November 6th, 2012 | 22 Comments »

As is the case every now and again, Christians start to look at numbers and trends behind those numbers and get worried. We never get worried when the numbers look good (read: bigger numbers). However, we do get nervous when the numerical trends are headed downward. In my home tribe (Churches of Christ) the trends haven’t been good for a while. And when the number begin to sink, Christians begin to look for the Jonah to toss overboard.

We are not the only ones though. Even though Christianity is thriving across the world, in many places in America, we are seeing fewer and fewer folks in the pews. Predictably, people like me begin to posit as to the cause. It makes for good blog reading; but ultimately the reasons we assign to decline are more about what we personally dislike rather than what our non-Christians friends don’t get. All we need is one or two Sunday morning sleepers to echo what we feel to verify our thoughts. Recently, folks I like such as Rachel Held Evans, David Kinnaman (You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith) and others have jumped into the conversation about why people are leaving church – especially young people.

As I read these reflections, I largely agree with the conclusions they reach about American religion. What bothers them bothers me. What bothers my non-Christian friends bothers me too. Yet this Sunday, as I have nearly every Sunday of my life, I will wake up, get dressed, load the family in the car and go to church (And yes I’m using “church” as word meaning “a place where certain things happen.” Don’t worry, missional friends, I know the difference between “worship service” and the “church.” This is just easier for people).

Anyway. I’ll get up and go to church. And so will some of my best friends in the world, some of the best people I’ve ever known. And while everyone else is ruminating on why others or they left the church, I want you all to know why I stay. And no, it’s not because I’m a preacher.

I stay because…:

  • …over 30 years ago Godly men and women sacrificed their time, talent, and energy to teach me the scriptures. Those scriptures have and continue to anchor my life. I’d be lost without them. I’m grateful that they sowed love and honor and attention into my life. Those people thought going to church was a pretty big deal. My past teachers would strongly disagree with my current theology, but I would not be anywhere without both the light and the path they laid before me.
  • …I’ve spent more than a few Sundays in church services that stunk musically and homelitically, but God’s presence seemed to seep through the cracks of the door and settle itself on the pew next to me when I was willing and able to see it.
  • …I was taught that “church” isn’t actually a place where certain things happen, but the people of God. I don’t like thinking of myself as the kind of person who quits people.
  • …my two daughters haven’t heard all the stories of God yet. They know Jesus and Joseph and Samson and Ruth and Naomi, but they don’t know everything about Hosea and Gomer and David and Bathsheba. They can’t live rightly without knowing those stories. And the church wants to help me tell those stories.
  • …it’s so easy to blog and say things about forgiveness, reconciliation, graciousness, and the “one another” passages, but it’s impossible to do them without some “one anothers.”
  • …some days I wonder if I believe in God the way I want to believe in God. At church I’m reassured by both the Joel Osteen Christians and the Dark Night of the Soul Christians that there is something really big that we all don’t fully “get.” If we did get it we’d be neither that happy nor that sad.
  • …when I’ve gone off and done everything wrong and been a complete jackass, someone at church will hug me and tell me they love me.
  • …I’ve come to realize that no one is saved by their theology and everyone in church is significantly wrong about something. I can find a congregation that practices what I want them to practice, but I’m not arrogant enough (and that’s saying something) to assume that the way I think it is is actually the way it is.
  • …I listen to classical music and NPR; I read lots of books and the New York Times; I don’t watch RealityTV and every week I’m in the same room with people who listen exclusively to country music; who wear work boots to weddings; and who enjoy fishing and hunting. I love being a part of the only place in the world where all kinds of life and living connect with each other because we understand that what makes us different isn’t even close in terms of the immensity to what brings us together. I think when Paul said that “we no longer see people from a worldly point of view” he kinda meant it.
  • …when I sit in my church in Texas my mother is doing the same in Georgia, my brother is doing the same in North Carolina, and my father is doing the same in Mississippi. In all the highs, lows, ins and outs of broken families, this we share. Every Sunday, if only in the smallest ways, we are healed.
  • …I fell in love with my wife at Abilene Christian University and one of the first things we started doing together was going to church. Plus, I think she’s most beautiful when she sings.
  • …I’ve heard one too many stories of lives on the verge of or a notch past destruction when they stumbled into the door of a church only to find hope in the lives of other people equally shattered.
This is why I stay.

Ultimately I don’t expect the church to be perfect – to have faith, hope, doubt, science, marriage, parenting, or politics all figured out. Shoot, I’m just happy when there’s a children’s church. Call it low expectations if you want. I call it grace. If I can’t practice grace here, how can I practice it anywhere? I’ll tirelessly work to right the wrongs in the church and world, but I can’t leave church because of poor theology or even the harmful, destructive, horrible practice of poor theology. She is a bride. She is married to my elder brother, Jesus. I will love her, respect her, and treat her well. It’s His wedding, not mine. And if He can love her so can I.

Tell Us. Why Did You Go? Why Do You Stay?

September 18th, 2012 | 11 Comments »

This past Sunday, we began a new teaching series called, “It’s Your Move.” Over 4-weeks I’ll be presenting our church’s strategy for ministry in Temple, TX. It’s a simple church strategy. Thinking through the implications reminded me of this which I posted some time ago.

——————

I never thought about grass getting too much water.

There’s a place on our church’s playground that’s dead grass. As far as I know, it’s always been dead. It’s a small rectangle, a different blend of grass from the rest of the playground. It’s at the corner of the playground where two sidewalks connect.

I’ve always been puzzled by the mud and dirt that settled there when the rest of the play yard has always been so lush. I think I may have figured out the mystery.  As I walked a first-time visitor through our campus back to his car on Sunday, he almost stepped into that muddy corner. Flippantly, I said, “We’ve never been able to get grass to grow there.”

In an instant, he said, “Sure. It gets too much water.”

He went on to explain to me that it was evident that water from our sprinklers pooled in that corner and it was over-saturated. Grass won’t ever grow there.

Wow! The things an outsider can notice about your church.

Since Sunday my heart has had some clarity about factors contributing to the numerical decline of my faith family of origin – Churches of Christ. I posted some initial thoughts last week. While I still think those reasons are true, the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to believe that we’re drying up because of too much water.

Here’s what I mean:

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June 22nd, 2012 | 3 Comments »

As a congregant you have a significant role to play in helping your preacher preach better. In the last post, we talked about time and the effect lack of time can have on sermon preparation. Think about this: After Seinfeld went off television, Jerry Seinfeld decided to retire all his old stand-up material (watch the movie, “Comedian”). He spent the next year crafting a new act. After a year, Seinfeld had 30-minutes worth of material.

ONE YEAR! 30 MINUTES!

Guess what? Your preacher does 30 minutes every week!

Could he or she speak shorter? Probably. But here’s my point: Many of us have been in church so long that we’ve forgotten or never understood what we were asking of our preacher in terms of the speech act itself. Your preacher, unlike Jerry Seinfeld, can’t simply use the same “material” over and over again and be effective. Read the sermons in the book of Acts. They are strikingly similar and mercifully short. Churches asks their minister to speak a fresh word every week and sometimes to speak multiple fresh words throughout the week. Hear me correctly, this isn’t a preacher complaining about his job. Complaining is fruitless. It is, however, one preacher asking you to help your preacher preach better by understanding what they are up against.

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June 19th, 2012 | 14 Comments »

I’m growing evermore concerned about the debased preaching in many American churches. Here’s how it goes, preachers are talking about how sin “pisses off” God or that some people think Jesus “dressed like a fairy,” or that Jesus “wasn’t a wuss.” I’ve even heard one well-known pastor tell a story about dismissing a young man’s theological questions because he was “a loser that lived at home with his mom.” In addition, more and more preachers/church planters/lead pastors – whatever you want to call us – are spending a good percentage of sermon time yelling at their congregations. Trust me, I understand the desire to shake the church from it’s missional malaise, but I don’t think raising the volume is going to work. Churches are dying, not deaf. I suppose all the yelling is designed to communicate passion, but it so often comes across as anger.

I know what these guys (and they are mostly guys) are attempting to get at. They simultaneously want to wake a sleeping church, make her seem cool, and ostensibly help men see a Jesus they can relate to. But I have to question whether or not they need to be Sam Kinison to do it. I find it odd that some feel the need to make Jesus seem cooler or manlier than the versions they grew up with. Not because Jesus is not cool or manly, but rather because in their effort to shape Jesus into their own image, they make the same mistake their forerunners did by simply not allowing Jesus to be Jesus.

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March 27th, 2012 | 4 Comments »

Reading the Bible isn’t as easy as I was taught as a child.

For instance, a few months ago I walked a group of people through a class entitled, A Dangerous Word. Essentially we examined how we read scripture. It’s obvious – given the 1,000’s of Christian denominations – that people and ecclesiological traditions read the Bible differently. What’s less obvious – and this applies to all groups – is that “we” have a particular way of reading scripture. What’s more, “our” way of reading is largely culturally-conditioned and has it’s own beauty and it’s own blind spots. Texts that are crucial to one person or group are oftentimes marginalized or flat-out ignored by others – it’s called “privileging a text.”

This privileging of texts gets pretty astonishing at times. some traditions find themselves honoring and privileging one half of a sentence and ignoring the second part of the same sentence. For instance, the church of my childhood demanded that “Church of Christ” was the only proper name for a church because it was the only one mentioned in the New Testament (Romans 16.16). Yet, in those same churches, no one – and I mean NO ONE – ever exchanged a “Holy kiss” though that is also in Romans 16.16. As Scot McKnight has pointed out in his great book, The Blue Parakeet“every one of us adopts and (at the same time) adapts the Bible to our culture.”

In preparing the class I was once again reminded how difficult it is to peel back our constructs in order to build a better and more constructive one. Like many theology students, the death of our “first naivete” and the introduction of  the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” can be oft-putting. People, including myself, are resistant to the process of deconstruction.

For one, deconstruction is hard. In the process we have to examine our preconceptions and offer the lamb of our philosophical and theological constructs up for sacrifice. Only truth-seekers can truly do this. Those who desire to use their version of truth or partial truth reject the process out-right. There’s simply too much at stake – namely power. In order to get to the heart of truth one must be willing to clear the debris of partial truth, idols and comforting platitudes.

Second, the deconstructive process puts our past on the line. We are who we are because of our history. Even our painful experiences shape us. Since most of us like ourselves we protect our history. How disorienting it is to willingly engage a process that critiques both our current belief system and past beliefs…especially for leaders. We’ve given advice and walked through life with other people, offering the seeds of a belief system throughout the process. We bring into question the good we have done if we allow ourselves to questions the beliefs that gave rise to those good works. For Christians, this should be mitigated by belief that God is working through us and it was never about us in the first place.

Third, it’s easy to believe that if we don’t recognize or acknowledge something, it’s not really there. For instance, if we never talk about translation issues, hermeneutics, the role of genres, etc…then they don’t exist. Questions regarding the function of Genesis 1-12, Job, Daniel or Revelation aren’t easy to wade through, yet we need to nevertheless.

We need the deconstructive process for one simple reason: Truth! Many Christians live with false, ultimately indefensible, and theologically poor paradigms because we have simply swallowed  what was spoon fed us as children, teens, or when we first came to have a life-changing, though rudimentary relationship with Jesus. Yet, for many, the process is simply too painful to embrace.

But I don’t know anyone who deeply wants to live with an ill-concieved or false worldview. We don’t reject deconstruction because we desire falsehood, we reject it because it’s painful. Yet, it is Jesus who assures us that the truth will set us free. Therefore, when we examine the scriptures, we are seek nothing less than truth. The best Bible readers – both laity and clergy – seek truth with the fundamental belief that whatever else we sacrifice on our journey to truth is worth sacrificing.

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