Organized Religion Is it as evil as people make it out to be?

Organized religion, especially the “institutional” church in the West, has gotten a lot of flack in recent years.  Is this popular negative assessment fair?  What can we learn about organized religion from the life of Jesus?

organized religion

By: fusion-of-horizons Doesn’t this church look like some kind of Eldar building fromWarhammer 40k? Bonus points if you have any idea what I’m talking about here!     

Organized Religion and It’s Perception

It seems rather obvious that people are less and less into organized religion these days.  Church attendance is down and continues to decrease, so much so that some church buildings are being converted into night clubs, small businesses, and residences.

And when surveyed, people are increasingly saying that they’re spiritual but not religious.  Usually what people seem to mean by this is that they want to believe in a higher power or a generically loving Jesus, but not be connected to the big “C” Church with all of its baggage.

Perhaps THE voice for this movement is Jefferson Bethke, the star of a viral YouTube video entitled “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus || Spoken Word.”  Here it is:

His piece of poetry was so popular that he ended up getting a book deal out of it (here’s the link to the book: Jesus > Religion).

Why is this the case?  Why do so many people want to be spiritual but also want to distance themselves from organized religion?

Here are a few ideas that come to my mind:

  • Organized religion represents closed-mindedness and bigotry for many, especially younger people.
  • Many people were hurt directly or indirectly by organized religion.  Maybe there was abuse, neglect, or misuse of power.  And perhaps people’s parents forced religion on them.
  • Maybe some people don’t like the feeling that religion brings with it obligations to obey things while being spiritual is more nebulous.
  • Being spiritual seems more open and inclusive than organized religion is typically represented.
  • And being spiritual is much less political in nature than being associated with organized religion tends to be.

I’m sure that there are dozens of other reasons (let me know some in the comments below!), but the point is this: many people are not pleased with organized religion these days.

Jesus and Organized Religion

And another reason that many people give for their disdain for organized religion goes something like this: Jesus was more about the heart and spirituality than all that religious stuff!

But is this sentiment true?  What do the authors of the Gospels reveal to us about Jesus’ connection to organized religion?

This morning I was doing my devotional time and I began reading John 5.  I didn’t get very far before something stood out to me.  Here it is (John 5.1):

Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals.

This verse is easily passed over when reading the exciting narratives of John 4 and 5.  But it highlights something interesting: Jesus was involved in organized religion.

Jesus left his home-base and traveled by foot or caravan to Jerusalem.  Why?  Did he like the mall in Jerusalem?  Nope!  He went up to Israel’s capital in order to participate in a Jewish festival.

To repeat: Jesus was involved in organized religion.

So the mentality that Jesus hated organized religion and was only about spirituality is simply wrong, the text doesn’t support this idea.

However, we should note that when Jesus engaged in organized religion, he did so in ways that brought glory to God and furthered his mission, the Missio Dei.

Often, when we engage in organized religion we do so out of obligation or tradition.  And even when we have good intentions, we often simply support the status quo of the religious group we’re part of instead of pursuing Jesus and his mission at all costs.

In the story in John 5, Jesus went up to celebrate the festivals.  But as he was in Jerusalem he kept his eyes open — and in so doing he met someone in need and helped him out.

At another time Jesus preached at a synagogue, another example of Jesus engaging in organized religion (Luke 4).  But, again, Jesus did so in ways that furthered God’s glory and mission, this time encouraging the people to share the good news with the downcast (which wasn’t a popular message).

And there are many, many other examples of how Jesus engaged in organized religion.

In fact, this was such a common part of Jesus’ ministry, that his earliest followers did the same.  Check out this passage from the first part of Acts 2.46:

Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.

The earliest followers of Jesus were involved in organized religion too, meeting in the temple courts.  Later, in Acts 3.1, we see Peter and John following Jesus again, going to the temple but keeping their eyes open to further God’s glory and mission by helping someone out.

And, lastly in this section, Paul almost always started ministry in a new area by preaching in the synagogue or whatever other organized gathering of Jews he could find.  And when he did so, he always found ways to point to the love and grace of Jesus.  In other words, Paul was involved in organized religion as well.

So What Does This Mean for Us Today?

So Jesus and his earliest followers didn’t shy away from organized religion.  Why, then, should we?  Wouldn’t it be better for us to follow their leads (especially that of Jesus) by engaging in organized religion but always with an eye toward bringing God glory and furthering his kingdom?

Here are a few initial thoughts about how we can move forward today:

  1. “Because” is not a good reason.  We need a better reason to be engaged in organized religion than “because.”  It’ not enough that we feel like we should or someone we love wants us to.  And “that’s the way we’ve always done things” isnot enough either.
  2. Actually ENGAGE in organized religion. Just like Jesus, Peter, John, Paul, and so many others, we should participate in organized religion on purpose.  As we do so, are there people for us to love?  Are there unhelpful tradition for us to challenge?  Are there opportunities to share and embody the good news?
  3. Make religion about connection.  From the beginning of God’s calling us to gather to worship him together, he did so in order that we would connect with him and with one another.  In fact, from eternity past and into eternity future, the Triune God has always been about connection, engaging in the divine and mysterious dance of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  And as we gather to worship him together, we join in that dance, thus connecting with God and with one another.

 

What do you think?  What value is there to be found in organized religion?  And how do we avoid its potential pitfalls?  Let me know in the comments below!

 

Jesus Was a Refugee Would we have not accepted him?

“Given the tragic attacks in Jerusalem and the threats we have already seen, Egypt cannot participate in any program that will result in Jewish refugees – any one of whom could be connected to terrorism – being resettled in Egypt,” Prefect Gaius Turranius said in the letter [to Caesar Augustus]. “Effective today, I am directing the Egypt Health & Human Services Commission’s Refugee Resettlement Program to not participate in the resettlement of any Jewish refugees in the State of Egypt. And I urge you, as Caesar, to halt your plans to allow Jews to be resettled anywhere in the Roman Empire.” [Adapted from Gov. Abbot’s letter to Presidnt Obama, found in this press release]

Thankfully this letter was never sent by Prefect Gaius Turranius, the person who served as Egypt’s governor when Jesus’ family fled Israel after Herod the Great went on a killing rampage in Jerusalem (Matthew 2.13-18).  Instead, it appears that Jesus and his family were able to find safety in Egypt for some time (estimates vary from a few months to three years).

refugee

“Escape to Egypt” by Sebastiano Ricci

But this letter (with the modern names, etc. added back in, of course) was sent in recent days from Texas’ governor to the US’s president, along with 30 other similar letters and declarations from other US governors.

That’s more than half of the states in the US!  More than half of the states in the US won’t accept people fleeing from the very threat is also feared within the US — ISIS, or the Islamic State.

Of course, ISIS is a horrible group that has committed numerous atrocities all over the world, one of which I’ve written about before.  And there is fear that some of those who are fleeing Syria are or will become a threat to America due to being radicalized.  And this fear may not be unfounded, since one of the suicide bombers in Paris was carrying a fake Syrian passport and apparently was himself on the run from the violence in the Middle East.

But none of this changes the fact that the Bible says some clear things about how to treat those who are refugees.  Let’s look at some of those passages (as found in this article at relevant.com):

When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. (Leviticus 19:9-10)

He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:18-19)

Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)

“So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the Lord Almighty. (Malachi 3:5)

“As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name— for they will hear of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm—when they come and pray toward this temple, then hear from heaven, your dwelling place. Do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name. (1 Kings 8:41-44)

No stranger had to spend the night in the street, for my door was always open to the traveler (Job, discussing his devotion to God) (Job 31:32)

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ (Matthew 25:25-36)

And add to all of these passages this passage from Matthew 2 that I referenced at the beginning of this blog:

When they [the wise men] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”

After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”

So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. (Matthew 2.13-21)

 

Jesus Was a Refugee…So What?

What does all of this mean?  For those of us who follow Jesus, what are we to do with the clear injunctions from Scripture to care for those who seek asylum in the places where we life?  And what does it say to us that our savior and his family were people that were shown compassion when they became refugees themselves?

First, I’m not going to pretend that governing a city, state, or nation is simple.  Let’s be honest, I have a difficult time governing my own life sometimes!

I understand that there’s a balance to be struck between compassion and protection and that where politicians fall on that spectrum is based, in my opinion at least, on whatever may help them get re-elected to their current gig or help them position themselves well for their next gig.  Let’s not fool ourselves.  Politicians on both sides play to the emotions of their constituents in order to remain relevant, popular, and electable.

So, for a little while at least, let’s leave governing cities, states, and nations to one side and look at our lives as followers of Jesus instead.  We aren’t called to balance safety and compassion.  Nope.  Look back at the passages above and search for others that talk about how we are to treat foreigners.  The Scriptures are clear that God expects love and provision to be extended to refugees from those who claim him as their God.

On a personal level, as followers of Jesus, we have no other option, other than disobedience, of course.

So let’s not let fear, misinformation, possible ethnic prejudice, and political posturing prevent us from obeying God’s call to love the refugee.

But what does the fact that Jesus was a refugee add to this picture?

Here’s what I think: The fact that our savior was a refugee himself shows that he understands completely what it is like to leave everything behind because of terror.  He knows the long and hard roads that refugees face — roads full of danger, pain, and suffering.

And since Jesus was a refugee himself, as he leads his people to care for the refugees in their midst through the indwelling of the Spirit, he will know how to direct them to show true compassion.  It’s our job as followers of Jesus to respond to the Spirit: listening to him, learning from him, and obeying him.

I’m about to use a word I don’t use all that often: duty.  Caring for the refugees in our midst is our duty as followers of Jesus.  Leaving this duty undone is a grave disservice to current refugees and a slap in the face of our once-a-refugee-himself savior.

 

What about US History?

What role does caring for refugees have in American history?

Here are some brief highlights:

  • Many European settlers in the US were refugees themselves, fleeing persecution, natural disasters, poor economic situations, and war.
  • All throughout our history the US has been a beacon for the lost and the hurting in the world, even in very difficult and complicated times, such as in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Saigon during the Vietnam War.  During that time around 125,000 Vietnamese made their way to the US [SOURCE], one of whom is a personal friend of mine!  And during the height of the Cold War, there must have been great fear about communism spreading in the US due to Vietnamese refugees, not to mention the potential security risk.  (Sound familiar?)
  • And for many years the US has had federal policies allowing for the migration of thousand of refugees into our country each year, many of whom are/were fleeing similar situations to that found in Syria.

It appears that the history of the US supports allowing for Syrian refugees to seek asylum here — plain and simple.

 

Now What?

The US is likely to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees, who will be placed all throughout our country, including in the states whose governors don’t want them.

So, what are we to do as followers of Jesus?  Here are some suggestions:

  1. Give.  Just think about it…currently half of Syria’s population has fled their homes.  That’s crazy!  So those of us who claim to follow Jesus can help by giving to one of the many organizations who are helping with the Syrian refugee crisis.  Here’s one I recommend: Texas Baptists Refugee Relief.  The Texas Baptists are giving aid to a network of churches in Lebanon, where 1.5 million Syrian refugees have resettled.  Many other groups are offering aid.  Research one that you like and give.
  2. Advocate.  If you are a follower of Jesus and are convicted by the truths of the Scriptures about how to treat the foreigners among us, write to your state and national politicians, asking them to enact policies to help bring aid and compassion to those seeking asylum in our land (especially if you happen to live in a state whose governor has tried to close its doors).
  3. Act.  There’s a good chance that some Syrian refugees are already living near you, especially if you live in a major metropolitan area.  Whether that’s true for you or not, talk with your pastor, community outreach person, and/or your missions person at your local church.  Ask them if your church has a plan to care for the refugees entering our country and potentially our cities.  Ask if they’d be willing for your church to serve as a host church for refugees.  Have them ask your church’s denomination or wider church network about next steps.  And, if the Lord is leading you, perhaps open your home, cook some food, or offer whatever other acts of love and hospitality that you can.
  4. Pray.  Pray for those who are fleeing the continuing war in Syria.  Pray for the health and safety of the refugees.  Pray for the followers of Jesus all over the face of the earth to rise up to this great challenge.  Pray that this crisis can be used by God in order for his church to share and embody the good news with and among people desperate for it.  And pray for God to use you as he sees fit.

 

Thanks so much for reading this!  You may not agree with me on every point, and that’s fine.  Either way, let’s follow our savior who was once a refugee as he leads us to love everyone, especially those who are most in need.

 

Mother’s Day Joy and Sorrow Mingled Together

It’s time for Mother’s Day once more.

Yay!  Moms are the best!”  That’s supposed to be our reaction to Mother’s Day.

And if you’re a Mom then your reaction is supposed to be something like this: “Being a mother is the most amazing blessing that can ever be imagined!  I’m so jazzed about being a mom!

Unfortunately, these are not the only reactions that people have on Mother’s Day.  For a lot of people, Mother’s Day is difficult.

So when we observe Mother’s Day this year, and every year going forward, let’s keep in mind the real potential for pain in some people’s lives.

Mother’s Day Pain

Here are a few examples of people who may be suffering on Mother’s Day…

  • People whose moms have died, whether recently or a long time ago.
  • Women who are unable to have children.
  • Women who don’t have children but wish they did.
  • Single moms who are reminded on Mother’s Day of the loneliness of their situation.
  • Moms whose children have died, whether recently or a long time ago.
  • Women who have spent tons of money on infertility treatments that haven’t worked.
  • Women who are in the process of adoption.
  • Women who have had failed adoptions.
  • Adoptive moms who may have a hard time believing that they’re really moms.
  • Women who have placed children for adoption and all the pain and heartache that accompanies this courageous choice.
  • Foster children, adoptive children, children raised without a mother, and other children who have issues identifying who their moms are.
  • Moms whose children live a long way away.
  • Women who long to have grandchildren but do not yet.
  • The mothers whose relationships with their children are broken.
  • Women who are pregnant; they may wonder if they count yet.
  • Women who have terminated pregnancies.
  • Foster moms whose lives are often chaotic and their efforts unheralded.
  • Single women who deeply long to have a family.
  • Women who serve as the mother for children in their community whose biological mothers are unavailable for one reason or another.
  • Mothers who are incarcerated and separated from their children.
  • Children whose mothers are incarcerated.
  • Children who suffer or who have suffered at the hands of their mothers.
  • Mothers who hurt or have hurt their children.
  • New moms who are frazzled, sleepy, and doubtful about their capabilities as parents.
  • Women who have suffered miscarriages.
  • Children of moms who are terminally ill.
  • Moms of children who are terminally ill.
  • Women in the midst of a crisis pregnancy.
  • Women who have been sexually abused.
  • Step-moms who are seeking to navigate the complicated waters of a blended family.
  • Moms whose jobs take them a long way from home, whether because of the military, business, or anything else.
  • Children whose moms are not at home due to their service in the military, their jobs, or anything else.
  • Moms whose partners are a long way from home, whether because of the military, business, or anything else.
  • Moms of children with special needs who are overwhelmed and tired and who often blame themselves for the diagnoses of their children.
  • Working moms who have to cope with daily pain and doubt.
  • Stay at home moms who may feel like they aren’t making a contribution.
  • Moms everywhere who suffer under the judgment of our society, the men in their lives, their families, other mothers, and themselves.
  • All the other mothers that I left unnamed.
  • And all the men who are attached to any of the women above.

And, friends, I know lots and lots of women who fit the categories above and have sat with, prayed with, and cried with them.

Now What?

So should the pain that many have on Mother’s Day change the way we talk about it and celebrate it?  Absolutely!  Especially as followers of Jesus and especially during our worship services on Mother’s Day.

But, if you are in contact with your mom, your grandmother, or the mother of your children, you should absolutely reach out to them on Mother’s Day.  If there’s drama between you, that’s fine; reach out any way.  As followers of Jesus we are called to reconciliation, which is often really difficult!

But for many of us who have neutral, good, or amazing relationships with our moms, we should tell our moms how much we love them and how thankful we are for them.  It’s really pretty simple — express love and gratitude!

But in our churches we should probably do things a bit differently than we typically do.  Convention says that from the stage or pulpit we should have a spiel about Mother’s Day and how “being a mom is the highest calling.”  Then we ask all of the moms in the audience to stand and we applaud them.

I think that all of that is wrong and we shouldn’t do it.

Why?  What’s wrong with acknowledging moms and their hard work and sacrifice?

Several things:

  1. Being a mom, or a parent for that matter, isn’t the highest calling.  Following Jesus and obeying all that he commanded us is the highest calling.  Think about it: if being a mom, or a parent generally, was the highest calling, then lots of folks around the world who do not know or follow God are living out that highest calling.  That just doesn’t make sense.  Besides, Paul, in 1 Corinthians 7.7, said that he wished people would stay single as he was.  And Jesus was single and many of the leaders of the early church were single.  Being married and having children is a blessing from God — but it’s certainly not the best of all blessings, the way that many people in the church make it out to be!  By the way and for the official record, I’m happily married and I’m a father.  I’m not writing this out of frustration over being single or not being a parent.  And I’m not writing this because I don’t like being married or being a father.
  2. Having all the moms stand is horribly painful for all the women present who might fit one of the pain categories listed above.  It’s so bad that many women simply stay home from church on Mother’s Day to avoid the pain, shame, and guilt of not standing and being applauded.  Furthermore, we aren’t at church to celebrate moms anyway; we’re there to celebrate what God is doing in our lives and to worship him.  Can moms be mentioned in our services.  Sure!  But we need to find ways to do it that won’t marginalize and hurt all the women for whom Mother’s Day is painful.
  3. And, lastly, Mother’s Day is not a Christian holiday.  It was started by a woman who wanted to honor her own mother.  She fought for years to get Congress to make Mother’s Day an official holiday and it finally worked!  But shortly thereafter Mother’s Day shifted from being a simple day to tell our own mothers we love and appreciate them to becoming a commercialistic behemoth.  It got so bad, so fast, that the founder of Mother’s Day begged Congress to repeal it!  And things haven’t gotten better.  I mean, have you been to the store this week?  So from it’s beginning to the way it is observed today, Mother’s Day is not a Christian holiday and it seems to promote frivolous spending on trinkets that will simply gather dust.

So What Then?

What can we do instead?  If we talk about Mother’s Day in our churches, can we do so from the perspective of Scripture?  Can we do so in ways that bring honor to moms and that don’t cause undue pain?

And can we pray in ways that affirm all women and not just moms?

Here’s an example prayer.  Do with it what you will.

Father,

Thank you for caring for us, for leading us, and for calling us to be your disciples.  We each have a story that has brought us to today.  Some of our stories are idyllic and beautiful, full of loving homes, caring mothers, and wonderful children.  But others of us have different stories, stories full of pain, suffering, isolation, frustration, shame, guilt, and unfulfilled hopes.  And in light of the stark differences that a day like Mother’s Day brings up for us, we are in awe of the fact that you can create beauty, unity, and peace in spite of how different we all are.  But we are grateful Father that you have led us to where we are today.  We deeply appreciate that you’ve been with us each step of the way.  And for those of us who celebrate today, you celebrate along side us!  And for those of us who suffer today, we share in the fellowship of your suffering.  Father, help us grow from our stories.  Teach us and move us to be excellent caregivers, showing love by putting the interests of others before our own.  Today, on Mother’s Day, we celebrate you and your power to reconcile all things to yourself through Christ Jesus our Lord.  It’s in his name we pray; Amen.

 

What do you think?  How can we responsibly observe Mother’s Day as followers of Jesus?

Gratitude 2014

Today is Thanksgiving which, naturally enough, helps me remember to show gratitude, to be thankful.

So, what do I want to show gratitude for this year?

Gratitude 2014

I’d like to show gratitude for…

  • …the best spouse I could have ever asked for.  I seriously don’t deserve my wife!  She has literally helped me become a better person.  Literally.
  • …the transformative power of Jesus to change lives, starting with mine.  I’ve had a front-row seat this year as Jesus has flipped my life over and the lives of some people close to me as well.
  • …my families, both my given one and my chosen one.  The level of support that my wife and I have experienced from our parents, siblings, and extended relatives has been indescribable.  And our fictive family, our chosen set of friends, have blessed us beyond belief as well.  It’s been incredibly humbling!
  • …my cousin Wendy, her parents Christy and Wade, and her kids.  As our lives are beginning to dovetail with theirs due to our adoption scenario, we couldn’t be happier at the possibilities for grace and beauty that will flow both ways.  God is good.
  • …how welcoming our neighborhood has been.  We moved to a new neighborhood this March and it’s been great!  We’ve enjoyed sharing Alida’s baking, cooking out, and enjoying hours of enlightening conversation.
  • Lake Avenue Church, our local church home.  We’ve been inspired there, served there, worked there, made and found community there, and have been given opportunities to lead there.  Gratitude doesn’t begin to express our feelings about our spiritual family!
  • …health and comfort.  My wife and I have a great life.  We’re blessed.  But we know that being blessed comes with a responsibility to be a blessing in the lives of others, especially those who don’t have health and comfort.  May we be moved to demonstrated and speak the love of Jesus where Jesus has placed us, where we work, live, and play.
  • …people in my life who are very different than my wife and I.  We’ve been stretched by the diversity and it hasn’t always been fun or easy.  But I know without a shadow of a doubt that we’ve grown.

What in your life causes you to feel gratitude?

Express it in the comments below!

 

Happy Thanksgiving!

Getting the Flock out of the Pen

Here’s the best thing I’ve read all week:

If the church consists of all those who have believed in Jesus, then church leaders must be less concerned with attracting a bigger flock and more concerned with getting the flock out of the pen.

This awesome nugget comes from Neil Cole and Phil Helfer in their timely and amazing book entitled Church Transfusion: Changing Your Church Organically–From the Inside Out.

The Ghost of Church Future: Part One (Continued Decline)

My wife, parents, and I recently watched a stage production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  As I watched it I couldn’t help but imagine what the ghosts of church past (Part One, Part Two, and Part Three), present (Part One, Part Two, and Part Three), and future might say to those of us who follow Jesus.  This week we’ll look at what the future holds.

decline

geralt / Pixabay

A Continued Decline

For quite some time now the church, as we know it, has been in decline.  Numerous studies and surveys support this statement (David Olson’s book The American Church in Crisis and John Dickerson’s book The Great Evangelical Recession provide a ton of evidence).

What do we do?  I think there are three primary options: 1) keep doing what we’ve always done; 2) try to baptize American individualism, consumerism, and materialism; or 3) go down the missional-incarnational path.

This post will focus on the first option — more of the same.

If we keep doing what we’ve always done, what will be the results?

Famously, it has been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over again but always expecting different results (attributed to Albert Einstein).  And while this may be “the most overused cliche of all time,” it does help us think about why following the same strategies in the church won’t work going forward.

So, what have we been doing that we could keep doing (even though it most likely wouldn’t work)?

  1. Follow the Attractional Model — “If you build it, he will come.”  This is probably the most-often quoted line from the movie Field of Dreams and it serves to illustrate the attractional model like no other string of words can!  The thought is that if we have slick weekend services, engaging sermons, awesome music, fun programs for kids, thought-provoking adult classes, and great small groups, then people will just show up at the campuses of our churches to partake of all these things.  The research, however, is showing that this model isn’t working.  People simply are not coming to churches anymore, at least not like they once did.  Our buildings, programs, and services just aren’t all that attractive to the wider American culture these days.  So, if we continue with this model, then we will have shrinking congregations, which will lead to church buildings being abandoned (and possibly being transformed into homes, libraries, or nightclubs).
  2.  Limit Discipleship to the Classroom — Almost always when talking to Christians about discipleship they seem to think that it is a program, a ministry, or an event that the church should host and facilitate.  In my experience this has been true of folks everywhere throughout America, from Los Angeles to Atlanta.  There are some shining examples of leaders and churches who don’t view discipleship this way, but my educated guess would be that most American Christians think of it as a cognitive-based learning experience.  The simple truth is that this method of discipleship doesn’t work.  It has helped lead to 66% of Americans being what George Barna calls “casual Christians.”  That’s an astonishing number!  And if we continue doing discipleship this way, that number isn’t going to change in the positive direction.
  3. Protect the Christian Bubble — I was thinking the other day about how many friends I have who do not know Jesus yet.  The number is really pretty low.  Why?  Because I’m pretty consistently encouraged to completely inundate myself into the Christian subculture.  When I do so all my friends are Christians, my closest family members are all Christians, and all my neighbors are Christians.  Then I start reading Christians books, listening to Christian music, going to Christian websites, and even freshening my breath with Christian mints!  This cloistering-off of American Christians into our own little bubble has created a ton of unintentional problems.  If you’ve ever tried to share your faith with someone you know what I’m talking about.  Folks say that Christians are hypocrites, that we’re judgmental, and that we’re by and large detached from reality.  Our Christian bubble helped create space for these descriptions to come to fruition.  So if we protect our bubble going forward, then we’ll continue to erode our potential impact with folks who do not yet know Jesus.

To put it simply, the future of the church is pretty bleak if we keep going like we’ve been going!

Do you agree?  Let me know in the comments below.

Lessons from My Weight-Loss (Be Intentional)

On April 27th, 2011 I was obese.  According to my Body Mass Index, weighing in at a husky 250 pounds at my height (6’2″) slid me right into the obese category.  Over the next nine months I worked hard, counting every calorie consumed and burned, and lost 65 pounds!  Now, quite a while later, I’ve gained back 5 of those pounds, but I’m convinced that most of that is muscle!

In case you were curious, here’s some pictorial evidence.  On the left is me at 250 pounds and on the right is me at 190 pounds!

The purpose of this post, however, is not just to pat myself on my back for my weight loss.  Instead it’s to share some of the lessons I learned and apply them to being a missionally postured, incarnationally activated follower of Jesus.  This is Part One and there will be more parts to come periodically.

So, what is the first lesson? Be Intentional.

Losing weight, for me at least, did not just happen.  It required a great deal of effort and purposefulness.

Getting to 250 pounds just happened though!  That was easy!  But losing the weight (and keeping it off) has been a process that has been difficult for me at times.  I’m not a person who plans things out carefully by nature.  I prefer to live life by the seat of my pants!  But doing so led me down a path to obesity.

So, with some effort, some support from my amazing wife Alida (along with my family and friends), and some patience, I lost the weight.  I made a plan and I stuck to it.  I knew exactly what I was shooting for and I had figured out the best way for me to reach my goals.

How does this apply to being missional?

I’m so glad you asked!  In the American church we have just been “doing church” now for quite some time.  We figured that discipleship was just going to happen, that evangelism was just going to happen, and that leadership development was just going to happen.

Where has that gotten us?  Well, by almost any standard you’d like to use, we have a great vacuum of actively-growing disciples in the church.  Evangelism for many of us has become something only the very few and very, very brave engage in, since we’ve narrowly defined it as going up to a stranger and trying to reason them or scare them or persuade them into saying the sinner’s prayer.  And we have a great need for more dedicated, trained, and passionate leaders.

In other words, we’re in trouble.

What can we do?  Well, we can start by being intentional!  Just like I had to sit down and come up with a plan in order to lose weight, we need to strategize together about how best to reach this mission field called America.  And whatever our plan is, it can’t be just a repackaging of our old methods.  That’s what I tried when I was 250 pounds.  All it did was keep me fat.

It’s my assertion that if we keep on doing the same things as the church, then we’ll keep getting the same results.  It’s well passed time that we try some new methods of discipling up, reaching out, and worshiping well.  The ramifications of us continuing to waste time are simply too dire.  We must change!

There are a thousand things we could begin to be more intentional about, but here’s an “easy” one.  Let’s stop thinking about and talking about the church as a building where we go to consume religious goods and services and instead let’s start thinking about and talking about being the church among those who need the good news.  This small shift can make a huge difference!

What are some other ways that we could be more intentional as missional followers of Jesus?  Let me know in the comments below!

The Two Meanings of “Church”

Here’s an excellent video that illustrates the two meanings of the word “church.”  I found this video at Church Anarchist blog, which is a website run by Richard Jacobson (whom you can follow on Twitter: @churchanarchist).

Football or Going to Church?

I ran across an amazing quote from Hugh Halter the other day.  It’s from his book entitled AND: The Gathered and Scattered Church, which is co-written by Matt Smay.  Here it is:

If the vision of the church is not scary, if it doesn’t require everyone to pitch in, if faith is not needed, then folks will stay home and watch the football game.” (139)

This one is particularly interesting to me since it is Monday morning, the day after which Tony Romo led the Cowboys, my favorite football team, to a dramatic fourth-quarter comeback!  And, to be honest, my wife and I decided not to go to church yesterday at all.  Instead, we went hiking and then we watched some football.  Before you get too worried about us, we did go to church on Saturday night, and our normal Sunday-morning responsibilities were canceled this week.

Hans / Pixabay

So even though it was “okay” for us not to be at church yesterday, it sure did feel funny!  But I wonder if it felt funny because it broke our deeply-ingrained habits, or was it because we are truly connected to a church with vision where we feel needed.  Honestly, it’s probably a little bit of both.

This leads naturally to another question for me: If lifers like Alida and I sometimes feel disconnected from the vision of gathered worship, what do folks who don’t have the same level of history think?  My guess is that they don’t think much about church at all on Sunday mornings, and that if they do, they probably just think it’s cute and quaint.  Sure, there will be a few who hate church and decry it for one reason or another.  But my guess is that for most people, gathering together at a building called a “church” to sing songs, sit and stand, listen to a sermon, and give money never comes up.

And when it does come up, I wonder how often hiking, football, sleeping in, having brunch, etc. trumps gathering with believers to worship God?

Who knows.  Provably a lot.  But here’s a better question: Why are people choosing to gather less and less these days?  Why aren’t people coming, including people who profess to believe in Jesus?

I think Hugh is right, our vision isn’t all that compelling.  We aren’t all that attractive relative to other choices.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that Jesus’ vision for those who follow him would involve going out and coming together (Matthew 28.19-20).  But it seems that we’ve simplified Jesus’ mission into activities that revolve around gathering together.  Sure, we’ll throw in a few scattering things here and there: we’ll pack a shoebox full of inexpensive toys at Christmas, and we’ll gather school supplies for those sad public school kids, and we’ll write a check to support missionaries.  But that’s pretty much the extent of our participation in the scattering of the church.

Not long ago I was convinced missionaries, evangelists, and their sort were the ones who were goers.  The rest of us were people who went to church.  I’m sure I’m not the only one who had envisioned the professionalization of scattering that way.

So we’ve limited Jesus’ mission for us by half.  We’ve more or less eliminated the scattering and just focused on the gathering.  But our vision for gathering together seems very different from what Jesus had in mind.

In the Great Commission (Matthew 28.19-20) there are several things to learn about gathering together: 1) It should enable disciple-making; 2) It should involve folding people fully into the family of God through baptism; and 3) It should involve instruction to obey all that Jesus commanded his disciples.

Let’s start with #3.  Our gatherings in most Evangelical churches are almost solely about teaching.  We’ll have one person stand in front of many people and teach for 20, 30, 40 minutes, or longer.  I hope that our teaching revolves around what Jesus taught his disciples, but I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t always.  Besides, Jesus taught about some crazy stuff like loving your enemies, prioritizing God above family, caring for those in the most need, and praying for God’s future reality to become real in the present.

Now to #2.  We have baptisms in our gatherings, which is awesome!  It’s always one of my favorite things!  However, since so few of us ever actually go out to make new disciples, our baptisms are few and far between, even at large churches.  (Caveat: there are some churches who are baptizing folks like crazy, which is awesome!  My guess: they’ve fostered a better sense of missionality in all of their people.)

#1. When we gather it should be about disciple-making.  “So are you saying that every sermon should be about deciding between Jesus and hell?”  No, not necessarily.  What I am saying is that when we gather one of the chief purposes should be for us all to grow in our discipleship.  So new believers should be learning and old believers should be learning.  All of us should be helping one another, in the power of the Spirit, to figure out how to follow Jesus better.

And following Jesus leads us to gather together and to go out into the world on mission with him.

So if our vision for church is about buildings, budgets, and butts, we’re not going to inspire many people to gather and scatter.  And if our vision is to tell people what we think they want to hear, we’re not going to inspire many people to gather and scatter.  And if our vision is really about our personal, financial security (“There’s a mortgage to pay…”), then we’re not going to inspire many people to gather and scatter.

It’s time we catch Jesus’ vision, namely that we get to participate with God as he reconciles all things to himself through Christ (2 Corinthians 5.19).  That’s a scary vision.  That’s a vision that needs all of us to pitch in.  That’s a vision that requires faith.  That’s a vision that will inspire people to skip out on sleeping in, hiking, watching football, etc.  That’s a vision that will transform our lives, our communities, and our world!