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A Morbid and Boring Christianity

A Morbid and Boring Christianity

The quote above comes from chapter 1 of S. J. Hill’s book, What’s God Really Like?, and I’d like to spend some time with this, looking at it from different angles. The first angle is one of worship.

I was in a church committee meeting some years back where a room full of people were discussing young people and the worship service of the church. The question under consideration was why young people weren’t attending our worship services.

After about 45 minutes of (fruitless, in my opinion) discussion, I asked the question: Might we instead discuss whether we can think of any reasons why the young people would attend our worship service?

I, and every other person in that meeting, attend church out of ingrained habit. We have done it for years, it’s what we do, and come Sunday morning, come hell, high water, or several feet of snow, we’re going to find a church service and attend it.

I don’t mean that that’s the only reason I go to church, but it is something I tend to do. If I don’t like one worship service, I’m going to attend another.

But many people, oddly enough (!), require a reason to get up on Sunday morning and go to church. They want to accomplish something.

At this point some of my friends start talking about “dumbing down” the worship service, or want something “relevant.” The tone indicates that “relevant” is some sort of weak effort to replace “real worship” which will involve actual pain and require grit and determination.

“I barely stayed awake through that service,” says the parishioner, looking and sounding holy. Going through a boring worship service is a test of our commitment to God.

Well, perhaps not.

As I read passages like 1 Corinthians 14, I see the word “edify,” which is just a churchy sounding word for “build up” or something similar. The worship services at Corinth sound a bit chaotic, and, well, interesting. Paul encouraged them toward order, but in the end, if you apply all his rules, you still have something very different from what we do today.

Our problem with 1 Corinthians 14 is that we try to apply the solution without having the same problem. We put a straight-jacket on a corpse. The corpse, in case you missed it, is our time of worship.

Now a morbid, boring, and unattractive Christianity is not just about the worship service, but I think we might start there. You see, I think all those complaints about young people wanting relevant service are just whining. Whining because the young people don’t like what we did all our lives.

But if you look at the state of Christianity in America today, I think you’ll see evidence that was we did all our lives—and I’m talking to my generation (I’m 61)—hasn’t worked all that well. Perhaps we need worship that is actually relevant.

Relevant in several ways:

  1. In expressing our relationship with God. (Subtext here — we might need to have a relationship with God and not just a set of theological reflections.)
  2. In preparing us for actual service. (We tend to use the word “ministry” a lot. I think that allows us to separate ourselves from the word. How about “every member serving others” instead of “every member in ministry”?
  3. In help us to build our relationship to God.
  4. In helping us learn to relate to one another. (Hint: sitting in pews listening to a preacher, then heading out to beat the Baptists [or whoever] to lunch doesn’t build your relationships with other people.)
  5. In encouraging us in our lives as they are in this world.
  6. In helping us realize that “worship” doesn’t occur in a “service,” nor does it follow an “order of service,” but is a lifestyle. In fact, it is our lives (Romans 12:1-2).
  7. In helping us learn new and useful things.

Is that what happens when you go to church?

This just barely touches on this question. I’d like to discuss it some more. S. J. Hill is definitely right about one thing: The way we think about God is going to impact everything. If we think of God as interesting, involved, and yes, cool, we will thing that interesting and exciting things are part of worshiping God. If we think God is vindictive, we’re going to look for the right set of rituals to appease him.

If we’ve really forgotten, as I think many of us have, to think about God seriously (serious and joyful are not contradictory!) at all, that’s also going to impact the way we worship.

If God showed up on Sunday morning, would God enjoy what was going on?

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.


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.

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.

 

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.

Toward a Strategy of Worship

Toward a Strategy of Worship

Credit: Openclipart.com
Credit: Openclipart.com

Over the last few weeks I’ve been thinking a great deal about strategy in connection with Christian living. It started when I was invited to preach the Sunday after Veterans Day, which was also the Sunday after the election. I used the first chapter of Colossians to talk about our identity and the means that we, as Christians, have to impact our culture. We have an identity in Christ, an authority in Christ, and a mission in Christ. The key is “in Christ.”

There are some keys to thinking strategically about anything. First, you have to know what it is you are trying to accomplish. Second, you need to know what resources are available. Third, you have to know what limitations there are in how those resources are applied. Use of resources without reference to purpose is largely waste. Anything accomplished is random.

I’ve noted over the years that one can tell whether a church is alive and active by asking a couple of members what the mission of the church is. This can apply both generally (the Christian mission of the Gospel Commission), and specifically (what is the mission of this church). Tactics is more specific and local. Individual tactics can be successful in a strategic failure. This usually results from improperly planned overall strategy. To see some excellent application of tactics in a mission that was a strategic failure, watch the movie A Bridge Too Far. In my sermon I quoted Gen. Robert H. Barrow, commandant of the Marine Corps from 1979-1983 who said, “Amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics.”

Here’s some tactical thinking about worship:

  • We had good attendance today for our special service. We should do that more often.
  • Lots of people complimented me on my sermon after the service. I must have done something right.
  • Some people walked out. We need to fix it.
  • If you didn’t like the service, it’s probably your attitude.
  • Worship’s about God, not about you. Forget about your desires.
  • I realize that nobody remembers what I say in my sermons even until next week, but I’m still preparing for the same sort of sermon next week.

I know the second to the last statement, “worship is about God” is repeatedly stated with great piety. I disagree however. Worship is certainly all about God, but it’s all about the worshipers as well, in that 100%-100% sense that orthodox theology brings. Usually “it’s all about God” is used as an excuse by people who are putting on a worship service (and I use putting on, in the sense of a performance intentionally), and doing so badly. It’s there excuse for leaving the worshipers behind. I don’t like “I have to be fed” or “I need music that I like” any better. All of these are narrowly focused and frequently selfish in orientation. In all cases they’re very much tactical. Did we get what we wanted out of this week’s service?

Our starting point for worship must be to ask what worship is. Let me quote Alexander Schmemann in For the Life of the World:

… But this [cultic] is not the original meaning of the Greek word leitourgia. It means an action by which a group of people become something corporately which they had not been as a mere collection of individuals–a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It means also a function or “ministry” of a man or of a group on behalf of and in the interest of the whole community. (p. 21, Nook edition)

There is a function of the gathering of the saints in worship, but worship does not occur exclusively in this “worship service.” There is a purpose in our gathering, which is to constitute and reconstitute ourselves as a community ready to be Christ in the world (our identity in Christ), to understand the reality of what Christ has done through his death and resurrection and how we are incorporated in that (our authority in Christ), and the empowering and impetus to carry that result back out into the world. (I highly commend Alexander Schmemann’s work, whether or not you are a fan of Orthodox theology. For the Life of the World is a powerful little book. I may develop some of these ideas further on this blog, but for now I’m just assuming them due to space limitations.)

So at the starting point of our search for a strategy of worship is to realize that it is not a teaching event, or a singing event, nor is it necessarily a ritual event. It may be partly all of those things, but as long as we don’t consider what our real goals are, why we gather for this event, we may carry out every worship service over “a bridge too far.”

Here are some things to consider, I think:

  1. How do we gather the people together? Questions of music, format, buildings, PowerPoint presentations, pews, advertising, and so far can occur at this point, but all must be subordinated to the overall purpose. And we might want to ask a more important question: Have the people who gather in the church experienced becoming the church? Have the experienced the presence of God? Have they sensed the reality of that community? If they experience none of these things, I believe that in time no matter how entertaining you may make the time, it will still be a failure.
  2. What do we do to make people a community? Schmemann works through the meaning of the liturgy, and I find his interpretation powerful. Yet I don’t think what he outlines is the only approach that can be authentic and successful.
  3. What do we do to engage people as a community with God? This would require many words. I’ll just leave the question open.
  4. What do we do that helps us leave empowered to be Christ in the world?

If we aren’t accomplishing these things I question whether we are truly engaged in full Christian worship. We may be taking stabs at it. We may be doing a great job getting across the bridge that’s in front of us, but are we becoming the body of Christ?

I think our general failure is made evident by the way in which we depend on Caesar’s methods to accomplish cultural goals. We sense that our witness to Jesus Christ is not accomplishing what we believe we need to see. Perhaps we need to reconsider whether our witness to Jesus as the Anointed One is genuine and whether our activities on a Sunday morning are more about keeping the church calendar moving than about being Christ in the world.

What do you think?

Seven Marks of a New Testament Church – Sacrificial Living

Seven Marks of a New Testament Church – Sacrificial Living

nt church books

… salvation of necessity leads to service. (Seven Marks of a New Testament Church, p. 43)

This is the final post of my series on this book, and I’d like to make an observation about the entire enterprise. I’ve become increasingly convinced of two things during this study. First, there is no single form of church organization or structure mandated by the New Testament. Second, there are quite a few principles that should be applied in any church structure that we may choose to use.

Those may sound like they are at least in tension, but I think any tension is both appropriate and quite possibly intentional on the part of New Testament writers. I also do think that one’s organizational structure can either aid in applying Christ-like principles to one’s church structure or they can hinder us from doing so. Unfortunately, we can turn the best organizational plan into something dangerously hierarchical and lacking in accountability.

The determining factor in how our churches will function is whether we are prepared to actually be the body of Christ, living under one Spirit (1 Corinthians 12). Unfortunately, many have seen the test of the church as being the power of the miraculous signs that are displayed, when the real message of that chapter (really 1 Corinthians 12-14) is that the test of the miraculous signs is the one Spirit.

This final chapter of Seven Marks is critical for this reason. It says that we really mean it. Now we can’t neglect the other elements, but the final demonstration is going to be involved in sacrificial living. Note that the title is not “sacrificial giving.” We can give sacrificially without accomplishing anything for the kingdom. When we are emotionally persuaded to give large amounts of money for an unneeded or ostentatious facility or program, we can give sacrificially, while still failing to live sacrificially.

What does it mean to live sacrificially? I must, of course, recommend reading this entire chapter. But let me suggest that for the Christian, this means putting everything we have and everything we are in God’s hands. It’s not a percentage of giving. It’s not a percentage of our time for worship. It’s a complete commitment of ourselves to being the body of Christ, to act as citizens of God’s kingdom while we are aliens here. (Mixing metaphors is fun!)

Christianity is not something you tack on to the rest of who you are. Yes, I belong to the ___ club, I’m part of the ____ political party, and as for religion, I’m a Christian. No! Being a Christian is not like a club or political party membership. It defines who you are.

Bruce Epperly, in Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel, p. 46 puts it this way:

As Acts 2 proclaims that the first Christians “devoted themselves to the Apostles teaching, to the community, to shared meals, and to prayers …. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” They did not separate economics from theology or spirituality. Within the body of Christ, unity of spirit leads to the quest for physical well-being. While there may have been inequalities in income and property, there was no destitution or neglect. Everyone had enough of the Earth’s bounty to have the energy and inspiration to share the good news of God’s life-transforming Shalom. Putting God first lead Jesus’ first followers to generosity and sacrificial living in which the neighbor’s need outweighed property rights and personal comfort.

Ruth Fletcher expresses the vision and the goal well in her book Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations, p. 48:

Those first followers gathered around Jesus’ table in order to be shaped by the values embedded in the story of God’s New Creation. They came together to be equipped with the tools and the courage necessary to make God’s intentions real. Although not large in number, the small bands that followed Jesus began to affect the whole fabric of the culture around them. They were like grains of mustard seed springing up like bushes everywhere. They were like leaven affecting the whole loaf, like salt flavoring the whole pot of soup. They were like light shining from a lamp stand showing what God had in mind for the world.

Today we look to large church programs with the goal of bringing people into the church. Might we not accomplish more if we became those grains of mustard seed in order to impact the world around us. In order to do that we have to be willing to live sacrificially, not as a momentary impulse, but as a lifestyle.

One last thing I’d like to note about this series is that, while I’ve followed Dave Black’s outline from Seven Marks, I’ve been able to find very similar notes from my other two authors. These three authors come from different denominations and different tradition streams, yet they find many similar principles for how we should live as the church.

There are many things we can argue about, but I perhaps we can agree that we should be living as a community, caring for one another, and carrying out our witness through caring for the entire world.


Nobody Ever Thinks They Are Creating a New Denomination

Nobody Ever Thinks They Are Creating a New Denomination

kineso ten luchnian
Revelation 2:5

Christopher Ritter is complaining, though only in the nicest, most creative way, about critics of the new Wesleyan Covenant Association. It’s interesting how efforts to reform often end up creating new denominations, even when the leaders don’t intend to do so. Just look at the example provided by Ritter in his post.

I commend Ritter for his excellent way of presenting his complaint, but at the same time I have to ask whether a movement to reform the United Methodist Church at this point is not also likely to contribute to the division of the denomination. It seems that we require such organizations to deny that they contemplate schism in any way. It’s part of the game. I suspect that the WCA people are entirely sincere in that desire.

Reality may not be on their side.

I’m a member of a United Methodist congregation. I would note that when my wife and I discussed the idea of moving to a new church prior to this move, we thought that our next church congregation would not be part of the UMC, but here we still are, and here we will stay as long as we believe God is leading us to do so.

What I’m not going to do is get stirred up over the survival of denominational structures. My friends sincerely wish to prevent schism, but as a church, we’re the product of a group that broke off from a group that broke off, and that earlier break-off was not very holy, I might note. Not to mention that I don’t see very much Jesus in the structures of any of the above.

Unless the Holy Spirit changes a bunch of people, the UMC is at an impasse over same-sex marriage and inclusion of LGBT people. We are a divided church. We can claim to be united, but it’s a fake. The question is whether the structures will follow the actual practice or whether we will continue to find ways (and spend large amounts of money) to pretend.

What is needed is to change our focus to become Christ’s body in the world, Christ’s witnesses, the bearers and proclaimers of Christ’s gospel. We are a church that is apathetic, self-centered, and wasteful. We are more concerned with our buildings and our power than with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But that is something that can change. I don’t know about the denomination, but the only person who needs to change in this is me. And you. And you. Each of us.

Is the church building taking up more money than caring for your neighbors? Get rid of it.

Do you pay more for Sunday School curriculum than for evangelism or textbooks for needy children? Cut it out of your budget!

Is your primary concern for your worship service done your way at your time? Drop it. Be concerned about your neighbors.

If you let the gospel become central, many things that seem critical right now will fade into the background. You may not change church headquarters, but you can change you.

A UMC House Church

A UMC House Church

nt church booksOne of the points I have tried to make in my series regarding the books Seven Marks of a New Testament Church, Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations, and Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel is that one can follow these “Jesus principles” of church leadership under many different formal structures. Some structures may make it harder than others, but I suspect it is more that each structure has different strengths and weaknesses, mostly the result of the fact that all of them involve humans.

Here’s a video about a house church under the UMC banner. You won’t see anything “non-Wesleyan” here, or violations of the Book of Discipline, but you will see a creative and dynamic living out of the Christian faith. This is certainly a thriving congregation, carrying out transforming acts, and showing marks of a New Testament church!

Let the Children Interrupt

Let the Children Interrupt

Children under a tree
From OpenClipart.org

This past Sunday the lesson was from Luke 18:15-17, Jesus blessing the children. Saturday evening, as I was thinking about this, a local church was promoting their variety of children’s programs and how that showed their care for the children. I know it’s probably unkind of me, but I was not impressed.

Yes, having children’s programs is better than ignoring the children. Having something for the children to do while their parents carry out the activities of the older folks is better than doing nothing. When we were overseas, my mother was often asked to donate to church building projects. She would always ask to see the plans. Frequently those plans would involve a church sanctuary and no educational rooms at all. She’d ask where was the space for the children’s programs, and was told they could meet under the trees until the church had the money to build their facilities. She’d suggest instead that the adults meet under the trees and that the space be given to the children.

Yes, it’s good to provide for the children. But the interesting thing that Jesus did is this: He let the children interrupt the activities of the adults. He didn’t appoint a “children’s apostle” or create a children’s “blessing room” where appropriately gifted leaders could work with the children. No! He invited them to where he was, right to the center.

I think we are too concerned with having our busy routine interrupted. Perhaps if we let the children get involved some of the super-sacred elements of the order of service might be skipped. Perhaps some of the adults would have to listen to something simple and repetitive.

Those with special gifts for teaching and for connecting with children and young people are to be treasured and  their talents used in ministry. But children need to spend time with the adults as they learn, and not always be separated out into age segregated groups where six-year-olds learn from six-year-olds and teens learn from teens. Church should be a place where they can practice and learn. I’m in favor of having children and teens give testimonies, speak, and even present the message. Where better to learn than in their own community? Of course, all these activities should be done with the help of people of experience who can mentor and guide without controlling and suffocating.

I was visiting a small house church overseas and was asked to present a children’s story and also the message for the adults. I hadn’t tried a children’s story in many years. But I gave it a try. For the adults message I had carefully taken a passage and prepared an expository message. It was really pretty good since I say so myself! [Yeah, right.] I was uncomfortable with the children’s story. After I had presented both, and was chatting with my translator immediately after our time together, I noticed the head elder copying my illustration from the blackboard (yes, the old-fashioned slate kind). Then he asked me a few questions through the translator, all about the children’s message.

The children’s story had caught his attention and had met a need in the church. It was clear from our conversation that he was fine with my expository preaching. It just hadn’t connected. The children’s message had.

Is it possible there isn’t such a difference between our needs as older members and those of the children and young people in our churches?