Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Way Ahead (for the Church)

I have spent a lot of time recently thinking about what the way ahead is going to look like for the Church. You may ask... why me? Well, my only answer for that is that anyone to whom that question occurs should think about it. If that person is in a leadership position in a church, they should think even harder. If that person feels called by God to bring renewal to that same Church, they should not stop thinking about it. I am all three. I think about this a lot.

I think best when I break things down into smaller observations (like thin slicing). After thinking them through, I can usually draw out some salient connections. That is what is going to happen here. Well, that AND this is all about what we SHOULD be doing and where we SHOULD be heading. If you want a list of things we need to stop, that post was just recently written so that this one was cleanly positive.

A practical, active faith

For too long, faith for most people has been about sitting and listening. For too long, we have received and received and received until it has begun to feel totally normal to be spiritually self-centered. I believe that when Jesus said "thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven" he was announcing a core tenant of our faith. He was talking about an outwardly-focused group of God-Lovers who were actively trying to make earth a little bit more like heaven and a little less like the messed up place they used to live. Paul said, let me show you my faith by what I do. AMEN!

We need to DO something. There are hurting, hungry, naked, cold, and ignorant people in a world where there is more than enough food, fabric and books for those not to be problems! I'm not talking about launching multi-national non-profit corporations. I am talking about you and I taking some sandwiches to hungry people downtown, or sending vitamins to an orphanage in Africa.

Small, Organic Community

I think that the way ahead includes a renewed focus on the small. By that I do not mean arbitrarily throwing complete strangers into a small group where they watch some rich pastor on a screen. I mean friends going to get coffee and talking about the Bible. I mean a couple of families finding ways to pray for their neighbors. I mean those groups coming together to worship and break bread together. There's an interesting thing called the Rule of 150 or Dunbar's number. The Rule of 150 basically says that because of several factors (some of which are biological) the largest effective community size is 150. Once it grows larger, people feel anonymous and disconnected. I believe that churches should find ways to respect this rule, and try not to have community gatherings (like weekly worship services) exceed 150. This is not to say that churches cannot be larger than 150, but that larger churches should have as their goal to be gatherings of many 150 groups.

Why? Because when you are in a smaller gathering, you feel like you are part of what is happening. You feel like your presence is missed. You feel like you are NEEDED. That encourages members who are not passive card-punchers but actively-involved shareholders. This is a section that will deserve its own post soon, but I will stop here for now.

A Return to Mysticism.

We believe that, though we are mortals, we can reach out and commune with the creator of the universe. That is a mystical belief. Don't get me wrong, I love science, but our faith exists in the realm of the mystic. For too long we have ignored communing with the Almighty through the ancient practices of Christian mystics and have lost the insight and wonder those practices afford. It is time to recover our mystical roots. It is time to spend an hour in silent meditation on the scriptures. It is time to learn how to truly listen to the voice of God. It is time to follow as the Almighty leads us into places of divine union.

A Primitive Faith

Throughout the centuries there have been movements (Wesley's methodist groups being one of those) that have reinterpreted the message of Christ to a new culture. One of the things I have noticed in my study is that many, if not all, share this idea of a return to what they call the "primitive" faith. By primitive the reformers and theologians have not meant backwards, uneducated, or any other negative connotation we have; rather, they have been calling for a return to Christianity in its original form. This is the same call that was heralded by Hybels, Warren, and others as an "Acts 2" faith. The goal is to recover something that was lost along the path that our religion has taken from Jerusalem to the Internet.

What has been lost? I see a couple right now, though I am sure there are many others. They are the concluding two sections.

Faith Rooted in Heritage and History

This is not just our heritage from the Gospels on, but our roots with Abraham Isaac and Jacob. There was a clear connection, and struggle at times, with the Jewish faith. In fact many of our rituals/sacraments were originally being performed by Jesus and His disciples in a Jewish setting. The baptism was a mikveh. The communion was a passover meal. And on and on.

This is one reason why so many people latch on to Rob Bell's rabbinical teachings. We are hungering for a faith that is rooted in something more than audience analysis and market research. We want to experience the Rock of Ages and see our part in His epic saga. Our teaching and discussion needs to engage with our full, ancient history as much as possible in the most interesting ways. I say everyone should decide on their favorite Rob Bell-type history-rich teacher/preacher and get that teacher's recommended reading list. And read it of course.

A United Body of Christ

There is nothing more odd to me than the sometimes hair-splitting, sometimes joking and sometimes venomous separations that exist within the Body of Christ. When I read the writings of the early church fathers, I see a constant conviction to ONE church. The people closest in time to Jesus' incarnation saw this as something worth fighting and sacrificing for. Huge compromises and incredibly long discussions centered around preventing any sort of significant split or schism.

Sometimes it seems like we couldn't be further from that commitment. What does that breed? The competition that I address in the post "10 Things Churches Need to Stop." I believe we need to rekindle the passion to break down the walls that separate Protestants and Catholics, Eastern Orthodox from Messianic Jews and come together as the Body of Christ. I think this diverse palette of expressions all supporting each other and coming together to make positive changes in our world will be more of a witness to the power of God than almost anything we can do.

Is this naive? Probably. Is this overly optimistic? Definitely. But this is the way it needs to be! Those who feel this way need to start acting together. We need to start collaborating. By our actions of unity we will expose the foolishness of separation and live into what I think was a clear passion of Jesus, the disciples, the apostles and the early Church Fathers (Jn 17:21, 1 Cor 1:10, etc). Will we ever again live in a world where there is a single church with a single man at its helm? Probably not, but we can connect these severed limbs and become a viable organism again. It will be hard; it will take a lot of work; it will make everyone involved repeatedly furious. But, it is necessary if we are to be the Church God desires.

The Way Ahead

Here's what I am proposing. Since it is clear to almost every person considering the issue that we are either in the middle of or coming to the end of a huge cultural shift from the modern age to the postmodern one, we need to change now. I believe we need to start acting so that we can make some mistakes and find the right path as soon as possible that leads to a clear expression of Christianity in a postmodern era. Do we abandon all that has worked in the past? Absolutely Not! Much of that is needed to help us make the transitions, and I believe a good bit will need only minor tweaks.

We cannot afford to allow our faith to become irrelevant and die because we were afraid to try new things. There is no excuse for our fear of the unknown to stop us from reaching a world full of people who need Jesus but have no interest in the current expression of Christianity. I don't know about you, but I refuse to watch the only viable hope for mankind suffocate because we are afraid some people might join a different church. Nor will I allow this transition to be as horribly wounding as the Great Schism or the Reformation. This must be a healing. It must be a rejoining.

I guess what I'm saying is: not on my watch!

Monday, August 23, 2010

10 Things Churches Need to Stop

Before I start, I must be clear about where I am coming from. I have two things from which to draw... a good bit of experience (12 or 13 years) as a professional minister and I am part of the next generation of leaders whose mindset will have to see the way forward. Nothing more, nothing less. This post is not about my current church. It is about all churches. It is about my heart for renewal in my denomination. It is about trying to be part of the solution. Although the church I am serving is doing quite well, I see churches failing all around me and am concerned for the longevity of Christianity as we know it if churches do not change. My whole goal is to find the larger things that are hindering us from remaining in the center of the movement of God in the World. My next post will be more about that.

10 Things Churches Need to Stop

1. Tracking Spiritual Growth - Spiritual growth could possibly be the most individually unique thing there is. When have you ever met someone who responded to the question, "How did you grow closer to God?" with something like, "I was muddling through, until I met my church's Goal of [insert arbitrary measure of spiritual growth here] and began to grow closer to God?"

The truth is: God is pursuing us! He takes what we offer and builds on it. I believe that we experience God the way he made us to experience Him. Some people have a super-consistent personality and some people have a much more scattered personality. Therefore, some people will get up at the same time every day, do the same spiritual practice, and grow step by step. Others will do something in the morning, then something the next day in the evening, and then nothing. The next day, they will do two hours of intense something. Who's to say which is better? Not Me! We need to stop trying to quantify spiritual growth so that we can measure our church's effectiveness. We know the things that connect people to God... those haven't changed in thousands of years! Why not just try getting people to grow rather than getting them to conform to some arbitrary, rigid structure we have created?

2. Being Church-Program Pitch Men - I recently noticed a colleague in ministry's Facebook stream... every post was some variation on: "I am so [insert annoying superlative/adjective combo] about [insert name of church program] because of [insert reason or mysterious saying that you would have to come to find out] see you there at [insert time of program]." It made me acutely aware of how much of my passion and energy was spent promoting our programs instead of really displaying the amazingness of who God is. I felt guilty.

This is mostly directed at professional ministers. If the only reason people are coming is because they received three phone calls, four passionate pleas from the pulpit, three letters, two reminder cards, and one door hanger, the program isn't meeting a need! Why not take all that energy and proclaim the brilliance of our creator?

3. Labeling - Look, the only people who know what "missional" or "attractional" or "ecclesial" mean are uber-church-geeks. These terms are as useless as they are meaningless. Our world is in a state of change (see here and here) we do not have a solution, or know exactly how we will need to do ministry in the future to minister in that world. Attaching to one of these ideas as if it is the fulfillment of something is just short of crazy, and broadcasting that to the world is even less rational.

As an aside... we need to start using words for our programs that mean the same thing to non-Christians as they do to Christians. For example, only Christians know that "contemporary" refers to using screens and songs written or revised after 1985 rather than something/someone not being dead.

4. Showing one generation the door - We need the wisdom of the older generations, the stability of the middle generations and the vision of the younger ones to be the Body of Christ. What would happen if we stopped defending the sub-interests of one group or another and sought ways to sacrifice our preferences for the health and unity of the church?

5. Segregation/separation - Really? There's less than 5% of your church that are of a different race than you? There are no poor/middle class/rich people in your church? Why have we become so centered on our niche that we cannot worship in gatherings that come anywhere close to resembling the body of Christ? I have no idea how to fix this, but we look like hypocrites when we say that these things do not change a person's standing before God, but worship in homogenous groups. I am definitely part of the problem. I am praying and thinking about this. I would love to hear your solutions.

6. Wasting Resources - The world is hungry; most of the chocolate in the checkout line was harvested in part by slave labor; the fourth leading cause of death in the third world can be solved with sixteen bricks and a bit of mortar; there are 2 million children in the commercial sex trade; even though the earth produces enough food for everyone to eat well, a child dies every five seconds from hunger. If this is the case, why is there a church with a custom-made sony screen that splits in two on a track to then become two screens on the side instead of the middle? Why do we spend so much time on petty problems like the color of the flowers outside the church? Why are we not sending a bottle of over the counter medicine per family per month to people who need it?

7. Building - Let's face it, with very few exceptions, we are not building works of art that proclaim God's glory. We are building glorified Wal-Marts or office buildings. If Churches need to expand, there are plenty of those buildings that are sitting empty and need to be used. What's better, if things go south, a church is never in the place of having to keep on going because they are obligated to pay a mortgage! That may sound extreme to some, but when we lived in California, I knew of MANY churches, with 10-20 members, that were renting rooms to whoever was willing so that they could pay the mortgage.

8. Making and Publicizing 5-year plans - Things are simply changing to quickly to be able to see that far into the future. We need to not commit to long range plans. I believe that we need to become agile and focus on the more immediate 12-24 months so that we can respond to this tumultuous time. That is not to say that we become directionless or stop thinking ahead. Instead, I suggest that we keep our longer-range plans close to the vest so that they can be tweaked or scrapped without everyone feeling like an earthquake just happened.

9. Mislabeling fun, Christian-attracting events as "outreach events" - We need to be reaching out to a hurting world, but an Easter pageant or Christian concert just doesn't do that. That reaches Christians. While it is important to have times where we have fun and enjoy the creativity of the body of Christ, let's not delude ourselves into thinking that these fulfill our call to the non-christian world. In short, we need to find ways to introduce a hurting world to the Almighty Healer.

We need to be about identifying needs and then using our resources to meet those needs. Over the last month, I have watched as students in our youth group have started everything from prayer groups at their schools to collecting unused food at the end of the day at their schools to give to the hungry. It takes very little effort to find a need and meet it, but it does take effort. It takes a transformation in our mind from faith being about me receiving to faith being about me giving.

10 Being Competitive - I recently observed a couple of ministers intentionally targeting committed believers (at several other churches) who were plugged in and passionate about their faith community. There is not other way to say it except that this is absolutely wrong! The field is so vast, the lost are so many that it is wrong at the least and sinful at the most to intentionally compete with other churches for the found. If churches are doing this, they must stop, and turn their eyes from the barns to the fields! Everyone has people who move from one place to another, but when enticing those believers is your growth strategy... it has to stop.

I am looking forward to a post I am working on called "The Way Ahead" in which I look back on all that God has done in our Engage in the Movement campaign (not capital). In a way this is the mirror image of that post.