Saturday, April 30, 2005

Fear Rules!

We live in a dangerous world. People are out to get us. They want to kill us, maim us, abuse us, steal from us. They want to destroy our way of life.

And we don't know what to do.

Thursday, someone took a suspicious object into a middle school in Clovis, New Mexico. After locking down the school and having police in place all around the school they discovered the object was a burrito. It was a really BIG burrito (30 inches), but still only a burrito. Scary.

Burrito's are pretty dangerous. Just imagine how many calories and how much fat a 30 inch burrito would have. I bet the tortilla wrapper wasn't even whole wheat.

Maybe burritos aren't the biggest danger we face. But neither are terrorists. Though more dangerous than burritos - and absolutely murderous on many occasions, the worst they can do is kill us. We would be foolish to let our fear of terrorism control our lives - and equally foolish to pretend there is no threat. We need to find a healthy balance of preparation and busying ourselves with what we need to do.

Supporters of Beth Stroud looking for a change in the UMC blame the current UM position on homosexuality on homophobia. Translated into plain english, they're saying the majority in the UMC - at least the majority as determined by General Conference voting over the past 30 years - is AFRAID of homosexuals/homosexuality. Sometimes they generalize: We're afraid of the Different. We feel threatened. We might find that we're different too.

Is fear a factor, or is this just another way of the schoolyard challenger yelling, "Chicken!" - encouraging us to be more afraid of being afraid (or seen to be afraid) than acknowledging danger?

Is there any danger - anything to be afraid of? I suppose one could express a fear of displeasing God; a fear of leading the church astray; a fear of leaving people in brokenness away from the transforming grace of God; a fear that sexual hedonism will become the norm in the church as it is in the broader culture. Of course each of these presuppose the idea that God has an opinion - a preference - regarding human sexual relations, and that we can best discern that opinion/preference by consulting scripture before we consult our feelings, experiences - even our science.

Assuming any or all of these (or others) might be legitimate fears, what might be an appropriate response? Calling out the police? Deploying sharpshooters? I don't think so. If we look at Luke 15, we see the Pharisees and Jesus arguing about holiness and how to relate to those perceived as unholy. If we take Jesus as authoritative, then we can learn from his approach of defining holiness as not merely adhering to certain codes or standards, but bringing people back to God. Now this is a tough place to stand. It can easily be on the precipice of the slippery slope to antinomianism - "as long as I'm ok with God I can do whatever I want." But Jesus DID describe his way as narrow - and I think it is in more than one way.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Unfortunately, I'm not Surprised

Late last year, in accordance with the United Methodist Book of Discipline that declares that a "self-avowed practicing homosexual" is ineligible for appointment as a United Methodist pastor, Beth Stroud lost her clergy credentials. Today the verdict of that court was reversed on appeal. Today's decision was based on two points:
1. The General Conference has not defined "practicing homosexual"
2. The paragraph in which this rule occurs identifies the rule as based on the fact that the practice of homosexuality is "not compatible with Christian teaching." "Christian teaching" is "doctrine." The first restrictive rule in the UM Constitution limits what can be changed in our doctrine. The appeals court rules that because the GC had never spoken on the non-incompatibity of this restriction with our "accepted doctrine," it was therefore unconstitutional.


I have no reason to doubt that Beth Stroud loves God. I have no reason to doubt that she has abundant skills for pastoral ministry. But that is irrelevant. Although these are disciplinary qualifications for ordained ministry, they are not sufficient. This organization we call the ordained ministry of the UMC, like all organizations, has certain requirements. Some of these are positive: skills, abilities, achievements, practices, qualifications that must be in hand or in life before one is ordained or if one wishes to remain ordained. Some are negative - practices, attitudes, dispositions - that one must refrain from or not evidence it one is to be or remain ordained. We find most of these requirements in the Book of Discipline, though each Annual Conference adds some further specifity and hoops to jump through. Some of the requirements have long standing in the Christian tradition, some are peculiar to United Methodists. Some of our requirements are common and comprehensible to the ordained in other church groups, some aren't. Some make great sense, some are completely arbitrary. I like some of them, I don't like others.

But the thing is, my likes and dislikes are, at this point, irrelevant. As one who has entered the System, I have pledged myself to uphold it. It is my job to submit to it. This is tough sometimes. I sometimes don't like to submit (ok - rarely; submission isn't fun). But I was not forced to become a United Methodist pastor. I am not forced to remain one.

And neither is Beth Stroud.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Index for review of The Perfectly Imperfect Church

Here are links to the 10 parts of my review/discussion of Steve Sjogren's, The Perfectly Imperfect Church: Redefining the "Ideal" Church. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10.

Imperfect Church, part 10

With this post I'll close out my discussion of the 13 "paths" Steve Sjogren traces for the "struggling church" to become a "perfectly imporfect" church. The eleventh path, True, deals with doctrines & beliefs. Sjogren divides these into those that are essential, traditional, and opinions.Not surprisingly, he urges churches to pay the most attention to the essentials (under which he counts "Who Jesus is," "How we get truth," and "How we get right with God." I have to agree with him that most churches have enough agreements in these areas that they can exhbit basic unity with each other. Path 12 is Cooperative. The perfectly imperfect church lives out its misison in connection with other churches. It does not act like the only true church or seek to exalt itself above others. Finally, churches should be Leading Out. By this Sjogren seems to mean that churches should be bold and set strong, healthy examples for people.

The Book as a Whole: Sjogren's other books are more useful than this one. His most useful books for ordinary church ministry include, Conspiracy of Kindness; Irresistible Evangelism; and 101 Ways to Reach Your Community. This book would have worked better as an extended magazine article rather than a complete book. Perhaps if he'd spent more time on it he could have made it more substantive, meriting book-length treatment. My wife also read the book and thought the beginning of the book was good - especially where Sjogren says there is no single right way to be a healthy church. Her take on the rest of the book was that he then proceeded to deny his first point, implying that the "low-church Vineyard" way was the best.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Imperfect Church, part 9

Time to get a move on here, so in this post I'll deal with several of Sjogren's "paths"s to becming a "perfectly imperfect church." Path 8, which he calls Trusting, is about small groups. Small groups, he says, are the best way to build disciples, equip leaders, and maintain healthy body life. If you've read other books on small groups you'll find nothing new here. Path 9 is Atmospheric (I'm not sure we use that word in East Texas - must be an Ohio thing). Atmosphere (East Texans do use that word), he says, is "what people feel in a church." We help the atmosphere by allowing coffee in the sanctuary, paying attention to lighting, color, temperature, and seating in the worship space, and the flow of the service itself. Path 10 is Generosity. A healthy church is not stingy with its resources and through its acts of generosity - with outsiders, with other churches - trains its people to be generous. Of these three paths (Trusting, Atmospheric and Genrosity), I think this might be the biggest leverage point for the struggling church. In my experience fear is a major factor in the struggling church. Will we be able to keep the doors open? Will we be able to keep our own children in church? Will we be able to pay the bills? The natural response to money worries is to hang on more tightly to what one has. Stinginess seems to wise - and we know being wise is somehow connected to being godly. In the process we miss God - who is generous beyond our wildest imagination.

Peace between Christians and Muslims

Michael Totten has been paying close attention (on site) to the recent happenings in Lebanon. If you check out his blog you'll find many insightful reports on his time spent with Lebanese hunting for freedom. In a post today he notes:

Some of the tent-city residents have told me their goals are not only national. The goals of some of them (but not all of them) also are global. They truly believe they are resolving the clash of civilizations here in Beirut by proving that Christian and Islamic civilizations can co-exist in peace and in friendship. Lebanon has long been a bridge between East and West. In the future it may play the crucial role of a peace broker.

But it is not going to work if Lebanon cannot become a mature liberal democracy. Dictatorships notoriously use divide-and-rule tactics to pit their enemies against one another. Syria has been playing that game inside Lebanon - and on the world stage - for a long time. Terrorism is only one of the sinister byproducts of that. War is another.

In the last four years many have come to believe that the "clash of civilizations" between the Islamic world and the West will be a primary determinant in geopolitics for some time. Violence, it appears, has been endemic since the Crusades (or if one is more historically astute, since the Jihad-driven expansion of Islam after the death of Mohammed). Now in Lebanon, we're seeing that, at least in one locale, and at least for a short time, peace seems possible.

What strikes me in Totten's report is that he attributes this peace and friendship not to the inner convictions or dynamics of either group (Christianity or Islam) but to a shared commitment to or participation in a third tradition, liberal democracy. Is this a variant of the argument that "deep down" all peoples really want what we Americans (I say "Americans" not "Westerners" because we seem to emphasize it the most) are the fruits of liberal democracy = political choice and economic prosperity? Is this a variant of the modern argument that religion is necessarily divisive (and in a deadly way), and so must be marginalized and privatized? Does this mean that the West is winning the "clash" or is as sign, as Totten suggests, that the clash is being "resolved"? Perhaps it is an instantiation of Huntington's "third rule for peace," the "commonalities rule" (Clash of Civilizations, p. 320): "people in all civilizations should search for and attempt to expand the values, institutions, and practices they have in comon with the peoples of other civilizations."

Monday, April 25, 2005

Imperfect Church, part 8

Steve Sjogren's seventh path, Inclusive, is inaptly named for us in the mainline churches. When we use the term "inclusive," we're usually talking about gender/racial/ethnic boundaries. Sjogren uses the term as synonymous with (or very similar to) what others call "assimilation" - drawing people into the Body and connecting them with others and with the mission of the church. Rick Warren uses the baseball diamond to diagram Saddleback's system of inclusion/assimilation. Like Warren, Sjogren identifies four stages, but he rejects that model in favor of a circular model, recognizing that people continually cycle through the stages.

For Sjogren, we all start off in the hospital. We come as broken, sinful people in need of healing. In the Family, those who have (and are) experiencing healing are joined together and gain a sense of belonging to each other. After we learn to experience the koinonia that comes from family, we move to the School where we acquire skills to live life in a godly way and to be useful to God's Kingdom purposes. Finally, healed, joined, and equipped, we become part of God's Army, working in ministry to achieve His purposes. Since we work in an unfriendly, dangerous world, we find that before long we have new injuries and need t spend some time in the hospital again.

Imperfect Church, part 7

Sjogren's seventh path on the way to becoming a "perfectly imperfect church" appears very rarely in church growth books. He says the church needs to be Safe. "Feeling 'safe' is the assurance that nothing is going to be forced upon a person at any time against his or her will or outside her comfort level." As church leaders we need to work to maintain the safety of our people on many levels: physical, emotional, and spiritual among the most basic. Our Annual Conference is in the process of implementing (and causing local churches to implement) a Safe Sanctuary policy to protect children. Developing these policies is difficult - especially for small, struggling churches. These small churches that are used to fighting for perhaps one person to teach each Sunday school class now need twice as many. We're looking at Summer camp now, and trying to figure out how to get twice as many adults to go as usual - when the old number was exceptionally difficult.

We live in a dangerous world - if we consider nothing more than the fragility of children, hard objects, and Newton's laws of motion. As long as moral constraints were allowed in the broader culture, there seemed to be some damper on local human evil. Now with the divorce between morality and legality - leaving the latter as the only functioning restraint - it seems society is even more dangerous - for children.

So I understand the need for safety - for our children and also for adults. But I confess that as I read the Bible I find a God who isn't terribly safe. Always challenging and provoking, God continually gets people in over their heads in situations they can't handle. Read the end of Hebrews 11 sometime and see what God got those folks into. Taking Sjogren's point, however, I have no problem thinking that as we church leaders make our churches as safe as possible so there is plenty of room for God to make his blessed trouble for people (including us!).

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Imperfect Church, part 6

In his prescription for struggling churches wishing to become "perfectly imperect," Steve Sjogren has so far stuck with the usual fare. The next path he suggests breaks the mold - Fun. He says, "I have come to the conclusion that people only do something for a prolonged period of time when it's fun... We are hard-wired by God to do what is enjoyable."

I confess that I'd rather have fun than not, but I also recognize that when FUN becomes the principle by which I live I (and the people around me) am in trouble. This hedonistic approach seems foreign to the way of Jesus. "So are you saying," you may ask, "Was Jesus a kill-joy? A many who went around with a somber look on his face? A man who constantly looked like he'd been sucking lemons?" No - I think that's a false dichotomy.

Surely anyone who has been involved in discipling work for any length of time knows that one of the hardest parts of the job is helping people have the "want to" - the desire to become like Jesus and obey him. "If anyone wants to follow me, let him take up his cross and follow me." I understand the concept of "cross" and the concept of "fun." I see no overlap at all.

Of course this can make it hard for us to grow our churches if we're always talking about taking up crosses - of living a crucified life. There's no fun in that. No fun perhaps, but there is joy. Consider Paul in Philippians 4. The whole book has dealt with suffering: the willing suffering of Jesus; the willing suffering of Paul; the call of God upon the Philippians to a double imitation (of Jesus and Paul) in taking up their own suffering. Given all this apparently morbid talk, how does Paul close the letter? "Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice!" "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." And so on.

I think Sjogren needs to do a little more work on fun.

Pope Benedict XVI and Eschatology

Within a long report by John Allen in the National Catholic Reporter, I found the following:

In graduate school in the 1950s, Ratzinger found himself fishing around for a topic for his Habilitationsschrift, the book-length contribution to research a German doctoral student has to complete after his dissertation. His mentor, professor Gottlieb Söhngen, suggested that he work on St. Bonaventure.

Ratzinger liked the idea, and produced a daring thesis on revelation. He showed that according to Bonaventure, words on a page mean nothing without someone to interpret them. Ratzinger saw this insight as a refutation of Luther's sola scriptura principle, but his superiors accused him -- in what many cannot help but see today as a supreme irony -- of relativism. Ratzinger seemed to be saying that scripture could mean different things to different people!

The work was rejected.

Ratzinger then focused on Bonaventure's conflict with the "Spiritual Franciscans." That branch of the Franciscan movement had been inspired by the apocalyptic visionary Joachim of Fiore to expect a third age of history, an era of the Holy Spirit, in which the poor would be liberated and the rich torn down. Bonaventure, Ratzinger argued, rejected this expectation of a dramatic intervention by God inside human history.

The reign of God, in other words, had to wait for the next world. Ratzinger put it this way: Orthodox belief "tears eschatology apart from history."

Thus when Ratzinger began investigating liberation theology in the 1980s, he thought it had a familiar ring. The liberation theologians too, Ratzinger felt, wanted redemption inside history, and he saw their hopes as equally false.

In taking on liberation theology, Ratzinger saw himself picking up Bonaventure's argument against the Spiritual Franciscans from several hundred years before (he also, according to friends, saw echoes of the Marxist-inspired 1968 student revolts in liberation theology).

History town apart from eschatology... This way of depicting the God's relation to creation seems to have been a dominant view in modernity, and, by my assessment, one of the most deadly failings of the church. Though I doubt Ratzinger - or Bonaventure for that matter - would take it as far as Lessing's Ugly Ditch, their theological position seems like a step on the way toward accepting the rationalization and dehistoricization of the church and doctrine.

The view of eschatology inherent in this view sees it as something so absolutely otherworldly that it becomes difficult to see the church as continuing in the eschatological age inaugurated by Jesus. Salvation - in so far as we are concerned - too easily becomes something for the individual. The Pauline view of the salvation of all creation (Romans 8:17ff), if it is retained, is pushed to the end of history - or to after the end of history.

I think I will look at this further in the future.

Taxing tests

This is the week when all the public schools in Texas are taking the TAKS Tests. These are the standardized tests by which we as a society allegedly judged the success of our schools as well as of our students.

There is an almost constant din of complain that Texas public schools long ago abandoned the teaching of subjects in favor of "teaching to the test." School district's success and teacher's jobs are tied topassing rates, so can school be expected to do otherwise?

I had long been an opponent of the "dumbing-down" that is caused by "teaching to a test." This felt a bit ironic to me because I had always been fairly good at standardized tests. In a discussion on the topic a few years ago I was shocked into another perspective on the matter.

"The problem is not whether or not they are teaching to the test," he pointed out, "the problem is the test." He was right! If a standardized test is designed to measure success or accomplishment that translates beyond the sheets of multiple choice into a real world, then teaching to the test could actually be a good thing.

Whether or not the TAKS is a good measurement of the acquisition of knowledge or skills or of one's ability to succeed in the world of employment and family raising, I do not know. I will accept, however, that teaching to the test can be a good thing if it is a good test.

I am left wandering between oppsing camps on this matter. Like the Nostaglists, I lament the de-personalization of standardized tests and "national standards." But I am also postmodern enough that underlying the cries of the Nostalgists I hear "but we've never done it this way before."

For me, that's all the more reason to try something different.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Imperfect Church, part 5

In addition to being Simple, looking Upward and Outward, Sjogren says the church that wishes to become "Perfectly Imperfect" should be Anointed. In my United Methodist tradition I've only heard that word used to describe Jesus as the Messiah - the "Anointed One." In Sjogren's (semi-charismatic?) understanding, it is a spiritual word meaning something like "Reputation." He says, "A postive perception in your community is more powerful than words, programs, slogans, and all the great sermons in the world." In it's biblical context it would seem to be something that is solely dependent on the work of God. Sjogren, however, describes it as having both a "vertical" and a "horizontal" dimension. The former is what God does, the latter what we do. For the part we do, he mentions several things the church can do to build anointing. Here are some of them (read the book for his development of each).
  • Be committed to small things
  • Be real
  • Do what people consider to be practical actions
  • Be willing to take risks
  • Be committed to producing outward-focused disciples
  • Expect surprises from God
  • Be willing to be near the least, the lost and lonely
  • Be willing to act in simple ways to change lives
In my own church I often remind my people that we are in the "people business." We have an old sanctuary (100 years old) and an old church plant - both cause enough debt & expense that we have to fight the temptation to think we're in the money business. Sjogren's sound mostly like good ways to love people practically, though since he is moving beyond Outward to Anointed, he appears to be focusing on a desired effect of our acts of love.

Sjogren's distinction between vertical and horizontal anointing brings to mind the two main theories of revival. The school respresented by J. Edwin Orr sees revival as something God does. The church can prepare for revival and respond when it comes, but revival itself is a sovereign act of God. Charles Finney, on the other hand, saw revival as always a possibility for the church that was willing to use the right means to achieve it. According to Finney, God is always willing to send revival, if only we will fufill his requirements. With this chapter primarily focusing on "horizontal anointing" - what we do - it appears the Sjogren would side with Finney on this issue.

One final comment: I Peter talks about our reputation and its role in drawing people to Jesus. While Peter speaks of doing good, even more he talks about bearing up under suffering. He urges his audience to follow the example of Jesus (as Jesus fulfilled the image of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53). Thus according to the NT one of the key things we do in our relation to the world is willingly submit to the sufferings inflicted on us.

New Pope

Listening to the live feed from Rome, it sounds like the Pope is Joseph Ratzinger. The feed must have heavy demand, so it keeps cutting out.

UPDATE: The Washington Post's article reports the opinion of an American Catholic:
The Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame, said Ratzinger's homily indicated that he believes the pope's role is to "protect the sheep from the prowling wolves of unorthodoxy and relativism. He wants to defend the fact that truth is absolute and the church must speak the truth and be faithful to it."
Sounds ok to me, though from what the Post says McBrien is less than is less than excited.

I first ran across Ratzinger while doing my doctoral work. One of my teachers, Miroslav Volf, used quite a bit of Ratzinger's work in his own research on Christian community. I'd guess the connection has something to do with both of them being Tübingen people.

Friday, April 15, 2005

When to Pull a Feeding Tube

Christian philosopher Gilbert Meilander discusses feeding tubes and their removal from patients. A good discussion of the issue.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Imperfect Church, part 4

Steve Sjogren advises struggling churches to get Simple, look Upward, and work Outward. Sjogren first came to my attention as the strategist behind Servant Evangelism, and reaching people for Jesus remains noe of his strongest suits.

Worship and evangelism are closely connected in his thinking. "Sometimes having a dynamic worship experience makes us fall more deeply in love with Christ, which causes us to reach out to the not-yet-Christians God wants to include in his family. But sometimes it's looking outward first that leads us to worship - as we lovethe lost, we feel a need to worship God." As the "Perfectly Imperfect Church " seeks to look outward, he offers several guidelines:
  1. There are lots of different ways to be outward; the more varieties we have in our repetoire the better.
  2. All Evangelism is good evangelism (He expands greatly on this in his other book, Irresistible Evangelism which I'll blog at a later date.)
  3. Leading others to Christ isn't that complicated. Under this point he speaks about his omre recent experience, "I'm moving from a 'tell 'em how it is' to a 'let's discover salvation together' mode."
In leading people to Jesus he admonishes us to:
  • Keep it Loving
  • Keep it Real
  • Keep it Straight
  • Keep it Simple
  • Be Consistent in Your Outreaches
  • Tell Encouraging Stories Often
  • Find Creative Ways to Make Outreach Prominent at Weeken Celebrations
  • Stay Involved in Social Outreach
  • Create an Outreach Identity
  • Make a Strong and Enduring Commitment to Outreach

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

New Testament Scholars

My favorite NT scholars include N.T. Wright, Gordon Fee, Richard Bauckham, James Dunn & Ben Witherington. The last of these has a new website up.

Resources for Parents of Special-Needs Children

As a parent of a child with Special Needs, I try to keep my eyes open for helpful resources. There is so much I don't know how to do, that we need all the help we can get. This site of Steve Rhatigan looks pretty good.

Imperfect Church, part 3

Continuing a commentary on Steve Sjogren's The Perfectly Imperfect Church....

The second path for struggling churches (see Sjogren's definition in my first post in this series) involves worship - he calls it Upward. This chapter has some of his best points so far - as well as some I'd most like to argue with. He says, "It is absolutely essential to do worship well from the beginning of the church's existence. It's what people experience first when they come to your celebration."

If worship is about honoring God, then we clearly need to start there. If worship is a primary context in which people experience and come to know God, then we need to start there. But I'm still not sure what to do with his statement. First, my congregation is almost 150 years old. It's a little late to be considering what we can do form the "beginning of the church's existence." Second, because we are an old established congregation (we still have several regular attenders who joined in the 1920s), our people have an entrenched notion of what worship really is and what it should look and feel like. Third, as Sjogren knows, worship isn't about us - or about our visitors. It's about God. If so, when we evaluate whether we are doing worship well the response of visitors - or even our regulars - cannot be of first importance.

He goes on - and this statment causes the most trouble:
Here's a caution for smaller churches: You have to get past acting like a small family during worship. The natural tendency for small, struggling churches is to do what they call family-friendly worship, which means that children are present with the adults during the singing portion of the service. I don't recommend including the children. They don't get much out of worship, in spite of what we adults would like to think. It just isn't fair to the children; they are bored being with the adults, and they are not learning to worship. They would be far better off in another room with children their own age.... I have never seen a church do worship well when the children are present.
As a preacher I have sympathy with this point of view. Some of the messages I need to preach are PG-13 and are not appropriate for children. Also, as a communicator, I'm aware of the great difficulty of speaking in a way that meets the needs and hold the attention of the wide age span present in our normal worship services. I can do good children's messages - or so the children tell me from time to time. I can do messages that grab the adult's attention and challenge them - or so they tell me from time to time. But doing both at the same time? That's tough, if not impossible to do on a regular basis. I know there is a price to pay - my youngest daughter is a great one for inviting her friends to church. She explained the other night that she invites them to church to make it less boring. Ouch.

I've seen churches that do age-segregated worship. Northpoint Church in Alpharetta, Georgia appears to do both really well. When I visited Steve Sjogren's church I didn't have a chance to examine what they did with children (and that was about 10 years ago). They may do equally as well. But I notice that these churches have more than 10 times as many in attendance as we do. We take our kids out for Children's Church most Sundays - even that challenges our available leadership. Most of the older people are "retired" from children's ministry ("we did that when our kids came up, now it's your turn"), so the burden falls on the parents who then miss the worship services. We also don't have the financial & technological resources to do what churches like Northpoint do.

Notice, however, that what I've said about the communication gap and children's church misses Sjogren's point. He's not talking about taking kids out for the message - he's talking about taking them out of the "worship" time - by worship he seems to mean the singing time. Doubtless, there are plenty of children who "get nothing out of worship," and demonstrate this by their lack of participation. But why should this be an argument for exclusion? On the same basis I can think of a bunch of men (mostly men - but a few ladies) who should be excluded from worship. All they do is stand there and stare when we sing. What about the autistic and mentally handicapped? It would seem then that the goal is not exclusion of non-worshiping worshipers, but doing the hard work of engaging the non- (and proto) worshipers of all ages. As for his final statement: I know what he's getting at, but his judgment is irrelevant. I have troubel seeing Jesus say to the church, "Oh well, you included children in your worship today. Your worship just isn't good enough.)

But he has much more to say on worship beyond Exclude the children.

He says that we ned to focus on helping peopel encounter God in worship. The starting point for this is identifying and eliminating the things (like doing goofy, gimmicky things) that keep this from happening. Applying his first path (Simple) with the second (Upward) he says we need to avoid complicated worship. In this section he explains how to build a band to lead worship. (Of course in traditional churches we already have institutions of worship leadership in place, so his advice is best for starting new services and forms of outreach.)

Skipping a few points (this series is not a substitute for reading the book), he claims that style is irrelevant. While some styles clearly are detrimental to worship in certain settings, I have to agree. Talking about style he concludes: "Your style isn't what causes God's presence to come into your midst. [I'd say, "Steve, remember that including children in worship is just as much a style as differences in music."] Style is almost irrelevant. God comes into your midst because hearts are hungry for the presence of God."

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Imperfect Church, part 2

In Steve Sjogren's The Perfectly Imperfect Church, he identifies 13 paths a church travels to become perfectly imperfect. The first of these he calls, "Simple." He thinks that the way we tend to do church is too complicated for most people. He includes many practicalities from his experience leading worship (and you find these in many church leadership books): Keep the service to 60 minutes (not so common advice form someone in his tradition), do smooth & short transitions, keep the message 25-30 minutes. Simple is not only about worship services, but is about the total practice of doing Church. He makes two important points here. First, as we pursue simplicity, we will find ourselves "saying no to many good things." One of the ways I present that in my ministry is asking the question, "Is that a good idea or a God idea?" Second, the work of simplification is difficult and painful. Churches develop traditions (the actions we defend with 'We've always done it that way!) very quickly. Most people only have to attend once to choose a seat that is "theirs." Our church is about 150 years old. Since simplification means change, it will definitely cause much pain - even more than I think Sjogren realizes. As I'll comment on a future chapter, he doesn't seem to have much experience with old established churches & seems to assume leaders have more power to bring change, or can do so more quickly than I've seen in my experience. But then maybe I'm just too timid.

The Significance of Little Things

We usually take little things for granted - that's why we clasify them as little things and not big things. In social contexts it can be really hard to tell whether something is big or little. Think no farther than family life. I'm very different from my wife. She's visually observant and I'm not. It can take me months to notice a piece of furniture or wall decoration. So when it comes to things that cause changes in our visual fields, most things are little to me but big to her.

The Spirit of America Blog is now visiting in Lebanon, meeting many of the people hungry for freedom. He notes:
The U.S. and Europe are both winking - big time - at Lebanon now. We had better be serious. I get the impression the Lebanese have no idea how important their tiny country's struggle is to the rest of the world. And I wonder if Americans and Europeans have any idea how powerfully the tiniest word of support, even in a politician's throw-away line at a press conference, resonates here.
So what are we to do when things we do that we think are almost meaningless mean so much - and perhaps in completely unintended ways - to the people who see and hear us? I don't know the whole of it, but I think the startign point is paying attention. We need to learn to pay attention to what we do and say. We need to learn to pay attention not only to what the people around us do and say, but also how they hear and respond to what we and others say. In practical life, this will likely mean that we act and speak more slowly as we add in more processing time.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Imperfect Churches

This coming Sunday I'm preaching on "The Blessings of an Imperfect Church." As part of my preparation I picked up a copy of Steve Sjogren's book, The Perfectly Imperfect Church: Redefining the "Ideal" Church. I've enjoyed Sjogren's books in the past, and thought this one might be useful as well.

Sjogren begins by identifying four kinds of churches. The first he calls the struggling church. This kind of church has fewer than 200 in average attendance. Most churches in America fit in this category. Everything in this church is work. Leadership is hard to come by. Because there are few leaders, those there are tire quickly. He says leading a struggling cuhrch is like his friend's experience one a yacht trip when the crew was only half what was needed. They finally made it to port, but just barely.

My current congregation fits into this category. In a lot of ways we're doing pretty well. Attendance is up since I've been here and we're managing to pay the bills. But Sjogren's right. It's lots of work. As Senior Pastor I have to pay attention each pay period to make sure there's enough income to make payroll - and pay all the debts we've accumulated caring for our historic buildings. We have a thriving children's ministry - last week at our after-school program for 5-6th graders we had at least 40 kids, most non-church kids. But we're going to have to change the program radically - we just don't have the people we need to handle that many of the kind of kids we're attracting and maintain a safe, positive environment for them all. We need to start new small groups - but leadership is already stressed. Large churches like Sjogren's Cincinnati Vineyard make some things look so easy.

The second kind of church is the Ego-Driven Church. These view largeness - of the church and pastor's persona - as an end in themselves. They tend to be self-centered. He doubts they'll last for the long haul.

The Launching Pad Church is the third type. In common language we might call this a healthy Megachurch (where the last type was the UNhealthy Megachurch). This kind of church is evidently blessed by God and completely willing to share that blessing. Instead of simply growing, they seek to plant other churches. This kind of church also shares with other churches as a teaching church, sharing the knowledge & skills it has gained with others.

The final type of church in Sjogren's typology is the Pretty Good Church. This type is distinguiched by size - averaging 300-500 in attendance, which gives it enough resources, both financial & leadership, to maintain the church. He thinks this kind of church may be the healthiest, even saying that if he had it to do over again, he would have led his congregation to become several smaller congregations scattered geographically instead of a megachurch.

Avoiding Dangerous Situations

The Bible tells us that "the wages of sin is death." That sounds pretty dangerous to me. One of the prevailing sins in our culture (and throughout the ages from what I can tell) is the way men deal with and relate to women. It's horrible how many pastors and ministry leaders end up destorying their families and churches through what they do - even if it's "only once."

James McDonald, pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel, has written about the "fences" he's put up to protect himself (and thus his wife, family and church) from sin in this area. His fences are pretty close to what I try to do. His practice is well worth considering by all men in ministry - even all Christian men.

What about Christian women? I'm not sure what precautions they take. If anyone has some insight in this area, please add some comments.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Out of the Pulpit for 2 Weeks

Everyone knows the preachers only work 1 day a week. When someone else is doing the preaching for us, we don't even work that one day. People seem to think it's easy for us. It sure isn't for me.

Last week was the celebration of our church sanctuary's centennial. Bishop Janice Riggle Huie was our guest speaker. She did a good job by all accounts. This week was UMW Sunday, and one of our lay speakers who is also District UMW President spoke on the history, values and activities of the UMW. She did a good job too. It's still tough not to preach. Why?

First, I try to preach purposively. This entails the hard work of discerning what God is wanting to do in the lives of the people and knowing the people well enough to know to say what needs to be said in a way that they can hear while keeping their attention. At no time can I say everything that needs to be said, so week to week I build on what I've done in the past. Somethings cannot be said until I've laid the groundwork - sometimes for weeks, months or years. I feel like I get so few shots at people - especially since so many attend only sporadically - that I need to get every one I can.

Second, I rarely know what other preachers are going to say. There are plenty of preachers out there that say some pretty wacky things. I can too easily imagine working for a year to build to a particular point in a complex argument only to have a guest preacher come in and say something that knocks me back to square one.

So I worry too much. I take these occasions as opportunities to pray more. As pastor, it is up to me. But as for life change, that's not my department. My job is faithful obedience. My job is working hard and investing in the lives of people.

Out for the past two weeks - but I'll be back next Sunday!

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Division vs. Unity

In today's New York Times, David Brooks writes (requires registration) about the relative advantage (political) conservatives have vs. liberals by being so much more divided. I'm not sure this is entirely correct, though it does seem true that liberals value unity more than conservatives do. (Within the church, unity is a value clearly articulated by Jesus in John 17:21, and by Paul in Ephesians 4:1ff. If within the UMC we identify a one-dimensional theological spectrum with conservative at one end, and liberal at the other, it seems to me that the relative ranking of unity in relation to other values and concerns is higher at the liberal end of the spectrum.) Perhaps because liberals value liberty so much, they tend to see it in conservatives while conservatives would deny it. We see this in politics in talk of the "Vast Right Wing Conspiracy;" we see it in the church in the recent assertion that UM conservatives as merely political hacks working for the secular Vast Right Wing Conspiracy, aiming to take over the church (one response to these accusations can be found here). Although I could write further about which side is more paranoid about the other, I'd like to focus on a further point Dabid Brooks made in today's column. He observes:
When modern conservatism became aware of itself, conservatives were so far out of power it wasn't even worth thinking about policy prescriptions. They argued about the order of the universe, and how the social order should reflect the moral order. Different factions looked back to different philosophers - Burke, Aquinas, Hayek, Hamilton, Jefferson - to define what a just society should look like.

Conservatives fell into the habit of being acutely conscious of their intellectual forebears and had big debates about public philosophy. That turned out to be important: nobody joins a movement because of admiration for its entitlement reform plan. People join up because they think that movement's views about human nature and society are true.

Liberals have not had a comparable public philosophy debate. A year ago I called the head of a prominent liberal think tank to ask him who his favorite philosopher was. If I'd asked about health care, he could have given me four hours of brilliant conversation, but on this subject he stumbled and said he'd call me back. He never did.

This politcal phenomenon looks like a secular version of what I've heard said in the UMC: "Doctrine divides, service unites." The implicit argument goes something like this: "Let's not pursue questions of truth and belief too much, since we'll inevitably disagree. Disagreement leads to rancor, rancor leads to disunity. Since unity is our highest value, we need not only to avoid doing that which harms unity (attending to doctrine) but we also need to focus on what we can all agree on - being loving, kind people who do good things for people. " You don't have to be in the church long to hear something like this. In this context, liberals are often quick to judge conservatives (because of their emphasis on doctrine) as not caring about love, while conservatives tend to accuse liberals of not caring about doctrine. I've known too many loving conservatives and too many doctrinally concerned liberals to think this is an accurate picture. I do believe, however, that what we see at work here is a combination of different understandings of the nature and function of key concepts (doctrine, love, unity) and a resulting difference in the way these concepts are valued and work themselves out in church life. (For a detailed discussion on different views of the nature and function of doctrine in the church see my book The Recovery of Doctrine in the Contemporary Church.)

If we both value unity - which as followers of Jesus we must - and if we reckon that we do not now have it (in spite of the fact that we're the UNITED Methodist Church), then our first step will be to recognize that unity is something we have to work at. Paul says to keep the unity of the Spirit. We get the idea that it's difficult. The road to unity is not merely the way of official pronouncements, holding hands and singing "We are One in the Spirit." In fact, I'm convinced we need MORE, not less argument. If we're willing to tell the truth about our current disunity, and spend time pursuing clarity about where we now stand (this is a BIG job), then we can - over time - achieve healthy unity.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Changing the Institution of Marriage

This is a long discussion about changing/reforming institutions, written from a secular - libertarian point of view. The author's conclusion is that she simply doesn't have enuogh information to decide whether gay marriage would be a good thing or not. Well worth reading.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Emily & Kelsey: Easter 2005

Emily & Kelsey: Easter 2005
Originally uploaded by rheyduck.
Our oldest daughter Emily met Kelsey while in school in Houston. They have been good buddies ever since. Emily is sad that Houston is so far away, and they only get to see each other a couple of times a year.

Friday, April 01, 2005

UM Bishop on Terri Schiavo case

Tim Whitaker, UM Bishop in the Florida Annual Conference has a well-reasoned and compassionate piece on the Terri Schiavo case.