Archive for September, 2010

Who Are We?

September 20, 2010

Thanks to Doni for sharing this recent article on congregations and how they deal with the ongoing downwards trends in terms of regular membership and the often unstated but dominant issue of reduced financial resources.

As the pastor of now a second congregation in this situation, it’s an issue that’s keenly on my heart.  I know I’m not alone in this, either.  It’s an issue that affects a majority of congregations across all of the traditional, mainline denominations.  Conventional wisdom says it’s much harder to revive a congregation that has significantly fallen in number of members and resources than to start a new congregation from scratch.  Yet this is what I am tasked with doing in some manner, and what many other pastors knowingly or unknowingly are called upon to do.
Some clarifications first.  As I’ve mused in earlier posts, the job of a congregation is not to ensure it’s sustainability or legacy to future generations.  The first and most critical role of a congregation is to share the Gospel.  I believe a great majority of dying congregations do this.  The problem is not in sharing the Gospel necessarily, but in constantly sharing it with new and different people rather than preaching to the proverbial choir.  My job as a pastor and a theologian is not to fill the pews and ensure we meet our annual budget.  Too many pastors get sucked into this as being their main purpose.  Too many congregations expect this of their pastors – particularly new pastors.  My job is not to fill the pews – my job is to preach the Gospel, administer the Sacraments, and equip my parishioners to be sharing and living the Gospel out in their lives in the world, where all those people are who haven’t heard the Gospel or have walked away from church for one reason or another.  
I tend to think that this task would remain clearer and in it’s proper position as first priority for a congregation if there weren’t all of the blessings of a building and campus to maintain.  While these things can be important and necessary for a congregation that is just starting out and growing, they quickly eclipse the main mission.  Once established, a congregation is easily drawn into self-focus and self-satisfaction.  Sharing the Gospel to those outside the church seems to lose emphasis.  Perhaps this is a frightening indication that sharing the Gospel is often a means to an end – even before the building or purchase of a physical plant.  Maybe it’s just as much a means to an end in the early part of ministry – the end of getting a property, rather than the later end of keeping the property.
So I come to an article like this one and what leaps out to me is that the main focus appears to be on hanging on to the place.  To do this, any number of concessions are made.  Buildings are effectively repurposed into multi-purpose community spaces because they’re no longer needed throughout the week for the work of the church.  Partnerships are formed – ostensibly for the sharing of the Gospel, but effectively to continue to make ends meet.  I don’t hear about congregations that are reaching out to community groups with the purpose of sharing the Gospel – but rather they’re reaching out to be good neighbors.  And while being good neighbors is a critical part of sharing the Gospel, I think it’s dangerous to leave it at that.  It’s too easy to form a relationship, invite a group in to share the facility, and then never continue on to the step of sharing the Gospel.  The partnership is seen as enough.  It’s somehow an indicator that the congregation is being a “good neighbor”.  I wonder what this really means, both to those in the congregation as well as the community around them.  
The early quote from the member of a small congregation about how they know who they are, essentially, is critical.  But what is the identity that you’ve settled on?  Is it the identity as a small congregation who isn’t interested or able to really reach out into the community with the Gospel?  Is it an identity of a more or less self-sufficient few who are happy to make accommodations in terms of who uses their space, just so long as they can continue on worshiping in the location and style they’re accustomed to?  Are these proper identities, Biblically speaking?  Would St. Paul commend this group for their faithfulness, or challenge them to reconsider their identity?  Would it have been appropriate for Jesus to settle on the identity of his followers as a small group of 12 or 100 people, and not worry about sharing the message with a further audience?  I’m pretty sure a Biblical Christian would quickly answer No to this question.  So why would a congregation of Biblical Christians, a part of the body of Christ, settle for this sort of answer? 
Of course, there are worse answers to the problem of shrinking numbers and dollars.  The quoted Rev. Winslea models this further in the article.  The answer is inclusiveness, according to Rev. Winslea.  Why be so closed-minded as to limit our considerations of truth to just the Bible?  Why not include the Qu’ran?  Why not include “Buddhist texts”?  The first answer that comes to my mind would be that they directly contradict the Biblical witness.  In which case, you have to be dishonest in your use of either the Biblical text or these other texts – you have to pick and choose what you choose to use, because you can’t use all of it without explicitly denying all of the other texts you want to include.  It’s naive and foolish at the very best, and dishonest at the very worst.  I can find a lot of books that say nice things that sound as though they agree with what the Bible says.  But there are no other sacred texts that in their entirety, understood as they would like to be understood, support the Biblical witness entirely.  Once again the drive to be seen as inclusive and open-minded really only results in the evisceration of what you claim to believe, what you claim to exist for.  This is inevitable when your goal is primarily “increasing foot traffic” as opposed to responding joyfully to the mind-blowing goodness of God in Jesus Christ.  
We were blessed to be with Imago Dei on the last Sunday that they worshiped in their space in Franklin High School, before they swapped places with PDX4.  The pastor preached a powerful message on remembering the goodness of God and carrying that forward into their unanticipated and undeserved blessing of a new, more centralized space.  I think the solution worked out by these two congregations is one very reasonable way of dealing with a campus that is too big for your congregation any more.  I think it demonstrates a good sense of what it means to be part of the Church universal, rather than an isolated and self-reliant congregation.  I’ve been struck recently by what seems to be a lack of larger, strategic thinking of this kind within Christian circles.  I suspect this is an important deficiency that hopefully is going to be more and more addressed.
The solution of Redeemer Lutheran Church sounds promising as well.  I’ve been acquainted with various forms of ‘listening projects’ wherein a congregation learns to hear what the people in the surrounding neighborhood are dealing with.  The congregation then has an opportunity to decide how they respond to these needs.  While there’s a danger of replacing the Gospel with social Gospel, and the goal of salvation with the goal of better standards of living, these issues are not of necessity mutually incompatible.  If the early Christian church could sell belongings and give to those who had need, that’s a good indication that we ought to consider doing that as Christians today.  Perhaps even selling our buildings themselves, if by doing so we were better able to share the Gospel.  That would seem to me to be a pretty powerful witness to a community.
There’s so much to think about.  My wife and I ruminate on this often – most recently over breakfast tea today.  There is no single silver-bullet answer.  We are blessed and challenged as congregations in unique geographical and cultural settings to get to struggle with how best to share the Gospel, how best to witness Christian love to the least lovable, including those who are quite blunt about wishing we were dead as a faith.  Dialog seems so crucial, yet so elusive.  Letting go of the past is so painful to people for so many different reasons, as though the past could be erased with a building disappearing or a congregation changing locations.  The work of the Holy Spirit transcends all of these things.  When we can finally celebrate for eternity, I think we’ll be a lot happier about the additional people at the party than we will be saddened by the difficult sacrifices and choices that were necessary to help get them there.  

A Minority Opinion

September 20, 2010

Having been on the Internet for close to 20 years now, being ‘wired’ is part of who I am (in fact, I remember perusing the first issue of the magazine that is linked to below).  It’s hard to imagine a day without checking e-mail or randomly perusing news links and other vital activities once associated only with obsessive compulsiveness.  Yet for being that attached to the Internet, I also realize that this is a decision that may not always be the best thing, and that there are other ways of looking at online interconnectedness.

I have a high school buddy who has given up on Facebook because he is responsible for engaging in social media for networking and business purposes, and has no desire to fill his free time in the same way.  And so in light of his decision, I thought that this short editorial might be helpful in helping us think about what it means to be wired and to have our identity digitized to greater or lesser extents.  
Let the buyer beware.

Start Saving Your Pennies Now

September 17, 2010

And by pennies, I mean millions of dollars.  Just to be on the safe side.

This sounds like it could be one heck of a ride!

Check Your Mind at the Door

September 15, 2010

While I may stink at social networking, I do have to say that I find a lot of material for blogging just from scanning what FaceBook friends decide to link to on their status updates.

This blog post was recently linked to by a FB friend, which in turn is actually linked to this article here.
This reads like a pretty feel-good story about a church doing the right thing and playing nice with their non-Christian neighbors, rather than, oh, say, attempting to burn a pile o’ Qurans.  But it’s problematic.  And the key for me is a single quote from the article author about the motivation of the pastor in this situation (a Christian church allowing Muslims to worship in their building until the mosque next door is completed):
But fear and and ignorance weren’t part of the gospel Stone preaches, so he looked beyond the pit of his stomach to what his mind believed was right.
So to combat his “fear and ignorance”, Pastor Stone looked to his own mind for an answer.  That’s kinda problematic.  Fear and ignorance are problematic to be sure, but shifting the source of the fear and ignorance from your stomach to your mind is probably not the best solution.  It’s not really a solution at all, just a different sort of reflex motion.  
The article is problematic as a whole because it portrays concern or worry about Islam as something “not positive”.  While this is pretty typical media spin, it’s still discouraging.  I tried to figure out a little more about the Good News Now network that hosted the story, but other than an affiliation with (owned by?) AOL, there aren’t any obvious links telling how this site defines good news.  Based on the wide variety of article types (archaeology is good news?!?!), it seems like the definition is pretty broad.
Let’s think about this.  I’m all for being a good neighbor.  I’m all for being a good neighbor to people who don’t believe what I do.  I’ll gladly share my meager selection of gardening tools, share meals, have our kids play together, and generally do whatever I can to truly love that person and be a good neighbor.  But I don’t think that I could allow my church building to be used for the worship of a foreign god.  That seems to be crossing the line of neighborliness and wandering into the fields of blasphemy.  
I believe in a God who issued as His first commandment Thou shalt have no other gods before me.  I tend to think He’s pretty keen on this.  Love your neighbor, but love the Lord your God as well.  You can’t love your neighbor if you aren’t loving God, and you can’t love God if you aren’t loving your neighbor.  In other words, we don’t define what it means to be a good neighbor arbitrarily – it is couched within an understanding of what it means to be faithful to our God.  You can’t be a good neighbor (truly) if you are acting contrary to the expressed will of God.  
I understand that not all Christians are clear on the differences between how Islam and the Qu’ran describe Allah, and the God of the Judeo-Christian scriptures.  A lot of folks hold the line (a line created by Muslims) that Allah and God are really one in the same.  However the only way you can reach that conclusion is if you ignore most of what the Qu’ran and the Bible say about God, and faithful folks on both sides should be pretty reluctant to go down that path.  
As an individual there are lots of ways that I can be a good neighbor without compromising my witness to the one, true God.  Being a good neighbor is *part* of that witness.  However as a church, it’s a more complicated matter.  Or perhaps a less complicated one. What is a church?  Is it a building?  No.  However in our culture buildings dedicated to use as churches have become synonymous with the idea of ‘church’ as a place you go to rather than a thing you are.  A building is just a building, but a building serves a purpose.  A public room at the local YMCA or civic center that can be rented out  might be rented by both a Christian congregation and a Muslim one at different times.  The Christian congregation might even decide to be neighborly and change their rental time of the room so that it better accommodates the Muslim congregation’s needs – or visa versa (though I don’t hear many of those stories).  
This is different than a building that has been built with the express purpose of being a Christian house of worship and continues to function in that respect.  And while it might be a witness to neighborliness, it’s not a witness to the commands of Scripture – the place that Pastor Stone should have looked rather than his own mind or heart or big toe to decide what the best course of action should be.  I don’t think that you can take the first commandment seriously (as every Biblical Christian must), without also  recognizing that sharing your sanctuary with a non-Christian faith seems to contradict this most basic of witnesses.  For anything other than worship, I can see sharing part of your facility with a group that explicitly denies the validity of your faith (though I think there needs to be a lot of thought & prayer put into that decision).  But to share your worship space for the purpose of the worship of a false god…I can’t see a way of justifying that.
I find it interesting that there’s no mention in the article of Pastor Stone or members of his congregation giving witness to groups of from the Muslim congregation.  It would seem to me that it would only be neighborly of the Muslim group to welcome that sort of sharing as well.  And the article makes no mention of the rationale that Pastor Stone used to reach this decision, other than the desire to be neighborly.  Which is great – but being neighborly by effectively denying the fundamentals of your own faith seems to be something other than neighborly.  
Am I reading the Bible wrong on this one?  Thoughts?

Those Who Don’t Have to Do, Preach

September 14, 2010

Always be wary when someone tells you what’s good for you and how you ought to live but isn’t willing (or doesn’t have) to follow their own instructions.  That’s something I am keenly aware of as a pastor.  I don’t just get to tell other people what they need to be doing it.  My first and greatest sermon is the way I live my life.

Which keeps me constantly aware of the heavy need for forgiveness and the great care one takes with dealing with law and gospel.
We’re more and more an unhealthy nation, which should be pretty evident just by looking around.  I’m one of those unhealthy people, carrying a few more pounds than I’d like to or should.  It’s only partially a vanity thing that keeps me aware of this – I also know it can impact my health.  
So when the First Lady (or anyone else) starts lobbying to improve Americans’ health, that’s awesome.  But I kind of find this a sneaky way of going about it.  I think there’s a fair amount of ideology behind this methodology.
Convince restaurants not to serve what people have been trained to want to eat.  
I agree people should be eating healthier, and I agree that people should be eating out less.  I find it distasteful (pun intended) that rather than work more on changing people’s behavior and educating them, there’s an appeal to simply cut off access to the things that aren’t healthy for them to eat.  In other words, since people are either too willful or too stupid to change their own dietary habits, they have to be forced to change them.
If we were to take a cue from the cigarette industry, we ought to start taxing the heck out of food dishes that exceed a certain calorie count.  I chuckle at that idea too, but I don’t think we’re necessarily very far off from that.  Food, like cigarettes, has an addictive quality to it that makes it very hard for people to change their eating habits.
All of this is true, I believe.
But it’s also incredibly short-sighted.  Once again, we launch an effort to curb one undesired behavior without seeing it as part of a whole.  The First Lady notes how drastically the percentage of money spent on food outside the home has risen in the past 50 years.  I wonder if part of that could be accounted for by increased percentages of households where both spouses/parents work outside the home?   What’s that?  As a nation we like the economic benefits (more producers and consumers with more $$ to produce and consume which drives our entire economy) but we don’t like the side effects of reduced time and energy when people get home to cook and eat the way they ought to?  Hmmm.  What can we do about that?  I know – let’s just take away what they like to eat!  Now they can work their butts off for food they don’t really like.  That sounds appealing.  
This isn’t the first or only effort to change people’s eating habits via legislation.  But when we treat the goal as an isolated issue rather than seeing it in light of the bigger picture, we’re missing the chance to really think about what a healthier lifestyle would look like.  One where people are less stressed out, less in debt, less over-worked.  I wonder how many healthy home-cooked meals the First Lady personally cooks for her family (or her husband – I’m all about equality here).  I’m willing to bet it’s not very many.  She’s a busy lady.  Trouble is, most people are busy these days, and grabbing a quick bite that you know you’re not going to have to fight with the kids over is really appealing.
And really unhealthy, for everyone.  

All Your Health Care Are Belong To Us

September 13, 2010

The grammatically weird title is intentional, yet still weird.

Here’s a little glimpse into the crystal ball to a time after printing more money fails to solve all the problems universal health care might create, and – surprisingly – before people have been taxed into total and complete servitude.  Though I’m not sure the second part is true.  The crystal ball is a little fuzzy, and everybody talks funny in it.  

What Do We Remember?

September 11, 2010

I never thought this would happen, but the other day I found myself reaching for my Pieper.

Before you run off and report me, let me explain.  Franz Pieper was a Lutheran theologian who lived in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  In Confessional Lutheran circles he is known for his contribution to systematic theology – Christian Dogmatics .  Seminary consisted in part of multiple semesters of systematic theology, helping us learn to think systematically about the faith and what Scripture teacher.  Dogmatics essentially codifies and organizes the things that the Bible teaches us on a myriad of topics.  Creation, salvation, Christian living, the Church, relations between the Church and State – if there’s an aspect of life that the Bible speaks in some way to, a dogmatics text attempts to organize it so that it can be referenced quickly and easily.
I enjoyed systematics – as a fairly logical person it appealed to me on a basic level.  But I’m also a practical person, and I was hesitant to get too excited by dogmatics because it seems so removed from the average Christian’s experience.  It’s something that Christian leaders may know about (but many don’t), but something that – probably outside Lutheranism or perhaps Catholicism – isn’t much talked about.  And even in our own circles, it generally forms a baseline of extrapolating what we believe, and we spend more time in application of the principles that derive from dogmatics than examining dogmatics itself.  
Today is a good time for Christians to remember that we are not necessarily recreating the wheel as we think through issues of Church and State, or how to work with and deal with people that believe and act in ways directly contrary to what we believe.  There is a lot of hot air in the public arena, but very little attempt to speak beyond the emotional, gut-level.  I know how I feel, but as a Christian, I need to determine if my emotions are in sync with God’s Word, or if they’re being manipulated by either myself or others in ways that are not Scriptural.   The heart is passionate, but the heart is not a law unto itself.
That’s key for Christians to return to as we mark the anniversary of 9/11.  For many it is the first experience of feeling under attack by another person or ideology.  For many it is a terrifying glimpse into the fact that if and when America loses it’s superiority economically, politically, and militarily, there are quite a few people who are going to have an ax to grind with us – and the ax may be a lot more literal than we’re prone to imagine.  For many American Christians, 9/11 was the first tangible feeling of persecution as a real, violent and deadly force, rather than the inexorable crush of public opinion and media war.  
We are called to suffer, as Christians.  We are told to expect it.  (Matthew 10, Luke 21, John 17, etc.)  Not that we desire it, just that it’s going to be a fact of our existence as the people of God.  Any religious Jew will be able to empathize, I should imagine – they’ve been suffering for that status for thousands of years.  Biblical Christians are learning, what we see clearly as a theological and ideological struggle and persecution looks a lot more like legalism or Constitutionalism or fair play or tolerance or democracy or any number of other terms to those on the outside, and to many on the inside.  What we know as truth and see as the ramifications of a metaphysical struggle is written off as bigotry or whatever other effective term can marginalize and rationalize away our point of view.  Most American Christians have been blessed thus far not to have had to deal with this extensively in our own lives.  That does not mean that such a blessing always lasts.
America is not the Church, and the Church is not America.  As American Christians, we have the relatively rare opportunity to exercise our faith freely, and even to have enjoyed a rather privileged status in our society due to the Christian underpinnings and make-up of our culture.  But those times are changing.  What once was common knowledge is up for debate or lobbying.  We don’t like it – we aren’t necessarily supposed to.  But we need to think clearly about what the appropriate response is.  
Towards that end, it’s useful to return to a systematic way of thinking about our role as Christians and citizens of America (or any other culture).  While recognizing that dogmatics texts will be couched in assumptions of their time and culture, they are helpful in providing a way for us to sort through the emotions and reactions that are sought after by various people and sources for a variety of reasons.  They help us to make sense of turning the other cheek, or giving our cloak and tunic, or walking a mile in another’s shoes.  They provide a vantage point from which to view our own predicament, and remember that if reality is a struggle between the flailing death throes of an evil kingdom and an advancing and inbreaking kingdom of God, we ought to expect injury and damage as citizens of that kingdom, understanding that the damage is never collateral.  
People and nations live and die every day.  This is the result of a sinful broken world full of sinful, broken people.  There is only one solution for this and it is the perfect brokenness of a man who was also God, who was alive and dead and then alive again, who is here but will be returning bodily at some point, who has won the war but allows the final skirmishes of the battlefield to be played out.  There is no other solution.  No law, no government, no political party, no theory of government or system of economics.  Life and death is being played out all around us, and we are called to the difficult task as Christians of trying to come to grips with what our faith calls us to do and be, and what we can do and be as citizens.  How do we give to God the things of God, and to Caesar the things of Caesar – that is the question.  Confusing the two leads only to confusion.  Clarifying the two leads only to confusion.  But we are called to struggle and deal with the confusion as best we can – not in historical or theological isolation, but as the living members of the Church universal, as those called to play out the life of faith in this time and place and in these circumstances, remembering that we are not the first and probably not the last to do so, and that war does not need to be won any longer, but it needs faithful people who will live out the victory in the very real context of personal trial and loss.  
Where else can we go but to the Word and prayer and Christian community?  Not as separate and optional entities from which we might pick and choose, but rather as necessary pieces of a whole.  Only in humble acknowledgment that faithfulness does not equate necessarily with victory in the world’s terms.  In fact, as per our Savior’s own teachings, it’s likely to result in very real and unpleasant suffering, but that regardless of our own personal suffering, the Church will in the end be triumphant.  May we be faithful witnesses of that certain future.

Turning on a Dime

September 11, 2010

I’ll preface this link with the statement that I firmly believe that the sort of chicanery described in this editorial is not isolated to any political party.  The old adage that power corrupts absolutely is not an adage for nothing.  Where there is power, or the perception of power, or the connection to power, there will be people (both red and blue) who determine that this is for their personal benefit.

That being said, it’s still sickening to see the numbers, as this LA Times editorial details.  I can’t for the life of me understand why full financial disclosure – and accompanying examination by unbiased parties – is not a standard requirement for any public office.  Frankly, it ought to be a requirement for any position of leadership.
Pastors included

It’s Not a Religious Thing…

September 9, 2010

I’ve had the opportunity to talk with several people about the current hot potato of gay marriage.  I am not a supporter of legalizing gay marriage, and it invariably happens that whomever I’m talking with about the issue wants to relegate it to the arena of religion and in particular, Christianity.  This is a Christian issue, they argue.  Christians are opposed to gay marriage and it’s just a faith issue.  It’s not fair to drive public policy based on any specific faith.

And my response is invariable No, this is not a Christian issue.  This is a human issue.  If you want to make a religious issue out of it, then you have to deal with the fact that no major religion argues for gay marriage or even comes close to anything equating the two.  Biblical Christianity explicitly forbids homosexuality in general, let alone same sex marriage.  Islam is even less forgiving.  Judaism is historically very strong against it.  Buddhism, Hinduism – none of them endorse homosexuality, though to be fair they may be silent on the issue.  And, as clarification, there are splinter groups of Christianity and Judaism (and perhaps other religions as well) that have come out in favor of homosexuality and/or homosexual marriage – but these are almost entirely products of the 20th century and are hardly representative of the best historical orthodox positions of their respective religious traditions.  But the main point is that if you want to make it a religious issue (and of course, as a Biblical Christian who believes that there is a God who created us all and has very definite notions of how we ought to be, I believe everything is ultimately a religious issue), then it’s inaccurate to confine the discussion to Christianity, as though Biblical Christianity is the equivalent of the slow child in the back of the classroom or the playground bully demanding that everyone play by his rules.  
Particularly as concerns the role of the State in the issue (and it has a very big, definite, historical role), I think this article does an admirable job of laying out an intelligent secular argument against redefining marriage to include homosexual relations and any number of other possible combinations.  Thanks to a new friend, Justine, for making me aware of the article.  

To Give or Not to Give – Is That the Question?

September 8, 2010

I thought this essay from the Christian Science Monitor provided an interesting perspective on how to deal with beggars – an issue that seems to confound many people.  In these encounters, whether someone directly asks me for money or food, or whether I just see a sign in a hand of a person on a freeway offramp or intersection corner, I agree it’s important to examine the reaction raised within me.

Do I want to just look away or do I immediately want to help?  Do I seek to avoid the encounter or do I let it be whatever it’s going to be?  Am I resentful?  Judging?  Compassionate?  The emotional reactions vary, but I invariably find them fascinating and telling.  More about me, than about the other person.
The theology in the article is of course from the Christian Scientist camp, which places a great deal of emphasis on the role of our mind and thoughts in determining the issues in our lives.  Sickness is often viewed as just a misunderstanding about the nature of health and reality – it’s not an actual physical ailment, but we think it is, and so it affects us in very physical terms.  This is all a bit too Eastern for my tastes, and does directly contradict Scripture regarding the very real nature of this world, and the very real brokenness within it and ourselves.
All that being said, there’s definitely value in the reminder that often it’s our reaction rather than the other person’s predicament that is most important to watch carefully.  Paragraph six is curious, but there’s a kernel of truth in it.  We just need to be careful that this kernel of truth does not lead us into the appealingly easy arena of James 1:22 – 2:25.  The need of the other person is real, and not only a teaching opportunity or exercise for our own benefit.