Sunday, August 29, 2010

There's Fish, and There's Bait

Announce to the family that tonight's dish is fish, and the response is, "Okay."

But announce instead that you are serving minnows, and the response will be even less enthusiastic. Why? Because even your grade-school child knows the difference between food and bait.

A brother on a discussion board was asking the most common question known to organized Christianity: "How do we get more people to come to church?" And it got me to thinking, even as I was quick to recommend some form of service to the community. Question: If we choose to do good for our neighbors, is our intent important? If we offer to feed the neighborhood, does it matter whether we are using this as an inducement to church attendance or as simple altruism?

In a word, yes. It's the difference between serving fish and serving bait.

Jesus castigated the Pharisees for doing good works "to be seen of men". And we readily join Him in that criticism. But really, how different was the Pharisee's motivation from that of the average religion club? Is it really all that different when we hold children's events at our club in hopes of attracting that prize of demographics-- "young families with children"? Here, we are certainly not doing our good works in secret, but are hoping that the recipients of our efforts will "reward us openly" with attendance and cash in the offering plate. But since we are concurrently blessing someone else, we excuse our self-interest.

I wonder if this is the kind of activity contemplated when Jesus told of people telling God, "Did we not in your name do many wonderful works?" only to hear Him reply, "I don't know you." Perhaps the people were telling the truth. But God sees through to the intents of the heart.

In Latin, the question is "Cui bono?" That is, "Who benefits?" When we ask how to get something WE want, and the answer is to serve others, this is charity in service to self. We are the intended beneficiaries, the people we serve merely participants who will hopefully help us get what we want. But it is quite easy to claim that we are truly being altruistic. Sometimes we even believe it. But here's a simple test:

The next time your group plans a service to others, ask honestly if you can do it without anyone giving credit to your group. Real service can almost always be done this way. If you find yourselves having difficulty imagining a work of service wherein you get no credit, that should be a serious warning sign about the intentions of your charitable endeavors.

Doing our good works in secret is hard because we are so accustomed to putting our faces - or the name of our club - on the front of everything. We don't even think of it as self-serving. It's so common as to be invisible. Individuals seem to be able to serve selflessly, but organizations find it almost impossible. Here's an out-of-the-box question to kick around in your group, as you look at working in your community: "How can we bless somebody and not get caught at it?" If you can do that, know that your Father will reward you openly.

A good question to ask about a work of service: Would you do this in a dark room, where no one could see, and where no one would ever know? And before you quickly say, "Yes!" to the question, examine how often your group has done such things in the past. Often, such an honest self-appraisal leads to a lot of prayer. And change.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Old Paths, circa 1680

I grew up in a religious tradition in which, when I had the opportunity to do the right thing, I would say, “I will obey God, as I should.” When I did the wrong thing, I would say, “Well, nobody’s perfect, and I am doing my best. I hope God will forgive me.”

Contrast this with this description of a 17th century Carmelite monk:
When an occasion of practicing some virtue offered, he addressed himself to God, saying, “Lord, I cannot do this, unless Thou enablest me,” and that then he received strength more than sufficient. That when he had failed in his duty, he only confessed his fault, saying to God, I shall never do otherwise if you leave me to myself; ‘tis You must hinder my falling, and mend what is amiss.” That after this, he gave himself no further uneasiness about it.

These days, I am slowly coming closer to the latter place than the former. There's more air here. And more of the presence of God.

Oh, the quotation is from Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, a Carmelite lay brother who died in 1691.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Sunday Sermons are Obsolete

A sister in Scotland suggests, correctly I believe, that the traditional Sunday sermon is obsolete.

The whole idea of a sermon-oriented meeting needs to be re-thought. The assumptions?

When you get people together, you need to teach them. Says who? The people who make a living doing those lectures, that's who. Getting together to learn is a fine thing, but assuming that this needs to dominate every gathering is simply not well thought out. First, you can more easily absorb a podcast than a live lecture. Pause, rewind, review, all these are important learning aids that live speech can't offer. You can also catch the message even if you're not ready to tramp down to the sanctuary, or if you can't. And you have access to lots more teachers and topics than you can get from that one guy who does your pulpit thing every week.

Second, technology renders the need to gather people for simple communication obsolete. It actually became such when reliable mail service became available, but the Internet has established this beyond doubt.

Third, gathering people together, only to forbid them to interact for over half their time together is a terrible waste. It's like buying a boat, towing it to the lake on Saturday morning, loading the family up in the boat, and keeping the boat on the trailer for half the day. It does not make sense. If I'm going to be with my family, I want to be able to connect with them!

Get together to worship, to fellowship, to testify, to pray for each other... all these are sound reasons for us to be getting together. So why do we spend most of our time together looking at the back of our brother's head, being fed information we could have easily have gotten at home?

Traditions are like crabgrass... ubiquitous and hard to kill. Best treatment I know is to shine really bright lights on them and talk honestly about them.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Contrarian advice for club leaders

I recognize that many well-intentioned religion club leaders will read my criticisms of the club system and say, "Well, but our group is not like that." To them, I say, you may be right. Here is some anti-traditional advice that you might consider. Every suggestion is designed to unwind some bad habit or negative result commonly found in the average religion club. If you find you can recognize the value here and seriously consider these things, perhaps you are not "like everyone else". But the rubber meets the road at actually doing some of these things.

Leaders! Go ye therefore and...

Attend various other local churches’ activities and services, including Sunday morning services. Do this at least twice a month. This especially applies to those who are called to be shepherds of God’s people. The elders lead by example, either modeling unity or division. Leadership is never neutral.

Find and invite gifted people from other local groups to lead or teach in your activities and services at least twice a month. If you do not know very many such people, it is a sign that you have become isolated from the rest of the Body.

When you hear that another church is doing a ministry in the community similar to what God has called you into, go to them and ask to be a part of that work. Do not go back and recreate that ministry in your own building.

Establish personal, accountable relationships between individual shepherds and individual sheep. People are never shepherded by organizations, but by individuals to whom God has joined them.

Release less-mature people to minister, in tandem with more-proven believers. Place weight on more mature Christians to pray for and mentor them as they minister.

Elders: Develop relationships with other church leaders. Call them and ask if your group can come to their services. Dismiss your own Sunday morning services at least four times a year and meet with other groups en masse. Do this strictly for the purpose of fellowship. Bring them a large offering.

Open your homes at least once a week and share a meal with someone. If you don’t have time for this, cancel a church activity and free up the time. Elders must be “given to hospitality”, so on them this requirement is even greater.

In lieu of organizing a “visitor visitation” program, invite strangers to your home for lunch after church every Sunday.

Mark out special parking places for the church leaders… farthest from the building.

Take the church building budget. Pay a contractor to repair widows’ houses and fix the church building yourself with what’s left.

Give to and serve in community projects. Insist that your church’s name not appear on the credits.

Schedule church activities at different times than everyone else does. If everyone else has Wednesday night services, meet on Thursday. In this way you will add to, and not compete with, what God is doing elsewhere, and you will create opportunity for fellowship.

Team children with adults to minister to the needs of others, even adults. Children move into intercession easily when encouraged to do so.

Have parents minister to children rather than trying to “take this burden off them”. (In that tradition lie the seeds of the destruction of spiritual inheritance.)

If you are doing any of the following, STOP. If you are not doing it, do not start:

Taking attendance or counting heads. A true shepherd cannot depend on Sunday morning meetings to look after the sheep. And one who counts sheep is not a shepherd, but a herdsman.

Asking people to “place membership” with your group. If they are born again, they are members of the body of Christ. If “membership” requires more than Jesus required, it is not Jesus’ church they are joining.

Making attendance at your services a requirement for any other part of the spiritual relationship. Accountable relationships and ministry joints are the important things.

Making church programs out of God’s callings. If a person is called to make bread for the needy, buy him flour instead of starting a First Church Bakery Ministry. If a person is called to minister to the sick, pray, support and encourage him. Do not make him the Chairman of the Hospital Visitation Committee.

Making ministries that require you to find people to fill slots. This leads immature people to follow the slots rather than the Lord.

What think ye?