Archive for the ‘Evangelism’ Category

Drunk Confessions

October 3, 2017

I often joke with my colleagues that theology is best done over drinks.  People become a lot more honest after two or three drinks.  A lot more comfortable.  A lot more real.  This is true of applied theology as well, namely confession.

Last night I’m hanging out and shooting pool as I often do on Tuesday nights – at a bar.  There is a cross-section of players and friends from various teams around the league and we’re enjoying ourselves moving in and out of rotation on the one table there.

And soas not to keep you in suspense, yes, I won frequently :-)

My nickname in the league is The Preacher.  Ironic given that I never preach when I’m shooting pool (I haven’t been asked yet).  But I do a fair amount of listening.  One of the women there likes to call me Preacher, and comes from a Southern Baptist background.  I think she’d had a few drinks by the time I started talking with her.  Which began a roughly 30 minute conversation, or more like monologue, wherein she shared a lot about where she grew up, her grandfather the Southern Baptist preacher, and a little bit about her own religious leanings.  She expressed an interest in coming to my church despite the fact that I told her she’d find us pretty Catholic-looking and that I wear a dress.  I think I want to find a way to encourage her to do some more conversing rather than just showing up randomly to a church service.

Towards the end of the evening I’m watching a game when another woman starts talking with me.  We don’t know each other well but we see each other pretty often on practice nights (usually Mondays).  I know she’s not a Christian, but again, after a few drinks, she’s comfortable talking about relationship stuff.  But the tricky part about drunk confessions is that they aren’t necessarily repentance-oriented.  People need to talk, but they don’t necessarily really want advice, and they aren’t necessarily saying what they’re doing is wrong.

So I keep listening, and praying that somehow there will be an opportunity to proclaim the Gospel clearly.  Those opportunities come up, they just seem very few and far between.

Maybe I need to actually start preaching while I play.

 

 

 

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Who to Promote

September 20, 2017

I was raised with solid middle-class, middle-America values.  Children should be seen rather than heard.  Or maybe it was heard rather than seen.  Frankly, the preference was probably that we were neither seen nor heard.  In any event, the idea of self-promotion of any kind has always been anathema to me.  It isn’t that I don’t crave recognition.  I do.  But perhaps as a means of controlling that monster inside of me I’ve tried to avoid the spotlight as much as one can do from the front of a classroom or the front of a church.

I dreamed of being a writer but have abandoned that in a post-literate age where anybody can get published inexpensively.  Some of the folks that follow this blog seem to do so out of a concept of mutual self-promotion that eludes me.  I hope for fame, but expect that I won’t have to be the one telling people how awesome I am in order for that to happen.  It will just, someday, but broadly recognized and I won’t have to push for that recognition.

Is that too hard to ask?

My job is not to promote myself –  my job is to promote Christ, to make him known to as many people in as many different facets as He gives me time and opportunity.  But in order to put his name out there, it can be easy to be put mine out as well.  Given time and a bit of temptation, the desire for my name to be glorified can quickly eclipse the desire that his name be glorified.  On the flip side, excessive self-deprecation and equally result in his name not being shared as broadly as possible.  I’m wondering how to put out his Word without necessitating the inclination most people have (not entirely incorrectly) to want to know more about the messenger.

I’m being asked more and more to share my preaching and teaching with expanding audiences, particularly via the Internet as well as more localized outlets such as pre-recorded and live radio options.  It’s something I’ve been hesitant to do  because crafting a message for an audience unfamiliar with me, my congregation, my theology, etc. is a lot more complicated than just videoing a sermon and putting it online.  In a day where it’s customary to take things out of context, I want to think carefully about what I say before facing criticism either from those who don’t share my belief, or those who think they share my belief to a greater/stronger/more accurate extent than I do.

It’s also a lot of work, and being basically lazy, the idea of taking on additional work is unattractive.

But more and more I’m being led to see that this bears investigating further.  I went to lunch today with a gentleman who had the main intent of convincing me to think more seriously about radio and podcasting and other means of speaking to a larger audience.  Of course my ego loves this, and I have to try and put that down while still hearing what is being said and considering it as objectively as possible.  We have such Good News to share with a world that is so incredibly hungry for good news.  If we need to be reconsidering and reevaluating how we do Church in a rapidly changing culture, I can’t simply say that I’m not willing to consider other avenues for sharing the Gospel and helping people to understand it better.  Prayers are appreciated!

Hope Isn’t Expedient

June 27, 2017

In my line of work I hear a lot of difficult stories.  People moving through hard experiences.  Illnesses.  Family difficulties.  Broken relationships.  Unexpected adversities.

I’ve realized over time that the people who tell me the storytellers break down into two basic categories – those who want hope, and those who want help.  While these two things often are found together, they aren’t necessarily always.  But often the distinction is driven by the person speaking – I am either someone who conveys real hope, or I am someone to help them with a particular situation.  I am part of a bigger story and picture filled with hope, or I am an expedient means to an end.

The people in my community are in the first category.  Maybe they’re members of my congregation.  Maybe they’re regulars at Sunday Happy Hour.  They are present in community aside from any particular need.  Needs arise, to be sure, and when possible the community gathers around to try and meet the need.  But when the need passes or is met they continue in the community, seeing that community and their place in it as part and parcel with having their needs met but also as a source of hope and strength and comfort.  They see their needs as part of a larger picture that can best (and I would argue only) be met through intentional, consistent Christian community.

Community teaches us that struggles come and go.  Joys arrive and depart.  There remains a steady underlying reality that contextualizes these things and makes them respectively easier to bear and more enjoyable.  Our troubles are less overwhelming in some degree because we are a part of other people’s lives and know that they have troubles as well.  Our joys are heightened as we are able to share them with people who know us and care for us.  One day we are helping someone in need, the next day we are the ones who are being lifted up in care and prayer.

Other people I meet randomly are only looking for a temporary fix.  They need help with their car insurance, or this month’s rent, or groceries, or a bus pass.  Many of these are to some degree workable.  I’m blessed to serve a community with some assets set aside to help and care for people in need, and it is a wonderful experience to be able to do so.  Whenever it is appropriate, I encourage these people to join us for worship.  I ask if they have a community of faith or another support network that they can draw strength and encouragement as well as tangible help from.

Overwhelmingly the answer is no.  Not only is it no, they don’t want this.  They won’t come to church.  Won’t go get help at a shelter.  What they see is a very limited and specific need and what they want help with is that particular need.  Perhaps I can and will help them or perhaps I can’t or won’t, but they aren’t interested in hearing anything that extends beyond that particular need to the larger picture.  Despite the fact that my community is willing and able to help them, they don’t see any value in the community itself, only what that community might provide them at a single point in time.

Recently our community provided a young family in need with $1500 in a matter of three days.  All from members who desired to be a blessing and help.  The family isn’t part of our church, and from my limited talk with the guy, not a part of any Christian community – though desirous of one.  In the three days between their request and me delivering the check he was in constant contact.  Sending pictures of his daughter, etc.  As soon as he received the check, he cancelled the appointment we had set up for the next day.  For the last month he’s talked about rescheduling but something always comes up.

We didn’t help this family so they would join our congregation (though of course I’m always hopeful!).  But we did help them out of love first poured out into our lives from the Son of God.  We did it in faithfulness to how God wants us to live, and out of love for this family as part of that witness of faith.  And, we did what many individuals and even other communities could or would not do.  It baffles me that this man wouldn’t be interested in finding out more about and getting closer to our community.

The objective reader may point out that we’ve simply been taken advantage of.  Scammed.  Used.  Conned.  And this is of course possible (though for some compelling reasons I don’t think so in this particular case).  I’ve certainly helped other folks that I was sure were feeding me a line of bull  But even if that were the case, wouldn’t a con artist be interested in learning more about a group of people so willing to give of themselves?  To be sure, I don’t want con artists in my community.  Not if they’re insistent on remaining con artists.  But I do want con artists in my community so that the Holy Spirit might actually change them.  The early Christians were noted for their love and care for one another in adversity.  Now people are hopeful or even expectant of such love, but they see it only in terms of a particular need at a particular time, not as something which might transform their lives through the power of God the Holy Spirit.  And for those who aren’t con artists, who are really in need, I want them in our community to see the power and love of Jesus at work in tangible ways.  I don’t think you can experience that and not be affected by it at some level.  St. Paul and St. James clearly think you can’t.

Perhaps that is, in part, what keeps some people from community and the hope of real change and improvement.  Perhaps change isn’t really what some people want.  They simply want expediency.  This particular need met.  When the next particular need arises, they’ll figure out how to handle that.  But this issue here and now, and nothing more.  Not hope.  Perhaps they are so beleaguered are entrenched in their ways of thinking and being that it isn’t possible to even imagine something more or better.  Which means I should probably be praying more for them, that they would recognize what their greatest and deepest need truly is, and who alone can provide them not simply with help, but with hope.

 

Comfort

June 25, 2017

I don’t wear my clerical very often, depending on your definition of often.  In general, I wear it no more than a few hours a week, on Sunday mornings.  While I’ve gotten far more comfortable with wearing it publicly, I don’t see that it offers the same blessings to those around me that it might have a few decades ago.  As the tragic hero Malcom Reynolds of Firefly/Serenity observed, in post-modern, post-Christian culture, “Men of God make everyone feel guilty and judged.”

My Sunday morning ritual is to pick up a bagel and tea for the final morning preparations before worship.  Which means that I arrive at the coffee shop in my clerical.  I’ve been going there for years.  They know my face and they know my order.  They know my profession.  But that has been the stimulus for startling few conversations about faith or God over the years.  The owner once confided to me when his daughter passed away, but hasn’t mentioned it since.  He talks with the language and nuances of vague Eastern philosophies, so I’m fairly certain he’s not Christian.

This morning I was placing my usual order.  They know what it is as I walk in and are already starting to get it ready.  The one hiccup is the new computerized system they use to log orders and record payment.  The particular type of tea I always order is singularly difficult for them to find in their.  Every.  Time.  Maybe I’m the only one who orders it.  Given the somewhat silly name of Jasmine Fancy Black, perhaps others are too embarrassed to order it.

This morning it came out that the reason nobody can ever find it in the system is that it is mislabeled.  Instead of Jasmine Fancy Black, it has to be searched for as Black Jasmine Fancy, a state of affairs created by the owner himself who mislabeled it in the system.  Finally we all understood why this was always such a problem!  He proffered mock apologies for his role in the confusion.  He’s only human.  We shouldn’t hold a simple mistake against him.  Then he glances at me and says “God will forgive me, right?”

What do you say in that situation?  To a person who very likely doesn’t believe in forgiveness or God in any Biblical sense of the words?  He was just kidding, but instantly I felt like I couldn’t just laugh it off with equally vague assurances and commendations of God’s unilateral forgiveness.  I responded with “Quite possibly!”, which caught him off guard.  He laughed and responded with partially feigned surprise “Possibly?!”

The young woman putting the bagel in the toaster responded “You have to ask him for forgiveness,” a very salient insight from an unexpected quarter since I don’t assume that she’s Christian either.  But it was encouraging that she understood the basic concept – there is forgiveness in God, but that forgiveness has to be received.  It has to be recognized as not just appropriate and desirable but actually necessary.  Until the moment of actual guilt and actual repentance, forgiveness is a nice theory, an intellectual construct.  But it is not actually received.

It isn’t forgiveness that is uncertain.  That’s an objective reality created by the incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension and promised return of the Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth.  But whether that forgiveness becomes mine or not, that’s the subjective part.  Will I receive it?  Will I recognize my need for it?

Universal (Catholic) Wisdom

June 22, 2017

A great article which I would argue encompasses all those who consider themselves Christians, not simply Catholics.  These are problems endemic throughout American Christianity (yes, even among conservative Lutherans!), and they are dangerous to people eternally as well as here and now.  How many of these are you guilty of?

 

Opportunities

June 17, 2017

I’m in the process of planning a weekly radio show on a local talk radio station.  The intent is to give people with questions, issues, concerns, etc. about the Christian faith a forum for dialogue with the Biblical Christian witness.  It’s not a Christian station because I’m not interested in arguing with Christians about doctrinal differences.  Rather, I hope to engage people outside a formal community of faith, whether they consider themselves Christian or not.  The station theoretically has a listener base of about 18,000 people.

Each week I’ll hope to have listeners calling in with things they want to talk about or hear the Biblical response to.  While the sales rep for the station cautioned me that call-in shows are rare, I think I have some good contacts in the community that could help supply at least 2-3 calls per show if not more.  We shall see.  Other folks have asked about me doing a podcast instead – a pre-recorded digital audio (or audio and video) show that would be hosted online somewhere.  The problem is that podcasts rely on self-marketing.  I have to find ways to make people aware of the podcast and encourage them to go and stream it or download it.  With a relatively small base of people – many of whom are less than tech-savvy, this seems like a slow way to proceed.  I’m considering putting together a podcast as well, but it would be supplemental to the radio show.

Of course, this is a pay-to-play arrangement.  It will cost us money every week and month for a one-hour live show that is rebroadcast three other times during the week.  Our congregation can afford this ministry, and I think there are folks who will step up to continue to support it if it proves to be effective in reaching people (not necessarily in bringing in new members).

An alternative is to try and get a time slot on a public station run at the local university.  There is an information meeting this Tuesday evening, a mandatory meeting if you hope to get a shot at a time slot.  I’m praying that I will, and I’m curious to see how it goes.

 

Eclectic Community

June 13, 2017

Every Sunday evening for over a year we have opened our home on Sunday evenings to whomever wants to join us.  There is no format or agenda.  We provide simple snacks (homemade popcorn, veggies & homemade ranch, crackers & cheese, etc.) as well as cocktails (all part of my master plan, assuredly).

Over the last year, the group has grown from one or two Westmont grads.  Friends invited friends.  Friends invited roommates, bandmates, volleyball buddies, former roommates.  International students living with us pop in and out.  Our kids look forward to the event, helping to prepare (Our oldest son has gained wide-ranging respect for his popcorn skills.  Our younger two handle the cheese and cracker setup and some of the finger veggies).  Our oldest who just turned 15 has gone from slipping away to play XBox games to sitting in rapt enjoyment of the wide-ranging conversational topics that fill the air.  Economics, politics, education, culture, love, life, music – no two weeks are the same.  We have anywhere from three to a dozen or more people who come and go over a two to six hour period.   We’ve started broadening the scope, inviting home-schooling friends and other folks who don’t fit the post-college, early-20’s landscape that predominates the evening.  But there’s a core of people who clearly indicate that this is a priority for them, week in and week out.

I wish I had a genius explanation for that.

It’s eclectic.  We don’t have much of a community after seven years of living here.  The community we have found at times keeps moving away in search of less expensive living.  Our beloved congregation is mostly post-retired folks well into another stage of life, and we find that the younger folks that gather on Sundays are definitely in yet another stage of life.  We balance in the middle as best we can.  We’ve helped support two wonderful young women through traumatic relationship crashes, and celebrated with one of them as repairs were made and the relationship renewed.  Despite the presence and enjoyment of cocktails, we support and include and encourage a young man celebrating his first full year of sobriety in close to a decade, as well as one young woman who always wants to try what others are drinking despite the fact that she hates the taste of alcohol.  Sometimes people contribute things to the mix like snacks or baked goods or mead.  Often-times music forms a portion of the end of the evening as the guitar or ukuleles scattered around the house or brought in by our guests emerge to coax voices to life.

I feel guilty sometimes that there is no plan or agenda to Sundays.  Our culture – and particularly our culture in the area where we live – defines success in terms of how busy we are.  How many things are we juggling?  How little time do we have for ourselves?  Wow, you must be really successful if you’re that completely overwhelmed!  None of which we buy into – or we purchase as little as we can.  We’re convinced, if for no good reason, that there is a value in simply being that is missing in our culture, and that it is not only possible but actually healthy to just be for a few hours.  That idea has been echoed by those committed core members that come faithfully every week, not because they have to but because at some level they want to.  It’s helpful and important to them in ways we might not be able to articulate, but we can certainly enjoy.

I think that this is our faith at a fundamental level.  Many – but not all – of the people who come Sunday are Christians.  It’s a reality that undergirds the evening without the need to be preachy.  Sometimes the music that is played and sung to is worship music or hymnody.  Sometimes it’s the Beatles.  People who may not call themselves Christian are never made to feel awkward, but they sometimes get to hear us talking about our lives of faith, and I trust the Holy Spirit will use those exposures to his glory.  It isn’t worship, but the idea of worship is never far from who we are in Christ.  It is the echo detectable at times in our words and actions.  The shimmering, mirage-like reality that leads us on from day to day on a journey to eternity, never disappointing but always reminding us what awaits ahead.

We are called less to do than to be.  But not randomly to be, but rather to be His.  Created.  Redeemed.  In the process of being made better and perfect but a long way from that final state.  Which means not to be alone, to be in the presence of others and not just those that are the most like us, so that we all might look and inquire and wonder and test, and that they might find the one who has made them to be and calls them to be his.  Eclectic.  If there’s one word that describes the communion of the saints, I trust and hope and pray that this is it!

Practical Immigration

February 8, 2017

Much has been said about hypothetical immigration and immigrants.  I prefer to wonder what my role can be in this complex issue.  Certainly leading a Christian institution, I would consider it our duty and honor to be a blessing if there were immigrants in our midst to minister to.  Particularly if those immigrants were actively seeking us out not just for material assistance but spiritual sustenance.  But how complicated the matter would become were politics also part of the picture – as it almost inevitably would be.

So I found this letter from the Lutheran pastor of a church in Germany who is dealing with this issue firsthand eye-opening and more than a little terrifying.  In Germany, those seeking asylum are evaluated as to their suitability for integration with German culture and society.  One of the evaluation points centers on their faith.  Christians are at least in theory given points in that they share a faith with the historic faith of German culture.

This creates a complicated situation.  How do you tell if someone is simply calling themselves a Christian in the hopes of improving their odds for acceptance permanently in Germany, as opposed to someone who genuinely has converted to the Christian faith?  It’s a question that the Church has had to deal with for two thousand years.

But in Germany, it is politicians and bureaucrats that are deciding who is and who isn’t Christian, and by some accounts, without an ability for themselves to understand what the basic tenets of Christianity even are for themselves.  The result, according to the letter, is that those who have converted to Christianity and received baptism in the Church are being declared non-Christian by the State and slated for deportation.  Despite the fact that some of them are enduring persecution for their conversion from militant Muslim refugees, and despite the reality that they will face greater persecution in their homelands for converting.

How do you sort out a Gordian Knot of this scope and scale?  As a pastor, my emphasis and priority would be on preaching and teaching the Word so that people might come to faith regardless of the repercussions in their lives.  But what a terrible thing to be blessed to proclaim Good News to a people who have been oppressed and persecuted for so long – by their prior fellow-adherents! – and then watch those children of God ordered for deportation.  How awful to be privileged to share the Good News of Jesus Christ, only to have these converts deemed non-Christian, oftentimes by people who are not even Christian themselves but have inherited the blessings of being born in a traditionally Christian culture!

What a terribly important ministry evolves then, the ministry of preparing these people for whatever may come down the road because of their conversion.  The ministry of distinguishing between the Good News of Jesus Christ, and the bad news that inheritors of Christian benefits won’t recognize these converts.

Is it a good idea to make Christianity a determination point for asylum seekers?  It’s a logical one I suppose.  Certainly there will be some percentage of people who claim to have converted but haven’t really, and who will take up their Muslim faith again as soon as they are safely settled for good.  But Christianity has always dealt with those who seek the status of the faith when it mingles with cultural and societal status and ambition.  The Church must be discerning to the best of our ability, but our discernment is necessarily imperfect and limited by sin.

How do I determine whether a person is Christian or not?  I begin by acknowledging this ultimately is not my job but Christ’s.  For the purposes of my work, I look for signs of the faith in a person’s life.  Have they been baptized?  Are they regularly in worship and hopefully also communal Bible study?  Have they been instructed in the basics of Christian doctrine as outlined in the Ecumenical Creeds?  I would not resort to some sort of Christian or Bible trivia game, asking for obscure details from the Bible or complex explanations of Christian doctrine.   If someone comes to me seeking Christian instruction, and after receiving it indicates that they believe this and wish to become a Christian and want baptism, I will baptize them.  If they continue coming to church (or I know they are attending elsewhere regularly), and if they are taking seriously the teaching of the Bible in terms of how they live their lives and make their decisions, then I acknowledge them as a brother or sister in the faith.  My evaluation of that may be off the mark, but it is an evaluation with some solid criteria to recommend it which relies on something beyond an overly simplistic mastery of basic data.

The Church’s long history of discernment on this issue might be of use to the State in seeking to determine who is authentic and who is not.  Again, the results will not be perfect, but they are likely to be better than having the State arbitrarily determine what makes a person Christian or not.

Knowing Jesus

January 5, 2017

I know Jesus.  At least the Jesus in the Rose Bowl Parade.  We were at Sem at the same time and he serves two congregations about 70 miles south of me.  We see each other about once a month at our pastoral Circuit gatherings.  He endures a great deal of good-natured ribbing for his recurring role!

Thanks to Becky for pointing me to this news article that summarizes some of the responses the float – and Jesus on the float – elicited on Twitter.  I have to say that I share some of the mixed feelings of the responders.  Admittedly I’m not a big parade person and therefore don’t share the same enthusiasm that many others do for this parade in general or the Lutheran Hour float specifically.  But having a Jesus imposter on a float does seem to create more than a little room for criticism or at least confusion.

 

The Kids Are Not All Right…

September 28, 2016

…and it’s our fault.  How’s that for a bitter pill?

Thanks to Ken for pointing me to a Washington Post article that references a new Pew Study demonstrates a correlation between children of divorced parents versus children of parents who remained married.  If your parents divorced when you were younger, odds are greater that you’re not Christian now, even if you (and they) were then.  Examining the report itself reveals other interesting tidbits as well that are worth your perusal, including:

  • A five-fold increase in the religiously unaffiliated – from 5% of the population in 1972 to 25% today
  • Every single age group demonstrates growth in religious unaffiliation
  • If you were raised without a religious affiliation, odds are you will remain without one as you age

Lots of other interesting tidbits in there as well if you enjoy that sort of thing!

In regards to divorce, we need to quit believing the lie that divorce really isn’t that big a deal for the kids.  It’s a huge deal.  It may still be necessary in some situations, but we can never pretend that it isn’t a big deal for everyone involved.  For those who have divorced, we give thanks for the forgiveness of our Lord and Savior, and we seek in whatever ways we can to address the faith lives of our children, knowing that the divorce can severely impact their faith.  Parents in the midst of divorce should also take seriously working actively not just with counselors but with their pastor to ensure that their children are ministered to during this bewildering time.  And pastors need to be proactive in reaching out to families in their congregation if they know that divorce has occurred or may be on the horizon.

There’s too much at stake to just pretend everything is going to be all right.