Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What to do, what to do

The interesting thing here is that while the structural problems with today's religion club structure are quite complex, the ways I see to respond are so far fairly simple. Let's start with...

Make friends --real friends-- with believers outside your club. I grew up in a very exclusive religion club where we were not encouraged to do this. When God gave me godly friends outside my group, my whole view on the church changed irrevocably. It's also hard to get trapped inside your club when that would exclude your own BFF.

If you are a member of a club, ask a leader to explain things to you. This may be tricky, because it's probably going to come off as a challenge. So pick a leader of your club who knows you and who won't get offended if you ask pointed questions. Buy lunch. Maybe several. Ask directly why your club does not have a whole lot of meaningful relationships with other local clubs. Ask him how he feels about you splitting your Sunday time up between your club and the clubs of your friends. Don't be sidetracked by minor issues. Ask, and sincerely try to understand, why he thinks your club should exist when there are lots of other clubs in town. See if he has vision beyond the club; you'd be surprised how many leaders do, and are afraid to follow what they see. Encourage him!

If you are not a member of a club, check out your friend's club. Don't join, just look for other believers to be friends with. By the way, there's no need to bang heads about joining, just tell anyone who offers that you are already his brother or sister and that's good enough for you. Small groups are a great way to do this, by the way. It's hard to really meet anyone at Sunday Services, but a club's small group or a class or home group works great. Make friends.

Look for service projects outside your club. Substitute this for a club activity if you have limited time available. Sling hash at a soup kitchen, build a Habitat house, mentor a kid at a Boys Club. The more servant-like and the less visible the job the better. You meet a tremendous grade of people this way. Make friends.

That'll do for a start...

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Is “Winning the World for Christ” Killing My Neighbors?

Great institutions have great dreams, or at least great aspirations. The most widely-claimed of these found in the evangelical church is found in the slogan, “Win the world for Christ!”. This is a noble and seemingly-inarguable aspiration. After all, who do we not hope will follow Jesus? For whom has Christ not died? As it is the Father’s express desire that “not any should perish”, should we not all embrace this as our life’s cause?

Well, at the risk of heresy, I’m not so sure.

How does the great task of “winning the world for Christ” actually manifest itself among us? On the positive, it has stirred many of us with a concern for those outside our own cultures, and has sent the message of the gospel into the far corners of the world. I have numerous friends in places like Uganda, Kenya, Morocco, China, Ukraine, and Afghanistan. I have a friend who is a missionary from Nigeria to the U.S. (As much as that may offend some, I see the same desperate needs he sees in our post-Christian culture.) I clearly see the work of the Holy Spirit in these callings.

But I fear the very grandiosity of the language we use has borne unintended consequences. After many years in the church, I do not see today’s believer to be any more likely to bear witness of the life of Christ to his neighbor than was his grandfather. In fact, a strong argument can be made that today’s Joe Christian is less likely to impact the family next door than perhaps ever before in American history.

Our drumbeat of “winning the world” has contributed to what I call the “myopia effect” among the church. Our suburban church loads up a hundred fired-up teens and takes them to a Mexican border town, or to the urban jungle of a large city, all in the interest of ministering to the lost. And they do it with great fervor. But that busload of kids drives right past our own blighted neighborhoods on the way out of town to “spread the gospel”. We can now see so far out “into the world” that our own neighbors have become only vague and fuzzy images to us. While we are able to communicate our thrill in “going into all the world”, we are much less effective at sharing God’s concern for the people who live within our own zip code. I do not think this is intentional neglect so much as romantic overlook. As a veteran missionary once told me, “There’s no magic in a plane ticket.”

When is the last time your congregation was asked for money to support a missionary living in the African interior? That fellow who is on furlough from Africa brought his Powerpoint presentation—it used to be slides, but Microsoft marches on—and everyone enjoyed the exotic photos of strange peoples in strange lands. You wondered at how those people were SO much more receptive to the gospel than are Americans. But when was the last time you considered the same kind of financial support for one living in the barrio in your own city? We get far more excited about unbelievers overseas than unbelievers in our neighborhood.

Our religious traditions are not making it any easier for us to touch the lives of our neighbors. Joe lives across the street from me, and his church home is across town. He saw that fellowship advertised on a billboard, and chose that group from a wide assortment of congregations, based on his compatibility with its doctrines and demographics, and on the attractiveness of its programs and public offerings. As Joe’s neighbors, we know that Joe loads up the family on Sunday and “goes to church”, and he has a fish on the back of his car, so we figure he’s a Christian, but we don’t know a lot more. Joe’s family is heavily involved in church activities, which are constantly expanding in an effort to grow the size of that fellowship. As a result, there is created a natural division of activity—the religious stuff, the “God stuff” happens across town, while the mundane everyday stuff happens here. There, Joe worships. There, he expresses his devotion to God and talks about it with others. Over here, he mows his lawn and takes his kid to Little League. We know if Joe has crabgrass, but we don’t see much of his Christian walk.

Joe is not intentionally neglecting his neighbors. But the epicenter of his “Christian life” is far from his neighborhood, and what happens here is a faint echo of what happens there. And so long as his local religion club maintains the steady call to “come to church” and “come with us and do good things”, this dynamic will continue.

The solution is simple, but counter-intuitive for most professional clergy and folks interested in “building our church”. Tell people to go home. Yep. Start carving out parts of the week when no “church activities” will be scheduled. Rather than recruiting and training people to teach Sunday school, teach them how to love their neighbors. Truly loving one’s neighbor is the most effective way of bringing people to Jesus. Most believers in my experience testify that they came to Christ mainly because of the actions of some non-clergy individual who loved them.

Now for the warning: this suggestion is much more radical than it seems, and far harder than I make it out to be. For I am suggesting that a local religion club begin to do things that are not consistent with the future of the club. That they choose against the club’s best interest to sow believers into the community. I am suggesting that they begin to seek for their members to identify less with First Church and more with Jesus, to serve their neighbors even if the club’s programs languish. This is a hard enough sell in and of itself. But in our competitive religious marketplace, the inevitable reaction will be for the religion club next door to quickly redouble its recruiting efforts, with the distinct possibility that once Religion Club A sends its members out into the community, Religion Club B will scoop up half of them and entice them into the building down the street for the hot new version of American Churchgoing’s Greatest Hits. Clergymen seem to know this reality almost instinctively and find it nearly impossible to embrace the kind of change that would put “their flock” at risk of changing membership to the club next door.

So with these obstacles in mind, what can we do to help this along?

More to come…

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

To Our Public Frogs

"But where else will I exercise my gifts?"

I'm beginning to notice that this unspoken question is keeping any number of folks inside the religion clubs. As a former pulpit preacher, worship leader, elder, and musician, I understand the quandry, and that understanding is what disturbs me.

It goes on in the mind of a person who is considering changing his identity from "First Whichever Church" to the kingdom of God. "But I'm a preacher!" I say. "Where will I preach? I'm a worship leader! Where will I set up my microphone and plug in my amp?" As if scheduling people to attend a gathering is a prerequisite for doing what I am called to do. What I am really asking, and cannot readily admit, is, "Who will be required to listen to me if their attendance at my performance is not mandated by tradition?"

I know, I've quit preaching and gone to meddling. But those of you who have gifts which are now used to serve the Body in the regularly-scheduled gathering we call a "church service"-- what would you do if those doors closed? Would you stop doing what you do? Would you know how to continue to obey God and employ your gifts with no church service involved? Or are you only useful in organized groups of a dozen to five thousand? If your calling is being defined and delimited by a tradition of Sunday-go-to-meetin', who really called you?

Yes, this is an out-and-out challenge. If singing Jesus Loves Me with your toddler is less satisfying than playing in a hot worship band at church, it's time to ask yourself what it is that drives your worship. If explaining who Jesus is to a ditchdigger on the tailgate of the truck is somehow not as fulfilling as giving a 50-minute oratorio before a packed house of shoutin', stompin', on-fire believers... perhaps it's a good idea to ask God why this is so.

It's easy to tell people all the different ways that our gifts can be manifest in the earth. We've done it many times. And we all nod... and head right back to the pulpit/microphone/public venue and go on with business as usual, either as performers or spectators. (Insert head shake here.) Until we as "gifted individuals" are willing to go to the Father for a bit of personal examination, this dynamic is likely to continue. And the only way for God to shake us into looking deeply into this will be to break up our "ministries". Perhaps it would be wise to fall on the rock this time, to keep it from having to fall on us.

Been there myself. Waited for the rock, got it. Trust me, it smarts.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Today's Quote

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.
--Antoine de Saint-Exupery