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Can We Cure Christian Insanity?

Can We Cure Christian Insanity?

Albert Einstein is frequently credited, incorrectly, with saying that insanity is repeatedly doing the same thing but expecting different results. Repeatedly point out that the attribution is incorrect is likely a form of insanity, as it will doubtless still be attributed to Albert Einstein. (You can read the details on the Quote Investigator.)

I like the form given by George A. Kelly in 1955 (as quoted in op. cit.):

“… we may define a disorder as any personal construction which is used repeatedly in spite of consistent invalidation.”

The Quote Investigator

The phrase “… in spite of consistent invalidation” is my sort of language! I must note that I use that sort of language on people frequently, with the most common result being blank looks. Not what I was looking for. Yet I repeat.

By this definition, however, many, many churches can be diagnosed with some sort of disorder. We have churches and whole denominations diminishing in numbers, worrying about those diminishing numbers, holding meetings and conferences about them, without ever actually making substantive changes.

I’m reminded of a pastor who once told me how his church had asked him for a plan to grow their congregation and to reach their community for Christ. He labored over the plan for months, and it was presented to the church with some fanfare, ceremony, and excitement. The members agreed that this plan would bring in new people, and they thought it would reach people in their community for Christ. But they decided not to do it because their church would no longer be the church of their childhoods. They wouldn’t really like it anymore.

One disorder in the church is that we can determine the quality of some church by numbers. Mainline denominations are criticized because their numbers are dropping. It’s often considered the end of the argument: “Our church is growing, so we’re better. Yours is shrinking, so you’re worse.”

But there are large, growing churches with quite different and contradictory theologies. We’ve discussed and tried to cure our numbers problems for years. Is it possible that our obsession with numbers is one sign of church insanity? Is the number of backsides contacting the pews of our church buildings each Sunday a good indicator of spiritual health, or even of church health? More importantly, is finding what appears to be a good strategy for church growth the right way to be the Body of Christ in the world?

Why am I writing this at Christmas?

Well, I’m really writing it in Advent, and this advent season, I’d like to consider the possibility that the best strategy we can devise is not God’s strategy, the best measurements we can devise do not measure what God wants measured, and finally that God’s strategy might look totally hopeless and useless to us.

Think of yourself in the Roman world in the late 1st century BCE or early 1st century CE. What do you see as your problem? How do you measure it?

Lots of modern Christians criticize the Jewish people for “expecting the wrong thing.” I’d like to take note of two things. I suspect if you think that, you haven’t been reading the texts in the Hebrew Scriptures with care and attention and looking at them in context. There were plenty of indications that God’s plan was to free his people politically and make them the center of the nations and to do it now! Second, Christians criticizing the Jews seem to be looking for the same things as the Jews were. We’re chucking stones through openings in our glass houses. One of the great Christian pretensions, quite insane, is that somehow we would do better than Israel did, that we are somehow better people.

And it was not only the Jews who wanted freedom from the Romans. History looks back on the Pax Romana with a certain amount of approval. As brutal as Roman government was, it did provide an unprecedented degree of law and order. Many still wanted to rebel, and the Romans provided them with many reasons to do so. One reason for their failure, however, was that people appreciate law and order, as long as they are not the ones suffering the penalties. Line the roads with people dying on crosses, and as long as one can convince oneself that one is not headed to the cross next, one will often support the oppressor.

One thing we often forget about the rise of tyrants is that it is not just the tyrants who are involved. Often a weak, divided, corrupt, and ineffective opposition is the would-be tyrant’s best friend.

So clearly I must be advocating for a good grand strategy, mobilizing the right people, making the opposition effective, getting the right weapons, and acting in a unified way.

As a member of a United Methodist congregation, the strategy should be greater grounding in Wesleyan doctrine, more advertising of Methodist churches, more money spent on hospitality and relationships with our visitors, and more people inviting others to church. Right?

That would, after all, be the equivalent of uniting the opposition to a tyrant around a clear plan, led by people who are known not to be corrupt, with plenty of financial backing, and perhaps even weapons and people with training willing to put them into action.

Good strategy, yes. God’s strategy, no.

You see, this is a Christmas post (yes, I know, posted in Advent). Faced with probably the most efficient army the world had known up to that time (at least the world as seen from the Mediterranean), with a brutal but effective means of enforcing rule, and a government willing to apply that method with the necessary ruthlessness, God did not summon up an army. Not even an army of angels. The only angels around seem to have been bringing messages or singing songs.

God didn’t find a charismatic political leader to organize a party, nor did God bring a political leader to take effective action in the Roman senate. He didn’t perform a miracle to wipe the oppressors out so that others could fill the vacuum.

Faced with a terrible, intractable situation, God went stupid. I say that with the utmost respect. Awe even. Reverence.

God sent a baby, born of a nobody, barely surviving childhood, raised on the wrong side of the tracks. Donkey tracks, that is!

Not a good plan, Lord! Bad strategy! Losing, even!

This was grace in action. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Let’s expand that. While we were still sinners, Jesus came as a baby, lived as we have to live, encountered dangers and we have to encounter them, lived through reproach, and then died the horrible death that the authorities had prepared for someone like him.

The reality is that if we’re honest, we will confess that this strategy would never occur to us and we wouldn’t really try it. As evidence, I will point out that we never seem to plan church strategies of that kind. Our strategies are not designed to give without waiting for a return.

If they were, then church growth groups couldn’t sell their services to churches by promising more members. Stewardship consultants wouldn’t be able to sell churches their services by promising a certain amount of increase in the weekly take in the offering plate.

We’ve been doing those things for years, and yes, business plans built around such activities can work for a time. That stewardship consultant very likely can increase your weekly offering.

But here’s the problem. That success is not a success of the Body of Christ, but rather of your organization, your people, and your goals. It is advertising one thing but then offering people another when they come in the doors. The greater offering intake, greater influence in the community, and better social programs don’t solve people’s basic needs. These things may make your church successful, provided what you’re selling is Sunday morning entertainment and a platform for social programs.

But if that is what you’re offering, don’t be surprised when people down the street, with any number of motivations and programs, provide a better mechanism for people to influence the social realm and even help people economically than your church does.

Perhaps we need to look at our behavior, recognize our “disorder,” and look to God for a strategy. Perhaps we need to prepare to go out into the world, build relationships, walk alongside people in their need. As recipients of God’s grace, perhaps we can be sharers of God’s grace.

Some will be saying, “But those big buildings, the money in our offering plate, and our big platform are helping us serve the world.” If they are doing that, great! Thanks be to God for that great blessing!

But if you still feel that something’s missing, or if the pews start to empty as people realize they can do as much by sending a check to their favorite charity, then consider that you may need to go out into the world in the way that God sent his son. (But remember also that people may be leaving because they don’t want to take up their cross.)

No, we cannot cure our insanity. Only the grace of God can do that. The starting point is to realize that we are insane, that we can’t cure it, but our gracious God can.

Yes, I’m a publisher. Let me recommend a book.

Featured image credit: Adobe Stock 95049255. Not public domain.

Measuring the Wrong Thing in the Wrong Way

Measuring the Wrong Thing in the Wrong Way

A few years ago I heard a story about a Methodist District Superintendent who was visiting a church in his district. The church was conducting an afternoon training event. At the height of this event, the superintendent asks the pastor of the church how many people he thought were in attendance. The pastor looked around and replied, “About 400.” The superintendent said, “Oh, how many does this sanctuary seat?” “250,” responded the pastor, unperturbed.

It makes a great joke, backing up the phrase “clergy estimate,” but it also illustrates a problem that we have with the church. We have a fixation on numbers, and we’re often not quite sure what numbers we’re fixated on. We’re reasonably sure, however, that these numbers are supposed to be large.

Thus the clergy estimate. Let’s make it look like we’re doing well, because the appearance of doing well is all-important. What gets lost in the discussion and the paperwork is just what those numbers mean.

I wrote a post about the characteristics of a living church back in 2006, and I don’t see any reason to change anything I wrote then. What I’m looking at here is our tendency to measure. The health of a living church that I noted back then is not that easy to measure.

So perhaps I prefer a small church? Smaller churches have certain opportunities for community and for ministry that larger churches might not. Smaller churches are sometimes perceived as more faithful, more orthodox in their Christian beliefs.

No, not really. My problem is with our measurements of success. I won’t link to the site, but today I saw posts for ebooks that would tell you how to reach the visitors who come to your Easter service and get them to come back to church.

Inadequately impressed by the resurrection? There’s a program for that!

The same site offers to provide you insight into strategic hires to help grow your church. If you follow the directions and hire the right people, your church will grow. You can sell your church service just like laundry soap or hamburgers.

There are those who will say I’m being unfair. Good business practices are good for a church. Yes, good business practices in finance and management are important for an organization. But is a well-oiled, well-running, constantly expanding machine a sign of a spiritually healthy church?

I’m going to suggest that basing our thinking on numbers is just wrong. I hear this often in comparing various movements in Christianity. We’re losing members because of too liberal, too conservative, or just too dry of theological positions. We’re gaining members because we’re preaching “truth,” however that is defined by the speaker.

Challenge one of these claims by pointing to increasing numbers in groups not on the approved group list (an amorphous thing that changes with the individual), and you’ll hear the counter that Christians shouldn’t follow the crowd, that numbers don’t mean everything, and the way to destruction is wide and straight!

It’s very like my theme picture. We’re measuring things with the wrong tool, in the wrong units. We don’t know where we’re going, but if lots of us get there, we think it’s (probably) a good thing.

The question is this: Are we growing in grace? Are we a healthy community?

Or perhaps more precisely, are we a community at all?

Once we’ve taken that step, we can ask the next question. But once we’re functioning as a real community, we might not really need to ask the question at all. We’ll be too busy being a healthy church to take time to measure the health.

A Grasshopper on the Circle of the Earth

A Grasshopper on the Circle of the Earth

Isaiah 40:22 speaks of God sitting on the circle of the earth and the inhabitants are as grasshoppers.

There is an interesting twist on idolatry that I think happens very frequently, and it makes a problem for people in understanding and accepting the doctrine that we, as humans, cannot do good of ourselves.

Normally we think of idolatry as setting something other than God up for worship. We sometimes don’t think of the way that we can do this to people. Many of the problems of Christianity today stem from Christian leaders who have been placed on a pedestal from which they were certain to fall.

There are also those leaders who expect to be seen on a pedestal. They believe in the doctrine of total depravity, i.e., the total depravity of other people. While they might affirm it of themselves, they really believe they are above the swarming hoard.

In their own eyes they are not, to quote Isaiah, grasshoppers. But from God’s perspective, they are.

God’s view equalizes us and puts us in our place. We are not independently powerful beings. We are not God, or somehow God’s rivals. Yet God loves us. But when this is used as a weapon to put people down, when it is spoken from above, down to lesser mortals, it is a sure sign that the speaker is setting him or herself up as an idol.

When you see that, don’t bow down.

Beware grasshoppers seated pretentiously above the earth!

When One Issue Drowns Out Others

When One Issue Drowns Out Others

After interviewing Allan R. Bevere a few days ago I discovered another video. First, here’s my interview with Allan. We were talking about the United Methodist Church General Conference in 2019 looking for a way forward as a denomination with regard to same-sex marriage and related issues.

The new video is from the Adventist News Network (HT Spectrum Magazine), which is an official project of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Long time readers of this blog will know I grew up Seventh-day Adventist, but am now a member of a United Methodist congregation. Here it is:

The issues in the two denominations are different. While United Methodists discuss homosexuality and same-sex marriage, Seventh-day Adventists are discussing ordination of women. In many discussions, I have heard the arguments against women’s ordination expressed in terms of the danger of a slippery slope toward accepting homosexuality. The claim is that the same arguments might be, and have been, used for both.

In the process of discussing these issues, however, we see a number of things:

  • Money becomes a key. In the United Methodist Church it becomes a question of how much power our brethren in the global south should have over the church seeing as they are financially supported by the American church. In the SDA Church the issue of tithe has now been raised, as the North American Division wants to reduce the percentage of its tithe sent to other divisions.
  • People are accused based simply on their viewpoint. I understand how this happens. Sincerity does not mean one is right. One can be passionately and sincerely wrong, even when rightly motivated. (I should know! I’ve been there and might be now!) But one can be firm on one’s convictions and still be respectful.
  • Each side accuses the other of bringing disunity. This is a choice that comes to all. When a “Martin Luther” moment comes is it an act of disunity or an act of conscience?
  • One’s opponents may be seen as guilty of putting a stop to the gospel message, such as the implication in the Adventist News Network video that those who support women’s ordination are holding back the work of the gospel and preparation for the coming of Jesus.
  • Conformity is seen as unity.
  • Everyone starts looking at the legal ownership of church property (see the first point)!

I have made my opinion on women in ministry clear, so I can’t stand back and play facilitator to a discussion. I believe that those God has gifted in any way should serve in that way, and I do believe women can be and are gifted for ministry. I believe God equips those he calls and the equipping is quite enough evidence. On homosexuality I’ve tried to stand back. A very good friend who passed away recently said to me once: “Henry, it’s very hard to be both a prophet and a facilitator.” He was very right. So I’ve refrained from any pulpit pounding type statements on homosexuality. It doesn’t mean I have no opinions; just that I’m going to let others do the discussion, and there’s no lack of those ready and waiting to engage.

But let me turn to two other issues on which I’ll make something of a statement. I’m a firm believer on the one hand that we should have unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, and especially charity in all things. (Note the interesting and difficult history of the saying I paraphrase.) On the other hand I believe in keeping your essentials to a minimum, as reflected in the doctrinal statement I use for my publishing company, Energion Publications. I’ve discussed this before, and will link to my post Not All Doctrines Are Equal, which links to several others.)

For my first issue I’m opposed to just about any form of prosperity theology, or even letting finance drive the train. Financial management is necessary, but it’s generally the first thing to get in the way of good moral decision making. We simply don’t take the time to find a way to do things that is financially responsible and yet morally right.

In the case of the controversies I’m mentioning, this comes up in wanting to diminish the influence of some people over finance. Money is the presenting issue, but behind it is the fact that someone does not like the viewpoint of the other person. Whether I agree with someone or not, I believe as a Christian that I must respect that person. The believer in Africa, South America, or Asia is not diminished before God because I don’t like the way he or she will vote in a conference. Financial status should not change the nature of our relationships in the family of God. In this case, I think it would be better to lose a vote than to in any diminish another person.

Of course, this must include not diminishing the person who is on the other side, or who is being argued about. Whether we are talking about the level of a person’s financial contributions, their sexuality, or simply their gender, it can be (usually is) paternalistic and diminishing when the person with the power discusses whether to share that power with the person who does not. In the kingdoms of the world it may be necessary. I think Jesus calls us to better behavior. (Not that I know how to always do it right.)

Money comes up in terms of church property as well. Allan Bevere noted that the one thing that may connect us soon is our pensions (speaking as a pastor). One of the things that will likely cause controversy is those congregations who, no matter what happens, may want to withdraw from the United Methodist Church. Then we face the specter of people claiming the name of Jesus fighting it out in secular court due to church property. Quoth Paul, “Why would it not be better to be wronged? Why would it not be better to be defrauded?”

Second, however, is the issue of hierarchy. All of these issues become issues of power. Who gets to tell who else what they should and shouldn’t do, and who gets to enforce the result. Again, after noting how the rulers of the nations behaved, Jesus told his disciples it was not to be that way with them. The greatest should be a servant. (Mark 10:41-45) I wonder how the debate would change if we saw it as a question of serving rather than having power over. (In fact, I have a problem with the whole idea of a separated class of ordained clergy, but that is a different debate.)

I hope and pray that both my former and my present denominations will find a Christ-like way through their divisions. I don’t actually feel very hopeful. Perhaps it’s “Oh me of little faith!” Still it doesn’t look that good, no matter which direction the wind blows on the various doctrines. There is likely a right and wrong answer.  I tend to believe in moral absolutes while doubting our ability to come very close to them. But we must not violate much clearer moral values, such as the way we treat one another, in the pursuit of those truths.

When we pursue absolutes at the expense of other absolutes, the resulting mess is absolute.

Why I Don’t Control My Wife

Why I Don’t Control My Wife

Shortly after Jody and I married, I was approached by a member of our church. He had a demand. “You need to control your wife,” he said. “She says [fill in theological thing here] which is wrong! You need to straighten her out.”

I was astonished for a moment, but went with my gut. “I’d suggest you ask her about that idea,” I said. “She’s capable of answering for herself.”

I noted that my response was from the gut, but then I started to second-guess myself. On the one hand I certainly was confident Jody could take care of herself and answer whatever questions might be asked. On the other, I didn’t want it to appear that I was unwilling to defend her. So we had a discussion and concluded that we would both use that same answer when someone asked us to explain or justify the other. “Henry/Jody is capable of answering for him/herself.” It’s worked fine for us. We’d rather have it appear that we are refusing to defend one another than that one of us considers the other incompetent.

The first thing one might imagine was that this person was a male chauvinist who thought men should keep their wives in line. There was likely some of that involved. I doubt that he would have gone to Jody if he had agreed with her and asked her to keep me in line. But that wasn’t the only thing in play. There was, of course, the matter of theology, and also the matter of credentials. People disagree about theology all the time. I’m not concerned with the disagreement. I am concerned with the credentials.

The particular chauvinism involved was the assumption that I would automatically know more about any particular theological issue that Jody would. Some of that, as I said, was likely simply because she’s a woman and I’m a man. This sort of thing can vary from very subtle to quite blatant, as in this case. In regard to that I’ll simply repeat what I’ve said before. I believe that everyone should act and serve according to their gifts. Who should do something or take some office is not determined by anything other than what gifts they have for that activity and how they’ve developed those gifts.

For me this is a simple matter of recognizing each person as a person, and not as a category or a set of categories. I despise the term stupid, but I also despise the term smart as applied to a person. I think those words can be quite valid as applied to a specific idea. “Differently gifted” is often regarded as politically correct speech. I regard it as an accurate way of looking at people.

If I regard someone as stupid, I am absolved of further concern with that person in other ways. I have now dismissed the person. They might have many things they can do, yet because I have applied this general label, I am done with that person. On the other hand, if I label someone as smart, I will then regard them as more valuable in many and various positions, and again I absolve myself of looking at specific gifts. It’s quite easy, however, to assign a smart person to a position for which they are not smart.

I know that in reality it is rarely that extreme. People use a mix of seeing the specific gifts a person has and their overall label. Nonetheless I consider this type of thinking dangerous. It is counterproductive from a strictly business point of view. As a Christian I object to categorizing people in these ways, because I believe it violates the golden rule.

I can illustrate how this works with me and my wife. Let’s start with a question: Who is more important to our business, Energion Publications. I’m the person with training in theology and biblical studies. I do cover design and book layout. I’m the one who figures out which of the various standards and punctuation rules we’ll follow. I’ve written more words than she has. I keep the accounts. Without me, Energion Publications would not exist.

And then there’s the other side. Jody is the one who sets up the production schedule for a book. She’s the one who can organize our presence at a conference and create a display table. She’s the one who sees details in the appearance of a manuscript. She is best suited to recruit and work with certain authors, especially those who write devotionally. She’s the best salesman for a substantial selection of our products. She’s the one who gets me talking to the ones that I need to talk to.

I could list many more items for each of us. Can I say the same thing about Jody—without her Energion Publications would not exist? Absolutely. Even the more academic books which she would not consider herself qualified to edit would not be completed without her efforts.

It would be easy to consider my efforts as more important, just because I’m me, and I like to be important! I could obviously hire someone else to do all these other things. But if I’m honest, I know that there are people with the skills and gifts that I use as well. We are both essential!

So here’s the stupid-smart scale: Which of us is smarter?

That’s a question that just doesn’t work well. The fact is that we each have important, even critical gifts. There is no value in trying to make one better than the other. They are different. They are needed.

Now let’s think about the church. Is a person with gifts of administration less critical than one with pastoral gifts? (Note that I regard almost every modern job description for a pastor as not only unscriptural, as in not even conceived of in scripture, but also unholy.) What about gifts of encouragement or helping others versus gifts of teaching? What are more important? Yet the person who helps, organizes, keeps the books, and so forth is considered less of a leader than the person who preaches or teaches. If you don’t believe me, let me ask you this: Can you find a single church sign that identifies the janitor or even the church administrator? No! It identifies the pastor.

As an aside, I think there is a much better case for hiring a professional church administrator than there is for hiring someone to preach or teach in the local church, and certainly then there is to hire someone professionally to visit people in the hospital. Those duties can easily be divided among members of the congregation according to their gifts.

And thus I come back to my wife and I and theological questions. Why would someone assume that I would straighten out my wife, though she wouldn’t straighten me out? Ignoring basic sexism, which I think does apply, we need to look at training, experience, and credentials.

Many people (perhaps most) that we encounter would present theological questions to me and not to Jody. I have trained to be a teacher. I have a BA degree majoring in Biblical Languages and an MA in Religion, concentrating in Biblical and Cognate Languages. I have taught for years. I have written 13 books, which is considered an accomplishment, though none of them is particularly popular. I have been invited to preach many times and in many places. I am expected to be the theologian and to have an answer. Of course, there are many areas in which I have expertise and the ability to answer those questions.

Jody, on the other hand, does not have a degree. What she does have is one of those old-fashioned three year nursing programs, years of experience in a variety of fields as a registered nurse, experience as a hospice nurse and then director of education for a hospice organization. Further, she has carried on a regular devotional live for decades. She has been invited to teach and to preach, and I can testify she is very good at it. She has written several books as well, at least one of which is more popular than any of mine!

There are some questions you should ask me, but there are many other questions you should ask her. If you ask me, I’m likely going to give you an answer I got from her. If you want someone to visit you in the hospital, she’s the one. My degree, earned via seminary courses (though granted by the graduate school) didn’t teach me how to do that. I have never encountered someone who was sick or facing death who wanted my help translating a verse from Greek or Hebrew, or expounding on ancient manuscripts.

Now how do you rate this sort of thing on a scale. Is Jody smarter than I am or am I smarter than she is? I have no idea, nor do I care. In fact, I don’t think there’s any good way to make that determination. We are each gifted in our own way. We each have a call from God to serve one another and those God places before us. We’re very different, but that makes our teamwork more valuable.

In order to know what we can each do, you have to learn to know us as individuals. An intelligence test won’t do it. I have never been formally tested, but I know that I usually rate pretty well on the type of questions involved, yet I can forget where my local Walmart is located. Am I stupid or smart? Our degrees or lack of them will not do it. I have an MA degree, but I have trouble planning a route around town that doesn’t involve wasted miles. Am I stupid or smart? Jody can’t translate a Greek text for you, but she can help you through the inevitable questions you’ll have dealing with end of life issues. Is she stupid or smart?

There’s the saying that there are no stupid questions. I disagree. I’ve just asked a stupid question several times. Is she/am I stupid or smart? It’s a completely useless question that produces nothing of value, and often helps people excuse themselves from actually looking at the person.

This also goes back to the male/female thing. The assumption that because someone is a man or a woman one can safely make (derived) assumptions about their capabilities is based on a similar mental laziness. I can’t be bothered to determine what this woman or that man is capable of, so I’m just going to assign the general category to them. Whether you’re making the assumption based on a category of credentials, on race, on nationality, or on gender, It all goes back to an unwillingness to get to know someone as a person.

Someone’s going to point out to me that men and women are different. It may shock you to know that I was already aware of that. But the difference doesn’t matter if you’re willing to learn to know the individual man or woman. If you know that person’s gifts, the abilities they share with their gender or other category will also be obvious.

I don’t keep my wife in line. She doesn’t keep me in line. We allow each other to answer our own questions for the simple reason that we can, and that we respect one another and our gifts. Neither gender nor credentials matter.

Responding to Church Criticism

Responding to Church Criticism

Steven Cuss took to The Jesus Creed (Scot McKnight’s blog) to respond to Francis Chan about the church. This is all about a very valid and, I think, much needed conversation about the church.

When we criticize the church in America there can be many responses.

  1. Defensive – we are really, truly doing good things
  2. Could be worse – we have our problems, but we’re doing some good stuff
  3. Look at you – you’re making more mistakes than we are (or you have in the past)
  4. You’re too critical – you shouldn’t point out our problems because that’s negative

There are a few more, I suppose, but those will do.

The problem is that as long as we use these various responses, reform or correction will definitely not happen. Once we have responded, we have generally also minimized our need to act. We function a bit like a vehicle stuck in mud or sand. You can stomp the accelerator because you need to get moving, but all you do is rock a bit forward and then a bit back.

I think that often describes our churches. We don’t take the serious steps that are needed to really have an impact on our culture. We want to be a little bit different, mostly in the sense that we attend church, but not be real salt, scattered through and changing everything.

Now not all criticism is useful. Not all criticism is valid. But a great deal is. The person who aims to change cannot pre-moderate his or her comments. If you are making a call for reform, and nobody is getting upset, you probably aren’t doing it right.

My blog header proclaims me a “passionate moderate” amongst other things. I think moderation is a good thing if you’ve found the right range of options and the right position. But sometimes the right thing is what everyone else regards as an extreme. I’d really like to find that “moderate” position at the center of God’s will.

How about you?

Measuring Success

Measuring Success

It seems to me that one of the most serious difficulties we have in the church today is the way we measure success. We are driven by numbers and money. It’s easy, of course, to justify this. After all, if you don’t have money, you generally can’t help people. I am reminded of Chapter 3 of Acts, in which Peter (with John) says, “Silver and gold I have none,” yet look what they did.

Still, the temptation is great to judge the success of a meeting by the attendance, and the success of a church by its budget. I’d add that I don’t suggest we think the other way either. Just because a church is prosperous does not mean its ministry and mission is in trouble. It’s just that I don’t see the numbers and the money as God’s measure.

With that in mind I was struck by two verses in Chapter 8. Stephen has just been killed, and Luke tells us that Saul continues to persecute the church. Everyone except the apostles is scattered across the countryside of Judea and Samaria (v. 1).

By our standards, this is a bad thing. All this talent is leaving the big church, the one with the resources to carry out the mission! Stephen is dead, and Philip is about to head out. “Everyone” doubtless includes many more. The church is being drained.

If this was an American church, the next question would be how we would pay the bills for the facility. I recall one church that had a serious scattering of membership, and that became a serious problem. You have to sell some buildings or some land, and that can be difficult. Members don’t like the feel of selling off the property and there’s always a question of whether you’ll get enough for it. Besides, selling stuff and downsizing is a sign of defeat!

We’d doubtless feel the same way about persecution. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not a fan of persecution. I really don’t want to be persecuted. But if I can put it bluntly, I doubt God really cares what I want.

In this case, something great happens. “As they were scattered, they went about proclaiming the Word …” (8:4). In the movement of the story of the early church as told in Acts we’re in that transition as we move from Judea to Samaria and from there to the whole world. The failure of the church as the members scatter is the success of God’s plan.

I’m thinking we need to spend our time finding God’s plan and measuring our success by how much we’re on that. As I read scripture, I’m suspecting that plan may be different from ours. Let God speak and move in our generation.

 

Elgin Hushbeck on Apologetics

Elgin Hushbeck on Apologetics

One of the blessings in my life is the number of friends I have found (and I don’t always make friends easily) who are willing to have great discussions. By “great” I mean ones in which we challenge one another’s ideas with vigor but without anger or condemnation. If you seek only friends and associates who agree with you, you’re missing out on a great blessing.

Elgin Hushbeck is such a friend. I think I tend to emphasize the places where we don’t agree over those were we do simply because I find those discussions more useful and enjoyable. Elgin is a Christian apologist, which did not help me to warm up to him or his writing (this was before I was a publisher). Apologists often get a bad reputation for a number of reasons, including obsession that makes them narrow, a vigor in presentation that belies weakness of content, discourtesy, and some carelessness with factual accuracy in a good cause. And this is not to mention mistaking a catalog of facts for the good news of the gospel from time to time.

Elgin doesn’t do this. I want to call attention to his post yesterday on the Energion Discussion Network.  If we could get the “gently and respectfully” part taken care of, the rest would work much better.

I have found that the style is not a characteristic of one or another theological or political position. Whatever it is you’re advocating, gently and respectfully is going to accomplish more in terms of communicating your message, assuming that’s your goal. If you just want to stick it to the people who disagree with you, your strategy will obviously differ.

But with regard to the gospel, if your goal is to stick it to an opponent, don’t imagine that you are actually proclaiming the good news. The good news isn’t that you’re right and the other guy is wrong. Rather, it has something to do with God loving both of you, no matter how wrong you are. It depends on God and the Holy Spirit to fix that wrongness.

(Featured image credit: Openclipart.org.)

Are Sermons of Value?

Are Sermons of Value?

I have very frequently spoken disparagingly of sermons. I prefer more interactive activities in smaller groups as a way of learning and passing on information. It’s commonly said that a pastor is lucky if, on a Sunday, any congregants remember the topic of the previous week’s sermon, much less what was said about it.

On the other hand I remember stunning Dr. James Londis, who was pastor of the Sligo Seventh-day Adventist Church when I was an 18-year-old college student and a member. His first sermon there had to do with applying the Laodicean message to his new congregants. Accurately, I might add. I mentioned this memory to him about 40 years after he had preached that sermon. For some reason he was surprised!

Nonetheless, I publish one book on how to preach (Overcoming Sermon Block), and a number of sermon collections (So Much Older Then … [Bob LaRochelle], The Character of Our Discontent [Allan R. Bevere], A Positive Word for Christian Lamenting, The Forgotten Beatitude, and Holidays, Holy Days, and Special Days. Most of these books are by Dr. William Powell Tuck, who has a few others as well. One of my criteria for publishing a sermon collection is that it is useful for reading as an essay collection as well.

Bill Tuck, when I interviewed him on the topic, said very simply that a major reason that sermons are looked down on is that so many of them are so bad. They are often poorly prepared, poorly presented, lack evidence of thought and reflection, lack depth, and so forth. I’m going to put the video of my interview with him at the end of this post.

A problem behind the problems is the lack of time spent in preparation. There is, of course, preparation of the sermon. But there is also preparation of the person. Bill Tuck says this in Overcoming Sermon Block:

One of the most important disciplines a minister has to maintain is his spiritual or devotional life. If we are too busy for our own personal devotion, we are simply too busy. We have to keep our priorities right. Our personal spiritual nurture is absolutely essential. To fail here is not a  minor shortcoming but neglect in a critical point of our own relationship to God. How can we guide others to worship and serve Christ if we neglect our own spiritual development? Our spiritual development affects our preaching as well. As we “labor” at our spiritual nurture, the amazing thing is that we are not only fed spiritually, but often sermon ideas arise out of our own devotional study and reflection. That is not our main purpose but it happens nevertheless. (p. 18)

That contains some excellent advice for everyone. I am only rarely called to preach, but I find that when I am called to share, my devotional life is most critical. Sunday School teachers take note.

Here’s the interview: