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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.

Sin and the Church as Community

Sin and the Church as Community

In what he confesses is a long post, but is still shorter than my normal post, Dave Black discusses how to translate the Greek word ekklesia, both in terms of an English word (he chooses “community”), and in practice.

I’ve been discussing this in connection with the question of dealing with sin in the church. Many mainliners don’t want to think about this, or even think we shouldn’t deal with it. It’s part of “not judging.”

But then you have issues such as sexual abuse which must be dealt with, and we find that we really don’t have any idea what to do.

In the several cases in which I have had the opportunity to discuss this, I have always come back to this: We cannot adequately deal with sin in the church because the church is not functioning as a community. There are many elements to this issue, including clergy-laity distinctions, or more precisely leadership-followership.

People have been told not to report evil, because they will damage the reputation of a “good man.” (I suppose it could be a good woman, but I have heard it several times, and only regarding the reputation of good men.)

We need to be looking at—and implementing—ways of making the church a functioning community. One characteristic (of many) of this would be that we do not excuse abuse by leaders.

My Problem with Church Buildings

My Problem with Church Buildings

Some time ago, in fact, on the trip Jody and I took when she met my parents, I had a half-awake dream/vision. I saw a little church building in a mountain valley. I woke up and told Jody about it and that I thought we’d see it on the trip and we would stop and pray for the people there. As we were driving through Kentucky, we came around a corner in the mountains and there it was.

I’m not presenting this as a miraculous occurrence, because it has coincidence and selective memory written all over it. What it does show is my own attitude. I really loved that scene. The sun was shining through partial cloud cover, and the valley itself could have served as a painting or photograph. We did, in fact, stop and pray. I still remember the scene, though I can’t remember the name of the town.

I love beautiful church architecture. I like to look at good stained glass windows. There is some stained glass that falls somewhat short of “good.” I love to see and listen to a good pipe organ. I recall a hand carved pulpit I saw once with four historical figures in the church. It was beautiful. I enjoyed it.

Still, I have a problem with all this, and the longer I live, and the more I think about serving Jesus, the more concerned I become.

You see, I believe that our churches, by which I mean the people, should be there to create community, and that community should witness to the love of Jesus. I believe that every member should be a minister, that every member is called to priesthood, and that, indeed, the church as the body of Christ is called to a priestly ministry of connection between the divine and the human. (I’m not going to present arguments for this view here. You can read my post Seven Marks: Genuine Relationships for some quotes and comments from multiple writers.)

I don’t, however, think that our church architecture or our worship practice reflects this reality, or perhaps I should call it a hope. I recall once tweeting during a sermon in which the speaker was lecturing with vigor on the importance of participation, of everyone being involved. I asked the question, “Am I the only one who finds it strange to be lectured on participation in a monologue?” Well, am I?

To me, church architecture speaks separation. We have the raised platform, the decorated pulpit (yes, even the ones I really like), the table that’s sort of like the table of the presence. Worship is guided from the front and the single presenter gives a lecture. When invited to preach I personally like to avoid standing behind the pulpit or lectern, though often this is not possible due to the sound system. Hmmm. Don’t get me started on sound systems!

The sanctuaries of our churches reflect a structure that goes back to ancient temples, in which it very much reflected the separation between the actual divinity, often thought to dwell in a special way in the inner sanctum, and the worshipers outside. The priests, then connected the people to the god(s), though never permanently. The channel was always through the priests.

Now don’t think what follows is “New Testament.” But looking back, we see in Exodus 19:6, that God was inviting all the people to hear. Then in Exodus 20:19, the people indicate they’d rather hear from Moses. Now don’t go into the “those stupid, stubborn Israelites” mode. It’s always entertaining when studying these passages to hear people’s claims of how much more faithful they would have been. So, all ye faithful people, tell me this: What happened to the church? It surely must be a shining light at all times, considering what faultless people we are! Well, perhaps, not so much.

But the book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus opened up a new and living way and invites us to follow it, to each approach the throne of grace boldly. So the separation should go. Yet we put that into practice on a regular basis. We treat the pastor as priest. We have an “active” and “inactive” portion.

I think the fellowship hall is a much better representation of what the church should be. Perhaps we could quit building church sanctuaries and just build fellowship halls with some educational/small group rooms attached. Perhaps we could have each Sunday service sitting around tables while we share a meal and all share with one another. Hey, we could even bless this meal and call it communion!

Then we can move the tables and the chairs and share food, clothing, and love with those in need during the week as well. (We did invite them to share our common meal on Sunday, didn’t we?) We could bring them in for social and educational events. We could get everyone involved.

Of course, this is all very frightening. If you get people in touch with the divine on their own, then they may not always follow the directions and ideas of the people in charge. If everyone can participate, someone might say something wrong! What would we do then?

Featured Image Credit: Openclipart.org

I have shocking news for you. Wrong things are said from pulpits around the world every week, and yet here we are. Yes, there are ideas for order, correction, and accountability, ideas that are often not applied to our pastors when they should be. Read 1 Corinthians 12-14 in sequence. What do you think the “edifying” church service in Corinth would have looked like? If Paul introduces ways to correct, is there not a possibility that wrong things got said in this service? That’s where mutual accountability comes in. I’ve seen churches where there were designated people to do correction or to choose who could speak. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about mutual accountability, where everyone and everything can be questioned and discussed.

A couple of weeks ago I posted this quote from author Herold Weiss, from his book Meditations on According to John:

The sacraments were established toward the end of the first century when Christianity was becoming institutionalized and starting to create official channels through which the Holy Spirit could flow under ecclesiastical control. — Herold Weiss, Meditations on According to John, p. 152.

I think a great deal of what we do is designed to help the Holy Spirit blow where we desire, not where he desires (John 3:8). Or rather, our problem is that people may mistake the leading of the Holy Spirit if they don’t have our help. We want the Spirit flowing under ecclesiastical control, along with the worship service, the presentation of the Word, and all activities of the church.

And right there in our church architecture we embalm and entomb this attitude that suggests that people in general are incapable of knowing God’s will, and need the leaders of the church to keep them straight. Is there value in expert teachers? Of course! But when those expert teachers become expert controllers, then community suffers. They can make points that are quite accurate, while destroying the practical impact of what they teach. They can become, like that speaker I mentioned advocating participation, advocates of something they will not do.

Do we trust in God? That’s always a good question. Generally, I think, we’re afraid that God can’t lead people where God wants them to go. We’d like a mighty wind of the Holy Spirit, but only if that wind blows in a wind tunnel of our choosing, preferably without mussing up our hair.


Tuesday Night Study: Genuine Relationships

Tuesday Night Study: Genuine Relationships

Our study continues tomorrow evening with a look at chapter 4 of Dave Black’s book Seven Marks of a New Testament Church, “Genuine Relationships.” In this chapter, Dave discusses the church as community. I wrote an extended post on it when I was blogging through the book some time ago. I recommend reading that, and paying particular attention to the definitions provided by Ruth Fletcher. I’ve quoted a key line in the featured image, but in that earlier post I quote more and discuss at greater length.

Getting Millenials in Church

Getting Millenials in Church

I don’t know how to get millenials (and other generations younger than mine) into church. The reason is simple: I’m past 60 years old.

I hear frequent complaints about the failing of the current (or other intervening) generation. Is it possible, however, that they’re just as smart as or as good as my generation (or even smarter and better), but they’re not willing to put up with doing something just because it has been done before.

I actually love Sunday mornings and going to Sunday School and church. It’s part of getting myself ready for another week. But it is very much like it has been for decades. I can’t point out too many differences between the service I attended today and one I would have attended when I was in my late teens and early twenties.

Church people respond, “But it’s not for you! It’s for God!” But where does it say God must be honored with the order of worship I experienced, and yes enjoyed. It’s quite easy to tell someone else they ought to do out of duty something you enjoy doing. Suppose, however, you didn’t enjoy it. Would you still do it? Can you criticize someone else for not doing it.

So what is my suggestion? If you want to know what millenials (the favored target) or any other generation or group of people want, ask them. If you’re wondering what sort of worship experience would attract them, not only ask, but ask them to lead. It might take you to the beach. You might wind up in a laboratory. You might wind up in a soup kitchen.

You might even end up with something very old, like the worship service described in 1 Corinthians 14 with everyone participating, bringing thoughts, songs, things they’ve heard from God during the week.

“But what if they mess it up?” you ask. “They don’t have any experience.”

So what? Peter denied Jesus and then Jesus left him in charge, more or less. He did provide him with a bunch of other losers—by the world’s standards—to help out.

Besides, you and I have been regularly making lots of mistakes for years. Lots of them. Instead of running the church, let’s offer them our help and support. Let’s see what they do with Jesus.

Acts of the Apostles and 21st Century Action

Acts of the Apostles and 21st Century Action

I publish a couple of books that use Acts of the Apostles as a source for principles to guide the 21st century church. I publish such books with a certain amount of trepidation, as it’s very easy to apply material piecemeal, which results in discovering that the biblical book in question tells us to do what we wanted to do in any case.

Two books that deal with this issue in the Energion catalog are Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel by Bruce Epperly and Seven Marks of a New Testament Church by David Alan Black. Now considering that the authors of these two books are some distance apart on the theological spectrum—Bruce is United Church of Christ and Dave is Southern Baptist—one might suspect that there is a wide gulf between what they see as most important or applicable in the New Testament church. In actuality, I found myself more surprised by the level of agreement involved. There are certainly differences, and yet there are themes that are clear to both authors.

I suspect the level of agreement results from greater care in studying the text. No, I don’t believe careful study will make us agree on everything. Careful study tends to do two things: 1) It discovers clear themes, and 2) it clarifies and outlines differences and the reasons for them. I will repeat what I have said before: Most of the heat in arguments between Christians results from not understanding the way in which we’re using our sources. If we did understand the source of an opponent’s beliefs, that wouldn’t mean we’d agree, but it would reduce frustration. There’s nothing like having two people look at a text and clearly see different things. There is a strong temptation to assume the other person is stupid, obtuse, ignorant, or perhaps demonically deceived.

Yet Christianity is a faith that is built on studying sources. We may differ on what those sources are, whether it’s the biblical canon, writers in the theological tradition, or authoritative institutions. The point is not to eliminate the inputs because they might be misunderstood or misapplied. Rather, I would suggest it is to study these sources with an awareness of the differences.

One of the ways to do this is to actually study pieces of biblical literature as they were written. If I get to make a selection of texts, I can definitely bias the results. That doesn’t mean that I will find that everything there applies to my everyday life now, but I do need to be aware of the things I’m not applying and why I’m not applying them.

I started re-reading Acts of the Apostles the other day, and was immediately struck by some of these kinds of issues. Let me note just a few.

  1. Acts 1:2-3 – Jesus teaches the disciples for some time following the resurrection. We don’t have a formal record of this teaching. Is this a plug for apostolic tradition? If it is, note that Paul wasn’t in on this, yet has provided us with much of New Testament theology.
  2. Acts 1:4-5 – Awaiting the promise of the Spirit. Acts was most likely written before John, but here we have that continuing teaching of the Holy Spirit, and when the Spirit does come upon the disciples, it seems to come upon the whole group. Is this a foundation for the belief that revelation continues and can come to each one of us?
  3. Acts 1:21-26 – Choosing a successor to Judas by lot. This one presents some interesting issues. I enjoyed teaching this to a class in a church that had just completed a search for a new pastor. I asked them if their procedure, much different from the one here, was biblical, which resulted in an energetic discussion. It’s interesting to me that we have no evidence here of prayerful discussion. Peter presents his interpretation of scripture, then two people are chosen that fill the requirements (we don’t hear the source of those requirements), and then one of the two is chosen by lot. God is invoked, but God is invited to choose between the two candidates selected by the apostles. At which point the chosen person disappears into history. Most of the book is about Paul, a person who does not fulfill the requirements and is chosen by a completely different method. So is God’s way casting lots or should we wait for the lightning bolt?
  4. Skipping Acts 2 and going to 3:1-10 – Is this the sort of thing that should characterize a modern church? If so, we’re largely too tame. And we should, of course, consider chapter 5 with Ananias and Sapphira. Church discipline, anyone?

My purpose in making this truncated list is to show that there are things here we do (baptism, preaching, even healing [in some sense]), and others that we don’t (casting lots), and it’s worthwhile to realize that something more than just grabbing sentences or paragraphs and applying what they “clearly teach” is going on. I’m not complaining about that extra stuff going on. That’s part of life and yes, part of faith. The problem comes in when we try to pretend that we’ve dumped everything extra. (Note that there are churches who use a form of lots in selecting leadership, so that is a valid item to list.)

The next question to ask yourself is just why you do certain things and not others. Why would you preach, baptize, accept into membership, but not heal? Why do you find it appropriate to await the baptism of the Holy Spirit, but not to choose all church leadership by casting lots? (Notice how I slipped “all” in there when it’s not in the text?) Understanding how we get wherever we are can help us understand one another. It might even help us with course corrections.

Some Thoughts on Ecclesiology from Someone Utterly Unqualified

Some Thoughts on Ecclesiology from Someone Utterly Unqualified

Several things I’ve written lately lead to thoughts on ecclesiology, though that is hardly one of my subjects. People do sometimes make assumptions because I’m a member of a United Methodist congregation. So I’m going to make this personal, first saying why I am in a United Methodist congregation and second saying what I see as ideal in a church. This is just a bit of rambling—fair warning!

I prefer to call myself a Christian who is a member of a United Methodist congregation rather than a Methodist. That can be clumsy, but I don’t think of myself so much as a member of the denomination as of the local church. There’s a fairly simple reason why I’m part of a UMC, and that reason can be found in the early pages of the United Methodist Discipline. While I am hesitant to identify fully with a theological stream, the doctrinal standards of the United Methodist Church come closest of any I know to what I can affirm. There are less restrictive statements I could also affirm, but they tend to affirm too little, in my view.

My great disappointment with United Methodism is that so few Methodists are aware of this theological heritage. I’ve written about this before. The pastor of the first United Methodist congregation I joined confessed to me later that when I came to his office and borrowed a copy of the Discipline, he thought it was likely I would never return. If I had read the later parts about organization, committees, and so forth, it’s quite possible I would have been driven off. Sometimes I feel one requires legal training to navigate the authority structures of a United Methodist congregation.

I should confess that, in addition to a lack of training in church administration or ecclesiology, there is another reason I’m utterly unqualified. My attempts at involvement in church politics or governance have not been terribly successful. They have generally been bad for my health and not very constructive for the church. I do well in one on one encounters. I’m much less successful at committees. And whether they call them “teams,” “working groups,” or just “committees,” these groups of people make a UM congregation run—or not. My observation is that most Methodist churches function because the actual power structure knows how to work its way around the paper power structure. That could be excessively cynical. When I joined my current church, I told the pastor that if he needed someone to park cars or teach Sunday School I was there for him, but if he needed someone to be on any committee, count me out.

But my ecclesiology is not formed particularly by the structure and order of the United Methodist Church. I find that the hierarchical system tends very much to spend its time maintaining the institution and then wondering why the acknowledged work of the kingdom isn’t really happening. Pastors are moved in an arbitrary way, often without regard to the state of whatever ministry they’re carrying on where they are. Relationships between pastors and churches are hard to form, unless the church is large and has a greater influence on who will be on the staff and how long that person will stay.

That set of complaints may sound negative, but I don’t see the United Methodist system as horribly deficient either. It has its problems, but in my experience so do all other systems of governance that involve humans. While the UM system may move a pastor when he really should stay, congregational systems often pair dysfunctional pastors and congregations until both pastor and congregation are spiritually dead. While the hierarchy may make for a certain amount of political structure maintenance, it also provides both connections to other places, and can move a dysfunctional pastor before he or she does more damage. Large structures allow the church to bring a wide range of resources together to accomplish great things.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that either system guarantees that any of these great things will be accomplished. the combined resources of a large denomination could do great things, but they often get siphoned off to maintain a great headquarters building (or something similar).

Summary: Every kind of church structure I’ve experienced (and I haven’t experienced all) has it’s problems and its benefits. While there may be a form of organization that’s better than any other, I’m not sure what it is.

There are, however, some principles that I would want to see. If I could find a church manifested some of these, I think I’d want to make it a base of operations:

1) Recognition of more than one form of ministry. Modern churches tend to recognize pastors and put them in charge. There aer more gifts and more offices. I think setting people apart by laying on of hands should apply to all the various ministries of the church. The pastor doesn’t need to be a church administrator, publicity coordinator, facility manager, and general problem solver. There should be evangelists, teachers (sometimes pastor-teachers, sometimes just teachers), administrators, helpers, and yes, prophets. (See Ephesians 4:11-16, though I don’t regard the list as exhaustive.)

2) Because there are many forms of ministry, everyone in the congregation is set apart. I’d like to be part of a congregation where the assumption is that everyone will have some sort of service. Let’s lose “member” vs “attends” and think of “attends” vs “active.” In my book Identifying Your Gifts and Service: Small Group Edition, I call for every member to become a gift spotter. The assumption should be that being part of the body means exercising gifts for the body.

3) Communion, preferably in the form of a common meal, becomes the center of congregational gathering. This would be what we do for a “worship service.” I have a fairly high, sacramental view of the communion meal combined with a rather low view of ordination. I think the Spirit of God in the congregation is what should authorize communion. I don’t believe that there should be a distinction between clergy and laity, but rather a distinction between different varieties of servants. We set people apart not because we make them better than others, nor because we acknowledge them as better than others, but because we acknowledge that they serve in particular ways with particular gifts. When this time of communion occurs, I believe that God is really present in the elements and in the people through His Spirit.

4) Leadership is strong, but is plural. There is no single person whose personality is stamped on the church. I believe this can be carried out under many different types of polity. One of the weaknesses in the Methodist system is that a pastor gets a level of respect because he’s sent by a bishop, and the bishop is way up there, so to speak. So the church centers around the pastor’s views and wishes. A pastor who wants to have a successful career will tend to work the nomination system and stack committees, especially the Staff-Parish Relations committee. Then a new pastor will come, and he may have a different personality. I believe that a church needs to have more people who exercise real leadership. I know there can be real problems with this, but as I’ve noted before there are real problems with any system that involves people.

5) The church builds connections with a variety of other churches. The Methodist system speaks of connectionalism, and this is a great characteristic. I’d prefer to see a greater degree of connection between churches of different denominations down the street. So I see connections as important, but I think that they should not be restricted to one denomination.

6) The church is accountable in some way. In the Methodist church, this accountability is to the bishop and to the structures of the church. I think more independent congregations can choose to be accountable. The only way to know what’s going on is to observe.

7) The church has an identifiable, known set of theological essentials and affirms freedom in other areas. I know this stresses people out on all sides. Some don’t want any definition. Others prefer very limited freedom of teaching. I think the most mature congregation will be produced by having a carefully chosen and defined set of essentials and then allowing free discussion outside of that. I think there are many topics that should be non-essential and open to a variety of views.

8) The majority of church income is used for outreach and service. As long as the majority of our money and effort is used to maintain the physical structure and the political forms, I don’t think we’re where we need to be. To be clear, what I mean is more than 50% of the money received by the church is going somewhere other than maintaining the congregation itself. Since I’ve been told that 5% is considered “mission minded” for a United Methodist congregation, I think this may be the hardest one.

There’s the saying that if you find the perfect church, you shouldn’t join it. You’ll spoil it! I don’t think this is the perfect church, but it’s one I’d be willing to try to live up to.

In the meantime, however, I believe that the local congregation of which I’m a member is doing a great deal of good ministry. The gospel is preached. I’m particularly impressed with programs for children and youth, and the educational program is moving forward. It’s too bad that it’s hard to get 1,000 people out of a congregation of > 3,800 to attend on a Sunday morning, but I think the pastoral staff have done a good job. No, it’s not my description of an ideal church, but to be honest, I don’t expect to find one of those. But where I have a chance I’ll keep advocating …

Note: As a publisher, I publish some books by people more informed on these topics. I’ve been particularly impressed with two recent releases from opposite sides of the theological spectrum, Dr. David Alan Black (Southern Baptist) and Dr. Bruce Epperly (United Church of Christ). Dave’s book is Seven Marks of a New Testament Church and Bruce’s is Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel. It’s interesting to see people from across the theological spectrum looking back to the book of Acts and the early church to learn how we might move forward in the church today. Don’t blame them for my ideas. Each has his own, and they are both worth reading.

seven marks and transforming acts

Reflections on Church and The Jesus Paradigm

Reflections on Church and The Jesus Paradigm

As a publisher I have the joy of spending a great deal of time with a book as it goes through the process of publication. I don’t expect you to read my thoughts on The Jesus Paradigm as anything like a review, but there are some special things about this book and the way it has influenced me as I worked on it.

I like to think of my business as a ministry, which is “churchese” for “service.” It is my intent to serve both the church and the community with materials that challenge and educate. Now don’t get me wrong here. For a small publisher, signing an author who has written nearly as many books as the company has published is a sound business decision. I didn’t decide to sacrifice myself in service and publish this book contrary to my better judgment. It’s a good book; it’s a book that is likely to sell quite well; it’s also a book that is kingdom building.

Now as I frequently must, let me warn you that I’m going to be writing quite a few words. I’ve been thinking about the concept “church” for a long time and struggling with many things. This is also largely addressed to a Christian audience, so it may well bore others. Read on at your own risk!

What happened with this book was that a number of things I’ve been thinking about, things that have challenged me over the years, came into sharper focus while I was editing and preparing it for the printer.

I traditionally point out about now that I disagree with some things in a book I’ve published, and that this is a good thing rather than a bad thing. That’s part of developing brand identity since in a company founded by one person, it’s easy to confuse the person with the company.

But in this case I think anyone who looks at the header of this blog and reads a few essays, and then does the same thing on Dave Black Online will be in no danger of confusing the two of us.

What I think I need to emphasize instead is just how much I agree with in this book, and the tremendous value I find even in the things about which I have reservations (ecclesiology) or differences in emphasis (hermeneutics-maybe).

In my personal testimony I note how I left church after my seminary training (MA, not MDiv) because I then regarded Christianity as a total “one-way street” surrender. I note that at the time:

Some Christians argued with me that such a total surrender as I described was not required, but I could not see a partial surrender to God at the time, and I still can’t do so.

Despite believing that, I have struggled with how to put that into practice, particularly in church life. The extent to which “church” doesn’t work, or perhaps doesn’t appear to be what it seems the Bible points to, has continued to bother me.

Let me list some of the threads of thinking that have bothered me.

(1) Again as I note in my testimony, I felt God’s call to ministry as I was registering for the second year of a pre-law program. I switched to Biblical languages. Unfortunately I found that while many people would talk about a lack of Biblical knowledge in the pews, the church had no place for a teacher who was not also ready to pastor a church. I observed that pastors got overloaded and rarely had a chance to actually teach.

(2) If you look at most pastors and then write up a job description as you might for a business, you will see a job that nobody can actually perform. Our pastors cannot lead, teach, and equip, because they are so busy doing, and not necessarily doing the things that truly go with their calling.

(3) I grew up with missionary parents who were truly dedicated to their work. By this I mean being willing to go out to serve God at risk of life and limb and at times depending on God for their next meal. I spent four years in southern Mexico, and then three in Guyana (South America) and while we were in the United States, they worked in underserved areas.

In this process I experienced a number of things:

  • I experienced mission trips as loading up mules and backpacks and hiking to a village, or in Guyana getting in a boat and heading up river. This gave me a different view of “discomfort” than I have encountered in various short term missions in which I have been involved.
  • I experienced worship and teaching in circumstances that varied from outdoors under trees to small, simple churches that were no more than walls and a roof. I have felt the presence of God in places most Americans would regard as unusable.
  • I learned that “mission” was not necessarily something you did in somebody else’s country

(4) By contrast, I have sat in American churches that would be inconceivably luxurious while people debated the color of the carpet for hours. Somehow I just couldn’t get into it. We’re replacing chandeliers that don’t look just right; Christians somewhere else are trying to do the minimum necessary to keep out the rain.

(4) I have wondered just how we could create a church that would carry out the work of the gospel as its primary mission. I don’t like evaluating ministry purely on a numbers basis, but I believe that you can often calculate what real priorities are by looking at where the money goes and secondarily by looking at how time is used. By this measure the priority of American churches in general is neither social service nor gospel preaching but rather self-maintenance.

Enter The Jesus Paradigm. In a sense it is almost fitting that the author, Dave Black, contracted Malaria while in Ethiopia and the book was released while he was in the hospital. As I have noted recently in writing about 2 Corinthians, the person can be inextricably linked with the written message. Paul didn’t want to boast, but he had to, while at the same time defending himself from the charge of weakness by claiming that he was weak.

In some of the reviews and in comments brought to me personally there have been questions about a number of things that are either lacking in the book or that people question. I’m not going to try to defend this book by saying that every word is absolutely correct and will stand the test of time. I’m not trying to make Dave Black into a prophet or incorporate his book into the canon of scripture.

These questions relate to ecclesiology and the lack of extended practical directions, both of which I will address, and the political commentary, which I will not.

One major question has been the lack of detailed practical advice on how to put the message of this book into practice. I don’t like to criticize reviewers as a publisher, but I think that criticism misses the point.

The way you put this into practice is by prayerful, constant surrender to Jesus. Read John 6:28-29. The problem is that we want a checklist, a program, or at least a detailed guide. The fact is that we have one–scripture brought to the moment by the power of the Holy Spirit.

I recall from my experience here in Pensacola with the Brownsville Revival. Now please lay aside your issues with what was being done in that revival. I’m not pointing to Brownsville as an example. Pastors and church leaders would come from far away and they would want whatever it as they perceived that Brownsville had. So they would go back home and try to apply what they had seen at Brownsville.

They would use the same music, not just the same style but the same songs. They would organize their services in the same way. They would try to style their preaching after the revival preacher Steve Hill. Then they would wonder why it didn’t work.

It didn’t work because kingdom service is not a program, nor is it a checklist, nor is it an organizational manual. It’s a surrender.

If you don’t know how to do this, dig into Acts and the Epistles, though only after you’ve thoroughly dug into the gospels. Spend your time in prayer and study and in listening to what God has to say to you. You will find ways to put the Jesus paradigm into action.

Another issue is with ecclesiology. How can this material be applied to a different structure of church than just Baptist? Here we may certainly have many disagreements as to details. These are good to discuss with the proper spirit.

I can look at this from my Seventh-day Adventist background and now as a United Methodist, and I think that the most critical thing here s the way church leadership thinks of themselves and behaves. I believe a Methodist church pastor could spread the Jesus paradigm through the committees of teams of his church structure just as boards of elders can do so in other church structures.

But the bottom line, in my view, has to be more revolutionary, but again I think it applies to all different structures. The issue is this: Where do our resources go? Do they serve our desires or do they serve others? As I have looked at the church budgets of the churches I have attended over the last few years, the vast majority of the budget goes to buildings and staff salaries, and the staff is largely charged with maintaining the members that are already there.

As long as we’re spending the majority of our money on maintenance, we’re not going to be reaching people as we should either in social services or in proclamation of the Christian message.

This is why I’m so delighted to have the opportunity to publish The Jesus Paradigm, and yes, to have the opportunity to market it as well. It will challenge us to apply this “downward path of Jesus” (also a phrase from the book) to our circumstances wherever we are. It will direct us to Jesus himself and the early church to find ways of doing that.

I don’t think this will necessarily be simple, but I think it’s time for us to be praying, thinking, and listening for the Holy Spirit in regard to how we can accomplish it. Otherwise, our churches are just an extremely expensive and annoying form of social club.

Church and Healthcare: Fear

Church and Healthcare: Fear

Let me remind everyone that I’m really thinking on my blog, rather than providing answers that I have really thought out in discussing health care issues and the church. I have lots of pieces, but I don’t feel that I have anything like an assembled puzzle. My comments will also necessarily derive from personal experience. And as always, I tend to ramble a bit!

One direction from which we can come at this issue is from the question of need. What is it that a person needs from their church community when facing either illness or death? Since Mark brought up especially end of life issues, I’m focusing on this, including life-threatening illnesses.

Several times when we’ve gone into the children’s wing of the hospital where our son received chemotherapy, my wife has commented that the real enemy is not cancer, but fear. I confess that the first time she said that, my reaction was a bit bewildered. Yes, I know that we have to fight fear, but we’re putting all of these chemicals into a child’s body for the purpose of killing the cancer, hopefully before they kill him. That’s surely fighting the cancer!

But she has a point. The real difficult thing about illness and eventually facing death is the number of decisions that have to be made. Now my wife and I obviously were not facing our own deaths, but rather the death of a child. At first I was less involved. I was the step-father, but then James had to face the death of a loved one during his own struggle–his father died of a heart attack. After this I got a new perspective, because I was the one to go with him to doctor’s consultations. I remember his response vividly. He had only known about his father’s death for perhaps 15 minutes when he walked up to me and said, “Well, I guess it’s all up to you now.” Thought it wasn’t “all up to me,” he had a point.

The thought of death does something to us, even as Christians, that I think makes us irrational. I say (and confess) “us” even though I believe our family managed to step back. The first thing is to realize that death isn’t your worst enemy. I say that not merely as a Christian who believes that there is more for us after this life. Leaving that aside, the process of medical care can be much more terrifying than the thought of dying.

To be honest, I don’t know how most people do it. I grew up in a medically oriented family. We discussed health issues around the dinner table. We talked about dying as a pretty ordinary topic. We talked about the choices in medicine constantly. My wife is an R. N. and has 12 years experience as a hospice educator. With all that background available, we would get into a doctor’s office for a consultation and become hopelessly confused.

I remember one consultation after the first recurrence of the cancer. The oncologist was outlining treatment options. I could look at James and see him tuning out. I told the doctor that I had the role of being the idiot and started asking him detailed questions, making him explain the treatment options, their impact both in terms of effectiveness and side effects. By being the complete idiot and making him go into ABC mode, I got the information. I’m wondering how many people would push that hard, or know when to push. He was a good doctor, with an excellent reputation, and we liked him. We ended up taking “none of the above” and going with a plan cooked up by a surgeon at another hospital.

Now our church family was a bit of a mixed bag throughout all of this. Because I’m going to point out some real failures of support, I want to note that I believe everyone sincerely wanted to be “the body of Christ” for us. Most of them also did reasonably well. But there were people who were not at all helpful. In most cases, I think this was because of fear, either their own, or their assumption that we would be running scared. (Please don’t imagine us as some kind of fearless heroes. We just tried to remain rational under pressure!)

Let me just list some things:

  1. You don’t have to be down all the time just because you or a family member is ill. A number of people took me aside because they felt they needed to let me know that Jody (my wife) was in denial, and didn’t understand the seriousness of the situation. She was much too cheerful. All things considered, I suspect the hospice educator was adequately informed. I was happy that there were times when she could be cheerful.
  2. Repeat that point for James. I don’t know how many times I was told he didn’t understand his condition and the fact that he could die. When he first went into treatment he wasn’t all that clear, but by the time it was all over he could educate most adults on cancer, death, and dying. Again, any time he could be cheerful was good. Before his father died, he and I had an agreement that we would just have fun, so I never brought up the illness when we were together unless absolutely necessary. Of course later that had to change. Church members (or any friends and relatives) need to be aware that you don’t need someone to be miserable with you. Often it’s nice just to have someone be normal and do normal things.
  3. It is impossible to follow every diet, special remedy, or treatment plan found on the internet. We were frequently presented with complete solutions discovered via the internet, ranging from eating lots of brussels sprouts to buying a several thousand dollar water filtration system. It was OK for people to suggest, but when they followed up to see if we were following their suggestions it was a bit much.
  4. Similarly, you can’t go to every faith healer, preacher, prayer team, special revival, or healing service that is offered. We had people who were desperate because they thought if we didn’t go to a particular place, James would not be healed, but if we did, healing was certain.
  5. People don’t necessarily hear what you teach and preach. Since both Jody and I teach and offer seminars, including on the topic of prayer, it was often expected that we should be able to pray for our son’s healing and that would be it. Apparently very few people had ever listened and realized that we had very explicitly said that there was no such guarantee or expectation. (Cue the folks who say that it was because we didn’t believe enough or in the correct faction that there was no healing.)

One Sunday near the time that James went home we all skipped church and met in the living room. Some of our family members had been hurt by things they had heard. I pointed out that the people who did the hurting were not intending to, but that they were very likely operating from fear. If you can find a reason why someone else is suffering, then you can feel that you won’t be targeted. On the other hand if they could be convinced that the right prayer would result in certain healing, they could feel confident that if that nasty diagnosis came in, they could handle it.

The idea of losing a child to cancer is so horrifying that we’d like to find a reason, and specifically a reason that doesn’t apply to you. Good luck! I wish anyone who does this the best in making yourself feel confident. But bad things do happen to generally good people, and whatever comes up as your lot, whether you look at is as God’s plan, or just the way things work in this world, you’re going to have to deal with it.

So what does a church do as a community about this fear? I found that there is one key, and that is staying together and sharing. James had friends who drew closer, and he had friends who couldn’t handle being with him in the fire of affliction. We have been so amazed and thankful for those friends who stuck with him. The majority of those were a few years older than he was, and that difference got more marked as time went on. He simply no longer talked about the things that the boys his own age were interested in. But there were a number of close friends his own age who walked the walk with him. There are others I know who have regretted it.

Simply staying friends, remaining part of the community, and allowing the portions of life that can go on normally to do so is extremely important. There’s such a thing as dying while you’re still alive. James made an early decision not to do that. His final summer he started out in marching band for his high school. He made a difficult decision to step out because he realized he wasn’t going to be strong enough to march that season and indeed would probably not live through it, but he continued to join them on the field, and help with those things he was physically capable of doing.

He made a conscious decision that death wasn’t going to stop him. The rest of us had to go along with that! And it was the right decision. The fear can destroy you long before the disease does, and make your remaining days a living death.

There is a value here in education, but that needs to be supplemented by active support. “Support” as I’ve said, isn’t a matter of having the right thing to say all the time. It’s a matter of simply continuing to be connected even when you don’t know what to say. I already knew all the words. The problem wasn’t to know what I ought to think. The problem was to get the encouragement and strength that comes from community. The ones who showed up and felt foolish, or so they tell me, didn’t hurt us in any way. Generally we had no idea they were as clueless as they claimed. We were just glad they were there. The folks who melted away–those hurt.

Most churches need to really reorient their thinking to truly be a community. The response to every problem is to have a program, and designate people. And of course we do need designated leaders and programs can help. But it’s not the designated people who showed up that helped. It was the close friends who remained and got closer.

Respecting Elders and Adjudicating Church Property

Respecting Elders and Adjudicating Church Property

[Note: I’m fighting the flu, which is why I didn’t post at all yesterday. I’m up to reading again today, and found a few things to comment on.]

Peter Kirk posts on the church congregation of which J. I. Packer is a member, which has voted to leave its diocese and join the southern cone. This is not in my denomination, but it is becoming a more and more common issue as various denominations turn leftward, and conservative congregations try to leave their denomination.

There are two issues that concern me a great deal. The first is about the treatment of J. I. Packer. Now you don’t have to read more than a few posts to realize that I’m not very near J. I. Packer on the theological map. But I think those of us who are moderate to liberal in persuasion need to make sure that we treat people who disagree with us with a certain degree of respect. I am open to correction on this, but I fail to see where Dr. Packer has done anything to warrant this type of treatment. It appears to just be an attempt to silence him, and probably not a very effective one at that.

But second, this reminds me of a number of cases in this country in which property issues have landed churches in court. Now I don’t see that happening here in this particular case, but in many cases here in the United States, congregations are winding up in court over church property. There is very little value, I think, if a denomination keeps a piece of property, but loses the members.

When the dust has settled, and when we all stand before the great judgment seat of Christ, I don’t want to be the one who took a congregation to court over property issues. I can see some technical justification, but I think with Paul that we should say “It would be better to let yourselves be cheated and robbed” (1 Corinthians 6:7 CEV).

Where we have to separate in terms of congregations and denominations, we should all be able to agree to make a maximum effort to do so in a Christ-like manner, at least as much as is possible when disuniting. (Christ-like schism? Is that possible? Maybe it’s the flu!)

From a Christian point of view this treatment of Dr. Packer seems to come from the same angle. It looks like a rather unChrist-like attempt to score points because someone annoys you. Liberals should be in favor of openness. More importantly, Christians should treat one another with respect, and treat an elder with due respect. This looks like scoring cheap points.

Update: Can I use the illness excuse again? I somehow missed the fact that there is a property issue in this case. So it is more precisely an example of the issue I’m talking about here.