churches right out of the gate? Forget churches. If you had a new customer visit your store would you start by telling them how other stores suck? If you had someone visit your home would you tell them how the other neighbors don't get how to be truly neighborly? It makes no sense to me. It puts me in a position to want to defend other churches.

Let's take the opening salvo. 'In an age and culture when many church services seem to lose their focus on Jesus Christ...' The letter is from the pastor. If you're the pastor of a church aren't you pretty much committed every Sunday morning? And if you're busy leading worship at your church every Sunday how do you know that many church services seem to lose their focus on Jesus Christ? Are you watching those churches online? Maybe. If you're committed to your worship style and presentation of the Gospel why would you bother watching other churches online? Unless you're looking to pick a fight. Why would you look to pick a fight with other Christian churches? See what I mean? That first sentence sends me off on a rabbit trail and now I really couldn't care less about the church I visited and I'm becoming convinced this church is unsure of itself. Why else would you present a defense of yourself in a welcome letter?

The next line that really catches me is, '...we are proud of our heritage and unashamed of our confession, so we make use of a historical form of worship...' I guess I assume that when a church and a pastor puts all their time and effort into presenting a worship service each week they are content with what they present. By making a point of saying you're proud of your heritage and unashamed of your confession makes me think, 'thou dost protest too much'. What do you really have to be ashamed of? What about your heritage do you find embarrassing enough to cause you to announce how proud you are?

This is truly the most inept, clumsy and ridiculous way to welcome a visitor. Let me rewrite the paragraph the way it really reads...

"Other Christian churches suck and really don't have anything to do with Jesus. We're really grateful we got it right and don't suck. We know people don't like old liturgical worship formats because churches using these are mostly shrinking, aging and dying but we're going to stick it out because someday people will come back around to our way of doing things...we hope. What we do is really, really meaningful, we promise. Even if it doesn't seem meaningful to you. Finally, since we say it's all about Jesus it's okay to be old, boring and irrelevant and hope you're convinced."

Now, even if you believe all that, would it be the first foot you put forward to a newcomer? I guess if you wanted to thin out the numbers that might return for a second visit, this would be the way to go. Let's put it right out front that we're an old church that clings to old liturgical formats, will never use contemporary resources, and will stay culturally irrelevant. If that appeals to you, please come learn more and join us.

I'm not saying this church should change it's worship style or anything else. I'm saying let your pride shine in what you do and let your words be welcoming. Be winsome and gracious. Talk about all you do that's driven by your passion for Jesus and commitment to whatever you're committed to. That is if you're really looking to reach the unreached. But I'm not sure this church is interested in that. The reason I say that will be more fully explained in another post.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Does God Exist?

There's no season like Christmas to stir the public debate about all things related to God. The role of religion in the public square. Whether or not the founding fathers were Christian and intended this country to be based on a Christian foundation. If God even exists. This season atheists in America have stepped up their efforts to speak their views to the broader public.

Sunday I heard a message that referenced this billboard in the New York City area. The pastor talked about the tag line, "This season celebrate reason." In my humble opinion he didn't do a very good job at all of presenting why belief in God becoming man and dwelling among us is actually reasonable. He also did something I absolutely hate. He spoke as if everyone in the room was a committed Christian who found that billboard just as ridiculous as he did. What a blown opportunity to intellectually challenge the people. The truth is compelling arguments can be made on both sides of this.

God doesn't exist. Look no further than the 24 hour news cycle that feeds on the depravity of mankind. War, poverty, starvation, bad water killing children, serial killers, despotic tyrants, a church fractured into a million shards that fights amongst itself, multiple religious beliefs all claiming to have a handle on the 'truth' of who God is. Anyone with a brain and five minutes to reflect on the human condition can clearly see that God doesn't exist. If there was truly an almighty, powerful, all knowing, loving, compassionate and kind God there's no way all the aforementioned things would be allowed for a day, much less for all of human history.

God does exist. Man is so obviously stained by sin. He separated himself from the nurturing, life giving relationship with God falling to the temptation that he could be equal with God. Since the severing of that relationship humanity has sunk further and further into depravity, selfishness and self-destruction. Left to our own devices it's so obvious we need salvation. Throughout human history man has demonstrated an inborn urge to seek a higher power and the basics of right and wrong cross all cultures. Those urges are an obvious sign we've been created by something bigger and higher than ourselves. Not to mention the order and beauty of creation, the delicate balance of where the planet floats in space, the exquisite engineering of our bodies that are perfectly built to survive here. Of course God exists. Apart from that truth there would be no hope for humanity since it's God's call to care for widows, orphans, poor, imprisoned, lost and hurting. Without God and his call to look outside ourselves there's no telling how much worse this life would be.

So it looks like I can be a reasonable person and stand firmly convicted there is no God. And I can be a reasonable person and stand firmly convicted there is a God. Evidence abounds on both sides of the argument if I want to look at it. So it comes down to how I interpret the evidence I choose to look at. What I tell myself, where I was born and raised, my life experience and one last and ultimate thing. Faith. And either conviction finally depends on that. Faith.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Why Men Don't Go To Church

Here's a very provocative post that I mostly agree with. There are some nuances I could argue about, but overall I have to agree that the church has been feminized. Much like our society, by the way. The parts of being masculine that we applaud in movies like Braveheart are increasingly frowned upon in current culture.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Road Back to Remarkable

There are discussions all the time about how the church needs to return to its roots. Some declare they are striving to be an 'Acts church'. Which simply means they're striving to replicate the energy, excitement and behavior of the earliest churches as described in the Biblical book of Acts.

The truth is, to be an Acts church a couple of things would have to happen. First, you'd have to return to communal living. Read the book. Everyone sold what they had, pooled all their resources and worked diligently to see that all members of the church were taken care of. While there were some communes in the 1960's and '70's that pulled this off for a time, I'm not aware of any churches that are accomplishing that today. The only exception is the ministry of Jesus People USA based in Chicago. They truly live as a community and if you want to know what that looks like, check it out.

The other thing the church in Acts had going for it was that it was remarkable. By that I mean it was operating so out of the mainstream of the culture that it caused people to remark about it. Not only to remark, but to attack it, persecute it and fear the changes it brought to the human experience. Over time it seemed that the culture adapted to having Christians around. But I'm wondering if it's more true that the church adapted itself to the culture. In truth it was probably a little bit of both.

For whatever reason, eventually the church became unremarkable. Governments co-opted religion to accomplish their purposes. Churches went along to get along. Christianity became one of the respected world religions. Along the way the church was the flash point for amazing art, architecture, music, drama and other cultural expressions. Nevertheless, it still became unremarkable.

The question that occurred to me this morning is, how do we get back on the road to remarkable as a church? What will it take for the Christian church to shake the foundations of the culture as it once did? It is happening in other countries, but what about here in the United States. One answer that came to me is that we truly return to living as Jesus did. We uncompromisingly serve. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, speak truth to power, address injustice, care for widows and orphans. What if the church reclaimed hospitals (a hospital named after Christ wasn't originally a for profit enterprise!) as places of mercy and compassion for the sick and dying. What if churches opened exemplary schools that returned education to a foundation of Biblically based values.

Those are some initial thoughts. I'd love to hear how you would put the church back on the road to remarkable. Share examples of remarkable ministries if you have them. Always love to see examples of radically effective ministries.

The Decline of Marriage in America

This morning I came across this article that documents the shocking decline of marriage in middle class America. We ignore this news at our own peril. And, for me, it leads to some sobering questions for the church.

What role has the church played in this decline...if any? Is it possible that by not holding young people accountable for their relational choices, whether it's premarital sex, living together or other choices that disregard the importance of marriage, have we communicated that marriage isn't necessary? If there is any role the church has played by keeping silent while the culture merrily trotted people down a path of reckless and selfish relational behavior then is there a role for the church in bringing us back from the precipice?

As the article points out, the collapse of marriage has far reaching implications for culture and society. In my opinion Satan would like nothing more than the total collapse of the family. So let's stop pretending like relationships outside of a God ordained marriage are not aberrant behavior that leads to bad things. More to the outside of marriage (regardless of your age) is wrong. Living together without benefit of marriage is wrong. People of the same gender being sexually active with each other and pretending it's a marriage is wrong. The church either actively or passively giving license to any of these aberrant behaviors is wrong.

And there is a price to be paid for engaging in, accepting and/or ignoring wrong.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Merry Christmas?

It seems every year the 'joy' of Christmas in the United States revolves around giving and...more importantly...getting gifts. Church leaders are a voice in the consumerism wilderness calling for people to spend less and consider how to better use the resources God has blessed them with. But this effort has very little real impact on the culture.

My church, Grace Place, is participating in the Advent Conspiracy this year. It's a wonderful idea that started small and seems to be growing. I hope that it continues to grow. If you're interested, go to the Grace Place website and catch-up on Pastor Clay's messages. But there's another truth about the holidays that doesn't get much airtime. The time between Thanksgiving and New Year is an intense time of depression, pain and loneliness for an awful lot of people.

Collectively the holidays are a time where family is trumpeted, traditions are honored and joy is expected. For those who've suffered the death of a loved one, the dissolution of a marriage through divorce, the loss of family or, more likely, a family that is painfully dysfunctional, this time of year is something you grit your teeth and suffer through. A friend of mine actually escapes to a seaside resort in Mexico over Christmas in part to avoid the pain he experiences at this time of the year.

While I loved Christmas when our kids were little because of the wonder and joy they experienced, I'm finding as I get older it just doesn't mean as much to me. Part of that is knowing that it's one of the few times a year people pay any attention to Jesus. And at Christmas we reflect on the baby Jesus so there's not much chance you're going to be open to the challenging words the adult Jesus had to say to his followers. At Easter we focus on the dying Jesus. So for those who only turn their attention to Jesus at Christmas and Easter it's the equivalent of visiting a person at their birth and never seeing them again until you visit their deathbed. How strong might you consider that relationship?

I'd much prefer we do away with the high holidays when we pause just long enough for a fleeting glimpse of Jesus and instead start living in a genuine relationship with him every single day. A relationship that includes talking to him, listening to him and really following him. What would the world think of a church full of people who did that I wonder?

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Faithful Followers Forever

What I like to call the big 'C' church, that is the body of believers in Jesus Christ across all denominations around the globe, will never go away and will always be growing. As in the earliest days we can truthfully say still today, "they added to their numbers daily."

Every day new believers come into a relationship with Jesus Christ. At the exact same time many mainline denominations (perhaps all) are experiencing decline. Their numbers are shrinking, giving is going down, denominational offices are cutting staff and scaling back ministry. Some would have you believe that since, "the road is narrow and the way difficult" that it's natural to experience shrinkage when you hew to the true doctrine of the church. The truth is hard and people will leave.


Every single day the Holy Spirit is bringing people into life changing relationship with Jesus Christ. Every day people are coming out of the darkness and into His marvelous light. Every day the number of the faithful is growing. I know this because the population of the earth is growing, the Word of God is being taught, broadcast, discussed and God promises his word does not return empty. Jesus told the disciples to cast their nets even when they'd had no success all night and they obeyed. Their nets were full to the point of tearing and sinking the boat! Our nets cast in the name of Jesus will not come back with nothing but seaweed and an old shoe.

The small 'c' church may be declining and dying but the Body of Christ is vibrant, growing and eternal. If your church is in decline stop justifying and pontificating and start seeking God's vision, intention and will for your ministry. Admit that you are failing. Look to where God is working and join him there. The fields are ripe unto harvest...Jesus once if your barn is empty it's time to start asking why.

Monday, December 06, 2010

The Collapse of Denominations

Fast Company is one of my favorite magazines. In the latest issue there's a great article entitled "Mayhem on Madison Avenue" about the future of advertising. Now, you might wonder what that has to do with the church, but there's a quote in the article that struck me. It's related to tectonic shifts happening in the advertising world but has echoes for the church. Here's a snippet:

"Earlier this year, technology observer Clay Shirky argued that 'complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes those societies have become too inflexible to respond.' Societies like the Romans and the lowland Mayans fell because further reductions became too uncomfortable for those in power. 'Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification,' writes Shirky. After disintegration, he explains further, the members of a society disperse, experimenting with new ways of doing things. 'When the ecosystem stops rewarding complexity,' he writes, 'it is the people who figure out how to work simply in the present, rather than the people who mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future'."

So that got me to thinking about the current state of denominations in the Western Christian Church. Has the church ecosystem stopped rewarding complexity? Is the church tottering toward collapse (or already there) under the weight of centuries of theological thought, doctrinal treatises, hundreds of thousands of books, sermons, commentaries and more that have rendered simple scriptural truth nearly indecipherable? I'd suggest that pastors, seminarians, theologians and others who've made study of Christian doctrine and dogma their life's work are people who have mastered the complexities of the past. And are, by and large, happy to live there and wish others would come back and join them.

They are the ones in 'power' who are finding any further reduction of the complexity of religion too uncomfortable to bear. They insist on maintaining the complexity in an ecosystem that no longer rewards it. People are leaving the church in droves while still claiming faith in Jesus. According to Shirky, "collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification."

Here's what I think, the Church (all believers regardless of denomination) is an ecosystem (organism not an organization) that has stopped rewarding complexity. And I believe Shirky is right when he says, "the people who figure out how to work simply in the present, rather than the people who mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future." Further, I think in some ways we are experiencing the earliest post-disintegration days of the church as members of the society disperse, experimenting with new ways of doing things. Those folks experimenting with new ways of doing things are meeting withering hostility and criticism from those who have mastered the complexities of the past and feel power slipping away from them. That won't stop what's happening. But it certainly makes for an interesting era we live in. As Aaron Reitkopf, North American CEO of ad agency Profero, is quoted in the Fast Company article as saying, "ohhh, the carnage is going to be awesome."

Friday, December 03, 2010

The Great Divide

During the Civil War one of the great tragedies was that families were split between North and South. The spectacle of brother fighting against brother was heart breaking. As I reflect on the current state of the church and, actually, it can probably be said it's been this way for hundreds of years, the fracturing into denominations has some very personal impact.

It's an ugly thing when followers of Christ attack other followers of Christ. It makes no sense and must absolutely delight Satan to see the body of Christ at odds with itself. Both across denominations and within denominations the rancor and bitterness repulses people who are literally going to hell apart from Jesus Christ. But worse than that is when the divisions split families.

My dear departed mother-in-law and father-in-law attended separate churches for many years. For all the years I knew them the exercise of their faith took them away from each other rather than toward each other. Thankfully they didn't fight over far as I know...but they certainly weren't united. Worse than that are families where everyone is Christian but attending different churches and that causes conflict and anger. I've experienced that kind of pain up close and personal and can tell you it tears families up.

On the other hand, I've worked for the past five years with an organization that brings churches of all denominations together for a week at a time to provide help and hope to people in need. For those single weeks I've seen Christians lay aside the need to champion their particular doctrinal view, come alongside other believers and change lives. It's a beautiful thing. When we can work from the base truth that we are followers of Christ who believe he is our Lord and Savior so much positive stuff happens. In Biblical terms, we bear good fruit.

If you've read my blog you know that I can sometimes be a Pollyanna about the whole body of Christ getting along. So, I want to acknowledge here that I don't expect for every Christian to link arms and sing kum-ba-yah. There are important issues that divide us and must be discussed in the appropriate places. There are certain things we shouldn't be doing together because we can't agree. Things like communion and baptism are best done with others who are in full agreement with each other about what those things mean. It is important that we debate vigorously the proper interpretation of scripture, how to interact with culture, proper expressions of doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with our God as we're called to do by the Prophet Micah. But differences of opinion should not keep us from loving each other and finding ways to work together for the sake of all those who don't know Christ. The divide between those who claim Christ and will all be in heaven by faith is not so great as the divide between them and those who face eternity separated from God in hell. Let's get our priorities straight.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Can't God Take Care of Himself

Every once in a while I get distracted reading stuff from ultra orthodox pinheads who think it's their calling to defend God. Of course always according to who they think God is. They rant about worship styles or proper doctrine or whether or not small groups are 'Biblical'. They seem to be operating from a base of fear. Fear that some poor soul might get to thinking they need to be good to get to heaven (works righteousness) or that a room full of suckers might accidentally stumble into bad theology (like pietism).

So these people take up the crusade to make sure everyone within earshot gets lambasted with what's 'right' and 'true'. They throw around words like heretic and apostasy. Often they trample all over any Biblical directive to put the best construction on everything, don't gossip, love your enemy, etc., etc. Of course they do this in the name of protecting God's truth. What unabashed arrogance.

Now I'm all about truth and seek to learn and know it more and more every day. I never think that I have fully attained a full understanding of what is true. Further, I would never take it upon myself to harangue others to accept what I believe to be true or be labeled a heretic. If asked I will speak what I understand to be truth and exercise what I believe to be the true forms of worship, service and a life of faith. I hope that all those who feel a need to attack others live out their understanding of truth, too. I just wish they'd do it without hurling soul destroying accusations and vicious attacks at those devoted Christians who are different from them.

Even St. Paul recognized that there are those who didn't preach Jesus from the same motivation he had. He disagreed with their methods and motivation but conceded that as long as Christ was preached good was being done. Until all Christians...especially those in leadership roles (Pastors are you listening?) can live from their faith and best understanding of truth and do away with all the rancor the hope for winning souls to Christ will never be fully realized.

God is bigger than our understanding of him or what's true and right. The Holy Spirit draws us into a relationship with Christ 'while we are still sinners.' In my humble opinion he can correct our misunderstandings and reveal truth to our hearts. Sometimes he does this through scripture as we're diligent to study. Sometimes he does this in relationships with other Christians seeking truth. There are even times when he does it through our pastors. But it is always the work of the Holy Spirit that informs, strengthens and grows our faith. He doesn't need knuckle headed, pious windbags enforcing their opinions about him and the 'right' way to relate to him (in worship, or anywhere else) on the rest of us. God is big enough to take care of himself. How about the rest of us go on about being the hands, feet and love of Jesus to a world that desperately needs a Savior. How awesome would that be?