Thursday, July 30, 2009

Checking out the plants

With the phrase "church plant" now firmly ensconced in our religious lexicon, may I be permitted to ask just what the heck it means?

Now, I understand that if one travels where the church of Jesus Christ is a largely-unknown quantity, one may begin to share Jesus, to make disciples, and thus "plant" something that was not there before. To those who do this, may your eternal reward be great!

But, most "church plants" I know of are aimed at cities in the U.S. Cities where there are thousands-- or hundreds of thousands-- of believers. The church of Jesus has already been planted in those places. Now, it may need watering, or pruning, or to have the caterpillars picked off it, but it's there. So what is it exactly that we are "planting"? Are we simply trying to scratch-start another religion club to compete for believers with the existing local religion clubs? Are our "planters" happy to gather disaffected believers out of other clubs, in order to build a new one in OUR image? (Tell me that a "planter" who gathered 500 people a Sunday in this manner would not be considered a success!) In this, it seems to me that we are more like start-up businesses, eager to chisel out a hunk of Christian market share.

It strikes me as not a little arrogant on our part to gather up a team to "church-plant" in, say, Chicago. If we have a heart for sharing Jesus with Chicagoans, why don't we just go do it? It is certainly not necessary for us to start up yet another storefront competitor. Why can we not find joints in the Body in Chicago? Is it because no one else has the gospel like we have it? Or is it that we might not be able to do things our own way if we connected to believers already in place?

I fear that one of the motivations found most commonly among American "planters" is the hope of a full-time paying gig in "the ministry". Our local group has no job openings, so I go out on my own to open a new franchise. And once I have gathered a critical mass of believers, I hope that they will begin to pay me a wage that will allow me to quit my job at Best Buy and "enter the full-time ministry".

Somehow, this motivation seems questionable.

Perhaps a Gideonesque recruitment of church planting teams would be in order:
~Hoping for a future staff job? You guys can go home.
~Hoping to create a new group of which you will be a leader? That group, go home.
~Hoping to build a group that does things (doctrine, worship, activities) the way you like them? Thanks for coming, now go home.

Now, everybody that's left, grab a torch, a trumpet, and a pot and head toward the battle. And be prepared to succeed, only as a participant in what God is already doing in that place where you are headed.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Great Child Robbery

There have been many things said about the "cost of divorce". But in my reading, there is a calculation I have not come across. I'm not talking about the staggering emotional cost or the relational costs or the indirect costs. For this example, I'm talking about hard cash outlay, every month by the divorced parents of children. Let's look at just one expenditure:

I'm sure this has been calculated before, but it just occurred to me to run the numbers. After Jack and Jill divorced, they maintained separate households to care for themselves and their children. Compared to being married, Jack and Jill's combined housing expenses --rent, utilities, maintenance-- have almost doubled, but the same people are being housed, and no better than they were before. A very conservative estimate is that as parents, J&J are incurring "excess" housing costs of at least $1000 a month. (Your mileage may vary, but I can't imagine it would be less.) And while this pinches the pocketbook each month, the real news is in the savings calculator.

If that same $1000 per month were to have been socked away for the children, in a mutual fund at 8%, the accumulated value after 20 years would be over half a million dollars. That's real money. Carry that calculation out another 10 years. (Makes sense to think of it this way, as they will continue to maintain separate homes.) Now, the balance is $1.5 million. That is a very nice inheritance for the children.

Which Jack and Jill threw away.

I didn't know it was possible for ordinary human beings to squander that much money while living what we Americans would consider a modest normal lifestyle.

How many of us who found ourselves before a judge in divorce court, would have been able to openly say, "Yes, your honor, I know that this decision will cost my children over a million dollars in inheritance. It's worth every penny. Let's do it."

Perhaps we would have. Or just maybe, we might have done something differently...

Monday, July 27, 2009

Life vs Theology

Third-hand revelation is as good as any. Baxter Kruger quotes Ken Blue as saying, “Thank God, most people live better than their theology.”

Boy, am I grateful for the reality of this statement.

I grew up in a group whose theology evidenced little grace, but my experience with the individuals involved was replete with grace and mercy. I have been with brothers who doctrinally frowned on demonstrative public praise in their congregations, but I have heard those same men unashamedly praise God for a sudden thundershower on dry crops, or for a cool breeze on a scorching workday.

I have heard prophetic words from those who doctrinally disdain modern prophecy, have seen active apostles working in denominations that do no recognize the office, and have heard many testimonies of divine miracles from folks whose theology denies such things. So, I must not be quick to put too much weight on "what your church believes" and be more aware of what God is doing in you.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Marbles and Grapes

“To what shall I liken this generation?” Today’s state of Christian fellowship is very much like a large room filled with thousands of sacks of marbles. The marbles are all similar, with some differences in color and decoration, and they are divided up among a vast variety of different marble sacks. The smallest sacks contain only a couple dozen marbles, a few enormous sacks hold thousands, and there are sacks of every other size as well. There are simple cotton sacks, somber black sacks, sequined sacks, sacks of every fabric and design. Some are brand-new; others are obviously antiques. Some sacks are tattered and patched; some are even sewn shut at the top. Some of the large sacks are stunningly decorated, with no expense spared-- like Faberge eggs of the marble-sack world.

The marbles in each sack are identified by the sack in which they sit. Marbles in one sack are essentially closed off from marbles in the other sacks. When you look for the marbles, you see the sacks. And while the marbles in a sack rub up against each other all the time, they aren’t really connected to one another in any way. The only thing that actually holds them together is the sack. I am keenly aware that if a sack were to burst, all its marbles would fall out and scatter, to be scooped up as prizes by the owners of the other sacks.

Consider, by contrast, a bunch of grapes. Lovely terminology, “a bunch”-- not a dozen or a hundred or a carton or a case, but a “bunch”. As vague a description as one could create of the shape, size and appearance of that conglomeration of individual fruits. How many grapes are in a bunch? Where do they stand in relation to each other? That is totally dependent on what kind of connective network the vine produces for that bunch. Grapes are held together internally, by the connections of the vine. Life flows through those connections. How does one “identify” grapes? By the vine on which they grow.

Marbles (and many Christians) are held together by external organizations owned and operated by men. If you are a marble, you “join” a sack, and the sacks compete for your presence. If you are a grape, you find the Vine-connections that God has created for you in Jesus, and His life flows to you and others because you are connected.

The owner of a marble sack always wants more marbles and a bigger sack. The vinedresser only wants better grapes.

Are you living like a grape or a marble? Look closely at your connections with fellow-believers. Did you comparison-shop and choose your present church because it attracted or suited you? If your group’s Sunday services and programs disappeared tomorrow, would you go looking for another group? That’s marble behavior. When someone asks you about your spiritual identity, do you say, “I belong to First Baptist”, rather than “I belong to Jesus”? Very marble-ish. Does your group require some form of “church membership” for a person to function fully there? Does it ask your agreement to a “statement of faith” or some such set of doctrines? Would your affiliation be in question if you always went to Sunday morning meetings with another group? All these are characteristic of a religious “marble sack”.

You are called to be a grape, so why live like a marble? There is a better life available in the Vine.

Exceptions to the Rule

Here are two facts that become interesting if taken together: According to polls, fewer than a third of Americans think Congress is doing a good job. At the same time, over the past twenty years, incumbents have been re-elected to Congress at a rate of near 90%. We seem to be saying that Congress overall is performing abysmally, but our local congressmen and senators are doing a marvelous job! Something doesn't make sense here.

I hear a similar dynamic voiced when I discuss the church with believers. When we talk about division, or a lack of impact in the community, or the millions spent of brick and mortar compared to nickels spent on the poor, I find a lot of Christians sadly acknowledging the reality of these things in the church as a whole. But this acknowledgment is usually followed by a quick defense of that Christian's local fellowship. "But our church gives 10% to missions," or "We started a clothes closet for the poor," or "Our Sunday School gave $500 to the United Way!" or "We had a pastor from another denomination speak at our midweek service last week!"

Funny how every local fellowship I hear about seems to be going one way while the church's performance in general is going another. We are not divisive, but the body of Christ is divided into hundreds of groups who hardly speak to one another. We are generous to the poor, but the real estate portfolio of the American church continues to increase while the homeless sleep on the church steps. We are committed to spreading the gospel to the world, but the overall resources churches spend on extralocal missions is dwarfed by the mortgage payments on our buildings.

But that's everybody else…. not us. "Our church" is the exception to the rule. In fact, all of us seem to be exceptions. Like the children in Lake Wobegon, who are "all above average".

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Potential repeating feature--

How about "Let's" and "Let's Not" for a feature? That is, one thing the local body should be encouraged to do, and one thing I'll encourage us NOT to do? Today's episode, "Let's"- Part One:

LET'S... invite our brother or sister home for dinner. (Not lunch, but dinner.) I know this doesn't sound very spiritual, but here we can do several good things.
  • Get to know more about each other than just where we work and how many kids we have. Eating together puts us more at ease than even the best "meeting".
  • Share our real selves, rather than just the sanitized version of us that we bring to church.
  • Enjoy a relaxed atmosphere where we can talk without being obligated to "study". Amazing how deep and wide we can go when we are free from religious meeting agendas.
  • Discover our joints. That is, recognize those people to whom God is connecting us. Hard to find these without some close interaction.

LET'S NOT... count church attendance anymore. Headcounts aren't of any use for pastoral care, nor are they beneficial to the people being counted. They just feed our human sense of pride, and too often give a false picture of what we are about. For biblical insight into head-counting, read 2 Samuel 24.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Keeping Score

A friend and I were talking about some youth groups from his church which have been working in Uganda this summer. (Including a couple of my daughters!) He said that they seemed to be getting good results, and then seemed to pull up short. I understand his hesitation. In my experience, we tend to measure our effectiveness in evangelism and other work by the numbers, such as, "We had fifty decisions for Christ."

Our assumption that this information is important may not be wise. Experienced evangelists who spend years in the Third World tell me that often such a "decision" at a meeting may be little more than courtesy to a visitor. Most certainly, thinking that we have created X number of Christians in a crusade or a mission tour is probably more wishful thinking than reality. This is not to say that people are not being saved in these works, or that lives are not being changed. I am quite certain that God is showing up in the work these folks are doing. There is so much undeniable evidence of the power of God and changed lives! I am NOT in any way criticizing the work. It is not the work that needs to change, so much as the scorekeeping.

If God has called a group of young Texans to Uganda for two weeks, that is sufficient reason for the trip. God is faithful to lead them in what He calls them to do. Their task is not to be able to report a particular number of harvested souls. Theirs is to follow and participate in what the Father is doing. Reporting such things by numbers is an unfortunate human measurement that is at worst self-glorifying, and at best completely beside the point of the exercise. What if a mission group washed pots and mended clothes for an unknown orphanage for two weeks, leaving behind only the aroma of the Servant King? What if a street encounter is not a rejection, but a sowing of seed for a later harvest? What if the only real result of a meeting was that one believer who was about to give up was rejuvenated, but told no one about it? Those things don't show up in the statistics. But they are just as much the work of God as baptisms or decisions or buildings erected.

I relish those who come back from experiences like these brief mission trips with testimonies like, "I saw God move!" "I saw a blind man healed!" "I told a lady about Jesus!" Or best of all, "I got to do exactly what God was telling me to do!"

This is SO much better than counting heads. Such a worldly practice does not validate the work of pure-hearted servants, it demeans it. We serve for the joy, and let God keep the score.