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Slippery Slopes

Slippery Slopes

There are a few terms that are quite true and yet misleading in many actual uses. I like to cite “Christians aren’t perfect; just forgiven.” Precisely true, but in common use very likely an excuse for ordinary bad behavior. Whatever the intent, it ends up sounding like, “I’m a Christian, so I can do whatever I want to. If you question my actions, nobody’s perfect.” They’re not perfect; you’re not perfect. In this case, however, the true statement is being used as a bad excuse.

Or there’s the great “I’m an adult, so I’m not offended by your political views.” Just so! An adult will not be offended by the political views of others. Disagree, yes. Be offended, not so much. Though I’ll confess that some political (and religious, for that matter) views are quite offensive. But in practice this line is most frequently used by people who want to behave in an offensive manner. When someone objects, they have the passive-aggressive response. “Adults wouldn’t get offended.” So of course you’re not an adult because you get offended when they behave like toddlers. It’s true you shouldn’t get offended. What good does it do? But they’re really using it as an excuse, and as a way to manipulate you.

And then there are slipperly slopes. Slippery slopes are real. That’s because one idea leads to another. In fact, unless you start learning, you live your life on slippery slopes.

My particular brand of moderate, or passionate moderate as I like to call myself, celebrates being all across the slopes of various ideas. I like to identify the extremes on any particular idea or topic and then find all the ground between. Where is the best place to be? If the correct place to be is poised on the slippery slope, that’s where I want to be.

But “slippery slope” is more commonly used as a scare tactic against certain ideas. It is quite true, for example, some some people have gone from conservative Christianity, through moderate or mainline Christianity, then progressive Christianity, and then to atheism. It’s a slippery slope. Once you start thinking, it’s hard to be certain where you’ll go. It’s also true that many people have reacted badly to their conservative or fundamentalist upbringing and have then jumped straight to atheism.

Others have turned to Christian faith and then gotten narrower and narrower and harsher and harsher and ended up as dangerous cultists.

Yet others have turned to Jesus and slid right down the slippery slope to living a life of sacrifice and commitment to Jesus. Some of these have ended up doing mission work on the street.

I have named none of these, but there numbers are quite substantial.

You live in a world filled with slippery slopes. It’s not only likely you’ll make mistakes and find yourself sliding somewhere you don’t want to go. It’s likely someone else has taken a step similar to one you’ve just taken and then continued on to somewhere you don’t want to go.

My suggestion would be to always remember where you have been, and to always consider the foundations of what you believe. That will help you measure your movement and decide whether you really want the changes taking place or not.

Or, alternatively, you can anchor yourself where you are, and live in fear of the slippery slopes all around. It’s not all that likely you’ll be right or safe.

You might even avoid slipping into some beautiful new truths!

Beware of the fear of slippery slopes.

Underlying Principles for Christian Education and Discipleship

Underlying Principles for Christian Education and Discipleship

Chalk rubbed out on blackboard

… and with that pretentious title.

Actually, last night I talked on the Energion Tuesday Night Hangout (I’ll embed the video at the end as well) about Christian education and how one might go about choosing curriculum.

My sister, Betty Rae, asked me a question via e-mail this morning, and I thought it was so on point that I would post her comments and my response here. What am I actually up to at Energion Publications? For those who wonder, yes, my sister and I communicate like this quite a bit.

From her comments:

I have been trying to understand what is the purpose or goal you have in what you are doing.  I think I may have glimpsed something tonight.  Please tell me if I am right.

The early NT church consisted of home gatherings.  They had no center of worship, like the Jerusalem Temple.  So All that was Christian centered in these small groups.  Luther calls them “small companies;”  Ellen White, “little companies.”  So if there is a difficulty with the church at large, the church may be preserved in the “small study groups,” as you are calling them.  I saw in your presentation that you are encouraging the preservation of the individuality of individuals and groups.  Your presentation tonight holds great significance as I see it.  By leaving the groups free, even to making them free not to use your materials, room is left for the working of the Holy Spirit.  Hopefully, the small groups will follow that example, and also leave the individuals in their groups free.

The time will come, however, if there is religious oppression, that small groups will be suppressed; as an example, “The Conventicle Act” in England, for disobeying of which John Bunyan spent 12 years in prison.  During times of religious revival and opposition, believers were forced to meet in small groups, even outdoors in forests and mountains, for which they were severely punished if they were caught. John Wesley was forced, even to preach out of doors, when denied access to the churches.  The Advent Movement believers met in small groups after they were thrown out of the churches, coming together in camp meetings.

On an individual basis, churches in this country have already persecuted and tried to suppress small groups, calling them “cults.” (The devil will always mix his counterfeit in with the true.  Fear of being called a “cult” has discouraged the “small group.”)  One thing that drew disapproval was the groups’ using of materials “unauthorized” by the denomination, which you addressed tonight in your presentation.  Your work may be small, but who hath despised the day of small things!

Here’s my response:

One of my fundamental beliefs is that spiritual choices made through duress, emotional manipulation, or spinning data are of no positive benefit and are indeed destructive. Thomas Aquinas and I are not even playing on the same ball field on this one!

I carry this so far as to say that if I were helping to bring a Jew into Christian fellowship (no human “converts” anyone), I would want to make sure that person understood Judaism as well as Christianity to be sure he or she is making a choice that is as informed and as free as possible. Similarly, if a person is kept in the church because he or she was prevented from getting outside information, that brings no glory to God. While it may build up the church organization, the Kingdom of God is not built.

I could summarize this by saying that God’s kingdom cannot be built by deception, and trying to deny people information from another perspective is deception. That’s the reason leaders do it. The leadership is afraid that if we, the followers, have information other than what they approve, we might decide differently than we have.

This is often done for the best of motives. In the church, the idea is to prevent people who are less informed from being led astray. So information is restricted in pursuit of truth. But just because an approach is intended to accomplish something does not mean it will accomplish that. We often give credit to people for being well-intentioned, but the universe does not. The laws of physics don’t care about your intention. You may intend to fly when you jump off the cliff, but gravity (and the rocks below) does not say, “I’ll give him/her credit for having good intentions.” It’s just plain splat!

Similarly in politics we have a desire to limit information to what is accurate and unbiased. I agree that the internet provides a huge reservoir of material that ranges from misleading in presentation to flat out wrong. But those who would like to clean that up somehow, other than by countering false with true, are playing with fire. Whether it’s by controlling political spending or trying to narrowly define a “real” journalist, it’s going to head toward control, and control will lead to mass falsehood and delusion. The universe will not regard the supposedly truth-loving intentions of the censors.

So I do advocate freedom in ideas, and I follow that belief in the small (very small) world of my publishing business. I restrict what I publish not because I think the other stuff is bad, but simply to define a reasonable audience for me to try to address.

At the same time I personally advocate a program of education in churches, however carried out, that makes sure people are aware of the full range of ideas that are out there. Carrying this out will involve reading books that are written by people who disagree with and disapprove the church’s views as well as hopefully hearing directly from them. There’s nothing like hearing an idea from an advocate. I may be ever so careful to present my adversaries position, but hearing me is not as good as hearing them.

Those are the beliefs that underlie what I said about curriculum last night.

And for those who might need context, the actual presentation:

Church as a Social Occasion

Church as a Social Occasion

Or perhaps as the social occasion.

Thom Rainer has a post titled Seven Things Church Members Should Say to Guests in a Worship Service. It comes complete with a header picture of people who, to me, look like they’re forcing excessive smiles. I probably see it that way because I’m an introvert. I suppose that there is nothing wrong with these seven things, though I must note that I prefer that the restrooms be well-marked with signs so that I don’t have to ask someone where they are, and I’m very likely to be the guy who forgets who you are even though you’ve been down the pew from me for months. In fact, I’d just as soon you let me sit there, think, and pray as come try to make a social occasion out of it.

There’s nothing wrong with being the social person. There’s very much right with being a friendly person. Yet I’m left with several questions. The most important question is just what it is we’re trying to accomplish.

It seems to me that all of this is aimed at getting more people to attend your church service. The goal is to make people “church-going” and to make sure that an adequate number attend your church. In order to accomplish this we try to make church a great social occasion with a friendly atmosphere (provided one likes that sort of thing).

I confess that I may be hypercritical here. But all of these lists, and in fact a huge percentage of the talk about church growth seems to center around how many people we have in church. So if you have a church that is a very strong social club, you’re a successful church.

But in reading the gospel commission I can’t seem to find the part about making sure large numbers of people attend church once per week. That isn’t even mentioned, much less presented as a goal.

Someone’s going to say that this is the goal. We get them into church and from there we make disciples of them. But I don’t seem to see as many lists of ways to make disciples out of the people you manage to get to attend your worship service. I don’t see nearly as much about getting the people who are good, church-going people to go out and make those disciples. I don’t see nearly as much about getting those people to observe the things Jesus commands.

I recall a pastor recently who said to the church: The only excuse for a church to exist is to be a witness to Jesus Christ. I’d refocus that to this: The only excuse for us to have a church service is to help us be and become better disciples of Jesus.

This means that there is a good reason to get people to attend church, provided that church is about becoming better disciples. As I’m been reading about fellowship, I think there’s much more to the idea of communion as a shared meal celebrated regularly. Our church gatherings are not so much services as training and motivation to become active servants. In order to do that we need to be reminded of who we are and of how we are part of a body.

Perhaps if we built these times around a common meal where interaction involved more than greeting and attempting to remember names, singing a few songs, and listening to someone lecture, we might be able to build the body of Christ as a community that serves, and in fact embodies Jesus Christ for the world. That might mean we need to break up some of our huge congregations and spread out into the community in smaller groups.

I’m no expert on church organization or church growth. I’m pretty sure that, despite my own tendency, Sunday morning isn’t designed as a time of individual prayer and meditation for me. I can do that many other times. Yet I can’t help but get the impression that our church activities are centered around that Sunday morning worship service. If singing hymns and listening to a lecture of variable quality doesn’t light up your life, you’re just the wrong type of person.

But do these worship services really help us to be Christians? Do they carry out the gospel commission? Are the spaces in which we do these activities well utilized in pursuit of the gospel? Despite being a person whose habit it is to be in church every week almost without exception, I’m seeing it as less and less productive.

Perhaps our problem is that the goal is the wrong one. Filling our church sanctuaries on Sunday morning was never the aim of the gospel commission. Making disciples was.

Is it?

Helping One Another Change

Helping One Another Change

I just extracted a note from Dave Black’s blog to The Jesus Paradigm. (That site supports his book by the same name as well as a few others that don’t have their own domain name.) In it Dave talks about admonishing, encouraging, and upholding. You’ll have to go read the post to find out what these are about.

For my purposes here, they are all ways in which we help one another change for the better. In my view, there’s too little helpful activity of this nature in our churches today. We don’t want to get into each other’s business, and often we’re in congregations that are large enough that we don’t really know one another’s business enough to be helpful. In my own congregation I know that one of the considerations whenever we discuss greeting people is that there is a risk of approaching a life-long member as a new visitor. If I can’t be sure a person is a part of the congregation, how can I possibly respond to them in a helpful way about anything else?

But I think that even in groups small enough to do so, we would have a hard time doing it. We seem to move too easily from neglect to condemnation without taking the necessary steps in between. Dave points out the different ways of handling different people. In order to interact with someone in a helpful way, whether correction or encouragement or any other approach, you have to know them pretty well. One big difference between correction and condemnation is simply the relationship between giver and receiver.

I “correct” my wife’s use of the computer on a regular basis. I know more about computers than she does, she knows that, and so it generally works. Even so, it still won’t work if I am condescending or impatient. But if I both understand her starting point and work to help her get to where she wants to go, things work extremely well.

She, on the other hand, corrects my work in the kitchen. It turns out that in the same set of circumstances, I can actually produce a meal with her direction. The things I don’t know how to do she does. The things I might ignore, like precisely which position the oven shelves occupy, she encourages me to get right.

So here we are in the church. Let me just list some things we might need to work toward in our churches so we can truly help one another change.

  1. We need to know one another better, whatever that takes. If that means more home churches, great! If you can find a way in a large church to get some sort of accountability as a group, great!
  2. We need to understand forgiveness. I hear someone saying that we’re talking about correcting, not letting people off the hook for their misdeeds. That attitude is precisely the problem. Correction that comes with condemnation isn’t generally going to be mutual. We are all sinners together looking to Jesus. We abuse this in two ways. First, we decide we’re all sinners, so we can just forget about trying to change. Second, we can decide that some sinners are more equal than others. I think the call of Jesus is to mutuality. We are all sinners. We all press toward the mark.
  3. We need to ditch our pride. Ouch! Just about anything we do, even what is normally good, will be spoiled by pride.
  4. We need to know the difference between essentials and non-essentials. Too often when we correct others, we are asking them to follow our traditions instead of theirs. If you want to successfully show someone a better way, it helps if the way you’re showing them actually is better.
  5. We need to let love reign in us. All of 1 John is filled with excellent material, but 1 John 4 is particularly important on this point. Note that there is some help here defining love as well as applying it.

We definitely need to get past the point where the only encouragement or exhortation in our churches comes from the pulpit, and is therefore easily ignored by those in the pews.

Let us pay attention to each other, so as to stir up of love and good works … (Hebrews 10:24).

12Therefore restore the weakened hands and the disabled knees, 13and prepare straight paths for your feet so that the lame might not stumble but rather might be healed (Hebrews 12:12-13).

The Cross is an Offense Today

The Cross is an Offense Today

I rarely post a quote from a book I’m editing, but this one struck me today. It’s from the forthcoming book The Church Under the Cross by William Powell Tuck. Here it is:

Jesus Christ has called us to a way of life which demands sacrificial living, and this call is still an offense to us today. Oh, we don’t mind hearing sermons about the cross, as long as they tell us about what God did for us in Christ. We don’t mind hearing songs about the cross. We don’t even mind singing songs about the cross or depicting the cross in paintings, sculptures, stained glass windows, or wearing the image around our nicks or on our lapels. But when we begin to realize that the cross is supposed to be a way of life, it is even more offensive to us today. Few people really live a sacrificial kind of life. But Jesus has called us to the cross-like way of life (p. 65).

How easily we wear the symbol, often made out of gold (or gold-plated), but how difficult we find it to make the symbol a part of our daily life. I think we might well find it offensive to think that the symbol we wear or admire in art should change our lives.

Dashboards, Discernment, and Responsible Leadership

Dashboards, Discernment, and Responsible Leadership

Logo of the United Methodist Church
Image via Wikipedia

Yes, that’s a big collection of topics, but I think they’re connected. John Meunier links to an excellent post by Dan Dick, which you should read before you read this one. The topic here is the conference dashboards in United Methodist annual conferences, such as this one for the North Alabama Conference.

I do have substantial problems with the church dashboard, including a great deal of the way in which the statistics are presented. I also am concerned about numerical measures of success in the church. It’s quite possible to build up numbers and be missing the mission and ministry of the church, and the proclamation of the gospel message. Some people will leave a church that is aiming for full commitment and discipleship. At the same time, as Dan Dick pointed out, some people’s professed disdain for such numbers is the result of laziness. But all of this has been thoroughly discussed amongst the Methodist blogs.

It seems to me, however, that the use of these numbers on conference dashboards is just a symptom of a certain retreat from personal responsibility. I don’t mean by this that our United Methodist bishops are off trying to avoid hard decisions. Rather, we are systematically trying to codify and quantify so much of human behavior and organizational policy that not only can avoid taking personal responsibility; they must.

For example, in my district, the district superintendent has 53 churches for which he is responsible, and the conference as a whole has more that 600 pastors, for which our bishop is responsible. Each year, pastoral appointments are made by the bishop, with the advice of the cabinet and many people in the churches, for those 600 churches. I think the temptation is going to be very strong to put some kind of simplified set of numbers on performance. The more details you have to consider, the harder it is to make a choice.

What I wonder is how often a bishop could get by with ignoring the numbers because, let’s say, one pastor is making better disciples, even if his numbers (for some reason) didn’t look as good. Could the popular pastor with the watered-down message be overlooked in favor of the pastor with the harder message of sacrifice and service? I recognize here that the pastor with the good numbers may be an effective disciple maker. I know some pastors in that category. The pastor with the bad numbers may be either lazy, or much more likely simply too beat up by parishioners, the system, and the unrealistic expectations we have for pastors that he is, in fact, performing badly.

But can the leadership determine this with accuracy in all (or nearly all) cases? Would they be willing to send the less popular pastor to a larger church?

It seems to me that collecting statistics is valuable, though I think someone well qualified in analyzing data should rework the conference display. I sense a few cases of deceptive use of numbers. Most importantly, the numbers are not related to the nature of the existing church body and the community in which it is located. All of that requires personal knowledge such as cannot be collected remotely.

But what if such information was collected and available? Would our leadership be willing to act against popular pressure? I see this as a common problem in leadership, at least in the United States today. We have a problem making a decision and standing up for it. Of course, in employment situations, the decisive leader may well have to present statistics as evidence in court in order to justify a decision.

That’s one reason for “zero tolerance” policies in so many cases. “Zero tolerance” means that people in leadership don’t have to make responsible, nuanced decisions. But “zero tolerance” is just the extreme case of avoiding responsibility. Putting it all on a set of numbers is another one. It’s a trend I don’t like, even though I recognize it as a response to the other extreme–a complete lack of accountability. (I have tremendous respect for Bishop Willimon, for example, whose dashboard I linked as an example. Yet I’m still not happy with it.)

I ramble because I don’t know a solution, other than to say we need leaders to take responsibility, and we need to make sure we know who is responsible for what, so they can be accountable. I also think we need to bring leadership closer to the local church so that each person in leadership is responsible for a reasonable number of people and churches. That would allow individuals to seek out all those nuances that back up the numbers.

I don’t know the solution, and since I am neither a pastor nor a church administrator, and have avoided most church committees, I am probably the wrong person to propose one. What I do believe is that, though structural changes can help, the answer doesn’t lie in precisely how the church is organized. There are congregational style churches that are just as dysfunctional as any Methodist church whose bishop sent the “wrong” pastor.

What we do need is a change of our personal culture, from that of an organization that must maintain itself to one of gospel driven discipleship.

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Boldness to be Fools

Boldness to be Fools

Sometimes even when I’m way to busy to be blogging, at least on my personal blog, I just see so many things that point the same direction that I just have to write. This post didn’t start with this quote, but it says something I like to read:

If our denomination has lost the boldness to be fools, then we do not need new initiatives or new advertising campaigns. We need to recapture our lost zeal.

That’s from John Meunier, a United Methodist local church pastor and blogger.

This follows on some discussion of radical discipleship over on GenXRising, who says:

If we, as Christians, are really worried about declining numbers of the faithful in this land, we should practice a more robust form of discipleship.

Ouch! You mean we have to mean what we say? Say it ain’t so!

This all relates closely to a book I’m publishing, The Jesus Paradigm by Dr. David Alan Black, a professor of Greek and New Testament at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Indeed, it does appear that there are things on which Methodists and Baptists can agree. [Cue the shock and amazement.]

To go back to the question, however, here’s what I wrote on my company’s blog right after contracting to publish Dave Black’s book, my third of three points:

Finally, this book hit the spot because I’m frustrated with the professional church. Practically every pastor I know is frustrated as well. They are wondering why church members don’t get to work, why they don’t serve one another, why they don’t share their faith, and why they fill pews (occasionally, even!) rather than getting involved.

I like to call myself a passionate moderate–just look at the blog header. I’ve discussed before what I mean by combining those two terms. I never mean that we don’t need to really be who we are called to be. That’s going to take some willingness to get radical on at least one point–faithfulness to what we know is right.