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Headed to Reimagine Brownsville

I’ll again be giving out books at a table at this important event. You can find out more about Reimagine at their web site. I’ll try to post some pictures through the day, but those who know me, know that taking pictures and remembering to post them is not one of my gifts!

Major on the Clear Stuff

I get disturbed when I see people around me disturbed by the latest Bible mystery, or obscure interpretation of prophecy. These things sell books, and bring in offerings, but I don’t think they produce better followers of Jesus.

I don’t have a problem with discussing difficult or controversial passages, but the church has been living with new interpretations of prophecy that mean, well, generally that mean that you ought to send money to the person who truly knows.

I grew up in the Seventh-day Adventist church. Practically every year as I grew up there would be a new evangelist in town, or even the same evangelist, who would have figured out how the beasts in Daniel and Revelation really meant something that was happening right now. One favorite was to find communist Russian in Bible prophecy. Of course, there is less interest in that these days. I used to wonder if the preachers thought I wouldn’t remember that the same symbol had definitely meant something completely different the year before.

But over time I’ve found that people do forget that sort of thing. They forget the previous prophecy or interpretation and move on to the next one. In terms of last day prophecies, Christian history is filled with the failure of the last day foretellers. I have come to the conclusion that God didn’t want us to know precisely what was going to happen at the end of time. I think there’s plenty of good reasons to believe this. What God did want us to know was enough to be ready.

You don’t need to know the identity of the antichrist. You just need to know what it means to be anti-Christ. (Spend some time in 1 John, not Revelation, to get an idea.) You don’t need to know just when persecution will begin. You just need to know who your Lord is and that you will be faithful. You don’t need to prepare yourself physically for disaster by stockpiling food and survival supplies. You need to be living as the one you claim as Lord lived. He was headed for immediate disaster, and he knew it. Yet he spent his time seeking and saving the lost, not looking to his physical survival.

We are doing so poorly with the part of the Christian message that is very clear and quite uncontroversial (in theory, at least!) that we really have no business in the trivia.

Here’s my end time formula:

Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, … (Philippians 2:4-5, NRSV, via BibleGateway.com)

Go, read the rest of the passage (Philippians 2:4-11). Or you could read the whole book!

Link: Elgin Hushbeck on Hebrews

I’m posting this in the middle of the action, but Energion author Elgin Hushbeck, Jr. is blogging (and teaching) through Hebrews verse by verse. He’s in chapter 10, so follow it back to the beginning first if interested.

Unconscious Traditions Fight Change

I’ve said quite a few times that I think that the job description we have for a pastor in most churches is ungodly. It’s also inhuman. The pastor can’t do all of that, so many times they fail. Those who succeed do so through extraordinary talents, gifts, and dependence on the grace of God. But it’s very difficult to change.

That’s because we have a traditional set of responsibilities for a pastor, and usually an additional set for a particular parish or congregation based on the things previous pastors, fondly remembered in their absence, are said to have done. A pastor who fails to accomplish all of these things will likely be accused of not doing his or her job. Many of these traditions are not conscious ones. People simply assume that this is done. Let me give some examples.

A pastor I invited to speak at a conference had to back out. The reason? He had an out of town wedding he had not expected, and he had made a covenant with his church to be in the pulpit 50 out of the 52 weeks of the year. I do not, of course, want to suggest that the pastor should violate his covenant, but I have to ask why a pastor needs to be the one to preach that often. Of course, it is traditional that we hear only the pastor, or one of the ordained members of the pastoral staff, but why is this?

On the other hand, recently I have visited the United Church of Christ congregation (a new church plant of theirs) here in Pensacola three times. I have yet to hear the pastor preach. It’s not that he was missing. He was on the front row. But he hears other members of the congregation. I like that. I do hope to hear him preach some day, but he doesn’t feel bound by the tradition that the only time someone else can preach is when the pastor is absent, rarely, of course, and with good excuse!

Another Methodist church I know of had more than 30 lay speakers, many of them certified lay speakers. You would hear one or two of them preach in a year. If you had lay speakers speak too often, people would think the pastor was lazy. In lay speaker training I was told to expect to speak only rarely, which made me wonder why there was a certification program if the certified speakers were not to speak. I was told this prepared one for more involvement in church leadership. What leadership, nobody said.

Paul, in 1 Corinthians 14, describes a church gathering. Here everyone comes with something, many of them wanting to speak. The problem is not getting activity, but rather controlling an excess of activity. I think that we fail in following 1 Corinthians 12-14 because we don’t have the same problems as the Corinthian church, but we think we do. We should be so blessed as to have the problems of the church in Corinth. Certainly one needs to solve those problems, but they’re easier to solve than apathy and inaction. Our tradition, the unconscious one, puts a big divide between the pew and the platform/pulpit and puts the activity “up” and inactivity” down. We expect information to flow from the pulpit/platform and are silly enough to think it will be absorbed by those in the pews.

What would happen if we spread things around? What if we heard from one another during the gathering of the saints on Sunday morning? I’d miss being able to hear my pastor on Sunday. I’m blessed to be in a church with multiple services with good speakers all around. Nonetheless, I don’t think they should be the only ones who speak when the saints gather. They need to equip the saints, all the saints, to study, think, and share.

Another tradition we have is that trained people think and speak about theology, while everybody else shuts up and listens. This probably feeds into the desire to always have the pastor speak. He’s the one who knows theology, after all. And I believe it’s important for the church to have people who have done serious study of theology and biblical studies to bring information into the discussion. But more importantly, the role of these people should be to guide and train the congregation into how to study and learn more for themselves. We have a hierarchy of knowledge as well as a hierarchy of power.

And it’s not just (or even mostly) people seeking power in the church that make this happen. It’s not that pastors are power hungry. I know many, many pastors who are not. But when they try to get people to become more involved, those people either don’t want to, or they agree to and then don’t put forth the effort. This is again because our unconscious tradition says that people with theological degrees are the ones who should think and talk about theology. It’s a dangerous tradition, and is one of the reasons so many church members can be swayed so easily on so many subjects.

I was stopped by a church member in the halls of one church who asked me how it was that people who wrote the notes for study Bibles got their ideas. She explained that she kept looking at the notes, and she figured they must be right, because, after all, those who wrote the notes were experts, but she just couldn’t figure out how. Could I explain? She even had an example ready.

She showed me her example, and quite bluntly, I thought the note completely emasculated one of the parables of Jesus, making it into a feel-good Twinkie rather than a solid serving of Brussels Sprouts. So I asked her, “Are you sure the note is right?” She was astonished! Now this was an educated, professional woman, but she simply hadn’t considered that she could disagree with the experts. I was able to point out that if she had another study Bible, written from a different perspective, the notes might say something different. Then what would she do?

I think we need to get rid of these “lessers” and “greaters” in our thinking. This is often referred to as hierarchy, and sometimes if we criticize that, we can be viewed as against order. But the problem isn’t leadership. There are those called to lead, though in Christian communities it should be servant-leadership. But in a “nation of priests” there is some sense in which everyone is called to lead, and everyone is called to follow.

I’m not talking here about church organizational charts. Some of the best servant-leadership I’ve observed was carried out by a United Methodist bishop. The chart may have said authority, and he was in no way afraid to lead, but his actions put Jesus in charge. I know of independent churches who try to erase the lines of hierarchical authority where nonetheless there is a very clear authority structure. It’s just that nobody admits it. I think that’s a sign of how hard it is for us to take responsibility for our calling and look to Jesus. It’s not so much the formal structure. It’s the attitude of those within.

It’s these unconscious traditions that need to be brought to light, examined, and discarded if necessary. Tradition can be a good thing. It’s the collection of assumptions about what must happen that gets in the way of doing the right thing.

My Wife Writes about Suicide

My wife Jody has written a post on suicide which I think is worth passing on.

Seeking, Dialogue, and an Ecumenical Center

I’m an advocate of dialogue in everything, certainly including matters of faith. Sometimes, however, dialogue is confused with seeking. There’s nothing wrong with seeking, but it is not identical with dialogue, though they do overlap.

Dialogue can and should occur between people who do have an idea what they believe. It’s hard to have an exchange about beliefs if you don’t actually have any. This describes an extreme case, however. Seekers are rarely totally without beliefs, and someone seeking dialogue is unlikely to be locked in on everything. But I wanted to start with the contrast.

For good dialogue to take place, I believe, one needs to identify what one believes and also distinguish between core beliefs, things that anchor you spiritually, and those beliefs that you hold more loosely. Not everything is of equal importance, after all.

This is the idea of an ecumenical center. That’s not a middle of the road or moderate set of ideas. It doesn’t mean that one is a centrist. It simply means that certain ideas are central to your system of beliefs. In one sense you might say these are the things you’re going to hang onto. But I think it’s more a matter of these are the things that feel secure to you. In fact, you can discuss them without feeling threatened because they are so much a part of you.

For example, I would place the belief that Jesus has come in the flesh, the incarnation, as my core belief. I talk about everything in those terms. I even talk about my understanding of scripture from that perspective. One can debate this on a chicken and egg basis, and I wouldn’t be able to tell you which came first. It is just central. When someone challenges the incarnation, it doesn’t bother me. That’s something that is firmly founded in my thinking and my spiritual life, reinforced by study and experience.

I think some people are uncomfortable with dialogue because they believe they can’t have firm beliefs and still dialogue. I disagree. I think having a few firm beliefs is a good starting point for dialogue. It gives you something to say. It may make you a bit more interesting, even!

Dr. Bob LaRochelle has done a good bit of thinking about this idea of an ecumenical center, thinking in particular about the things that we share between denominations and how that can be a basis for cooperation. He’s one of our Energion Publications authors, and he’ll be talking about this on a Google Hangout on Air tonight, October 21, at 7 PM central time. I invite you to watch this and think about what things are central to you.

Prophecy and All Believers

We had an interesting discussion today in Sunday School. We were discussing the 3rd chapter of my book When People Speak for God,  titled Messengers – God and Prophet. The questions at hand were just what is prophecy, who are God’s messengers (with a side-order of how can you tell) and how does getting a message from God work.

I started by repeating an important point, I  believe, that prophecy in a biblical sense is not the same as prediction.  I do not deny prediction as a part of prophecy,  but thinking of prophecy as primarily about prediction will provide a distorted view of prophecy. Denying all prediction will distort one’s view as well.

Further, discernment is always a requirement. A key passage in considering discernment is 1 Kings 22. What lessons one might draw from that story might be quite interesting. But that discernment was needed is quite clear.

Combining the result of that story with  Jeremiah 42 & 43 and my own observations of life I think that we have a greater problem with doing what should be done after we know what it is, than ever we do with actually discerning what is right and wrong.  The most common question I hear (and ask,  for that matter) is “how do I know what God’s will is?” when the real question should be “how can I put into action what I already know is right?”

This led us to the question of naming prophets.  Who in the church today might be called a  prophet?

In the church I think we should be much less about who is in the office of prophet than was the case in Old Testament times,  and much more about all God’s people being prophets, perhaps a fulfillment of Moses’ wish: “Would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them” (Numbers 11:29).

I think that this goes well with the idea of the priesthhood of all believers. It is not about finding people to occupy an office of prophet, but rather to recognize this gift when it is received and exercised.

Happy 60th Birthday, Jody!

jody at disneyToday is my wife Jody’s 60th birthday. She’s 60 years young today. I know that’s a cliche, but in her case it’s also very true. At heart she is quite flexible. Attaining the big six oh has not cost her sense of humor, her flexibility, or her ability to relate to young people. I’ve always been amazed at the way young people just collect around her.

I got married late. I had a hard time imagining shaping my life to the needs of someone else.Now I can’t imagine living without her. We have become one.

Marriage, whether you’re young or old, is an exercise in mutual submission. Before I was married I thought this was a matter of big issues. But in reality it’s a constant thing as you work with little things. For example, a birthday party. Jody likes lots of people and thrives on activity and noise. I think three is a crowd and four is in danger of becoming a mob. I’ve forgotten my own birthday, and even done so when I was a teenager. I forgot my 13th birthday, in fact, and was quite shocked when my mother said Happy Birthday that morning.

Jody wanted a great birthday party for her 60th. I thought she deserved it and was determined to make it happen. Fortunately for me, fate, in the form of daughters, both heart and blood, who took over, planned, and executed everything. So this afternoon Jody will be gathered with friends from 2 pm to 5 pm. She demonstrated her sensitivity to my personality by telling me I didn’t have to be there the whole time. That was nice, but I rather think I should be there the whole time.

I can’t help drawing serious lessons, so here goes. I recall preaching at a church once where we had just become members. Few people knew me, but the pastor knew my background, so when he was out of town he invited me to take the pulpit. I did so. The practice at the end of the service was for the preacher to walk down the center aisle to the back door first, at which time the congregation was dismissed. Thus the preacher could shake everyone’s hand as they left. As I reached the second pew going down the aisle, an elderly lady grabbed me by the arm and said, “Young man, you don’t know what sort of things are going on in this church! There are four generations of my ancestors in that cemetery [she waved at the windows to where it was located], and none of them would approve of the goings on in this church!” I extricated myself without starting a fight, but I remember thinking that the first place I’d go for advice on how to run a church would be the people in the cemetery!

That woman represents how so many of us get old and crotchety and spend our time criticizing those who are young and still have energy, hope, and ideas. Jody is precisely the opposite. She believes that one of the great things about being old is that you have the opportunity to encourage young people. You can give advice, but you let them be who they are. They haven’t yet been broken into cynicism by the world around them. Being with her is refreshing.

She has arthritis and significant amounts of pain, but she’s keeping active and moving forward. I look forward to her encouragement in the years to come and hope I can be a true companion to her as God intended.

Some Notes and Links

Yesterday I ranted about the church. Dave Black pulled some of the better material out of it and commented, so I posted it to The Jesus Paradigm so we’d have a link.

I also posted some notes on recent releases and some not-so-recent ones regarding the church on the Energion Publications news blog.

I blogged about publishing The River of Life a few days ago. Now Energion author and series editor Bob Cornwall has published a review of that book. I want to mention that when I talk about new releases on Monday on the Energion Publications news blog, I’ll be announcing another book, Reframing a Relevant Faith by Dr. Drew Smith, that will make a nice companion. At that time I will tell you who said of  this new book: “One of the best presentations of the progressive Christian vision I have read.

My own work this weekend involves working on the release of a new novel, Molecricket, for our Eucatastrophe Press imprint. I’ll provide links and images on Monday.

 

 

Not Looking for the Perfect Church, but …

Via Allan Bevere I located this interview with Scot McKnight, in which McKnight makes a number of interesting statements. The one that caught my attention most was:

… A proper kingdom theology leads people to the middle of the church, not away from it. So it makes a difference when church is on the decline and people are saying they are committed to the kingdom but not so much to the church. You can’t have kingdom without church.

First let me note that I am a very churchy fellow. Except when I was not a (practicing) Christian, I have been a member of a church congregation, and those congregations have largely been deonominational. I’m the sort of person who finds a church in the phone book when traveling on a weekend, and goes and worships with a local congregation. I’m a member of First United Methodist Church of Pensacola, who, I am sure, would rather not be blamed for what I say! First UMC is not a perfect church. I’m sure that can be said of all the First UMC of ____ congregations around. Nonetheless the gospel is preached there, and much good ministry is accomplished.

Second, Allan Bevere is a friend, and co-editor of the Areopagus Critical Christian Issues Series published by my company, Energion Publications. I like Allan. What’s more, I agree with him on many things, especially what he said about this topic.

Third, I found very little that I disagree with theologically in Scot McKnight’s comments.

My problems are largely practical. It’s all well and good to tell people to connect with the church. I’ve been doing that myself. In fact, I find that most people who are struggling spiritually have one thing in common—they’ve lost that connection.

But here are some of the reasons I’ve heard just recently for not connecting with local churches:

  1. The church lacks convictions. Face it, fellow Methodists (I’ll leave the rest to check their own surroundings), we’re not a church of terribly strong convictions. When I was looking at joining a United Methodist congregation I was told by one pastor that he didn’t care what I believed. If I wanted to “enjoy their fellowship” I could join. I’m not sure whether he wanted me to abstain or lie during the membership vows.
  2. The church has convictions, but people can’t live with those convictions. I’m not referring to any particular issue or any side of any particular issue. I’ve heard this from people across the theological spectrum. Really!
  3. The church is so little oriented toward kingdom work of any variety (any of the five elements to which McKnight refers) that the person doesn’t how he or she could work for both the kingdom and the church.
  4. The church is so fractured, that people have a hard time identifying what is actually Church.
  5. The church behaves as though it is a kingdom in the throes of a civil war.
  6. The king is, at most, a figurehead.

I could go on, but I won’t.

I have personally felt elements of all of those things. Of course the kingdom and the church should overlap, but sometimes I feel that the theologians and preachers are hammering the people who are trying to accomplish something for the kingdom, as problematic as that may be outside of the church, while the churches (to be distinguished from Church) continue to fail to make it possible to accomplish much of anything. It often sounds like people should be able to find and identify a good church, one that will truly be part of the kingdom, without any particular guidance. When they get there, the reason they should stay is that they need the church, whether or not it is functioning for them.

Now I’m sure readers are going to get all tense about the phrase “functioning for them.” I believe that the primary issue in finding a local congregation is discovering the place where, and from which you can best serve Jesus. This is necessary because we don’t have a single church. Paul didn’t write to the Corinthians about our sort of problems, because we’ve gotten much worse. Not only do we have divisions; our divisions are institutionalized. So I have to locate a church congregation where I can be part of the Church, and thus carry on kingdom work. The followers of Cephas, Apollos, Paul, and Christ have separated themselves into different buildings with signs and trademarked logos.

Once I find this congregation, I’m as likely as not to be pushed into various congregational or denominational programs to make sure that I’m properly socialized to the way that particular congregation does business. I recall being pursued early in my time in the United Methodist Church by folks from the Lay Speaker program. I needed to be certified before I spoke. I needed to coordinate before I spoke anywhere, because I might be seen as representing the UMC. But I wasn’t being invited to speak for Methodism. I had other things going on. Once I’ve checked off the boxes, the congregation wants to make sure I’m doing things for that congregation. Perhaps we should recognize that people gain skills in other churches, other denominations, and even in their secular occupations.

Now because I am fully convinced of what Allan and Scot are saying, I will find that congregation and I will be a member, and I will make my kingdom work part of Church. What I won’t do is find myself stuck with that congregation or denomination. If I can get together with other parts of the Church irrespective of denomination, I’ll do so. But we get back to “functioning for them.”

I’m seeing a great deal of hostility to any notion that a person should get something out of church. But the fact is that if you don’t get something out of church, you’re not going to be doing any ministry from church. No, you shouldn’t be self oriented. You should look for a place where you can serve. But a church congregation (and the whole church), should be a place where we serve one another. We give and we receive. And if we don’t receive, we won’t be giving for long, I don’t believe.

That’s one of the problems with our expectations of pastors. The actual job description for our pastors—I mean what you’d get by following them around and describing what they actually do, not the paperwork lies we use—is both ungodly and stupid. Nobody can do the job. We put men and women into a place where nobody can truly succeed. Those who do succeed at all remold the job. I do not mean to denigrate the many fine pastors I know who are doing wonderful kingdom work from their church congregations. The problem is that we require them to be paragons just in order to succeed. We make every effort to destroy them. That’s the extreme of giving but not receiving.

(Yes, Jesus said it’s better to give than to receive. But if we have an entire Church of people giving, there will be a lot of receiving going on as well!)

It isn’t wrong for a couple with children to want to see that the church congregation they join will help them raise and nurture their children. It’s not wrong for a person who is ill to hope to be visited, encouraged, and prayed for. It’s not wrong for missionaries to want a home base that will actively support what they do and who will want to listen to their stories when they return. It is not wrong for the elderly members to expect that they will be helped and respected in their declining years. All of those things involve the congregation “functioning for” various people. If I want to support children’s ministry, the elderly, service to the sick or imprisoned, or engage in social action, why would I join a congregation that shows it’s intention not to do those sorts of things?

But, object many of my fellow churchy folks, there are good congregations out there. People should be more determined. They should seek out the right congregation. They should find a way to serve! They can start those ministries!

And here you’re expecting the non-theologically trained, non-church-oriented, ordinary people who just want to get about doing good to fix your church first. If the church is spending 70% or more of its budget just maintaining the machine, why would someone who really cares about the poor, for example, decide to join up and handle the problem before they do what they are called to do? That’s what we ask of many of them. We are dedicated to the buildings, to the structure, to the programs, and to the traditions, so they should come on board and be satisfied with just a tiny percentage of the effort and money of the church going to the sorts of ministry to which they are called.

I don’t believe that the solution to our church problems will come by persuading this generation that they need to come on board and solve our problems before they can do kingdom work. Those of us who are in the church need to be prepared to be radical. Sometimes one must acquire buildings, but very frequently one must get rid of buildings. If a church is failing, it may well be time to shut it down.

I’m not opposed to paid staff. But our paid staff should be people who help get the rest of us out doing ministry. For example, I would be very sorry to see a scholar-pastor such as Dr. Wesley Wachob at  my home church in a bi-vocational ministry. I think the best use the church can make of him is in a full-time teaching role. But his job (and I’d be surprised if he doesn’t understand it this way, but don’t blame him for my words!) is to get another 3,000+ of us out there doing ministry, not as paid ministers, but as every member ministers. (Every member in ministry is a good Methodist program. Too bad “every” is such a small number in so many cases.)

Do I have a solution or is this just a rant? Well, I admit it is somewhat of a rant. But I do believe that each of us who are in the church can make a difference by being different. Have convictions. If you don’t know what they should be, study. Learn. Be prepared to stand aside and see things done differently, even in ways you don’t think will work, as new people come in the door. See the church everywhere believers may be found, and not just in your congregation.

And for the 21st century in particular, realize that social relations are different now. I hear moaning in church about a decline in people knowing one another as aging church members (and I must admit these aging church members are my age!) talk about how social media is ruining everything. They ought to be in church or at our Sunday School party, but they’re on Facebook. Yes, indeed! They’re on Facebook. And that’s part of their social circle and how they connect. And because I want to be able to connect with the current generation and those between, it’s one of the ways I connect. Many of my closest friends now I met through electronic media, some long before it was called social media or the internet became so universal.

For example, I met Elgin Hushbeck, Jr. on the CompuServe Religion Forum in the days when I had to dial-up a CompuServe outlet in order to connect. Elgin is now one of my authors. He spoke some years ago at a pastor’s conference I was coordinating. It all started through non-traditional media. It was through Elgin that I met Dave Black, who I now count as one of my closest friends. They’re part of the Church, I am connected to them, and it didn’t start in a church fellowship hall.

Then there’s Allan Bevere, who I know is committed to the church and is committed, I believe to all the types of ministry I’ve discussed and more. Further, he’s willing to be in the heart of the fray. I met him via blogging. In fact, I think our earliest exchange involved him telling me I didn’t know what I was talking about! We’ve met in real life since, but it all started among the blogs. He, in turn, introduced me to Bob Cornwall, a Disciples pastor in Michigan, who is also one of my authors and the lead editor for a series I publish. My point here is not to invoke these people in support of my views. Rather, I’m pointing out that there’s a whole new way of congregating in the 21st century, and we churchy folks need to get used to it. It may not just be an adjunct to what we consider “real” socializing. It’s more likely a new reality.

All of these people are in the Church with me, as I see it.

I don’t think the concept of the church is out of date. The media may change, but the idea is there. What we need to do is truly practice being the body of Christ in whatever place and by whatever means there are at hand. In doing so, we need to be radical, in the sense of pulling up by the root those things that keep us from doing what we need to do. Our theology on the importance of the church won’t bring these people in. I hope it will convince us that we need to get real about the message and practice of the gospel.