Archive for the ‘Evangelism’ Category

Don’t Forget the Seed

May 30, 2019

Last night’s Bible study was very instructive.  We were working our way through the parable of the sower in Mark 4.  Before we continued on to Jesus’ explanation, I had the class flesh out what they thought the various aspects of the story represented:  sower, seed, path, rocky soil, weeds, good soil, etc.  Good conversation and some good insightful answers that often paralleled Jesus’ own explanation.

When Jesus’ disciples ask him to explain the parable to them, he defines the seed as the word.  What did the disciples make of this explanation?  If we assume Mark’s gospel is more or less chronological, this comes pretty early in Jesus’ ministry and the disciples would likely presume the word to mean what Jesus was proclaiming himself in his ministry – the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the gospel.

At which point the hearers might have wondered what the gospel, the good news, really was.

I asked the class what they thought Jesus meant by the word in his explanation of the parable in Mark 4.  One said the commandments – this is how you ought to live your life.  Another thought love was the word.  It was clear there was a struggle.

These are answers we like – that the word is basically instructions, insights, secret tips on how to live our best lives now.  Variations on familiar themes.  Encouragements, exhortations, pleadings, even threats – do what you know to be right or else!  Those are things we can deal with.  We can’t fulfill them, of course, but we can allow ourselves to be whipped into a frenzy for short periods of time, believing we can and must and will fulfill them.

But that places the word in ourselves.  We are the answer, the solution, the key to a bountiful harvest in our own life.  We would essentially be Buddhists.  Or Hindus.  Or Muslims.  Or secular humanists.  Or pretty much any other belief system on earth, all of which ultimately place the responsibility for change and accomplishment, for enlightenment or obedience squarely on our shoulders.  Do it.  Discern it.  If you do, you can be proud of your accomplishment (though this is a relative accomplishment, in relation to other people but almost never our own metrics, let alone  God’s!).  If you fail to do it, it’s your own fault and you deserve what you have coming to you.

Only the Bible gives us a word that is outside of ourselves.  Completely, totally, forever outside of ourselves.  And that Word is the Word made flesh, the Son of God, Jesus.

So I wrote out John 3:16 on the board for the class, suggesting that this is a good encapsulation of the good news, the gospel, the word, the seed.  Then, substituting whoever or whosoever with an actual name, I repeated this verse to every single person using their name.  I gave them the seed.

How easy is it to talk about the seed, to reference the word but never define it, never spell it out?  How easy it is to presume that everybody understands what Jesus means by the word, when even his own disciples probably didn’t get it.

This is my job, and I need to remember it and break it down as simply as possible as often as possible.  I’m scattering seed.  It’s not my seed.  It’s not my job to make the seed grow – I can’t do that.  I can simply scatter the seed.  Explicitly.  Spelling it out, as it were, to make sure people actually get the seed.  Are they a well-worn path or rocky soil or full of weeds?  I can’t know that for sure, and I may not be the one to discern that.  But I cast the seed.  If that person is a hardened path with no crack for the seed to fall into, I pray someone else, at another point in time  will cast the same seed again, when perhaps the ground will be more receptive.  That someone else will scatter the word again, when the soil is less rocky, or when more of the weeds have been pulled.

But for the love of God, make sure to preach the Word!  Clearly.  Without assumptions.  Spell it out.  Make it personal and specific.  Make sure you don’t pass over good soil and toss out lint or chaff or anything other than the seed of God, the Word of God!

The Log in Our Own Eye

May 6, 2019

I’m all for mission work.  The task of taking the Gospel of Jesus Christ to other places and peoples who haven’t heard it already or need greater teaching and grounding in it has been understood to be part and parcel of following Jesus since, well, pretty much Jesus.  This work does need to continue, by all means.

But I’m struggling with an issue in my own Christian denomination, where troubling times and failures on the home front of evangelism are compensated with by directing people’s eyes overseas.  In my local regional polity of our denomination, there is a push to unite our congregations in support of mission work in India.  I think this is wonderful.  There are many people in India who have not heard the Gospel and we should reach them.  It isn’t that I’m against this effort.  But what I would prefer to see alongside it is an equal effort to figure out how to share the Gospel here, in the United States, on the West Coast.

But that’s harder work, and people feel stymied.  There isn’t an obvious rallying point.  People can be hit up for a few dollars to send to India, and know that their spare coffee money pays for entire school buildings and equipping dozens of missionaries.  There is, quite literally, a bigger bang for the buck in this sort of mission work.

But here at home, the situation is not far removed in grimness or urgency than the pictures of overseas children with smiling faces as they huddle over a Bible or a bowl of porridge.  Our children are killing each other, their teachers, strangers.  We’ve lost the ability to discourse civilly on important ideas and concepts.  We’re barely able to love our friends let alone our enemies.  We are hooked on drugs – prescription or illegal – and monumental amounts of alcohol (particularly wine) to help us cope.  The only answers our culture has offered are to legalize drugs or ban weapons or determine that opposing ways of looking at an issue or  the world are due to psychological dysfunction or literal brain damage.

The Gospel is needed here, in the United States, every bit as much as it is in India.  And just because it’s hard or difficult or confusing shouldn’t mean that we ignore this mission field.

Evangeless-ism

March 11, 2019

Evangelism is getting harder, according to one of today’s oft-noted theologians and pastors, Tim Keller.  The reasons Keller cites for evangelism getting harder than it was just a few generations ago are several.  Some are external to Christians and some are internal.

First he cites that evangelism  is more complicated in a highly diverse population that does not have a general, cultural understanding of the Bible and Christianity.  Without a common baseline understanding, evangelism requires a lot more effort.  To someone conditioned by our culture to not know what sin is, and once you explain it to them, to reject the notion as depressing or relative means the person trying to witness has a lot more ground to cover.

Next he cites a greater difficulty in sharing the faith because our culture no longer has a basically good attitude towards Christians and the Church – even if they themselves are not Christians or church-goers.  Emphasis on the abuses and sins of the Church both historically (slavery, religious wars) as well as currently (pedophile priests and other sexual scandals across the denominational spectrum) mean we can’t assume the person we’re talking to even thinks Church or God  is a good thing as a whole for society.  I’d argue that in addition to these factors, there is the deliberate downplaying or ignoring of valuable roles that the Church has played historically and currently, whether in the development of universities and hospitals or current social justice issues.

Finally there is the relativism that pervades our culture now, so that any time someone wants to share the truth, that truth is seen as relative and subjective – maybe good for the sharer but maybe not good or necessary for the hearer.  This can in turn lead to a lower level of empathy among people which makes it hard for them to see things from another person’s perspective.

In a typical evangelical response, Keller cites Christians as basically the problem despite the overwhelming issues noted above.  Nor does he mention sin and an active – though defeated – Satan as elements that contribute to the difficulty of Christian evangelism.  I think he would agree with all of those things he just doesn’t mention them here.

He thinks Christians need to be more humble and sensitive in their witness, and I’d argue that’s always a good thing.  He also thinks Christians need more courage, and of course this is always good as well.  Finally he argues that Christians ultimately don’t really care enough about others to evangelize.  Here I disagree.  I know plenty of Christians who care a great deal about others but their efforts to evangelize have been stymied by many of the factors noted above.  That doesn’t denote a lack of love on their part, but rather a reality of our age.  I question the evangelical assumption that every Christian needs to be an evangelist, since there are pretty few Scripture passages that can be interpreted that way (and those that can are often argued as not applying to the average Christian).

Rather than blaming a lack of love, perhaps we should blame churches for inadequatey catechizing their members, teaching them not only what their church believes but also why.  Perhaps we should blame churches that presume that just because people are members they believe everything the Bible or the church teaches, when in reality most of their lives are lived out in thoroughly secularized school and work environments that are actively hostile to Christians and at times seek to make evangelism an actual offense that could affect admissions or promotions.

Yes, Lord, change our hearts.  But also grow and strengthen our churches and pastors to better ground and equip their parishioners in the faith.

Creating Community

February 28, 2019

Last August my wife  and family and I decided that we wanted to begin a new ministry outreach.  Some of our spiritual giftings are in the area of hospitality and helping people feel comfortable, welcome, respected, safe.  For years, I’ve been working in the recovery community locally, engaging each week with men and women committed to a year-long residential addiction recovery program.  I’ve had many joys in getting to know these people in their journey.

The difficulty is that for many of them, the relationship I build with them is viewed as part of their recovery program.  Thus, when they graduate from the program, I never see or hear from them again.  In one sense that can be good and fine.  Some are from out of town and head back to their own areas to continue their life of recovery.  Other times, I know they’re still local.  I give them my contact info, but I think there’s the idea that I was part of their recovery program and now they’ve graduated from that and moved on.  Yet the life of recovery – modeled after the life of Christian faith – is grounded in relationships and community.

So we decided to begin inviting small groups of 3-4 clients from the women’s program over to our home for dinner each week.  Over the course of two months all of the women came over.  Our  goal was simply to provide community and relationship.  To give them three hours to be in a home where there are no expectations other than being together.  They can relax.  Sometimes they help in preparing dinner or setting the table.  They help in clean up after we enjoy the meal together.  Often times there are board games or video games for them with our kids.  Each night is slightly different based on who is with us.

It was great.  We enjoyed it and the ladies enjoyed it.  Our goal was that this would be an ongoing thing.  Never an expectation or requirement but always an option for them.  But once all of them came over, the staff assumed that was the end of it.  After some further conversations  and explanations, we started up the dinners again this month, and have another one tonight.  Again, good experiences.  Not always easy, but certainly fascinating.

But tonight was a first.  One of the ladies who attended one of our very first dinners last year called my office up.  Normally she plays softball on Wednesday nights but due to rain, the game was cancelled.  She remembered coming for Wednesday Bible studies at our church, and I think in part because of the different kind of relationship she experienced briefly in our home, she felt comfortable reaching out.  I picked her up and brought her to our regular Wednesday night, informal pot-luck dinner at our church and then she stayed for Bible study afterwards.  She indicated she planned to start coming to our Thursday dinners at our house next week.

It  was a very affirming moment.  Building relationships is long, slow work.  Our congregation recently was blessed to have some missionaries to Turkey come by and speak with us for a bit.  He described a relationship with a couple and family, and the ups and downs of that relationship and how God the Holy Spirit brought others into the relationship as well to move it along.  Eventually the couple became Christian, which changed their lives and led now to the curiosity of their children about the faith, having seen how much happier their parents were in their new faith.  At the end of his sharing I asked him how long this relationship had been going on.  How long had he and his wife been working with this couple.  Loving them.  Caring about them.  Getting to know them and allowing themselves to be known.  Ultimately being able to share the love of Jesus Christ.  Well over 20 years, he responded.  Over 20 years for that relationship to grow and develop!

So little baby steps are a huge blessing.  To see that in opening ourselves and our homes, we can leave impressions, make impacts on people that may not be recognizable initially.  Not for weeks or months or years.  Sometimes not for decades or lifetimes!  It was a further confirmation of the direction my family and I are being drawn in through ministry.  It’s exciting and invigorating even as it’s exhausting.  But it’s nice to hope that it’s making a difference.  Slowly.  One person at a time.

Two Cultures

February 26, 2019

I spend a lot of time thinking about the shape of the Church in the coming years.  As our culture continues to move away from any sort of consensus about much of anything, let alone an interpretation and understanding of reality and humanity that calls us to limit ourselves rather than indulging ourselves in every manner possible, what will the Church look like?  Will the Church be able to adapt?

I’m convinced that adaptation will mean the recreation of the Church from an institution that presumes everyone else agrees and should support it to one that acknowledges it is very much alone in a sea of competing ideas and beliefs.  In this regard it will be no different from the first century of the faith.  However there must first come a transition where the Church finally acknowledges that this is the case and begins to act like it.

A lot of congregations acknowledge the first part to one degree or another, but the second part – changing practice in response to this understanding – that’s a lot slower in coming.  The result is inevitably shrinking congregations and dying congregations.  Congregations that – if they can’t replenish their membership through births among their members – won’t be able to sustain their larger-scale church models in a time when congregational size overwhelmingly will be much smaller than ever before (with the obvious exception of a small percentage of mega-churches).

Part of making the second change, starting to act like we aren’t the default option, requires first an understanding.  I’ve talked with plenty of congregations in varying situations of comfort or distress.  All of them talk about mission, all of them talk about evangelism.  Most of them don’t really mean it.  Those that actually mean it are really talking about reaching out to disaffected or former church members of one denomination or another.  Their concept of evangelism basically boils down to fishing in an aquarium.  This isn’t bad, but it needs to be recognized.

Bringing people to faith in Jesus Christ who aren’t already Christian or formerly Christian to some degree requires a further awareness of what we think it looks like.  I think oftentimes when congregants talk about evangelism or bringing people to Christ, what they really imagine is bringing people to church.

Isn’t that the same thing you ask?  No, it’s not.  Bringing someone to faith in Jesus as the incarnate Son of God who died and rose again in order to save our eternal lives is one thing.  That is the cultural shift from unbelief to belief, from faith in something or someone else to faith in the triune God of the Bible.  Many Christians assume this means bringing that same person into the Church.  Their church.  Their church culture.

Sharing the Gospel isn’t the same thing as sharing church.  Sharing the Gospel is much different from then presuming that new Christians will value your existing experience of the faith and expression of the faith.  Yes, new Christians become part of The Church, the gathering of all the saints past, present and future in Christ.  But that doesn’t require them to adopt our church culture.  The Christian Church around the world has many common features that look and feel very different based on the culture of the area and people.  This culture naturally influences Christian culture and church culture.  That influence can be good and beautiful or problematic, but it’s going to happen to some extent.

If people don’t have a churched background or mindset already, we have to recognize that when the Holy Spirit brings them to faith, they’re going to need to plug into a worshiping Christian community.  We call this a church, but that is now shorthand for a lot of things that aren’t necessarily part of being a Christian, but have come to be viewed that way by generations of Christians in a similar cultural context.  Oftentimes, the Christians in that shared cultural context expect that new additions to the body of Christ will assume those cultural contexts.  They’ll step in and keep things going the way they have been for generations and decades.  But this isn’t necessarily the case.  It is necessary for a particular congregational culture, but not necessary for the new Christian.  This isn’t a situation where we have to define one perspective as bad and the other good, but we ought to acknowledge that there might be significant differences.

If we want to talk about bringing people to Christ, about actively working with the Holy Spirit to share the good news of Jesus with others, we need to be careful that this is what we’re sharing rather than our particular church culture.  One emphasizes the objective, historical reality of the incarnate Son of God.  The other tends to focus on programs, things to do, a community to be a part of.  These aren’t necessarily bad things, but they are not the first thing.  Faith in Jesus first, then the other things.  And when it comes to the other things, it is possible that a new convert to Christianity will emphatically affirm their faith in Jesus, yet struggle to adapt to a particular church culture.

This presents opportunities to form new church cultures that preserve core aspects of the Christian life as lived by people over 2000 years – worship, study, fellowship, love and care for neighbors, etc.  But how these are accomplished might look very different.  How resources are allocated might look very different.  Still faithful to God, not not easily compatible with one another.

I think this is part of the disconnect many congregations are experiencing right now, why so many struggle.  They expect that people are just naturally going to understand and desire to be an active part of a church culture, when they may not, even if they have faith in Jesus Christ.   Being able to recognize the larger changing cultural landscape will ultimately be crucial to the adaptation of the body of Christ to new cultural values and perspectives.

Fishing in the Aquarium

February 15, 2019

Last week’s Gospel reading was Jesus and Peter, some empty nets and a miraculous catch of fish (Luke 5:1-11).  The net result, so to speak, was Peter’s recognition (undoubtedly he had a similar response at the wedding at Cana in John 2) that Jesus was something more than just an ordinary rabbi.  In response to Peter’s confession of sinfulness, Jesus conveys the equivalence of absolution in telling Peter to get up.  There are things to be done, and Jesus is the one who is going to make Peter capable of doing them.  And there in the boats in the hot mid-day sun on the Sea of Galilee, as the fish pulled up and weighing the boats down undoubtedly began to grow rather pungent, Jesus tells Peter that from now on he will be catching men.  People, not fish.

That fishing was going to be real fishing.  Not on the Sea of Galilee but throughout Judea.  It was real fishing because while they were casting nets and lines among God’s chosen people, they were bringing them into something new and different.  Not sacrifices and festivals but the presence of the Son of God, the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God.  Everything was changing, and people needed to be brought from where they were and what they knew (or thought they knew) into the new reality unfolding around them so that it might unfold within them.

Our congregation had an outreach Sunday a few weeks ago.  Like many congregations, we watch our members grow older and our numbers begin to shrink.  In response, some of our leadership determined that we needed to be intentional about inviting people.  A date was set, a brunch was planned, and we had multiple visitors that day.  More than I expected, frankly.  It was great.  And now we’re in the midst of follow-up and hoping that they will return and become part of the community permanently.

I’ve felt guilty, as I’ve talked about with my wife, because I don’t believe that ultimately this sort of thing is the answer to our congregation’s long-term viability.  I would never say we shouldn’t.  In fact, we shouldn’t need to have outreach Sundays because people should always be thinking about inviting people to church!  Yet I don’t feel that this will solve the long-term challenges facing the vast majority of Christian congregations of all stripes around our country today.  Long-term challenges that are being encountered in very short-term timeframes.

Am I just a pessimist?  Many would say so.

But my wife pointed out that invite-a-friend Sundays are useful for inviting Christian friends, neighbors, and family to come to church with us..  People who might not have a church home at the moment, or maybe have been away from church for many years but still consider themselves a Christian.  They haven’t rejected Christ or the Bible or the Christian faith, but they’re out of the habit of Christian worship and might need a little nudge (or a big kick in the rear) to get them back where they should have been all along.  In other words, we’re reaching out primarily to people we already know and people who are very likely already Christian.

It’s like fishing in an aquarium.  Fishing among fish that have already been caught.

And the problem with that is that very quickly you deplete the aquarium.

Our culture is in the midst of a massive shift.  It has been for decades and now we’re really seeing it pick up steam, as what was once marginal issues for fringe elements of our culture has become front and center and mainstream.  That shift is driving people away from church.  It is convincing parents that they should not force their children to come to church but rather let them make up their own minds.  The result is predictable.  If faith is not a core matter to the parents, it isn’t going to be for the kids either, barring some sort of miracle.

And what is rapidly happening is that the number of fish in the outreach aquarium of pre-existing believers not already in a congregation is shrinking.  Ideally, congregations everywhere should be struggling to reach these people and draw them into Christian community where they can be nurtured and cared for and discipled in the faith.  Hopefully, there are a lot of nets and a lot of lines being cast out there.  Either those folks are going to be drawn into Christian communities (hopefully!) or they will refuse to be.  Either way, the pool of available fish in the aquarium will continue to rapidly shrink and there are going to be fewer and fewer fish to replace them.  If fewer and fewer people are going to church in the first place, there will be fewer and fewer people with a Christian background or upbringing or even just a familiarity with some Biblical or doctrinal basics that, for one reason or another, quit going to church and wind up in the aquarium, hopefully to be reeled back in at some point.

What the Church needs, in my opinion, is not to quit fishing in the aquarium, because by all means, those people need to be brought in and plugged in to Christian community.  But more and more the Church needs to retrain itself to fish out in the wild.  On the lakes, in the streams, out on the ocean.  Casting out nets and throwing out lines to draw in people who have very little or no Christian or church background or experience.  The Church needs to go back to what the apostles and the early Church had to do – preach the good news to people who didn’t know it already because they’d never heard it.

For that type of fishing, an outreach Sunday isn’t the right tackle.  Not the right sort of bait.  If someone knows nothing of the Bible or church, has never heard the Gospel, that the Son of God took on humanity in order to suffer and die and rise from the dead to reconcile us to God, then a Christian worship is not going to make any sense.  All the shorthand and lingo that Christians take for granted is going to go right over these other people’s heads, or going to hit them between the eyes in an offensive manner.  Worship is  an action appropriate for those who have come to faith and who are learning what that means for  their life.  It isn’t ideal for someone who has no clue.

Some congregations might be inclined to say that fishing in the wild doesn’t sound very appealing.  They don’t have the gear for that.  They’ve not worked with that kind of bait before and don’t know what sort of weights to use or the right time of day for that kind of fishing.  But the reality is it doesn’t matter if you think you’re equipped.  You’re going to have to learn how to do it because the aquarium will be depleted at some point, and either you’re learning how to fish in the wild, or you starve and die.

Most congregations and Christians, in my opinion, prefer to take their chances.  We’ll just be the best aquarium fishers out there, and we’ll get all those fish, and we’ll keep going longer than the others!  I can’t say it’s not a reasonable strategy, but  I’ve rarely seen a congregation go all in on that, follow up their preference with action in a meaningful, sustained way.

But I’ve really never seen a congregation that wholeheartedly decided it was time to put their emphasis into fishing in the wild.

Locally, in their own community and city or neighborhood.  I’ve never seen a congregation that realized that missionaries are now appropriate for their city, not just for some distant group of people living in the forest somewhere and speaking a different language.  But that’s the kind of fishing Jesus called Peter and the other apostles to.  Wild fishing, but local fishing.  There wasn’t an aquarium at that point.  They had to learn how to preach and teach the Gospel.  They had to learn how to trust the Holy Spirit to be at work preparing their hearers ahead of time and working in their hearts and minds during and after their preaching and teaching.  They had to learn to see the people they had grown up with and worked next to and even worshiped next to as people who needed a missionary, fish needing to be brought in to the Good News.

Fishing in the wild is hard and frightening.  It takes  getting used to.  But it’s part of being faithful, and I believe that congregations will need to recognize it and begin adapting themselves to it.  And quickly.  Because as rapidly as you see our culture shifting and changing before our very eyes? As rapidly as you see people deny truth and embrace death as victory, that’s how quick the aquarium is being depleted.

That’s how quickly you’re going to need to start fishing in the wild, locally.

 

I Must Break You

January 16, 2019

I’m pretty sure that I’ve never seen any of the Rocky movies.  Not the full, uncut, uncensored, unadapted-for-television-audiences movies.  I’ve seen bits and pieces and probably watched the original on TV sometime in the early 80’s.  But by the time I was close to getting out of high school there were already on Rocky IV.  I didn’t see it.  But the Cold War meeting of Rocky Balboa and Drago hardly needed to be watched.  We breathed it in the air and ate it in our breakfast cereal.

One line from the movie caught the attention of my best friend.  Drago says to Rocky in the ring “I must break you.”  Powerful words.  No mercy.  No kindness.  Nothing but the imperative to destroy and break Rocky as a fighter, as a man, and of course thematically, as an American.

But tonight, teaching a class on the first chapter of Romans to a group of women in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction, I realized how appropriate this line is on such a grander scale.  I think Satan would be happy to put it in his own mouth as he gloated over the recently fallen creation, over Adam and Eve choking on the forbidden fruit, on the penalty of the Law – Death – being introduced into perfection.  But the phrase is better and ultimately more appropriate in the mouth of God.  Insisting that none of our pretenses, none of our objections, none of our rebuttals can be left to stand in false defense of our sinfulness, of our brokenness, of our abject, filthy rebellion against the one true God and Creator of all things so that we might pretend to justify our rebellious acts, our eating of our own forbidden fruit as though nothing were wrong.

Paul won’t let that be.  God the Holy Spirit says through St. Paul I must break you.  Your objections.  Your false hopes.  Your pathetic excuses.  Your sham righteousness.  I must break you of all those things.  Completely.  Brutally if necessary, as brutal as a thrashing in the ring between two formidable opponents.  But it has to be done.  We must be backed into the corner with no defense, no strength, no illusions of how defeated we are, how completely unable we are to argue our way out of the power and righteousness and Law of God.  Ignorance?  Don’t be ridiculous.  Wisdom?  Don’t waste my time.  Create your own truth?  Go ahead, see how that works out for you in the end.  One by one batting away our feeble attempts to block, our limp jabs and efforts to push God away from us and leave us in peace as basically all right.

We’re not basically all right.  Not by default.  And nothing we do or create or say or believe can make us right.  Only God can.  Only the God who created us can restore us from our fallenness.  Only the Word by which all creation came into being is the Word that can proclaim  forgiven.  Only the presence of the Holy Spirit of God can guard us from the ever-present whispering temptations to shift our reliance back onto ourselves, to claim some of God’s glorious forgiveness and grace as our own, some of his holiness as our own.

We either accept it completely from him or we have nothing at all.  He must break us of our delusions to the contrary.

That moment when people finally realize this, when they cut through the crappy theology in pop-worship focused more on entertainment and self-improvement and feel-good  effects rather on the truth that we are hopeless without God, that moment is amazing.  To watch the struggle, the rejection, and – if fortunate enough and honest enough – that recognition of this truth, that is amazing.  That moment when someone admits that even when they do something nice or kind or good, there’s a stinking little pellet of  self-centeredness at the heart of it is exquisite.

To be able to tell them that only the Bible will tell them this.  Every other philosophy and religion or lack thereof will tell them just the opposite.  That there is hope, and that hope is inside of them.  All they need to do is open themselves to enlightenment.   Submit themselves more rigorously in obedience.  Strive with all their utmost  to attain God’s grace and share  his love, trust the whispered promises of social science and genetic modifications and all other manner of  controlling the production of human life.  Only the Bible, only when God’s Word is preached and taught in fullness and truth do we hear the terrifying, offensive truth.  You can do nothing.  You have nothing.  You are guilty as charged and deserving of the full penalty of the Law.

Only in the Word of God are we fully broken.  And only in the Word of God are we more fully restored.  Forgiven.  Healed.  Perfected.  Only when we have nothing left of our own can we be capable of receiving what God has to offer in his Son, Jesus the Christ.  We must be completely broken down, so that He can restore us to more than we ever knew we were or could be.  Only when we are stripped of confidence can we truly hope.

Brutal and beautiful.

Curmudgeonly

October 12, 2018

That’s how this post will make me sound, I’m sure.  Though if you’re a regular reader you probably drew that conclusion a long time ago.

But particularly, my grumpiness has to do with the efforts of congregations these days desperate to try and improve their image in their community.  Often times this is tied to declining membership and a desire to appear welcoming to the community.  Task forces and committees get together to come up with ways and means for engaging  with the community.

This is one of those vague, nebulous phrases that takes on a life of its own and won’t seem to go away.  I think it assumes that the reason Christian congregations are – overall – shrinking in size and growing older demographically as fewer young people bother to attend is that the community doesn’t know they’re there or views them as disconnected.  To disprove this, congregations seek to show up in their community as involved entities, demonstrating love and care for the community.  Oftentimes this comes in the form of providing services the community might want or view favorably.  It could mean providing help to the less fortunate.  It could mean supporting and promoting local artisans and small businesses.  It might even extend into the political arena  to some degree.

Through community engagement, a congregation will benefit from greater exposure and an improved public opinion about them.  I suspect that’s the basic goal.  The further, often unstated goal is that there will be people in the community impressed enough with the congregation’s engagement to begin attending.

It sounds nice  and good.  I can’t completely fault it, as much as I’d like to.  I guess I don’t fault the idea of being part of a community, but I question whether a congregation is able to do so as opposed to individual members doing so.  And I definitely question whether community engagement accomplishes the goals it sets out to achieve.

I  don’t think there are a lot of people in our communities who aren’t already active members of a church (or mosque, or synagogue) who sit around each week  lamenting that they have no idea where to find other like-minded believers to gather with.  Before the Internet we had phone books where you could easily look up pretty much every major church (or mosque, or synagogue) in your community.  It might have just been a single line or a full-page ad, but you could find them.  It’s even easier now with the Internet and Google.  If people want to know you’re here, they will figure it out.  I don’t think that publicity or exposure is a major challenge Christian congregations face and that accounts for falling attendance.

Similarly, I don’t think the community will have a much changed opinion about a congregation that engages in the community.  It seems like every cause or event now has sponsorship placards and signs all over it.  It’s easy to shell out a few hundred dollars and have your name slapped on a flyer listing supporters.  So easy, in fact, that I never pay any attention to it.  The only reason I might pay attention is if it’s something that I disagree with or find objectionable and I want to know who’s supporting it so that I don’t support them in some way.  But if it’s a good thing?  Hey, everyone should be supporting this, so it’s no big deal if one particular church is supporting it.  If I’m going to church already I’m not going to change churches just because I see a church supporting something I like (at least that shouldn’t be the reason I change churches!).  If I’m not attending church already, I’m probably not going to just show up randomly at a church I see on a flyer or a sign for an event.  I’m far more likely (statistically) to go to a church where I know someone and where someone has actually extended an invitation for me to attend.

So while the community might be happy to have support for a particular cause or event, I don’t think that support is going to result in new people showing up for worship.

Particularly if you’re a conservative, traditional sort of congregation that doesn’t support abortion, euthanasia or same-sex marriage.  More and more these churches are going to be seen as anathema.  Not simply out of touch with the times but actually evil and wrong.  More and more, younger generations wouldn’t be caught dead in a place like that.  What if their friends saw them?  What if their employer knew they went to a church that didn’t support abortion?  More and more faith is going to become a cultural and therefore professional liability.  People will choose churches – if they go at all – that won’t cause them difficulties in seeking that big promotion at work, or cost them the chance at public office.  Even President Obama learned that lesson once he was more permanently fixed in the public eye.

Communities will be happy to receive whatever congregations are willing to give them.  Well, that’s not actually true.  Communities are going to be less and less interested in receiving the one thing those congregations should give them – the Gospel.  The truth that there is real and true and objective good and evil, and that there are eternal ramifications to these things.  That by default we’re in the camp of evil rather than good, and that we can’t extricate ourselves by any words or actions or feelings or thoughts.  Our only hope lies in the Son of God who suffered and died for our sins, received the punishment we deserve for our sinfulness, and offers resurrection hope and life in his own empty tomb.

That’s the unique gift a Christian church can offer the community.  The one thing the community can’t get anywhere else.  The only things that really truly matter.  Truth.  Hope.  Forgiveness.  Grace.  Life.

I wish I heard more congregations and Christians talking about how to get those things, that message out into the  community instead of how to get the community to like us more for doing things that anybody or any organization could do by writing a check or fielding a few volunteers to wear t-shirts.  The Church’s job is not to get our community to like us.  The Church’s job is to witness to Christ crucified and resurrected.  More and more, that message is going to be offensive and will engender hatred rather than social  media likes.  It’s going to prompt vandalism and protests and angry letters to the editor.  Not because we want it to, but because we have an enemy at work stirring up hearts and minds and confusion in opposition.  That’s real community engagement, loving your community so much that you’re willing to tell them the things they don’t want to hear.  Offering the real assurance of forgiveness and grace if and when they come to repentance.  Feeding them with the Word of God that conveys eternal life and sustaining and nourishing them with the sacramental gifts of God.

Why can’t we create some great t-shirts for that?

 

 

The Long Game

October 9, 2018

I think it’s been about three years since we changed our home bar from the small town south of us to the Big City.  Our new bar is not far from home, just up the Mesa.  It’s small and cozy, with two of the best Diamond bar tables in town, refelted regularly and taken care of first by the long-time owner and now by the folks who bought it from him a few years ago.

At least three years that we’ve been shooting pool every other Tuesday night in that bar.  And longer than that, even, that my teammate and I – who also lives nearby – have come there on Monday nights to practice.  You get to know some of the regulars in that length of time – at least by face or voice.  And you get to know the bartenders.

One of them is usually getting off shift about the time we arrive on Monday nights.  She hangs out and drinks and talks.  She has a loud voice that permeates the bar, and between her voice and the myriad tattoos on her arms, she’s a force of nature who doesn’t intend to be ignored.  She holds forth her opinion on all matters, and there has been more than one occasion that I’ve heard her  leading the charge in mocking discussions of religion.

It’s been at least three months since she and her best friend, one of the top shooters in the league, got into a theological conversation of sorts with me.  Three months since she heard that I was a pastor and I invited them both over to Sunday night gathering at our place to talk.  But it was a pretty boozy night for them three months ago, and they certainly don’t remember that conversation or their promise to visit on Sunday sometime.

So it was with a great amount of shock  that this woman accosted me – in a friendly sort of way – last night.  You’re a priest? she exclaimed, clearly not remembering our discussion months ago.  Her friend had told her again, probably just that afternoon, and this time she remembered.  I’m an atheist, she offered quickly, and I nodded and smiled.  You’re a priest but you drink tequila and shoot pool?  She apologized for her colorful language, and I was surprised to realize the apology was at least somewhat real.  There was at least a kernel of genuine concern that she might be a cause of offense to me.  I smiled and reassured her.

Pray for my friend M, she quickly asked.  She’s got cancer and it’s bad.  I have leukemia, but pray for her.  I told her I would.  We reiterated the details several times over the course of the next two hours as she would walk by.  And I’ve prayed this week.  Prayed at the request of an atheist whose love for her friend is stronger than her rejection or distrust of God.  Who is willing to take whatever help might be had.

Three to five years we’ve known of each other in the confines of this small neighborhood bar, but only now does it click, only now has it seemed to register not just the face but part of the backstory.  Perhaps a priest who shoots pool and drinks tequila will be willing to listen to a prayer request from an atheist for her friend.  Perhaps  he’s crazy enough to actually follow through and pray – not just for M but for this woman as well.  Even though she didn’t ask for it and recognizes at some level that it might be wrong of her to expect it.

So pray for healing for M.  For the opportunity for more discussions, for a miracle that might cause a re-evaluation on multiple levels from this bartender.  And for wisdom to know how to be and what to say if that should happen.  Remember in the process that the Holy Spirit uses you – who you are, in the circumstances you find yourself, and you can never be sure what that will mean or look like, let alone set a timetable for it.

Reinventing the Wheel?

September 6, 2018

I received a mailer at work and at home for a new church starting up in our community.  They will be meeting at the local community college campus, and the theme of the mailer is hope.  They are apparently intending to bring hope to our community, which doesn’t sound like a bad goal per se.   Who couldn’t use some hope in this divisive culture?

I go to the website listed on the mailer.  There’s not much information.  Their values are summarized in three rather generic sentences that emphasize the grace of Jesus Christ for everyone, their intent to value gathering together (interesting that they choose the word fight to indicate how they hope to accomplish certain things like unity), and that they value the larger community.  Encouraging statements but generic to the point of uselessness.  I doubt they’d bother starting a church here if they hated our community, and I doubt they’d start a church here if they didn’t value being with other people with similar ideals and beliefs.  And their mention of Jesus is so cursory as to indicate almost every and any stripe of not just Christianity but also Mormonism, Judaism, Islam, Bahai or Buddhism.  There is no doctrinal statement or indication of denominational or other church affiliations.  Most of the About page is taken up with winsome, professional photographs of the Lead Pastor and his family and the Worship Pastor and his family.  The site includes cool gifs or videos of recognizable local places, but there is literally no more information about who these people are, where they come from, what they believe, or why they want me to join them.

I’ll assume that these are earnest, honest, well-intentioned Christians.  There are at least 50-60 Christian congregations in our community already.  How do these people see themselves fitting in?  What do they offer?  What differentiates them doctrinally from  these other congregations.  They must have some financial resources behind them if they’re bringing two families of five people each into the community and setting up shop.  What might be accomplished if they partnered with a local congregation instead of working separately?

It’s sad to think that people might show up at a new church in town with absolutely no information about who they are or what they believe.  It’s sad to think that a flyer might be the impetus to visit, or just the fact that they’re new and have young, photogenic families.

Six or more years ago I participated in a church fair on the campus of a local Christian college.  The idea was for local congregations to come out and provide information to the students about their congregations and programs, so that students could find places to worship in town.  I showed up with some handouts with information on our beliefs as well as opportunities we offered each week for study and worship.  My table looked pretty sparse compared to many others, replete with boom boxes, big boxes full of sunglasses and bouncy balls and other trinkets to give away.  Needless to say interest was pretty slim in my table, but where they were giving stuff away, there was sure a crowd.

Is that how you choose a church?  Is fun and hip the only metrics that matters now?  Or am I just bitter, being neither particularly fun nor hip?

I can’t help but think how much stronger the body of Christ would be as a whole if we learned to work better together, rather than setting up new shops all the time.  Is it so foregone a conclusion that a new infusion of ideas (rather than doctrines) could occur in a congregation, or that an existing group would never be willing to take in and work with people who are hungry and eager to share the gospel?  Are new congregations established because we actually have doctrinal differences we can’t get past, or simply because new is easier and more attractive?

Sad, but perhaps true.