Archive for the ‘Church’ Category

Book Review: Who Broke My Church?

August 7, 2018

Who Broke My Church? 7 Proven Strategies for Renewal and Revival

by Kent R. Hunter

I don’t know where I got this book.  I’m sure that it’s a good book for someone, but not for me.  In fact, I went through and purged my Amazon wish-list of any books I’ve put on there over the last fifteen years that propose to help you transform your church from icky to successful.  It’s not that this isn’t a good desire (depending on how you define terms), but the reality is that none of these books seem to accomplish what they claim to.  Either that means that millions of people are reading them and then ignoring everything they say (which is completely possible!) or that what they say isn’t ultimately as guaranteed (“proven”) as they think it is.

This is an encouraging book in some ways.  The language is peppy, sprinkled liberally with quotable slogans and catch-phrases, and with ongoing references to other current writers on the Church or leadership or any number of other topics.  Perhaps it’s encouraging to people to read books like this, and perhaps there are people who have seen substantive change in their congregations as a result.  I just don’t know any of them personally.

Some of his insights are helpful, such as differentiating between being a servant or a volunteer.  Other things were less helpful, such as insisting that no church can survive or thrive unless they update everything to match what people in the larger culture expect.  Suggesting that Jesus came to model a new way of doing ministry is more than a stretch.  And  if you’re going to make that stretch, why is it that nobody ever advocates for a itinerant ministry model, since that’s how Jesus did it?

Read the Bible, and if you read it well enough and long enough the strategies that this author (or most any other author, frankly) advocates will be obvious enough.  Or they won’t be.  One thing I find interesting with reading the early Church Fathers is how little – as in not at all – they talk about growth strategies or evangelism programs.  They talk about unity, about believers committing themselves to one another.  But not about how to improve worship attendance.

Hmmmm….

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Book Review: The Benedict Option

August 6, 2018

The Benedict Option:  A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation

by Rod Dreher

I was directed to this book by a respected writer, teacher, and theologian,  Gene Veith.

I agree with Veith that this is an important book.  I wish that it was more important than it is, but it is important at the very least.  Dreher asserts that Christians have lost the cultural war and therefore will lose the struggle to legislate Christian morality.  These losses have already occurred cannot be undone (likely for several generations) and should be acknowledged as such.  While there is a place and necessity for Christians to continue to voice their beliefs in the public and political realm those voices will be increasingly marginalized and perhaps even criminalized.

What are Christians to do, then?

Dreher argues far more eloquently than I have that Christians need to acknowledge this, quit moaning about it, and get on with planning how to ensure that Christianity is passed down to our children and grandchildren, so that it survives this new Dark Ages and is ready to re-emerge into a changed political and cultural landscape an indeterminate number of years, decades, or perhaps centuries down the road.

The metaphor Dreher chooses for this is St. Benedict of Nursia, who in the sixth century created a rule for monastic life still in use today, which Dreher sees as informative not for a new wave of monks and nuns but rather ordinary Christians seeking to preserve their faith in an increasingly hostile and intolerant culture.

This sounds fascinating to a Lutheran like me who views monastic life as impractical at best.  Unfortunately, Dreher only references Benedict’s Rule in passing and without much specific quoting.  I’d rather thought I’d find a copy of the Rule in the book itself, but it isn’t there.  Dreher seems more to see in St. Benedict a prescient figure for his time, which is certainly what Christians seem to need now.  Dreher is not advocating monasticism in the traditional sense, or a withdrawal of Christians from culture and society, but rather that Christians need to take steps to intentionally preserve the Christian faith in their families and communities, steps that most people will likely find extreme to say the least.

Communal living (whether under one roof or in a network of like-minded homes in a neighborhood or town) is a major aspect.  Reconsidering our devotion to the public schooling system (as well as private schools) at all levels, and considering home schooling utilizing the classical educational model is another strong recommendation of Dreher’s.  Strategizing as to what career options will likely remain open to Christians in an era where corporations are increasingly mandating employee adherence and support of codes of conduct that may violate their Christian beliefs is another major issue.

Dreher recognizes what we all sort of know in our gut – that the changes of the last 40 years have been nothing short of monumental, tectonic even.  Everything has changed and is going to continue to change and not in a way convenient or even permissive of traditional Christian teachings and ways of living our lives.

Dreher intends to sound the alarm to rouse Christians to radically reconsider the assumptions they have accepted about how life ought to be lived and how the life of faith should be lived out.  I know Dreher intentionally avoids many specific recommendations as he understands that Benedict Communities are going to come in all shapes and sizes and he doesn’t want to curtail holy imagination towards that end.  But a bit more in the specifics arena would likely be helpful to folks who are otherwise bewildered by the picture he paints of the future.

Read this book.  Read it as a family.  Read it as church communities.  And begin to look for folks who understand just how different the coming generations of Christians are going to need to live in America.  There is no returning to the halcyon days of mid-20th century America as a Christian nation (if that was indeed accurate).  We need to prepare for a future even more difficult than the present.  God is good.  The Holy Spirit is with us.  The Church will never be eradicated, but individual Christians and corporate Christian entities are going to have an increasingly difficult road ahead.

Let’s work together to figure out how to keep moving down it and through it.

Steps of Change

July 30, 2018

Yesterday my congregation made the first of what will likely be multiple steps towards substantive  change in their ministry condition.  They voted to allow a long-term lease to expire about a year from now.  Doing so will mean the parting of ways with a Christian organization that has had long-standing ties with our congregation over the last  30 years or so.  It was a mutually beneficial relationship, in the early days ministerially as well  as financially.  In later years, the primary benefit to both parties was financial.

Parting ways will  mean that we’ll lose almost a third of the income  that makes  up our annual budget.  Nothing to sneeze at, to be sure.  While we’re  blessed to be finanicially stable to operate without this income for  several years, it isn’t a situation that is tenable for the long term.  In other words, now there will be some tangible pressure on the congregation to determine what they want to do in terms of ministry, and what is necessary to accomplish it.

That excites me.

The lease arrangement was comfortable.  It provided reliable income, but required nothing of our people in terms of mission or ministry.  Now  they have the duty and privilege of charting a course for the congregation that hopefully will continue long after they have gone to glory.  Rather than choosing comfort for a few more  years at the cost of the ministry’s future, they’ve opted for the harder road that could lead to substantive change.  Perhaps even sacrifice.

These are good things, in my estimation.  Not easy things, but good and important.  The next year will be pivotal in determining what our course forward will be and how we accomplish it.  I look forward to seeing the Holy Spirit’s continued leading and guiding.  We’ve been here for over 100 years.  What a privilege to work with these people to ensure that  we continue to minister in our community and beyond for as many more years as possible – perhaps another century!

The Miracle Whip Jar

July 16, 2018

In the cabinet in the sacristy where we keep the wine and wafers for Holy Communion locked up there is a Miracle Whip jar.  I am no expert on Miracle Whip jars, but I suspect that this is an old one.  At least 30 years old.  Probably more in the neighborhood of 40 years old.  Possibly 50 years old.

It does not have mayonnaise in it any longer, in case you’re worried.

When a package of Communion wafers is opened but not all of them are needed for that Sunday’s consecration, the remainder are put in this jar to keep them as fresh as possible.  Frankly, this to me is an oxymoron, as there are few things in this world as un-fresh as Communion wafers.  The  irony is more than tragic,  in my opinion.

So for 30, or 40, or 50 years, the people who set up Communion for my congregation have used this jar.  This jar pre-dates my pastorate considerably.  There is a possibility the jar is older than I am.  But I almost invariably smile when I unlock the cabinet and see it there.

It’s a reminder to me.  This is not my church.  As pastor, I don’t own this place, I don’t get to dictate what happens here.  In matters of theology and practice I of course have a distinct voice.  Not infallible, though.  Not necessarily.  But in other matters of the life of the church and the future of the congregation, I am not the one who should call the shots.  This congregation has been around since 1915.  They have had a variety of pastors, some better and some worse, depending on who you ask.  I pray to be one of the better ones but also realize that I am always a slipped word,  an angry outburst, a prideful disdain away from becoming one of the worst.

I came to serve and I continue to serve, as our Lord served his disciples, washing feet – even the feet of the one who would shortly betray him.  I have my ideas about things, my dreams and hopes and worries and visions  for this place and these people.  But my first job is to serve.  To serve as long as God keeps me here.  As long as the people will have me.  As long as I’m physically and mentally and spiritually able to.  Not in a glorious way, always, but in a necessary one.  Like an old empty mayonnaise jar.  Knowing that, barring some monumental mistake, there will be another man in my office someday, another man opening the sacristy cupboard.  Just as there were other men before me opening and closing the lid on that jar.

May whatever  the future holds be pleasing to God and a blessing to his people – past, present, and future.  And whether my ideas carry the day or someone else’s, may I keep perspective with the help of an old mayonnaise jar and continue to do my job as faithfully as I can.

Christian Advance in America?

July 10, 2018

I found this article reprinted recently through a Facebook contact.  The basic gist is that Christianity is not shrinking in America.  It  is growing and it is redistributing.  Mainline, traditional denominational churches continue to lose members rapidly, but not because they are leaving the faith.  Rather, they are migrating to non-denominational churches.  Furthermore, the article asserts that  these non-denominational churches tend to be more conservative, challenging their members to authentic Christianity instead of the watered-down, cultured conditioned faith  that liberal mainline churches have gravitated towards.

It was a surprising article.  I’m not sure what to make of it..   Belonging to a very conservative mainline denomination, I can attest that our numbers are shrinking but certainly not because of shallow  theology or liberally conditioned exegesis.  The article tends to paint all mainline denominations as liberal icons that in caving to cultural demands have lost their authority and their people are going places where the Bible is taken more seriously and the Christian faith is a more vibrant thing.  But that isn’t an accurate description of all mainline denominations.

Also interesting is the focus on what I’ll call the very devout – people who attend church more than once a week.  The author mentions other identifiers such as daily prayer and accepting the Bible as “deeply reliable” but I think it’s the more than once a week worship that makes the difference.  The percentage of Christians who identify these traits in themselves has remained constant over the last 50 years.  I don’t find this surprising.  People who take their faith seriously are likely to continue in that faith and pass it on to their children more effectively than those with a faith life mainly consisting of corporate worship.  But I worship once a week, not more than once a week, so I wouldn’t fall into this category.  Interesting.

Or is it condemning of me and the assumed practices of mainline churches?  I genuinely wonder.  Yet my anecdotal experience with those attending non-denominational churches is that they only worship once a week.  In fact, the only people I’ve ever known to attend more than one worship service a week (outside of specific liturgical seasons such as Lent or Advent) are Roman Catholics.  Curious again.

In reviewing the actual research this article summarizes, some of these points are more clear.  The number of mildly affiliated Christians is declining.  The number of non-affiliated Christians is growing.   But the number of strongly committed Christians remains steady.  Similarly, the number of Christians attending worship occasionally is decreasing and the number of people who never go to church is growing, but those who worship multiple times per week remains constant (at just under 10% of respondents).

In fact, the data seems to contradict the article’s implied conclusion.  You might deduce from the article that evangelical non-denominational churches are growing by leaps and bounds, but the research doesn’t show this either, at least in terms of self-described affiliation (Figure 5).

The study’s actual conclusion is that for the moderately religious, church is not becoming too weak, but rather they are finding traditional, faithful Biblical teaching – which is now decried and subverted by our culture – to be too jarring, too much at odds with the rest of the world around them.  It is moderate  Christians who are migrating away from traditional, conservative mainline congregations, not the uber-faithful.

Though I may be reading the research wrong, I don’t think the article’s summary of it is accurate.  The deeply faithful remain a consistent subset of the religious (Christian) in America, while those with moderate or weak faith (defined in the study, I think, as not praying as much or worshiping as often) move away from any active participation or affiliation with churches.  True, not attending worship is not the same thing as abandoning the faith, but it’s a potentially dangerous scenic vista en route to that final destination.

 

ANF – The Epistle of Ignatius to the Philedelphians

July 4, 2018

This post is one of a series of reviews of the early Church Fathers, who are technically referred to as the Ante-Nicene Fathers (before the Council of Nicaea).  To find other reviews of these ancient writings, use the search bar on my blog and search for ANF.

This letter is concerned primarily with the unity of believers in the church at Philadelphia.  This is a theme that Ignatius will touch on in several of his letters, and is forefront in this one.  Ignatius speaks highly of the bishop at Philadelphia and exhorts the parishioners there to unity under his leadership.  He strongly encourages them to avoid those who are schismatic or  separatist in nature, admonishing them to stay true to the Holy Eucharist together rather than separating into warring factions.  He argues that this is only natural to Christians.  “For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one  cup to [show forth] the unity of His blood; one altar; as there is one bishop, along with the presbytery an deacons, my fellow-servants; that so, whatsoever ye do, ye may do it according to [the will of] God.”

He also asks for their prayers as he journeys towards his death, and warns them against falling back into the practices of Judaism.  Like St. Paul, Ignatius is battling against the very strong pressure on early Christians – many of whom were Jewish – to maintain the Jewish customs they used to.  Ignatius sees this as an effort by Satan to confuse and ultimately separate God’s people from his love for them in Jesus Christ.  This issue was strong enough that some people were being led to reject Jesus unless he could be proven to them as the Messiah on the basis of the Old Testament (Hebrew Scripture).  Ignatius is careful to uphold the value and worthiness of the Old Testament while arguing for the important nature of the New Testament in terms of Christ.

 

 

ANF – The Epistle of Ignatius to the Romans

July 3, 2018

This post is one of a series of reviews of the early Church Fathers, who are technically referred to as the Ante-Nicene Fathers (before the Council of Nicaea).  To find other reviews of these ancient writings, use the search bar on my blog and search for ANF.

Ignatius’ primary concern in this letter – as with many of his letters – is to pray for strength to face his impending martyrdom, and to ask that the Christians in Rome not attempt to interfere or otherwise attempt to petition or prevent his martrydom.  If necessary, he is resolved even to prompt the wild beasts to attack him if they will not of their own volition!  Any effort to prevent such an end Ignatius treats as a form of hatred.   Speaking of his impending suffering and death, he writes “If I shall suffer, ye have wished [well] to me; but if I am rejected, ye have hated me.”

 

 

 

Valuing the Word

June 28, 2018

The second day of our regional convention for my denominational polity.  This morning there was a vote on who can or can’t vote at these sorts of meetings.

Our polity places a strong value on the priesthood of all believers.  This is a theological concept that although all are called to different vocations, professional Church work is by no means an elevated or superior form of work than any other.  As such, we have striven to maintain a political balance between the laity (typical parishioners who have no theological training or education for a Church position) and clergy.  Each congregation in our regional polity is entitled to two votes at these conventions – their pastor can cast one and they can send a lay delegate to cast a vote as well.  Under this model, neither clergy nor laity has undue influence over the decisions of the denomination as a whole.

The fly in the ointment is that we have created a third type of person – someone with theological training or education, but who isn’t serving as a pastor.  We call these people Commissioned.  They’re not lay people, but they aren’t clergy either.  They hold positions like Director of Christian Education, or school principal or teacher.  Moreover, from the lay perspective they may sometimes appear more like pastors than not, and from the pastor perspective they may seem more like lay people than not.  In order to avoid throwing off the balance one way or another, this group of people (between 9000-10000 nationally) has not been granted the right to vote in conventions.  By everyone’s agreement, Commissioned folks in our denomination are neither fish nor fowl, to use the old saw, and they aren’t happy about this.

Over and over again efforts have been made to change this.  Usually they are shot down.  Today it  wasn’t, but it won’t really matter because although our regional polity voted to allow Commissioned folks to vote, it will get shot down at the national level.  It was surprising that it passed today as it normally gets voted down.

To me, the interesting thing about this wrestling match isn’t the issue of whether there’s a problem or  not.  It’s not that Commissioned folks are unhappy with how things are going or have gone, necessarily, they just want to vote.  There was no discussion of how this would or wouldn’t address wrongs of the past, or prevent problems in the future.  It was just the idea that everyone ought to have a voice, and if they don’t, then there’s a problem.

Is there?

As with any vocation I’m sure there are situations where these Commissioned workers are not listened to by their pastors or lay people, and feel unrepresented in the voting process.  But I’d wager that far more of them do feel like they’re listened to.  But in our culture, if you don’t get to vote, you don’t get a say, and if you don’t have a say, you aren’t valued.

This sort of rationale makes me itchy.  As a 21st century American I’m conditioned to dislike disenfranchisement.  But is that alone a reason for making this sort of change?  I’m unconvinced.  Once again there’s this emphasis on making our own decisions about what  we want or don’t want, who we like or don’t like.  This sounds a lot different than trusting the Holy Spirit.  It’s not that the Holy Spirit can’t work through democratic processes.  But I’ve heard a lot more about rights and entitlements so far the past day and a half than I have about how the Holy Spirit protects and guides the Church.

Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising.

Democratic Holy Spirit

June 27, 2018

So I’m at my polity’s regional convention,  an event that happens ever three years in our parts.  I’ve been to four of these now since I began the ministry.  Over the last dozen years I’ve progressed some in recognizing the value of what happens here.  While I still try to maintain a perspective on all of these things against the backdrop of 2000 years of Christian history, it’s how we get things done.  Some things, at least.

Some of the time.

The outgoing District President in his final District report of his 18-year tenure talked about how our denomination has changed over time.  An immigrant church that began as quite focused on German immigrants.   A denomination that evolved into an English-language church.  A denomination that gradually adapted more democratic procedures, in keeping with American ideas.

That observation stuck with me as we moved into elections of various District officers who will serve for the next three years.  The biggest of which is the election of a the first new President of our District in almost 20 years.  There were three fine men willing to stand for that position.  Any and all of them would serve admirably.  Each have served in pastoral capacities in the District for over 20 years.  Each have various circles of people they have interacted with over time and each has a unique personality that appeals to some and not to others.

We prayed before the election.  We prayed for the Holy Spirit to lead our decision.  I do trust that the Holy Spirit did that.  But it also struck me as kind of interesting that, if we want to pray for the Holy Spirit’s guidance, we then still turn it over to a popular vote that can be influenced by so many other factors beyond the Holy Spirit.

The Apostles determined a replacement for Judas by casting lots (Acts 1:12-26).  Replacing one of the only 12 Apostles in all of human history, they cast lots.  Yet here we are, casting 200-300 individual votes  for who will lead this little corner of  our polity for the next three years.  Why is that?  Why do we find the Biblical model so distasteful?  Why is it necessary for us all to have our say?

I asked the outgoing District President why we didn’t cast lots.  He didn’t have an answer.  He did say that he mentions to congregations in the Call process for a new pastor that they are free to cast lots to make their choice, but he isn’t aware of any of them that have taken him up on the idea.  Why not?

I presume at one level we don’t really trust the Holy Spirit.  I mean, sure He could apparently replace Judas.  But to select a new pastor?  Or a new District President?  C’mon, right?

Still, it makes sense to me.  It isn’t entirely comfortable, but then again I’m not  sure my comfort is the most important issue in all of this.

Is yours?

 

 

 

A Year’s Political Reflection

June 27, 2018

I’ve had the privilege and challenge of serving my denomination’s regional polity for the last year as a Regional Vice President.  It sounds impressive, and I suppose by some standards it is.  But it’s an unpaid leadership position which, in my case, made me nominally responsible for about 60 congregations.  I don’t have much real authority, but there’s a theoretical hierarchy that I was a part of.  I didn’t seek out this role, I was appointed to it when the guy who was doing it previously retired rather suddenly and the District President needed to appoint someone to finish out his term.

Today I faced off in an election with two other pastors in the Region for a three-year term of this office.  I lost, which is fine with me.  As I said, I never asked for this, and I’m not all together certain I was the best person for the job.  But I was a willing servant.  My brief experience in this capacity hasn’t provided me with any greater insight into why we do things the way we do.  But it has caused me to reflect on the nature of that type of work – administrative/bureaucratic-type  stuff.  It isn’t that the work doesn’t matter, it does.  But what sort of work is it, really?

A colleague had a great way of describing this sort of work.   He related it to Acts 6.  The Apostles are grappling with ancillary problems related to the ministry.  They’re attending to issues of organization and life together.  Issues of getting along.  Dealing with complaints and allegations.  Politics, after a certain fashion.  The solution they come up with is to appoint seven other good men to oversee these issues.  These aren’t lesser men by any means.  But in order for the Apostles to do their work, the work of preaching the Word, these other seven men need to deal with the other stuff.  The politics.

The Apostles recognized that their main work was to preach and teach the Word of God.  While these other issues needed to be attended to, they couldn’t allow them to hold them back from their primary work  in preaching the Word.  So it is with ecclesiastical bureaucracy and administration today.   At best, they take care of necessary ancillary issues so that pastors and other folks can focus on the main work of the Church – preaching the Word.

We need good men and women to fill these roles, but we need to bear in mind the sort of work it is.  It’s necessary, but the primary goal of such work should be facilitating the preaching of the Word by those who are freed from these other tasks and duties.

I like that.  For a year I got to learn a little more about how the bureaucrats and administrators attempt to free up pastors and other professionals to preach the Word.  It’s not a perfect system, as it likely wasn’t in Acts 6.  But we do the best we can and try not to mess things up more than necessary.  I pray that those who take on these roles for the next three years will be a blessing by freeing me up to preach the Word.