Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Tim's Birthday Challenge - No Ice Required

Okay, so it's probably not nearly as viral-worthy as the ice bucket challenge, but the help you can provide to needy children in Nepal and India is just as important! Here's the challenge...

1. Don't get a bucket

2. Don't fill it with ice and water

3. Relax in front of your computer

4. Go to www.ServLife.org

5. Sponsor a child for $30 a month by clicking on "Sponsor a Child"

6. Not up for a monthly commitment? No problem, click the 'Donate' button and give one dollar for every year of life with which God's blessed me (56 to be exact).

See how easy that is? No wet clothes, no posting videos on YouTube, just helping spread justice, reconciliation and the love of Jesus.

That would make for a very happy birthday, indeed!

ServLife International propels reconciliation and justice by building global community to plant churches, care for children and fight poverty.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Benevolent Opression

Photo Credit: Captain Mike Fuys
A little over a month ago I joined the team at ServLife International, a ministry based in Indianapolis that propels justice and reconciliation by building global community to plant churches, care for children and fight poverty. It's a simple yet powerful mission statement. My job is to spread the story of ServLife to a wider and wider audience. It's work I love because it gives me the chance to talk with lots of people. And the more I talk to people the more chances I have to expose the sad reality of benevolent oppression.

Benevolent oppression is a concept I learned not one I can claim as my own. Simply put it means that well meaning charity far too often has actually destroyed peoples ability to care for themselves. While it is laudable and awesome for Christians to follow Jesus' instruction to go and teach all nations, somewhere along the line that got confused with offering them help they don't need in ways that actually debilitate them. We failed...and continue to fail...to understand cultural context. It's hard for people to conceive of other ways to do things than what they've experienced. So we bring the Gospel to unreached people groups, then start assessing their living situations, then determine those conditions are somehow unacceptable, then begin flooding them with money and resources beyond their capacity to handle or even understand, then they grow accustomed to our 'benevolence' and cease to do for themselves, then we are afflicted with an ever growing sense of responsibility to care for them, then they become wholly dependent on our benevolence and can't conceive of a life without us giving them everything they need.

Along the way the Gospel gets lost. The idea of God as the great and sole provider who gives to each of us in all situations what we need is replaced by the people of God continually giving what we think people need. And we in the developed world interpret what people need through our lense of affluence. Setting our experience as the standard we destroy whole cultures with charity that has absolutely nothing to do with the Gospel.

The truth is, even the poorest of the poor in the United States are wealthier than 80-85% of the rest of the world. (By the way, if you make just $50,000 a year you're in the top half of one percent of the wealthiest people in the world). That means trying to get people in most of the world up to our poverty level would be a shock to their system and inappropriate in their cultural context. When we attempt it there is more harm done than good.

As I talk with people about benevolent oppression someone invariably says, 'I get it. Give a man to fish he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish he eats for a lifetime.'

That's not necessarily true. It's actually...

Teach a man to fish and he develops a sense of self-worth, value and belonging that strengthens his family, enriches his community, and makes the world a better place for everyone. Give a man a fish and you destroy his soul, disregard his abilities, devastate his family, obliterate his community and rob the world of the blessings God intended.

I'm pleased God has called me to work with a mission that is dedicated to teaching men to fish. Not that we're doing that perfectly just yet, but ServLife is committed to partnerships in Nepal, India and beyond that lift up, encourage, hold accountable and treat as valuable the gifts, talents and contributions of every single human being. I believe many others are moving in this direction.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Enough Already - Get This Straight

Over the past couple of days a handful of blog posts and Facebook links have stirred up in me a need to address something that's been addressed over and over and over again but still seems unresolved for many Christians. This blog post in particular really got me going. The author conflates gathering to Christ with Sunday morning church attendance. She falls into the age old trap of calling a building the 'House of God' and then goes on to intimate that those who fail to gather at such a house on a regular basis will feel the wrath of God. Yes, there are still those in leadership and among the laity who believe God will assign you to hell if you fail to show up to a building on Sunday morning.

Stop it! God does not live in a building. Never has...never will. Study your Scriptures people. God refused to allow David to build him a temple. He refused to allow anyone to build him a temple exactly because He knows if we build God a house we will be inclined to leave Him there! Yes, the editors living in Babylon trying to sort out where they went wrong inserted a note in the Biblical text about Solomon building a temple, but that was just to legitimize an illegitimate project (one of many Solomon undertook with slave labor God had also forbidden). If you really want to get down to brass tacks, Solomon worked in concert with Satan, himself, to build the temple in Jerusalem. The Great Deceiver loves it when people build houses for God. And the more elaborate, costly and expensive to maintain all the better. Why should God's resources go to mission when they can be spent on giant buildings that are mostly empty six days a week (and nowadays, mostly empty on Sunday, too)? But that's a topic for another day.

Here's the point for today...

God moves with His people. Since the time of Pentecost God moves in His people. YOU are the dwelling place of God. When two or more believers gather there is God in the midst of them. When you attend a small group, a recovery meeting, a potluck, a workplace Bible study, a morning prayer breakfast, walk into a pub with a group of Christian guys, sit in a stadium, go to a water park, the 'House of God' has just shown up. Resting on the foundation of Jesus Christ and built on Him the Church is the quintessential mobile home!

Stop treating places like they are sacred and holy and start realizing that YOU are sacred and holy...that is 'set apart' for the work of God and His kingdom. Stop compartmentalizing your life into sacred and secular as no such distinction exists. Stop showing up at a building on Sunday morning and telling people (and yourself) that you 'went to church'.

I have no hope that this post will resolve anything considering people have been striving to put God in a box and keep Him at arms-length since that first temple was built well over 3000 years ago. But I had to take yet one more crack at getting you to wake up. And if you already know this and agree with me, would you please, please, please pass this along to your Christian friends...and maybe your pastor? Thanks!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A Model Worth Considering

Okay, so maybe I do have an idea what church should look like if it means to be effective, truly reflect Christ and get back to what it may have looked like for the earliest believers. The model is one that's been around a long time.

Twelve Step addiction recovery.

For those who aren't familiar with the Twelve Steps, here they are...

  1. We admitted we were powerless over our addictions and compulsive behaviors, that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. We made a decision to turn our lives and our wills over to the care of God.
  4. We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. We humbly asked him to remove all our shortcomings.
  8. We made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. We made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. We continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
  11. We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual experience as the result of these steps, we try to carry this message to others and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
Now imagine gathering in a place where these twelve steps are being actively worked by everyone in the room. Some are on step one and others have completed all twelve steps many times over. Some are just coming to grips with the devastation sin has wrought in their lives and others are living free from the grip of sin.

Those who have experienced healing, restoration, forgiveness and contact with God are readily available day or night for those just starting the journey. When they gather testimonies of recovery are given by those who are further along encouraging those just starting out to stick with the challenge. Everyone is not only encouraged but expected to find a sponsor. The sponsor commits to walking the new person through the steps. Sponsors agree to be available by phone or in person anytime those they sponsor need to talk. Often this is on a daily basis.

Everyone in recovery not only acknowledges that they are sinners generally, they announce in detail the particular sins that afflict them and discuss the damage that sin has done in their lives and relationships. This is especially important for those leading the recovery program. On a weekly basis men gather with other men and women with other women so that they can talk in detail about their struggles and be encouraged by one another. On separate occasions gender specific groups gather to walk together through the twelve steps.

And in a Christian recovery program like the one started at Saddleback Church in California called Celebrate Recovery, all of this activity is steeped in Scripture, wrapped in prayer and focused on Jesus as the only higher power.

Compare this to your experience of church.
  • When was the last time your pastor and church leaders stood up and enumerated the sin with which they struggle, especially the persistent sin behavior most common for them?
  • Who has your church intentionally connected you to that can walk you daily through the process of dealing with sin, difficulties, conflicts and tough decisions and is always available for a phone call or personal visit...day or night?
  • How often are newcomers invited to openly share their shortcomings, defects of character, sin and struggles by following the example of everyone else in the room who is doing the same thing?
  • When, in the course of the weekly gathering, do men and women get to meet separately so they can share details of their struggles and celebrate their successes?
Recovery invites people into one-on-one relationships with those who can lead you through the process. It insists on fearless honesty with people you trust and in detail. It draws you out of yourself through a healing process of surrender to God. It moves you to serve others in the same way you've been served. 

In addition to the Twelve Steps imagine if every week you attended a church that rigorously practiced these Eight Principles articulated for Celebrate Recovery by Pastor Rick Warren.
  1. Realize I'm not God. I admit that I am powerless to control my tendency to do the wrong thing and that my life is unmanageable.
  2. Earnestly believe that God exists, that I matter to him, and that he has the power to help me recover.
  3. Consciously choose to commit all my life and will to Christ's care and control.
  4. Openly examine and confess my faults to myself, to God, and to someone I trust.
  5. Voluntarily submit to every change God wants to make in my life and humbly ask him to remove my character defects.
  6. Evaluate all my relationships. Offer forgiveness to those who have hurt me and make amends for harm I've done to others, except when to do so would harm them or others.
  7. Reserve a daily time with God for self-examination, Bible reading, and prayer in order to know God and his will for my life and to gain the power to follow his will.
  8. Yield myself to God to be used to bring this good news to others, both by my example and by my words.
I'm convinced church would change dramatically if this model were followed. And there's no need to guess at what it looks like since there are Celebrate Recovery meetings happening every week all over the world. Check it out...the church of the future could be awesome if it looked like this.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Healing Fractures

When I was a sophomore in high school I broke my leg in football practice. It was a break just above the ankle of my left leg. I'm sure with today's medical technology things would be different, but back in the 1970's I spent three days in the hospital and more than two months in a cast above my knee. Years later my cousin did a much more effective job on his leg.

While skiing on his honeymoon he went off the main trail in search of fresh powder and hit a pocket in the snow. One boot released as designed but the other did not causing a horrific shattering of his shin. Doctors later told him that the break was so bad if any piece of bone had come through the skin they would've amputated the leg. On the x-ray from just below the knee to just above the ankle was a cloud of bone fragments. The doctors set the leg and my cousin had to keep his leg elevated every day for several months. He spent the first six months of his marriage bedridden and in a cast.

That traumatic leg break is an image that comes to mind when I consider the denominational fracturing that has occurred in the Body of Christ over the last 500+ years. In an effort to restore a proper understanding of Scripture a variety of thoughtful, strong willed and determined men sought to articulate what they believed was the truest exposition of scripture. Each of the reformers had their own take and each developed a following. Eventually within each of those followings nuanced differences came up and, in an effort to further clarify, other splits happened. Fast forward to 2014 and here we are faced with a challenge.

Do we amputate this cloud of denominational fragments from the Body of Christ or do we put the whole mess in a cast and immobilize it until the fragments find their way back into a recognizable body part?

Here's an interesting thing about my cousin's healing. Given the structure of the cast, medicine to prevent infection and ample time to rest those bone fragments in his leg did find their way back together. They returned to the shape of a shin bone. A lumpy, calcified and ever so slightly shorter shin bone than before the break, but a shin bone nonetheless. There were no pins, no rods, no screws, no incisions. Just a cast and time to rest.

Increasingly faithful believers are abandoning churches that highlight, celebrate and insist on standing on their denomination's doctrinal differences and standing apart from all other Christians. There's something about the Body that rejects that kind of separation. Like a cloud of bones drawn back to a useful and usable shape there is a new reformation going on right now. It's not physically bloody, political and dangerous like in the days of Martin Luther. But it is a reformation just the same. It's an awakening to the fact that God intended the Body of Christ to be unified as one and a rejection of the efforts of men to keep it separate.

So denominational buildings are increasingly empty on Sunday morning. New expressions of worship, praise, teaching and accountability are rising up. The bones are coming back together. And there are those who are fighting that healing with all their might. There are denominational leaders still deciding who they will and will not associate with amongst the other denominations. All the while the bone fragments...who used to sit dutifully in their pews each week...are finding their way back together. In service projects, disaster recovery, mission trips, weekend events, Bible studies and countless other ways the body is rebuilding itself without regard for which church, group, denomination or organization is behind these activities in which they're participating.

In response to one of my recent posts a Christian brother and friend said he was looking for my creative ideas as to how the Church might move forward. I've given that a lot of thought. The truth is many years ago thoughtful men went about determining how to change the church. They fought, argued, bled and died in the process of reformation. They passionately pursued their best understanding and set themselves apart from others.

My inclination, at this point, is to be very aware that the Body is reforming itself. I want to watch that reformation happen, comment on what I see and take action (if any is to be taken) as the Lord leads. This is an exciting time for those who long to see the Body knit back together. It's not so exciting for those trying to hang on to what church looked like forty or fifty years ago. Much like five hundred years ago, the bloodshed within the body will come when those who are entrenched in their ways take aim at the reformers.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Key to Everything

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it... And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth." - John 1:1-5 & 14

"Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son." - John 14:12-14

"And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him, for he dwells with you and will be in you." - John 14:16-17

"In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you." - John 14:20

"If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him." - John 14:23

"As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world." - John 9:5

"You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden." - Matthew 5:14

"Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God...But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code." - Romans 7:4 & 6

"For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body - Jews or Greeks, slaves or free - and all were made to drink of one Spirit." - 1 Corinthians 12:12-13

Perhaps the greatest and most crippling inadvertent teaching that has happened in the church through the years is that the Bible is the Word of God. In so far as it is an inspired account of God's relationship with his creation and his creation's response back to him it is a perfect (inerrant) documentation of that relationship. As a ruler, curb and mirror it is flawless as a description of what the Body of Christ looks like.

It is not, however, the Word of God. The Word of God is flesh and blood living in the midst of God's creation. The Word of God is active, alive, engaged and vibrant. The Word of God is everywhere present.

You...if you believe in Jesus Christ...are the Word of God.

You are empowered to speak blessings and curses.

You hold the power to forgive, heal, prophesy, and raise the dead.

You can do greater things than Jesus did during his sojourn on this earth.

And you don't need the permission of a pastor, a degree from seminary or an extensive knowledge of scripture to do it. You are a member of the Body of Christ indwelt by the Holy Spirit of God who reveals all truth and moves you to where God wants you to be.

The Bible is your one and only ruler (like the one you had in grade school with which you drew straight lines), curb (like those that keep you on the road when you bump into them), and mirror (like those that confirm by your appearance that you are who you say you are). That means that if and when you speak the Word of God it must never...not ever...contradict or conflict with the inspired account provided to us in writing by God Himself. And you should always be ready to have someone check you against that ruler, curb and mirror.

Beyond that...go for it.

In every situation YOU are the Word made flesh dwelling among us. You are the Word speaking truth to people at work. You are the Word demonstrating love to your enemies. You are the Word praying for those who persecute you. You are the Word bringing hope to the nations and light to the world. That is relational. That is the guts and bone and the marrow of this whole thing we call Church.

And when the body gathers in large groups or small we acknowledge (worship) the head, check the ruler, curb and mirror, rejoice with those parts that are rejoicing, suffer with those parts that are suffering and encourage each and every person to go out confident in the knowledge that YOU ARE THE WORD MADE FLESH!

Organized religion with all the rituals they embrace doesn't want you to know this. Not fully. From some you will hear that the gifts of the Spirit ceased to be active once the canon of scripture was set (though there is still disagreement among denominations which books belong in the canon). Poppycock! Others will give you the impression that only theologians with extensive Biblical knowledge can be trusted with the mysteries of God. Ridiculous! Others will convince you that only ordained clergy can administer the sacraments. Bald faced liars! Many will have you believe you must have a correct, academic understanding of God or you may unwittingly condemn yourself to hell. Preposterous!

Jesus is the Word of God...the very creative force that spoke everything into existence. Jesus came to reveal the heart of God the Father to the whole world. Jesus told us that he will make his home in those who believe and that we are one with him as he is one with the Father. Jesus told us we will do even greater things than he did while bodily present on this earth. Jesus said we are the light of the world. Jesus said, 'Follow me!' Jesus said, 'Go!'

Any church, pastor, denominational leader or theologian who tells you otherwise is standing in direct opposition to Jesus Christ. They are anti-Christ...you might say. And eventually churches under their leadership that fail to fully equip and release the Body of Christ into the world and instead hold dominion over their 'flocks' will suffer decay, decline and death.

In short...members of the Body of Christ don't need permission from any human to be who God is dwelling within you to be. Your faith in Jesus Christ makes you the Word in the flesh and, empowered by the Holy Spirit to do greater things in your sphere of influence than even Jesus did in his. The freedom that comes with that fact terrifies those who cling to organized religion and the control it allows them to exert over the lives of others.

It is past time in this country for the Body of Christ to arise and take seriously the fullness of mighty power that is ours as the Word made flesh!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Proper Delineation

The hazard in writing anything that goes out for others to see is that of accomplishing clarity. For a topic as complex as the one I've recently been tackling it's particularly important to establish proper delineation when it comes to definitions. Most of what I do here is meant to challenge the monolithic corporate church. This entity that seems to have become comfortable with the drumbeat of decline and disinterest stretching back now for fifty years or so. Following in the footsteps of the European church our denominations have become mostly political organizations bent on protecting their interests and pet projects. In the meantime what were once vibrant houses of worship are becoming either museums or ruins (or Hindu community centers like the one I recently saw in a former Christian church).

At the same time the Church defined as the Body of Christ in the world is vibrant and active. Wherever there is disaster Christians show up in droves. Where there are homeless, sick and imprisoned folks it is most often Christians who are standing behind a pot of soup, providing a secure space with a mattress and conducting Bible studies behind bars. Some of these activities are sponsored by churches but a lot of them are happening through what's known as para-church organizations. These organizations have grown up as corporate church has declined.

In my experience those para-church organizations (ministries) that are most successful tend to shy away from denominational affiliation...at least publicly...and instead fix their eyes on Christ. They don't pick fights about minutiae and they don't play church politics. They welcome any who come to serve and make it clear the service is done in the Name of Jesus. And many who fill the rosters of those who serve through these organizations also show up in church on Sunday and become champions for these ministries. And there are some who come out of these churches and start their own para-church ministries to address needs the church isn't tackling.

My observation is those churches that are growing in the midst of decline seem to have adopted some of the markings of para-church organizations. They aren't much concerned with denominational identification but are concerned about getting outside the building and into the community. Their main goal isn't to increase membership but to activate those who claim membership. These churches are most often led by people who are excited, even anxious, to give away the ministry and equip people to take it from them.

When I worked with the team at Group Workcamps we were always discussing how to best set expectations for those who registered for our trips. If expectations were clearly communicated the overall experience was much more satisfying for the participants (assuming we met the expectations established). This included what they could expect from us and what we expected from them.

So here's a question...In your experience of weekend church, from the format to the actual messages, what expectation is being set? Maybe I'm addressing an issue that's not an issue. Please offer in one or two sentences the expectation the church you attend communicates on Sunday morning. Perhaps even more interesting to me is what expectations did the church you no longer attend communicate on Sunday morning?

I mentioned at the end of my last post that it's relationships not religion that mark a vibrant church. But that's not news to those who are frustrated with religion. So how about we consider how the vibrant, active Church goes about reclaiming the dying, declining church?

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

All So Unnecessary

There are two assumptions I could make about my last post. Perhaps, being a Sunday, it didn't get the attention of my previous two in this series. Or, what I suggested took people by surprise. Yes, I suggested that Sunday morning (or weekend) church services be reduced to praise, worship, celebration and prayer. If that sounds like moving backward instead of forward then you might want to re-read the post.

When we try to be all things to all people we end up being nothing to anyone. The weekend church service as it is currently practiced in a majority of churches is not growing the Church. Because it was never intended for that purpose. For far, far too long we have been relying on a tool to accomplish what it was never meant to do. Add to this the fact that what we're doing on the weekend is often wrong and just plain unnecessary.

Jesus told his disciples to go. But just like many of us they were inclined to cluster together. While they took courage from each other, they were not effective in reaching the world with the Gospel until they split up. Gathering on a weekly basis was Jewish tradition and one that most likely started while in captivity in Babylon. The synagogue was a place where the Jews contemplated the loss of their temple, their exile from Jerusalem, and the mistakes they had made. More importantly they spent decades, then centuries in their synagogues mulling over the words of the prophets and their history hoping to discern what to do so that they would never again offend God and be punished with exile. This led to an endless web of rules, regulations, interpretations, restrictions and requirements that every Jew was expected to meet so as not to raise the ire of God. Sound familiar?

We have unwittingly recreated the synagogue.

A place where we gather to hear learned men (and women) remind us that God has rules we must live by. We are urged to learn these rules and hold fast to them. We contemplate all the ways in which we might offend God and thereby fall out of His favor. We are taught that we must understand baptism correctly or else. We must receive communion properly or else. We must follow the Ten Commandments or else. And, most deadly of all, we must adhere to church (denominational) doctrine...or...else!!

Or else...what?

There is now no more or else, to paraphrase Romans 8:1. "There is now therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus," is what it actually says. There is no need to gather each week and contemplate whether or not we're getting it right. There is no need to tell seekers what right looks like. In fact that kind of 'teaching' is, perhaps, the most destructive thing we as a church have done. You can't hear those kinds of messages week in and week out without becoming obsessed with 'being good'.

We are not required to 'be good'. Through Jesus Christ we are restored to our rightful place as children of God. The debts are paid, the ledger is cleared, all sin is forgotten and any obligation to live under law is completely eliminated! Paul pleaded with people to understand this.

Yet we keep retreating to our synagogues each Sunday and try to figure out how to make God happy. Many walk in fear of mis-taking communion or losing a child before they get baptized or (fill in the blank with what YOU fear getting wrong). Our witness to the world has included don't dance, don't drink, don't play cards, don't go to the movies, don't swear, don't...

We who know the truth have accidentally turned the joy of Jesus into the obligation of obedience. Along the way we have learned to avoid too much contact with sinners lest we be dragged off the path of this obedience and make a mistake that will upset God.

This is the church the world sees. Let's be brutally honest and admit that this is what goes on in far too many churches each and every week. So, what if weekend worship was just that? What if it was an all out party celebrating our freedom from sin, death and the devil? What if we took seriously the fact that all the requirements of the law have been met in Christ Jesus...while we were yet sinners. Christ died for us before anyone really understood who he was. (Sometimes I wonder why we now feel obligated to understand him in order to keep what has already been freely given while we were ignorant.)

What if all the competing and conflicting doctrinal positions of all the different denominations just didn't matter? That would mean any of us...all of us...who have even just glimpsed what is ours in Jesus could get together whenever we wanted (even on a Sunday) to multiply the joy with singing, communion, praise, testimony and prayer.

Of course we'd want to also get together and enjoy lively discussion about what the Holy Spirit is revealing to us from the Word. We don't need biblical experts telling us what to think when the Spirit is at work revealing God to each of us. Having mentors who will encourage us in the faith is great, too. But none of these things are what we do to reach the 'lost.'

And that particular topic is for my next post. So let's pick up next time and look at this simple truth...the key is relationships. It's people not programs, life not liturgy, friendship not formality. And Jesus said, 'Go!'

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Know Your Limits

Let's return to the back room at Walmart. My job is to pull boxes of product off the back room shelves and send them out to the sales floor. This involves climbing up and down a ladder, moving pallets and other physically demanding activities. In some cases the only way I can do something is with the help of another associate (Walmart's term for employee). There are limits to what I can do and should do if I'm to remain healthy and effective. If I try to do too much I risk injury and will be out of commission for a time, if not permanently. In order to be as effective as possible I must know my limits and work within those.

The church...as defined in this discussion as the place we gather each weekend...has limits that have been ignored for many years. For this reason the Church...defined as the Body of Christ...has struggled to be as effective as it could be in our Western culture.

So here, in my opinion, is what church should be limited to so that the Church can be more effective. Weekend services should be gatherings of believers focused on a very narrow set of goals:

  • Praising God 
  • Confessing sin
  • Discussing God's Word
  • Encouraging believers to take on the rigorous challenge of being Christ to the world
  • Celebrating what God has done in the ways He has given us
In short, the gathering of believers is a family affair that will always seem odd and off putting to strangers. 

What has happened is that we have disregarded the limits of these gatherings and added so many other agendas so as to make the whole thing practically worthless to anyone. Here's what we've added and the problems that come with them...
  • Teaching (appropriate teaching includes conversation, questions, and lively interaction)
  • Outreach (requires sensitivity, discussion, relationship and eliminating 'insider' language)
  • Discipleship (requires mentoring, correction, challenge and practice)
  • Mission (reflected in the laudable but flawed 'Church has left the building' activities some have undertaken on Sunday mornings)
I'm sure there are other things we've tried to cram in on Sunday morning that could be added to this list. In so doing we have accidentally created an expectation that all of our Christian living can be captured in a couple of hours a week inside a building. We try to reach seekers, teach believers, exercise discipline, worship God, study the Word, accomplish mission, challenge life long Christians and nurture the newly faithful all in the same sixty to ninety minutes.

Is there any other endeavor you're aware of that attempts to be all things to all people simultaneously and does it successfully? Me either! Yet the church keeps making a valiant attempt each week to do just that. All the while ignoring the massive evidence that they're failing miserably. Non-believers aren't showing up, believers aren't being challenged, everyone is frustrated and a crippling malaise has settled over the entire enterprise.

So why don't we start understanding the limits of Sunday morning. Let's make a clear statement that on Sunday the family gathers for family business. We use a common language non-family members won't understand. We follow a format that makes sense to us (and that can vary based on which branch of the family to which you happen to belong). We don't necessarily shun seekers or unbelievers but we don't make accommodations for them, either.

Then let's get serious about setting unwavering expectations that those who do believe will submit to being equipped for ministry and take seriously God's call on their lives to be the hands and feet of Jesus every day in every place they go. By cramming everything into Sunday morning we have let those who claim to be Christian off the hook for actually living that out. Our life in Christ cannot be contained.

Having attempted to do so we have crippled the Body of Christ. Pretending that worship, evangelism, teaching, discipleship, and the whole of Christian living can be packaged into a well orchestrated few minutes on a weekly basis has rendered the church irrelevant to our society.

What would it look like if we restored worship to its rightful place in the overall scope of faithful living? What if we very publicly apologized for trying to cram everything into Sunday morning and started expecting believers to be fully engaged in worship/service/outreach/relationships every day, all the time? And then got about rethinking how we do everything so as to make it possible for people to be engaged at that level.

It seems this conversation could go on for many more posts...but I'm curious to hear what you think about what I've just shared here.

Saturday, March 08, 2014


Yesterday I resumed blogging after a long hiatus and my post stirred up some good comments on Facebook. I figured as long as I'm on a roll, why not keep going.

Many years ago a standard way of dealing with people who suffered from mental illness was to lock them away in an institution. The reasoning was society needed to be protected from them and they needed to be protected from themselves. It seemed the best way to do this was to lock them in a building with people of a similar disposition. Then experts monitored their behavior to assure they were kept harmless, docile and cooperative. In some cases (most cases) mood altering drugs were also necessary. Institutions of this sort were intended only for a certain population and were designed to meet the needs of those people. If you didn't fit the institution there was no need for you to be there.

Many years ago analytical types conducted extensive research and determined that most churches turn in on themselves somewhere between years 20 and 25 of their existence. The term the experts used to describe this phenomenon was that churches would become 'institutionalized'. It's a curious, yet descriptive, word choice. As witnessed time and time again, a church that is aging and has turned in on itself often exhibits these qualities:

  • The purpose of their existence is to exist.
  • Their rules are almost all focused on protecting their assets, property and status quo (who is allowed to use the kitchen/who controls the thermostats/who gets to use the building after filing the appropriate requests and usage fees/etc.)
  • Biblical/Theological experts (pastors and professional church workers) monitor behavior and mete out discipline to those who step out of line.
  • By and large participants are kept safe from society and only let out on rare, controlled field trips (like mission trips or 'Invite a Friend to Church Sundays')
  • And society gets the message that the institution isn't really for them as the church, almost always inadvertently, puts up some pretty sturdy barriers to entry
Somewhere along the way every church loses its way. Instead of being what the church is meant to be it tries to accomplish all aspects of God's call in one place. Instead of doing one thing well it does everything poorly and ultimately becomes irrelevant and inconsequential. In my next post I'll share my thoughts on what church should and should not be doing. You might be surprised  by what I have to say.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Lessons From the Back Room

The time has come to resume posting here. It's been quite some time since my last post and it's been quite an eventful time for me. For the past six months I've had the opportunity to observe the world as the majority of Americans now experience it...without almost no reference to or influence from the church.

In September I began working in the back room at Walmart overnights. There I've met a wonderful and wildly diverse group of people. My co-workers are Bosnian, Polish, Filipino, Hispanic, African American, Caucasian, Korean and Albanian. They are straight, gay, married, divorced, single parents, early twenties through early fifties. In short, a cross section of the melting pot we call America. And, like America, very few of them attend church. Those that do on a regular basis are the older ones.

There's no animosity toward church that is particularly evident. In fact I've prayed for and with several people in my time there. I've had some very good conversations about faith, spirituality, the Bible, and God. But church has almost no relevance in the lives of my new friends. Some grew up attending church. I've met one who not only attended Willow Creek but worked there for a time on the janitorial staff. Another grew up attending church and went on summer mission trips in high school.

For most, however, church is now just a memory...cherished or not so cherished. And there's no longing for it or any sense that it might someday become important to them again. Being with these folks day in and day out is the most stimulating breath of fresh air I've experienced in a long time.

This isn't a cautionary tale or the prelude to a great story about evangelizing people with the Gospel. It's the real world. A world where most people don't consider church relevant, necessary, important or interesting. God fascinates them. Jesus impresses them. Prayer comforts them. The Bible intrigues some of them. Church is inconsequential.

All the while shrinking, dying churches continue meeting every Sunday doing over and over and over again the same things they've been doing for centuries hoping for a different result. Hoping for revival. Hoping to become relevant again. But here's the problem churches seem unwilling to address...

If nearly all your activity is anchored and takes place in a building to which hardly anyone comes how can you become relevant in the lives of those who never give church a second thought?

And encouraging "your people" (a quaint church concept) to invite friends to church is akin to inviting them to a museum. It might be an interesting place to visit as a relic of your past but it will never be much more than a rare nostalgic distraction. So that's not an answer to the problem. Assuming the church thinks this is a problem...and there are some who don't seem to think it is.

So in the back room at Walmart I pray with people and for people. I talk about God with people. I encourage those who are interested to read the Bible. And people who used to go to church sometimes reminisce. But I never invite them to church because...it's irrelevant.