Tag Archives: Church

Getting New Church Members Is Like Dating

DatingFor you married folks, think back to your dating years. You may have rose-colored memories of being free and unencumbered (especially some of you guys out there), but take off those chintzy pink glasses for a minute and look again. Admit it. It was a messy time filled with losers, wannabes, some good people and your share of “what in the world was I thinking” moments. You had to figure out, sometimes the hard way, who your soul mate was and what it took find him or her.

For you single and dating people, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Laugh or cry.

For you contentedly single, i.e. non-dating, folks, just laugh.

With most churches, finding and keeping new people, especially those fabled young people, is near the top of our priority list. It’s really about relevance and survival. If we’re numerically growing, we’re on to something. We’re good. We’re cool. We’re making a difference. God is blessing us. The world could be crumbling and going to hell, but all is good with us, thank you very much.

But if we’re not growing or shrinking- and both are really the same thing- then we’ve lost it. We’ve gotta get cool again. We need more bells and whistles, better advertising campaigns, MUCH better preaching and music, have more events that will get people into our doors, and then… hope beyond hope that they’ll stay. Then we need to quickly encourage any new person to join and pay up. And once that happens, finally, happy days will be once more. Hallelujah! Praise the Lord and all that jazz.

Needless to say, this kind of approach for churches in numerical decline is doomed to fail. Even if it did work once upon a time, it doesn’t have any chance of working now. The only people who this might attract are Christian church shoppers who are surveying the greatest show in town. If you’re not it, they’ll pass you up every time. Sorry.

In my years of pastoring and playing the game of attracting new people, I have finally discovered that finding and keeping new people is like dating, especially if you want to attract the right people or attract anyone at all!

How does this work? Put on your imagination cap for a minute and place yourselves in a singles party. You’re looking around the room and maybe people are looking at you. After a while, you realize that there are really five different kinds of people. I’m going to make an analogous leap and say that these also describe five types of churches. Let’s see who they are.

Specimen #1: The Midlife Crisis Dater
Midlife CrisisYou see him across the room and shudder- a pot-bellied middle age guy with combed over hair sporting a tight-fitting Aeropostale shirt. With his belly hanging over some Levis jeans he’s wearing a gold watch and matching chain necklace with an iPhone 4 in his hand. He saunters over and says, “Hey baby, what’s shaking with you? Can I get your digits because I’m a ratings machine and you’re a perfect 10. LOL, wasn’t that awesome? It’s a hashtag I’m cool!”

Most obviously, this guy is trying to be something he’s not because he’s not confident or content with who he is. He feels like he’s lost the cool factor he thinks he once had, and he needs it back. He’s seen the movies where the George Clooneys and Tom Cruises put on the charm and get any girl they want. But that’s not life and it is most definitely is not him.

Many churches attempt this only for it to be a tragicomic disaster. They think if they can put together a band, play hip music, buy and use a bunch of technology, and just try as hard as they can to be “culturally relevant” they’ll make it. More often than not it comes across as pathetically corny. But most of all, it’s not authentic or sincere. It’s more about trying to be something they’re not to get people they’re not so they can feel relevant and grow again.

I’ve seen this play out many times. Much to my chagrin I confess that I tried to get churches to do this. Never again.

Specimen #2: I’m Sexy and I Know It
Gaudy WomanYou walk over to her and get up the nerve to say something. She’s really flashy, super confident and has all the moves. Yet what you’re seeing doesn’t quite match what she thinks she is. She glances you over and with a wink and smile says, “You. Yes, you. Walk yourself over here and buy me a drink.” So you walk over and sit down next to her. She turns to you and turns it all on. She tells story after story of the high profile men she’s dated, the places she’s been, and her big-paying uptown job. An hour passes, and you haven’t spoken ten words! Then you realize that it’s all about her and hardly any about you… minus one exception: how much attention you can pay her.

A number of churches are like this, too. You go to visit and you’re immediately given a glossy folder outlining all their classes, ministry groups, mission groups, prayer groups, upcoming sermon series, and the women’s club bake sales. Their members come to you all aglow about this activity and that ministry they want you to come to. They clearly want to wow you with their stuff and their toys and their goings on. Surely, they got all the church goodies you could ever need.

There’s one problem. They have no idea who you are or what you need because in reality it’s all about them and how they can woo you into their club.

Specimen #3: The Exclusive Chatty Groups
Group PartyYou see them gathered in a small circle laughing it up, talking non-stop, and enthralled with each other, so you walk over to see what’s up. They seem like great people. You get over to their group hoping that they’ll introduce themselves, ask for your name, ask you a little about yourself and invite you to join in.

Fifteen minutes later, no one has said boo to you. It’s like you’re a ghost. They don’t even see you. Finally, one person glances at you and waves a little, but no more. Clearly, they’re happy with each other but that’s about it.

Every church I’ve met- seriously, every single church– says they are a friendly church. They’re the nicest, sweetest people they can be. I’ve never heard a church tell me that they are a nasty hive of judgmental curmudgeons. They’re friendly, of course! Translation: we’re friendly and nice to each other.

I wish I could say this did not happen more often, but many times I would visit a church, see a group of people who are obviously quite happy in each other’s presence but don’t even pause to notice or speak to me. It’s like they don’t know what to do with me, or they simply don’t care.

There is a big difference between a “friendly church” and a truly hospitable church. Think on that one a bit.

Specimen #4: The Needy Dependent
lonely emo girlShe looks like Eeyore except her eyes never stop scanning the room. She’s kinda pretty so you walk on over. Delighted, she suddenly transforms before your eyes with a radiantly beaming smile, and she immediately engages you. It’s like you’re a cool drink in a barren desert. She wants to tell you everything, and wants to know your everything, too. She offers to buy you a drink and a snack. Flattered, you agree! “I am sooo glad we got to meet tonight. I think you’re the one person in this room I’ve been looking for, and now you’re here. I know it. I can see us together so perfectly. OMG, you are the man of my dreams. You complete me. Can I have your number?”

Suddenly you have to use the bathroom… downstairs at the end of the hall.

There are churches who are desperately lonely for new people, especially young people. They feel they need new, younger people to help them survive. So when a new person or a worse yet younger person ventures in, the church barrages them with, “It’s so wonderful to have you. Finally a new person! We really need someone like you to bring in more young people. I really do hope you come again. See you next Sunday, right?”

What do you think the chance of that person coming back is? Yup. You guessed it.

Specimen #5: The Happy and Fulfilled
After a long night of all the… interesting… people above, you finally see him.

He’s sitting with a few people casually talking. He looks cheerful and content. He’s no Brad Pitt, but he seems like a decent person. So you walk over to say hello, and wow… he doesn’t ignore you. He doesn’t try to soak you up like a dry sponge. He isn’t trying hard to impress you. He just is. He’s very open to talking with you and is interested in hearing what you have to say. He isn’t trying to flirt or make moves, but he’s genuinely glad to have your company.

As you both talk, you can tell he’s very happy with his life and where he is. He’s got good friends and a supportive family. He knows who he is and spends his time with anyone who wants to come along for the ride. You can tell he likes you, but it’s free and easy. After a while, you sense that he would treat anyone who made the time and effort in the same way. He just seems whole.

Church serving a free Christmas meal

Church serving a free Christmas meal

This is an ideal church, too and one who grows. They don’t sit around worrying about their numbers, anxiously trying to “fix the problem.” They don’t try to be who they’re not. They don’t try to impress people. They don’t smother new people. They just get on with being the church God has called them to be. They worship joyfully, expecting God to show up. They are always learning and growing. They enjoy each others company and willingly involve new people into who they are. They love to get out into their neighborhoods to bless people with Jesus in real, practical ways.

Are they the coolest, hippest group of people in town? Not at all. But they work hard at what they do. They believe that God is with them and that they are building Christ’s kingdom.They genuinely love God and people.

Yes, it’s that simple. Churches just need to get on with being the church, knowing who they are and what God has purposed them to be and do. Leave the dating game behind and God will grow the body of Christ in God’s way and in God’s time.

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What if Caitlyn Jenner Came to My Church?

Most all of us did a major double take at the cover of the latest Vanity Fair featuring Bruce Jenner- now asking to be called Caitlyn Jenner. I know I did. For months and months I had seen pictures of a noticeably different and sometimes distressed looking Bruce Jenner. To go from that to a senior citizen-aged bombshell… It leaves room for pause, doesn’t it?
Caitlyn JennerCaitlyn Jenner is the most visible face of a growing movement to accept and include transgender people into the mainstream of society. Multiple states are debating transgender rights laws, both in the workplace and in the community. There is increased awareness towards children who seem to be struggling with gender identity and intense conversations on how to care for them, i.e. do we allow for them to assume their preferred gender identity, including using the bathroom and locker room of their assumed gender? How would we guide their social interactions and confront bullying? And now with the full public emergence of Caitlyn Jenner, these topics will only get more airtime.

To be perfectly honest, I have no idea what to make of transgenderism. As a Christian, my primary lens to look at this or any other reality is Scripture aided by tradition, reason, and experience. But what in the Bible or Christian tradition addresses someone like Caitlyn Jenner?

When I search the Bible, I find occasional passages like Deuteronomy 22:5:

“Women must not wear men’s clothes, and men must not wear women’s clothes. Everyone who does such things is detestable to the Lord your God” (CEB).

Interestingly enough, this passage is not found among later passages in the same chapter about sexual immortality. It’s included in a set of laws which address doing right to your neighbor and not mixing things of unlike kind, like different kinds of fiber in the same cloth, different kinds of seeds in the same crop, or different animals tethered to the same plow.

Even still, the issue of cross dressing in this passage is contextually unclear. Were folks sometimes wearing other gendered clothes out of convenience or necessity? Was there some native pagan cultic practice requiring cross dressing? Since it’s not included in the list of laws addressing sexual deviances, it doesn’t appear to be sexual in nature. It stands out on its own.

Other Christian thinkers have turned to Genesis 1:27 in which God creates humanity as male and female. So, they argue, if we’re born a male or a female, that is what we are. To change that would violate what God has lovingly, sovereingly created us to be as a part of God’s very good creation.

In the face of that, we hear the voice of transgender people saying, “Yes, I was born with a female body. Genetically and physiologically I am a female. But my whole inner being tells me I’m a male.” What’s going on, psychologically, physiologically and spiritually?

I honestly have no idea. And there’s precious little in Scripture or Christian tradition that speaks to the experience of someone like Caitlyn Jenner and transgender people like her. If I or anyone else tries to speak definitively to the moral and spiritual implications of transgenderism, we’re speaking too loudly into a dark vacuum of the unknown. And even if I did know for absolute sure what was going on, so what? What does it really change in the grand scheme of things? If I was convinced that transgenderism is sinful, would I then urge a transgender person to change their clothes and get back into the operating room? (I wouldn’t put it past some prominent Christian voices to say that, sadly enough.) Would I condemn someone who is already struggling through the guilt and shame of a mismatched gender identity?

What do we do?

Well, a few years ago I got to find out first hand. One Sunday a couple visited a congregation I was serving. It was two women, and I think most people assumed they were lesbians. But when they asked to speak to me, they revealed that one of them is transgender. She began as a man and over time transitioned to a woman. They were married before the transition happened, and amazingly enough, stayed married.

I heard their story, especially the pained story of the man who transitioned to a woman. I heard her tell me how painful it was growing up and being an adult, looking in the mirror and seeing something she wasn’t. Any chance she got, she would wear women’s clothes just to feel more like herself. Meanwhile she hid in the shame of keeping it all a secret, for fear of misunderstanding and rejection. It was a terrible secret to hide. Then, with the help and support of her wife, the man slowly began to become the woman she knew herself to be. That’s what they told me.

They wanted to tell me their story to help me understand who I was dealing with. I appreciated that. But the larger question on their minds was whether or not the congregation and I would welcome and accept them. As a test run, they wanted to know what I thought of them.

Believe it or not, preachers can find themselves speechless! That was one of those rare occasions. After thinking a moment, still stunned at their revelation, I told them this:

“I really don’t know what to think. There’s virtually nothing in my knowledge of the Bible and theology that speaks to who and where you are. But I do want you to know that I am committing to loving you and including you into my life and into our church for as long as you like. I will be your pastor. You are children of God, too. We’ll learn and grow and figure all this stuff out together, as much as we can. And I will not tolerate anyone pushing you out or in any way making you feel unwelcomed or un-incuded. I got your back.”

We prayed together, and indeed they came around for a while until health and employment issues kept them away and forced them to move. Even then, I hope the lesson God was trying to teach wasn’t lost on us. So far, it’s stuck with me.

Issues of transgender aren’t going away, and the church is once again called to respond to a social reality that ultimately involves people- people made in the image of God and loved by God. Maybe one day we’ll have a better psychological and spiritual understanding of what’s happening within the heart, mind, and soul of a transgender person. Meanwhile, I’m committed to leading a church who will love and as much as possible include people like Caitlyn Jenner and the many who are like her. I don’t know how that will all unfold. I don’t really have to know. I just do my best to love and embrace people as God’s special creation, helping them to find their true identity as disciples of Jesus, called by God to usher in God’s kingdom.

Isn’t that what Jesus would do?

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Filed under Church Culture and Leadership, Human Sexuality

The Most Pivotal Issue Facing My United Methodist Church

What is the most pressing issue facing the church these days? People have been asking and attempting to address this question for the nearly 50 years my United Methodist Church has been in statistical decline. Some would say that church revitalization is the key. Or some say that getting it right on divisive issues like homosexuality is the main issue. Some say that recruiting the next generation of leaders is our most dire need. Some say we must focus on reaching and discipling young people. Others say that we need to restructure our 20th Century-modeled General Church to be a more effective organization for our 21st Century world.

I say it’s all of the above and at the same time none of the above. All those issues are indeed very important, and as a church we need to get it right on every one of them if we hope to continue on. But at the same time, if these are the only issues in our collective scope, we’ve missed the point and missed it badly.
Baltimore StreetsWhy is that? All those issues- church revitalization, social issues stances, leadership, our young people, structure- are all about us. They are largely church-centric. And because they are church-centric, they have little to do with the much larger picture beyond church and religion. That larger picture is the kingdom of God.

I’m writing this post in Baltimore. Over the weekend, the people of Baltimore suffered the worst three days of violent crime in years. 28 people were shot in gun violence, 9 fatally. I am so grateful that our Conference is present- praying, marching in the streets, giving out much needed supplies for Baltimore’s residents. But when our Conference is gone at the end of the week, God’s kingdom will still be coming. God will be working to bring redemption and life to Baltimore. Where will we be? Hopefully the answer to that question will not be snuggled away in our church buildings and homes.

This week the Baltimore-Washington Conference will be electing delegates for next year’s quadrennial General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference. Those delegates will go to Portland, Oregon and Lancaster, Pennsylvania next year to face, deliberate and vote on all the regular institutional church issues. And yes, they are vitally crucial issues to address to bring this part of the Body of Christ into better health and usefulness to God.

But we as the Body must have a focus. That focus is God’s redemptive work in the world, and how we as a church can partner with God in redeeming his world. Our discussion of that parternship with God in the world must center on local congregations as the main conduit through which we as a denomination operate. The very best of our prayers, holy conversations, and decision making must be about that. If that happens, then we’ll be talking real kingdom stuff. We’ll be deliberating the eternal stuff of God that really matters.

I wonder if we would all stop and pause long enough to say to ourselves, “It’s not about us. It’s not about me.” It’s not about the salvation of the United Methodist Church. It’s about the salvation of the world through the coming kingdom of Jesus Christ. His kingdom is restoring communities to life at its best, the way life should be, of true shalom, loving righteousness, true wholeness, and plenty for all. Will we have the faith to see it?

So for next year’s General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference, I’m praying for one thing: that we take seriously the part of Jesus’ prayer that the kingdom of God would come and that we would do God’s will here on earth as it is in heaven. Let’s seek out our role with God in the communities we serve. Then we’ll best know how to structure, organize, and galvanize our United Methodist part of the church for the greater work of answering the Lord’s Prayer by the power of the Holy Spirit within us.

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Inside-Out Churches

Y’all come!
If you build it, they will come.
Our doors are always open for you.
church steeple peopleFor a long time, since 313 A.D., in fact, the church has operated under the model of attracting and drawing people within the walls of a church building in order to encounter God, meet Jesus, and become disciples. This model hails from the days the church found itself in a predominantly Christian culture in which church attendance was the norm. In that era, the church was at a shared center of community life with other institutions like schools, civic associations, fraternal clubs, and local governments.

But those times have long since passed. More and more people consider Christianity and the church as “organized religion”- dated, irrelevant, backwards, judgmental, a waste of time and energy. So now, churches are desperately doing everything they can to fight against the surging tide of irrelevancy by trying to become as relevant as possible.

So we try more modern music and technology. We create programs and sermons that try to speak to perceived needs and questions. We try to provide the biggest, best children and youth programs. We revamp our church buildings to be more inviting and appealing. We design cool websites. We try all kinds of media marketing strategies. You get the idea.

There’s one problem, however. Nonreligious people don’t care. We might attract church shopping religious folks and a few people who have had a propensity towards organized religion in their past. As for people who do not claim any kind of religious identification, we’re not even a blip on the radar screen. And these folks are the fastest growing religious demographic in North America.

However… most of the people in this fast growing nonreligious demographic believe in some kind of God. Many consider themselves spiritual but not religious. Many pray. Many look into and explore different kinds of spirituality, sometimes in group discussions. But when you introduce institutional Christianity into the conversation, watch how fast they run!

Clearly, our churches’ efforts to attract non- and nominally religious people into our churches to do churchy stuff is dated and dying.

Grim as this reality looks for churches, there is plenty of hope and possibility if… if…  we are willing to turn ourselves inside-out to become a highly relational people in a movement. If we are willing to become full-fledged disciples of Jesus who live as Christ and gather as his church in the everyday world in order to bless people, live the way of Jesus, and invite people to see and taste the goodness of Jesus we are living and giving, then we will find our way in the 21st Century.

I’ll give you an example.

Over the weekend, I preached and worshipped with Solomons United Methodist Church. Their pastor, the Rev. Meredith Wilkins-Arnold, very much embodies this kind of inside-out, highly relational way of being a disciple in the everyday world. She connects and networks with anybody and everybody in her community. Because of that, she is becoming the Solomons community’s go-to person for spiritual care and support. They know her and trust her.

In a few weekends, the Solomons Island Tiki Bar will be opening, and on opening night, thousands of people will overrun this little island. While many churches might begrudge something like that, the disciples of Solomons embrace it. Out in the street, they set up a hot dog and water stand. Passersby can walk up, interact with the people of Solomons and get a free hot dog and water.

Now they don’t harass the crowds with religious tracts and tons of literature about their church. That kind of thing rarely works. If anything, it can be counter productive. But they talk with folks. And they have a separate tent set up on the street for prayer. If anyone has a need to be prayed for, someone from the church will be there. They won’t cram Jesus down people’s throats, but they will love people with gifts of care and prayer.

Key to this effort is the attitude behind it. It’s not a self-serving lure to get people into their church. Rather, it’s a selfless act of blessing other people because God loves and blesses them, too.

Solomons isn’t alone in their missional efforts. Other churches are beginning to wake up to the kind of world we live in, and are turning their churches inside-out, too. They gather in their church facilities for worship, prayer, and learning, yes. But more and more of their efforts are outside of the church building, within their communities, networking, community building and organizing, people blessing, and gathering as the church in non-traditional places like homes, schools, coffee houses, and other public places.

These churches are demonstrating something that we all desperately need to reclaim: the church is not a building or an institution. The church is a people. The church is a who, not an it. We are flawed but growing disciples of Jesus, experiencing an abundant life of gracious love, and we want to give as much of that away as we possibly can in order to bring wholeness, justice, restoration, and shalom to our communities.

The bottom line for these inside-out churches is not the number of people sitting in their pews or lining their offering plates. The bottom line is number of changed lives becoming Christ-like. (And no, sitting in a pew or a Sunday School class does not at all guarantee a changed life.) The numbers they count are how many people in the community have been served and prayed for. They count dollars gathered to feed and house the poor. They equip leaders, not to run internal church programs for people to attend, but to develop accountable disciples of Jesus who exist to bless the world around them as a testimony to the love, grace, and truth of Jesus Christ.

There’s a lot more that can be said here. Much of it has already been said by others. But you hopefully get the idea.

Let’s flip inside-out, Jesus style!

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I’ve Decided I’m an Atheist

No GodSomething has been brewing within me for several years now that I have been too ashamed, too embarrassed, and very afraid to admit.

I’m an atheist.

After a long journey of thoughtful introspection through a continuous strain of disillusionments, disappointments, but also eye-opening clarity, I’ve concluded that there can’t possibly be a supernatural deity who somehow controls and influences things.

Interestingly enough, I learned this lesson in the church through my work as an ordained pastor.

On Sunday mornings, I have preached wonderful sermons about God and Jesus. I learned that I could tell all these stories with great conviction without really having to anchor my life to any of it. I tried this, just for kicks- preaching powerful, passionate sermons about things I had struggled to believe. I found I could put on a great show. The people would walk away inspired. “That was a beautiful sermon, Pastor!” But then nothing changes. Everyone goes back to life as usual. I did this for weeks on end and realized that I didn’t need a god to do any of it. Great, emotional shows. Happy people. Same people. Week after week. Where is the divine in that?

Then I noticed that there was no need for deity in any of the church’s activities. People talked about God. I talked about God. We said nice little prayers to God. But I looked around and realized that it was just decent religious people doing good people things. This went on for month after month, and then I concluded that if there really was a deity, there should be more than this- a lot more. But there isn’t. I could have started a wonderful charity group or a recreational club, made no mention of deity and have done the exact same things.

I looked at the way we learn. I have taught lots of Bible studies. I do love to teach, and for many years, I walked away stimulated by the deep discussions we were having. People get jazzed about discussing things, often in painstaking detail, bringing history and the writings of scholars into our learning. We eat it up! People walk out thanking me for a thought-provoking, powerful study. Those same people would come back, week after week, but I began to notice over time that nothing would change. We’d end up talking about the same things. The same kinds of speculative questions would be asked. It was all superficial. People spoke in generalities about God, people and the world. Still, nothing new happened. I didn’t see any real changes of heart that led to improved behavior or priorities.  There were no grand ideas generated that would lead to anything positive or constructive. Thus, there was no deity needed or involved in any of it! Once again- no god doing anything supernatural.

And then I looked at they way we pray. Prayer time in worship is more of a support group and story-telling time than what I would imagine prayer to be– getting on our faces before God in submission, fully relying on the strength, power, mercy, and love of God. No, we turn in prayer cards for this hurt, that surgery, this and that struggle, and say nice little prayers with tears, hugs, and tissues to go around. And there is never any evidence of supernatural intervention, other than what a doctor could do. After a while, I thought our time might be better spent creating a doctor and patient support group for mutual encouragement. Meanwhile, there was no real evidence of a god or deity; anything people described as “God’s intervention” I could find a natural cause for. I could see that! Why couldn’t these people see it?? No god, no deity… just religion wrapped up in emotion and speculation.

But what really led me to conclude that there is no god is the suffering of the poor all around us. We read and study in our Bibles that Jesus loves the poor and fills their mouths with good things. But there is not a smidgen of evidence for that anywhere. I looked at the priorities of my church and other churches in our neighborhood. Sure, we all do canned food drives, fill poor kids’ backpacks once a year, and maybe even serve a meal in a homeless shelter. But anyone can see– an atheist like me can see!– that these are token gestures. Lives aren’t changed. No one is removed from poverty and suffering because of a canned food drive. I had always heard that love, relational love, changes lives. I had heard that communities bound together in a common cause for the kingdom of God changes lives.

That would take no less than the work of a deity through people who claim this deity as their god. But it doesn’t happen. The poor still suffer while we religious people sit in our church buildings. Why say we believe in a god and carry on about religion when our neighbors still go without a home, without good food and water, struggling in addictions, alienated, and alone. If there is indeed a god whom people claim works through them, then this “god” has failed.

So, it’s very simple. If I can be a Christian and have no real need for God other than self-help– and I can get a therapist or read a good book for that– then there is no need to bother with the notion of a sky-god who controls and influences things. Leave that to nice ancient story books like the Bible.

Oh by the way, Bible discussion group will be held after Sunday morning story time and mutual support group… A creative, able-minded, talented atheist like me can lead all of that!
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April Fools! But… my point is far from a joke.

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Filed under Atheist and Agnostics, Church Culture and Leadership

Christians and Homosexuality: A Personal Take

…a rough transcription of a sermon I shared at First United Methodist Church of Laurel, MD on February 20, 2011

[Disclaimer: For my friends and readers with passionately defined views regarding the nature of human sexuality, homosexuality in particular, no matter your views, you will most likely encounter things in this post that will offend, upset, or even shock you, i.e. “Wow, I didn’t know he thinks that way! How dare he!!” You’ve been warned now. Keep in mind, however, that I continue to listen and strive to love and respect both you and your perspective, even when we have serious points of disagreement. Having spent countless hours in learning, conversation and dialogue about LGBT sexuality, most especially with people who are LGBT, I have learned to tolerate the heat of disagreements I’ve encountered with both conservative and progressively minded folks. I have also come to see that we share far more in common than we often realize, even in the heat of our differences.]
Scripture: Romans 1:18-2:5
I had originally intended to share a message grappling with the topic of homosexuality in the last series of sermons I preached called “When Christians Get It Wrong… and How to Get It Right Again.” But then things like surgery got in the way. And of course, none of my stand-in speakers wanted to touch that topic with a ten-foot pole!

Yet God has a way of continually showing me that nothing is by accident, including this delayed sermon. In the time I was recovering from surgery, two dramatic things concerning homosexuality have happened. In light of these things, I think the time is particularly right for us as Christians to call on the Holy Spirit’s guidance, read up on Scripture, examine again the historic teachings of the Church and take an honest look at the present realities of gay and lesbian people, all so that we can get a grip on what we believe concerning homosexuality. Just as importantly, we need to understand how to live those beliefs with our gay and lesbian family members, friends, and neighbors.

The first dramatic thing to happen occurred at the beginning of this month– a statement of counsel prepared by 33 retired bishops of the United Methodist Church. They are asking for the removal of this statement from our Book of Discipline:

“…The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.” ¶304.3

They understand this statement to be embarrassing, insensitive, and discriminatory towards gay and lesbian men and women who demonstrate the necessary graces, fruits, and abilities to be ordained clergy.

It’s important to understand a few things about this statement. Because it’s crafted by a group of bishops, it does carry a lot weight and importance. However, bishops cannot change our church’s stances and policies. That is left to our General Conference, a body of elected clergy and laity who meet every four years primarily to edit and update our denomination’s Book of Discipline, which alone articulates our policies, protocols, and procedures.

In the mean time, this statement’s gravity cannot and will not be ignored.
Then only a few weeks later, some historic legislation has been moving through Maryland’s state government. Just this past week, the Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings committee approved a bill for a Senate vote that would legalize same-sex marriage in Maryland. Up until this point, the Maryland Senate had been one vote shy the filibuster-proof majority it would need to end the debate and vote. State Senator Jim Rosapepe, our state Senator, has agreed to be that deciding vote. That all but assures passage of this bill through the Senate. The House of Delegates is expected to pass the bill, and Governor O’Malley has promised to sign the bill into law. When that happens, Maryland would become the sixth state in our country to legalize same-sex marriage.

It almost goes without saying that this is a very, very emotionally charged issue. Why? It’s because we’re dealing with the fundamental aspects of our humanity: love, relationships, marriage, and family. For us Christians, we’re also talking the role of the Bible in defining sexuality, what is sin and not sin, and how the pages of Scripture might possibly speak to the experiences of gay and lesbian people.

When talking to Christians about homosexuality, especially when events such as I’ve mentioned unfold, there tend to be three distinct responses.

One Christian response strongly affirms the rights and dignity of gay and lesbian people. This response believes that gay and lesbian people are made in God’s image and are therefore of sacred worth to God. They were born, at no fault of their own, with a propensity to be attracted to people of the same gender, something that is therefore not a sin but an essential make-up of their being, no less than heterosexual people. The most important aspect of the Bible to them is Jesus’ treatment of all people and the fact that he never condemns homosexual relations. In fact, he embraced and included people whom the religious community rejected for being sinful or unclean.

Another Christian response, just as passionate but very different, is condemnation of homosexuality– not of gay and lesbian people as people, but of homosexual attractions and relationships. They too affirm that gay and lesbian people are made in God’s image and are therefore of sacred worth to God. Yet in reading the Bible, they see several passages, including the Romans passage above that denounce homosexual relations as an act of sin. They believe, based on their reading of Scripture, that God designed sexuality exclusively to be shared between a man and a woman.

Then there is a third Christian response that often goes under the radar. This response doesn’t really see this issue as all that important, or doesn’t quite know what to think about something as complicated and controversial as homosexuality. These Christians would be content to see that all people are loved and respected by one another, understanding that God loves each of us, especially when we fail to love God and others as we should.

Overall though, I believe that Christians have done a pretty terrible job dealing with the issue of homosexuality and our differences over this issue. We have been stuck in a fierce debate for close to 40 years. Each side as demonized the other for being unloving, ungodly, compromising the gospel, and causing division in the Church.

Not only that, but when young adults are asked to describe Christians and the Church, one statistic shows that 91% would describe us as anti-gay. The reality is, right or wrong, young people understand homosexuality much differently than their parents and grandparents do. In my personal experience, I know many people, young and old, who will have nothing to do with the Church primarily because they perceive us to be anti-gay.

In our church, I’ve talked to enough people to realize that we have very diverse opinions on homosexuality which encompass all three of the above Christian responses I just mentioned. So I realize that no matter what I teach regarding homosexuality, I risk upsetting some people. Therefore, I believe that we must commit to some critical things when dealing with this or any other hot-button topic: commit to listening, respecting, and loving each other through the differences we may have. We must continually affirm that the greatest common factor among us is never a conflict but rather Jesus Christ our Lord.

Switching gears, I thought that a good way to teach about homosexuality from my Christian point of view would be to share my own story of how I have arrived at my understandings of homosexuality. I don’t share this in order to ram anything down your throat. I share these things to give you a springboard to formulate your own biblical, Christ-centered views, realizing that at the end of the day, we will most likely remain diverse in our views.

Before coming into the church and becoming a Christian at the age of 18, I had no opinion one way or the other concerning the morality or acceptability of homosexuality. I lived in a world of stereotypes, especially of gay men, but that never formulated into any kind of strong view. Yet when I came into the church, I began to hear my pastor and many others teach and preach from the Bible that homosexuality is condemned as a sin. The Romans 1:18ff passage was certainly one of the main passages that was repeatedly quoted.

Hearing all of this, how could I argue with the Bible, especially if the Bible is God’s Word? So, I took as my point of view that the practice of homosexuality is sinful, and I took it quite stridently, too. I didn’t hate or look down upon gay or lesbian people, nor did I reject them. For me, it was a matter of upholding the authority of biblical standards, and in this case, biblical standards on human sexuality.

As I continued to grow and mature, I began to meet and get to know more and more gay and lesbian people. I began to see first-hand how extraordinarily complex this whole issue is. It’s not a mere matter of whether or not homosexuality is a sin or not, as important as that is. It also has to do with the very complex nature of how and why people are gay. It also involves the question of how Christians relate to and minister with gay people.

I also began to listen to many, many stories, particularly from gay Christians who all shared that they grew up knowing that they were somehow different, that unlike most all their friends, they were attracted to people of the same gender. They prayed and prayed for God to take those feelings away and make them straight. Many even tried straight relationships, and some even married someone of the opposite gender, only to fail at their marriage. In other words, it didn’t seem to be their choice to be gay. In fact, given the choice, many would rather have been straight to avoid all the stigma and rejection from being gay. Finally, they came to accept themselves for who they are, recognizing that God loves and accepts them just as they are.

In reflection, I believe, based on how I read the Scriptures, that God designed sexuality to be shared between a man and a woman and that homosexual attractions and relationships, while not necessarily a conscious choice, is not within God’s plan and intention for human sexuality. The best biblical understanding I can derive comes from that same Romans passage in which Paul attributes homosexuality to be the result of a fallen humanity that has turned away from God. When it comes down to it, I cannot see Scripture affirming homosexuality, only condemning it as outside of God’s will.

However, I do not and I will not teach or preach this belief stridently or often at all. I prefer to get into it as little as possible. And that has been to the dismay of many church members I’ve worked with who would prefer that I become more ardently vocal against homosexuality. I will not.

The fact is, this is a deeply painful issue for me. I have very close family members, friends, and neighbors who are gay and lesbian. I trust and love them very, very much, and I always will. I have listened to many of their stories. As a result, I live every day in a tension between my biblical beliefs and the fact that most often those same beliefs stir up so much hurt within my gay and lesbian friends, family members, and neighbors. I just can’t relinquish my love and embrace of them or my love and embrace of God’s Word. Therefore I live in this constant, painful tension.

I’m also deeply conflicted over the nature of the debate concerning homosexuality. It can get particularly nasty and polarizing. While I vote my conscious whenever I’m asked to, I do not want to contribute to the divisive intensity of the debate. Furthermore, I do not tend to sign on to petitions or take strong public stances on homosexuality.
My God-given role has been to be a peacemaker by attempting to bring about dialogue and understanding between different points of view on homosexuality while seeking an alternative way forward for us Christians to take other than the disparate options offered by either side of the debate. Let me tell you, this has been every bit as difficult as taking a strong public stance on one side or the other. I have been treated as a traitor and a compromiser by some of my conservative friends and colleagues. I’ve been viewed as anti-gay and a bigot by some of my progressive/liberal friends and colleagues. I’ve been called out by both crowds for all the above on the same day, even! Peacemaking has not been an easy road to take… at all.

Yet, all in all, there is something I want you to hear loud and clear. As long as I am pastor of this church, I will not tolerate anyone being turned away, mistreated, demeaned, ostracized, or in any way unloved because of their sexual orientation. If you are gay or lesbian, I will always be your pastor, and this will always be your church as much as you allow us to be. I will always love you, and I will defend you in the face of any attitude that is less than fully loving or accepting of you as a child of God and my sister or brother in the Lord.

I will gently tell you what I believe the truth to be about human sexuality. We may wrestle through that, and sometimes we may both come out of it limping. But I will always embrace you as my brother or sister in Christ. If anything, I’ll learn to hold on to you more tightly and compassionately, as long as you allow me to.

So, how do we as a church get it right when understanding and relating to our gay and lesbian family members, friends, and neighbors?

First, we must always affirm our faith in the Bible as God’s Word and what it teaches while remaining open to listen to the Holy Spirit’s counsel, especially in the voices of others. We must respect the fact that while I believe the way I do, it may severely contradict they way you believe. I may firmly believe you’re wrong, and you may believe the same about me. Yet we must listen to each other. We must especially listen to understand not just what the other believes, but respectfully listen to why they believe what they believe. And who knows? We might actually learn something from the Holy Spirit that would impact our own views!

Secondly, we must live in an unconditional love towards others whose views are different from our own and towards those who are gay and lesbian. As for me, I know I’m doing this well when others who are different from me don’t perceive me as standoffish, guarded, close-minded, holier-than-thou or in any way unable to love and accept them. When I can fully identify myself with them and they sense that, then I know that I’m getting closer to Christ’s unconditional love.

Believe me, that’s not a compromise or a cop out. I’ve learned my methods from none other than Jesus himself. Do you remember when Jesus shared a meal at Matthew’s house? He was there with the notorious ragamuffins of his day: tax-collectors and “sinners”. And of course, the religious people were all over Jesus’ case for that! “Jesus, don’t you know who you’re eating with?” In Jesus day, you only shared a meal with those whom you closely identified as your trusted friends and family. Jesus ate with Matthew and his guests anyway, and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t sitting around arguing with the tax collectors about their unscrupulous tax collecting methods or calling out the sinners for their wrongs. He was simply being with them in an embracing love of God. And that love of God has the power to transform us all, gay or straight, sinners all, into God’s holy people, in God’s time and in God’s way.

In other words, in the turmoil and complexity of these tumultuous times and debates, it really does come down to asking that simple question, “What would Jesus do?” By God’s grace, we endeavor to do it, and we discover the abundance of life that comes from living like Jesus.

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Filed under Human Sexuality

Lessons Learned While Staying Home from Church

It had never happened to me before: Blairlee and kids heading over to church while I stayed home. That may not seem so out of place for some of you, but considering I’m the pastor of the church, believe me, I felt way out of place. Granted, recovering from surgery is an excellent excuse to take a Sunday off. And I had no worries, either. An awesome guest preacher and a well-abled group of laity lead things along just fine without me.

But I’m glad an oddball couple of couple hours on a Sunday morning didn’t go to waste. In fact, they opened up an opportunity I otherwise wouldn’t have had, especially if I was simply away on vacation. My friend Bill came over for a while. Before he came, Bill asked me, “Hey, you’re not going to drag me over to church are you?” I told him not to worry. After all, the pastor’s on medical leave.

I’ve known Bill for almost four years now. He’s in his 20’s, a maverick, extremely intelligent with an entrepreneurial streak, and a natural ability to affably connect with people of all kinds. I’ve always deeply enjoyed our conversations. His keen insights and quick mind never fail to keep me on my toes. And I think more than most any person, Bill has taught me well about the gifts and perils of  today’s church.

Bill was raised Roman Catholic and after getting completely fed up with the church sometime in his teen years, he quit going and became fiercely agnostic. Then, when Bill was 17 or 18, a youth-young adult pastor from a local church befriended him, loved and accepted him, and over time led him to Christ. Bill’s passion, talents, keen mind, and people skills quickly led him into ministry opportunities. He became an effective youth and young adult leader, teacher, and mentor.

When I met Bill while working in my extension office (Starbucks), he was discipling well over a dozen guys in his house, guys who were either Christian, marginally Christian, or just curiously spiritual. Few of them had any kind of church affiliation, but they loved and trusted Bill. If there was anyone who could befriend and engage young guys like these and disciple them to follow Jesus, it was Bill. I always marveled that God was using this guy to reach and disciple people I’d never even have a slim shot of reaching.
But Bill’s keen insight and maverick streak never let him sit too comfortably in church. If there’s even a shadow of inauthenticity or insincerity, Bill will sniff it out, then resist it or leave it. In that way, he resembles most young adults in today’s post-Christendom culture. Turned off by self-perpetuating, non-Christlike attitudes and ways of the church and church people, they’ve either abandoned Christianity altogether or are being disciples of Jesus on their own, often in alternative modes like informal small groups or house churches (without calling it “church”).
As Sunday School and worship carried on as usual at my church, Bill and I sat together in my home talking about faith and church. He’s struggling right now, and I try as best as I can to be in the struggle with him.

On the one hand, Bill has discovered and still rigorously embraces the biblical message of Jesus Christ. He loves philosophy and the historic thinking and writing of great Christian thinkers, particularly in the Reformed tradition. Bill even believes in the Holy Spirit-ordained and created collection of Christ’s disciples called “the Church.”

Yet Bill is completely disgusted with just about all the current manifestations of congregational-style church and wider church culture (such as Christian marketing, retail/publishing/media industries, and a lot of parachurch organizations). To put it another way, he rejects the concept of an “organized religion” church most people think of: a church building, a structure of leadership headed by a pastor, and the kinds of values, goals, and approaches programmed into the DNA of most such congregations. This is true whether these congregations call themselves traditional or contemporary, old-style or modern, denominational or non-denominational, established or newly planted.

More often than he probably knows, when I think of my church’s ministries, aspirations, methods, and attitudes, Bill’s face and voice come to my mind. I ask myself, “How would Bill react to this? Would he dismiss it as just more-of-the-same churchiness or would he find something authentically Christ-centered?” Now let me say, I love my church, passionately so. I dearly love our people. Our church does a lot of incredibly valuable work that impacts and changes lives, both inside and outside its walls and membership rolls. Yet conversations with Bill continually remind me how far we have yet to go. That reality doesn’t discourage or embitter me so much as keeps my senses sharp and my heart tender to never forget the struggles and challenges of non-believers, young Christians turned off by church, or even my own pre-Christian, unchurched roots.

Following up with Sunday’s visit, I asked Bill to think of three things that would help churches be less churchy and more like Christ. Here’s what he said, raw and unedited:

1. Consistency/Authenticity/Empathy. No matter how hard Christians try to pretend they’re accepting and open, there’s always hot button issues that make Christians turn their nose up, as though they don’t have their own vices or doubts. In a coffee shop, over a private discussion, most Christians are a lot more down to earth. But on a Sunday morning, it’s like a brooding pool of self-righteousness. It’s not always the words that are used (e.g., We’re all sinners… etc.), but more the attitude. Christians need to understand that even their best attempts to be welcoming turn sour because the skeptic or the non-beleiver can feel right away that under the facade, the congregation looks down on their unbelief. Christians have to have empathy for the unbeliever, and remember that not believing is a reasonable position. It doesn’t make them stupid or delusional.

2. Substance. It’s very un-church like to deliver messages tackling, or at least attempting to tackle, challenging issues. But that’s what I want, that’s what my generation wants. Substance.

3. Showmanship. The whole process of church is a production. In the landscape of our culture, church almost always looks like a wonky, low-fi version of a preachy high-school play. How are people in attendance supposed to respond with honesty to something that looks, feels and sounds like entertainment. I’m talking about everything, from the size of the congregation and their seating arrangements, to the posture of the preacher, to the stage, to the lights, to the sound-system, down to the fact that people are seated in an audience, looking foreword at other people ‘leading’ something that is supposed to be for God, but to any objective eye looks more like a show. Why aren’t all these things out of sight? If ‘church’ is all about Jesus, then it should really, really be all about Jesus. Include only those things that support that end. And no, watching someone on stage ‘worship’ is not a viable excuse. It’s a crutch. (e.g., perhaps painting helps me worship, but where is the worship if I need to paint to do so?)

So, I stayed home, but I think Bill and I had Church together in a way I don’t often get to enjoy. It was brutally honest, painfully sincere, and truly all about Christ and one another. I can’t speak for Bill, but I certainly parted with him closer to God and encouraged. So, thank you, Bill, for bringing Church to me while opening my eyes a little wider to the pitfalls and potentials of being the Church of Jesus Christ in 2011.

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Filed under Church Culture and Leadership, Cultural Trends, The United Methodist Church

It Could Be Dangerous to Play It Safe

Growing up, my mother would call me a bull in a china shop. I used to bristle at that. These days, however, I’m beginning to claim that dubious title as a badge of honor, most especially in the all-too-civilized, predictable, highly controlled world of the Christian faith and church.

To a large degree, I’ve always felt like an outsider to established Christianity, and that’s because my formative years were spent on the outside. But even now, 18 years later and an ordained pastor, significant parts of me have refused to be domesticated within the institutional church. That has been both liberating and painful. Ultimately though, the constant struggle and lesson learned have always pushed me to be myself. It only harms myself and the people I serve whenever I slavishly attempt to fit within the oppressive expectation-molds of religious people and religious institutions.

I’m glad I’m not alone in this struggle and that there are brave women and men who have enough love for Jesus and the courage to call a spade a spade. The spade is this: over the last 1,700 years, most all of Christianity and the church has become a civilized institution built on control, tight structures, complete conformity, formalized religious practice that resists any form of deviation, safe and predictable outcomes, and an ingrained reluctance to engage, love, or respect anyone or anything outside of itself.
Recently, a good friend of mine suggested a firebomb of a book written by Erwin Raphael McManus called The Barbarian Way: Unleash the Untamed Faith Within.  When he told me what the book was about, I was hesitant to pick it up. It sounded it would give voice to many of the thoughts and struggles I’ve had trying to be a disciple of Jesus within the institutional church. Did I really want to be ruined that way? Could I bear to face the consequences of listening to and obeying the Holy Spirit if God decided to speak to me through this book?

Well, I ended up buying and reading The Barbarian Way. It’s a little, short, muscular read that pulls no punches and is filled from cover to cover with a call to passionately, sacrificially love and follow Jesus Christ no matter the cost, realizing that doing so will make us barbarians in a civilized church and religion. And McManus was also clear about the peril of  following Jesus, considering that living as a child of the kingdom of God puts us in direct conflict with the kingdoms of darkness and evil in this world.

Warning: this is not a nice, politically correct book. If you have touchy theological, ecclesiological (church), or even language and imagery sensibilities, McManus will most definitely offend you. But perhaps you need to be offended. Oops… sorry… that wasn’t too politically correct, either!
Here are a couple of samples from The Barbarian Way that stood out to me:

…Christianity over the last two thousand years has moved from a tribe of renegades to a religion of conformists. Those who choose to follow Jesus become participants in an insurrection. To claim we believe is simply not enough. The call of Jesus is one that demands action. (5)

There may not be a more dangerous weapon for violence or oppression than religion. It seems counterintuitive, but when human beings create religions, we use them to control others through their guilt and shame. True religion always moves us to serve others and to give our lives to see those oppressed find freedom. (47)

To study the Bible is important, but it is not a primal evidence that you belong to God. Anyone can study the Bible, but only those who know Him can hear His voice and are taught by Him. Although the barbarian may not be formally trained, she is always God-taught. Jesus expected that those who were His followers would hear His voice, know His voice, and follow only His voice, even as He calls us out by name and leads us on the barbarian way. (84)

It is true that the enemy will essentially leave you alone if you are domesticated. He will not waste his energy destroying a civilized religion. If anything, he uses his energy to promote such activity. Religion can be one of the surest places to keep us from God. When our faith recomes refined, it is no longer dangerous to the dark kingdom.

Barbarians, on the other hand, are not to be trusted. They respect no borders that are established by powers or principalities. They have but one King, one Lord, and one mission. They are insolent enough to crash the gates of hell. For the sake of others, they are willing to risk their own lives and thrust themselves into the midst of peril. (128)

Pretty audacious stuff, isn’t it? Like I’ve said, this book is not for everyone. Is it flawless? Far from it. But if you at all consider yourself a Christian, I dare you to read it. Even if the imagery he uses does not resonate with you– and not all of it did with me, either– there is much here to challenge and awaken our faith to be truly alive, daring, and willing to love God with all our being, love our neighbors as ourselves, and to do whatever it takes to live out this “barbarian” invitation of God.

As for me, McManus has pushed me to be less fearful and a little less careful. I don’t think this means being obnoxious or going out of my way to be reckless. But it does mean letting go of my fear of people and institutions in order to listen to and fear God. Am I just a little anxious over the consequences? You bet I am. But if it means being fully alive with God’s purpose, God’s love, and God’s presence, then nothing else could compare.

I’ll be a despised barbarian any day for that!

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Filed under Spiritual Growth and Practice

Disillusioned with Church (Such as It Is)

It seems like more and more I talk to one person after another who is disillusioned with the church. You might think that the people I talk to are those who have already walked away from it. Most of them are, yes. But alarmingly, there is a growing chorus of frustration from those in the church now, but who may not be for much longer. Meanwhile, here I am as a pastor, seemingly a purveyor of all that is church, listening to and watching the frustration. I wonder how I contribute to it.  And I ponder even more deeply still, How do I raise this sinking Titanic that is the North American mainline church? Is there any hope?

First, let me say that I share the same frustrations with the Church that so many people have. Let me give you a taste:

  • I agree that the Church tends to be way out of touch with the real needs, thoughts, and aspirations of many everyday people.
  • I too, find the Church to be many times insincere and inauthentic about our motives and our shortcomings.
  • I hate how judgmental and narrow-minded church folks can be.
  • I’ve been deeply hurt by the stories of people who have come into churches I have served and walked away feeling unwelcome and even looked down upon.
  • I get frustrated when Christians (including myself) fail to do what we preach and fall terribly short from Jesus’ standard of love, grace, and integrity.
  • I cringe at the parochial and often hateful attitudes of churches and Christians towards any beliefs, standards, or ways of doing things that don’t fit into their little boxes.
  • I am deeply embarrassed by fellow clergy who use their sacred office of trust to exploit and abuse people and the churches they serve.
  • I’m ashamed at how often churches seem to only care about their own viability instead of truly caring about the life and healing of the world around them.
  • It exacerbates me that many churches would rather decline and die than embrace new, effective means of being a wellspring of life for the needs and well-being of their neighbors.
  • I keep wondering how churches can truly be Holy Spirit-filled, alive, Christ-centered, exciting groups of people with lots of love and grace to give away, versus the typical, hum-drum, dry, bone dead institutions stuck in a rut of traditionalism and fruitless routine.

I could go on and on, but you get the point. And I’m sure that somewhere in this list, I’ve probably scraped against some of your hang-ups and frustrations about the church, such as it is these days. It’s not a pretty picture.

Now let me also say that in the mire and mediocrity of many local churches, some beautiful things happen all the time that never get picked up in the news or in everyday conversations. Every week, I witness lives that are touched and changed by Jesus Christ through the everyday ministry of his people. I see churches reach out and serve their neighbors in quiet, non-presumptive ways. At the cutting edge of many social justice struggles, you’ll find people of faith leading the charge. I remain deeply humbled by the generosity, sacrifices, and selflessness of the people I serve in order to see our church love, reach out to, and include new people into our church family.

So, there is always so much, even within many small, seemingly insignificant churches that would inspire us all. I’ve seen it. And I never cease to be amazed by it.

But even then, there are major, systemic issues that the church in North America needs to address. These issues infect and threaten every congregation, and if we continue in our apathy towards these issues, we risk losing entire generations of people, if we haven’t already. They risk missing out on good news of Jesus Christ. And we in the church risk the blessing of loving and being loved by these generations of people.

It would take lots of different blog posts to detail the systemic issues that give reason for our mass disillusionment with church (such as it is.) And there are some excellent books which detail the issues. I encourage you to read them.

So, I’d like to propose a remedy that might help congregations and denominations of Christian churches to “get it right” again, to be the Church which Christ intended us to be. I’m not saying here that even if we were perfect that there wouldn’t be people who would still reject Jesus Christ and his Church. There always have been, and there will be until the end of this world (such as it is).

But, we can do some things that would keep people who genuinely believe, want to believe, or used to believe from being further damaged or disillusioned by the church. So, here is the remedy:

1) Individual Christians, congregations, and denominational systems must be willing to listen to and acknowledge the grievances people have with the current state of the church. We must stop thinking that they are wrongheaded reprobates and validate their hurt-filled, disappointing experiences.

2) We must take full responsibilities for our shortcomings and faults, lament them, and mourn for the countless lives who have been hurt, disillusioned, and damaged by the church.

3) We must take purposeful, fearless steps towards being a more authentic, sincere church. This can happen in one of three ways:

  • We do the hard, painful work of reforming local congregations through strong pastoral leadership working alongside faithful lay people.
  • We start new congregations whose DNA purposefully resembles a Christlike way of worshiping, living, and serving.
  • We provide hospice care for dying congregations who refuse to reform.

None of these options are easy, but one of them is necessary for every established congregation. Every established congregation must either reform, launch new faith communities, or die a dignified death. That may sound harsh, but it reflects my strong, growing conviction that no church can carry on in business-as-usual mode. To do that jeopardizes everyone.

In the mean time, I have some encouragement for those of us who get disillusioned with the church but aren’t giving up on it. First, the Church, the true Church, will never die. Local congregations may come and go, but Christ’s Church will survive and thrive. Secondly, the Holy Spirit is giving God’s faithful people vision, strength, and love to keep forming and reforming the Church, even if we find ourselves in far-from-perfect local churches. So don’t give up or walk away. You may reform what is there, help begin something new, or provide hospice care for a dying church. In any case, Christ can work through you to be his Church.

For those of you who have already walked away, know that a growing chorus of us hear you loud and clear and dislike what you see as much as you do. I would love the honor of having you provide your insight, wisdom and any help you might offer to create authentic communities that reflect who Jesus is.

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Filed under Church Culture and Leadership

We Have a Winner!

I just closed the poll asking you to vote for your favorite thorny topic for me to write about, and here are the results:

So as you can see, I’ll be wrestling through disillusionment with church (as we’ve known it.) Actually for me, the wrestling will not be over how or why we get disillusioned with church.

That’s the easy part. As someone who has spent only half of his life in the church and knows lots of people who have been turned off by church, I can complain about the sorry state of the church with the best of them. The real challenge will be prescribing a practical remedy.

Stay tuned, and as always, thank you for being a part of the ongoing conversation!

P.S. The other topics in the poll will not be neglected. But because I’m not too much of a masochist, I’ll be spacing out my trips through the thorns, unless, of course, the Holy Spirit would nudge me otherwise!
Stay tuned….

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Filed under Odds and Ends