Thinking Out Loud

October 20, 2014

The Fright Industry

Filed under: Church, current events — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:41 am

pumpkin-carving

They appeared just after Labor Day.  Pop-up retail stores in strip malls and indoor centers dedicated wholly to the evening of October 31st.

Pop-up retail is not for the faint of heart. It involves a certain amount of portability in terms of inventory and fixtures, but you’re still installing cash registers and point of sale terminals, hiring staff and presumably obtaining liability insurance; all with a less than 60-day sales window.

In the U.S. and Canada, there is now big money in Halloween. It doubled between 2005 and 2011 in a way that other holidays did not. But numbers vary with each survey. A Forbes survey had it fourth, but had Thanksgiving second — food, no doubt being factored in — while a National Retail Federation survey for the same time period didn’t mention Thanksgiving at all, but listed “Winter Holidays” followed by Mother’s Day, Valentines Day and Easter.  A more recent NRF study had October 31st dead last, by a large margin, and trailing — any guesses? — the Super Bowl.

It eclipses Christmas for many families and neighborhoods in terms of decoration and the participation of children.  This year, having the holiday on a Friday night means some people may buy two costumes for two weekend parties.

Even within the broader Church, there are people who are totally unaware of All Saints Day, the feast day that follows on November 1st.  But in some conservative quarters, and also some not-so-conservative Evangelicals, an anti-Halloween movement started perhaps 20 years ago.  On this topic, I wrote:

…Of all the things that we could NOT do when I was younger — card playing, Sunday shopping, dancing, etc. that we now CAN DO; it’s interesting that there is this one unique area where we COULD do something years ago that now Evangelicals feel we can NOT do…

Taking my kids out trick-or-treating when they were younger was something that I sometimes I had to do rather low-key, as the winds of change among my church community were already blowing.

But this year, for the second time, we’re probably skipping participation in terms of handing out goodies as well. Our neighborhood has grown up somewhat; or perhaps we’re reacting to the mega-industry Oct. 31st has become and are simply trying to maintain a distinct identity.  


 

Redeeming the holiday: A preaching series tied to Halloween.

 

 

 

October 14, 2014

Preaching That Shakes Things Up

Filed under: Church, ministry — Tags: , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:14 am
“A church that doesn’t provoke any crises, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed, what gospel is that? Very nice, pious considerations that don’t bother anyone, that’s the way many would like preaching to be. Those preachers who avoid every thorny matter so as not to be harassed, so as not to have conflicts and difficulties do not light up the world they live in. They don’t have Peter’s courage, who told that crowd where the bloodstained hands still were that had killed Christ: ‘You killed him!’ Even though the charge could cost him his life as well, he made it. The gospel is courageous; its the good news of him who came to take away the world’s sins.”

~Archbishop Oscar Romero – 1978 I

October 13, 2014

Megachurch Musicians

Filed under: Church, music — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:09 am

Warning: Run-on sentence follows:

I think if I joined a mega-church and aspired to be part of the worship team, and then jumped through all the hoops of auditioning and qualifying, when the moment finally came where I was actually on that stage, I would be so concerned about doing well and making a good impression, I actually wouldn’t really be worshiping God at that moment. 

Human nature is human nature. If you read the tags, I’ve tagged this post “ecclesiastical ambition.” It certainly describes pastors, but musicians have a more natural affinity to wanting acceptance; of wanting to be liked.

Today's post was written by this guy.

Today’s post was written by this guy.

So here’s what I’ve concluded: Everybody who gets up on a large (or mega) church platform should be forced to wear a mask so that nobody knows who they are. Yes, a mask. Think of what a motive-purifying thing this would be. Think of how this would respond to the church culture that sees the people on the platform as performers

If this goes against the grain, you could consider having the musicians (and people who do announcements) stand with their backs to the audience. Or they could present the worship set from the back of the auditorium the way many church choirs once stood in a balcony at the back; the manner in which the church organist (the only church musician at the time) once performed from the back, or with his or her back to the congregation. 

In the life of service to God through public ministry, there’s no room for ego. 


Update 10:30 AM: I had no idea when I posted this that the same day Talbot Davis would post a sermon text with the repeated refrain, “God’s word is better delivered in obscurity than by celebrity.” Take the time to read it by clicking this link


Somewhat related: “There is no limit on what can be done for God if it does not matter who is getting the earthly credit.”  Read that blog post here.

October 10, 2014

The Clergy Caste and the Laity Caste

I originally posted this two years ago. I think I was somewhat angry when I wrote it. Sometimes that makes for the best blog items. Returning to it two years later, the anger is now more of a lament that things are the way they are in the church.

We had the option of staying in Toronto where we attended a church where people in leadership share the Sunday morning preaching responsibilities. But we felt God was calling us to a small town that didn’t have a church of that denominational stripe, or one where shared teaching was practiced. For years and years I had no regrets. But then, about 2-3 years ago, the regret just started pouring out of me.

I also think of how having to prepare weekly messages would have developed my Christian walk. Sometimes, I admit, I need to be forced into situations that create the fertile ground for spiritual growth. Mind you, I did do some messages back in the day that were terrible. It kinda works both ways…

…Anyway, what follows is what I wrote exactly 24 months ago. I believe in the concept of the church “setting people apart” for vocational ministry. I just don’t think that means they can’t share teaching/preaching responsibilities…


When
it comes to the availability of information and resources, these are interesting times. There is nothing that can’t be accessed, and as a member of the laity, it is easy to ‘pig out’ on all manner of commentaries and Bible reference materials that heretofore tended to be the exclusive property of those in vocational ministry.

Nowadays in any given denomination, it’s easy to find pastors who can’t preach their way out of a wet paper bag, and to hear as many stories about an absolutely phenomenal adult Sunday School Bible teacher with great gifting, who works the rest of the week on a automotive assembly line or is a cattle farmer, or sells restaurant supplies.

This week I was hoping to connect with a pastor friend, who mentioned that he had come down with somethingitis. I fired off an email joking, “Let me know if you need me to preach.”

Well, not so joking. I’ve actually done the Sunday morning message in his church many years prior to his arrival here, and for that matter, at six other area churches.

He ended up not being able to preach, as no doubt his somethingitis turned into otheritis. A mutual friend — who happens to be ordained — jumped in and filled the gap. I just chanced to hear about this yesterday afternoon on my way to the bank. After cashing a check, I walked back to my car and a strange thought hit me, “You’re not going to get those opportunities in the future because you’re not part of the clergy class, they are the ones who have the hidden secrets.

You know the hidden secrets, right? Well, actually you don’t; that’s the point. That extra bit of information that does not exist on line; the things passed on when you reach your 32nd degree ordination. The mysteries of faith that cannot be revealed to the common masses. The things not even known to that eloquent adult elective teacher.

That’s why the great chasm between the laity and clergy exists. There are some things simply too great — too lofty — to pass on to the rest of us. And that’s why the next time your church offers to help people ‘develop their gift,’ they do not include you in that gift-development if your gift happens to look terribly similar to their gift.

October 5, 2014

Names You Should Know

Filed under: Church — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:47 am

Outreach Magazine is out with its latest list of the 100 Fastest Growing Churches in the U.S. and the 100 Largest Churches in the U.S. You can download a free 23-page .pdf copy of their latest data at this webpage, and learn how you can order the full magazine in single copies or in bulk.

There are however some churches which are conspicuously absent, including Lifechurch.tv (Craig Groeshel) and Lakewood (Joel Osteen), and we need to remind ourselves that as great as its influence is, the Christian world does not end at the U.S. borders.

Some of these names will be new to you, and some will be familiar. Either way, these are names you should be aware of. Download the full report to get the church names, locations, attendance numbers, website links and other stats. These are for the largest churches (in order, in groups of 25). We also did one for the fastest growing churches yesterday at Christian Book Shop Talk.

Lead Pastors of 100 Largest Churches

September 25, 2014

Doing the Church Tour

church-hopping bunny 2

I’ve written about this before, but was reminded again after reading an article by Peter Chin on the blog Third Culture, the newest page launched a few days ago by Christianity Today. He called it, Why A Little Denomination Hopping Is Not A Bad Thing

It begins:

Sometimes, I’m a little embarrassed to be identified as an American Christian because it feels like we fall into one of two camps: either we hate everything that we are not familiar with, or hate everything that we used to like.

A good example of the former is a controversy that recently sprang up at Gordon College, where undergraduates were scandalized at the introduction of a strange and foreign type of worship experience during their chapel services: gospel music. Yes, GOSPEL MUSIC, one of the oldest and richest liturgical traditions in American faith.

Examples of the latter are too numerous to count. The Christian blogosphere and publishing industry are filled with memoirs of people ranting about how terrible their church experience was growing up, and how their current place and style of worship is what Jesus had in mind all along. When cast in this adversarial light, what should have been personal stories of finding one’s home in faith instead read like a harrowing escape from a doomsday cult, and serve as yet another salvo in our nation’s already raging cultural wars.

These two tendencies have unfortunately come to define Christians in this country, that we either despise everything with which we are unfamiliar, or the exact opposite…

church hopperThere are some great Tweetable moments in the article:

  • It is this exposure that allows me, and others who share my background, to avoid that terrible tendency to either despise other Christian traditions, or despise one’s own.
  • [D]o any of us willingly and easily engage with things with which we have no exposure?
  • I don’t believe in a denominational promised land, just an eternal one.

To read the full article, click the title above or click here.


I started to write this as a comment, but it got lost in the ether. So I’ll share it here.

In my local community, I tell people they need to “do the tour.” I recommend taking four weeks. If you’re Evangelical do the high church tour. If you’re Mainline Protestant check out the Pentecostals and the Wesleyans. These days, with multiple services, you can do this and still not miss anything back home.

I also tell them that the point isn’t to consider making a switch, but to return with a richer understand of your own denomination’s place in the broader spectrum.


Related:

September 21, 2014

Climbing the Ministry Ladder

Filed under: Church, ministry, writing — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:25 am

Conrad sat in the living room staring at the “yearbook” that Central Church had given him when he resigned several years ago. Well, “resigned” wasn’t exactly the right word, but other than that, there was nothing about his time pastoring the 700-member church that did not evoke fond memories.  He was only the third pastor Central had ever known, and while he did not experience the rapid growth of his predecessors, he’d seen the church grow from 556 members to 703.

Not that it was about numbers.  Well, maybe it was. His first church was 168 members, but he was only there for three years. Then he jumped at the opportunity to go to a 289 member church, where he stayed for five years. Next, he entered a four year term with the 374 member — oh, my goodness; it really was about numbers; he couldn’t believe he had remembered all that detail.

Short StoriesBut Central was the pinnacle as it turned out, twelve years, and average weekend attendance just under a thousand in two services, with 703 of those people full members.

And then he got sent to East Valley on an interim pastor assignment, that ended up lasting six years. Smaller numerically. A little backward culturally. He was balding now and the 414-member church was an older demographic that signified, along with his own age, the numbers might start dropping. And then it did.

Before he knew it, he was doing a meaningless job in the district office waiting out the years to retirement. He had ridden the entire parabolic curve of church size.

He put the yearbook down and sighed.

“You’d better get ready to go;” his wife Carla admonished from the kitchen, “The service at Whispering Willows starts at 2:00 PM.”

So this is what it comes to, he thought.  Sunday afternoon chapel services in the local seniors’ home.

The pianist assigned from the Salvation Army didn’t know any of the hymns he’d bookmarked. “We tend to do Army music;” she confessed, “But I can do Amazing Grace and How Great Thou Art.”

“That’s all they ever want to sing anyway;” Conrad told her, and at 1:55 Whispering Willows staff started wheeling in the dozen-and-a-half women and three men who had signed up to go to chapel that week, plus two staff. Okay, a few of the residents used walkers, but he noticed that everybody that week had some type of appliance necessary to get them around.

At 2:00 he opened in prayer.  At 2:01 they sang How Great Thou Art. At 2:05 they sang Amazing Grace. At 2:08 he asked the pianist if she would play a little number from her Salvation Army hymnal. She gladly obliged, but the tune was unfamiliar and the melody was incomprehensible. But now it was 2:10.

Conrad checked his watch again. These services ran an hour, usually 40 minutes of singing and a 20 minute message. He knew he needed to stretch, so he asked if anyone had any prayer requests. “Just put your hands up.”

Surprisingly a woman in the second row did just that. He nodded toward her to share anything with the group and she said, “This isn’t the dining room.”

“No it isn’t;” Conrad replied.

Silence.

More silence. He noticed the ticking of a mantle clock he’d never noticed before. Things had never been this quiet.

“You know;” the retired pastor said, “I come here each month and I’ve never really told you much about myself, so before I share today’s scripture reading and message, perhaps I should share my story.”

So he spoke about his call to ministry late in high school, and how he had gone off to his denomination’s Bible college, and how he graduated and started climbing the ministry ladder. The problem was, as he had done before leaving for Whispering Willows, he was sharing more about the metrics of the various churches than about anything else that had happened in those various communities.

There was no story about Fred, or Jill, or Michael, or Jennifer, or anyone else. It was about the 168 and the 289 and the 374 and the 703 — there’s the high point again — and down to the 414. There was no reference to Carla standing by him in all those years in ministry, or raising a daughter and two sons in those various churches.

And then Conrad stopped. He had been listening to his own story. And he realized that it sounded pathetic.

It wasn’t that all he cared about were the numbers; it’s that he was bitter about never again getting the adrenaline rush associated with being able to speak to a thousand people each weekend. About being bounced down to a smaller church. And then left to deteriorate in a useless administrative position in the district office.

Another resident raised a hand, this time one of the men.

“You left out a number;” he said; “22. There’s twenty-two of us here, twenty-four if you count yourself and the woman who can’t play the piano.” (Of course he had miscounted by one, but…)

“Well actually;” he said, trying to do some damage control, “I think she did those hymns really well, she just doesn’t know the ones that are in your book.”

“Well I grew up Salvation Army, so hey, Miss, do you know Thou Christ of Burning, Cleansing Flame?”

“I don’t think we know that–” he started to say, but the pianist suddenly lighted up and launched into a rather rousing introduction, uncovering previously hidden keyboard skills, and the man stood to his shaking feet and in a loud and clear voice sang verse after verse.

As it turned out the song had a hook, a line that repeated constantly and by the 4th verse, all the residents were singing. Singing loudly, “Send the fire, Send the fire, Send the fire.”

By now it was 2:40 and he was back on schedule.

He read the text for the message, a sermon from the files of the glory days at Central Church, slightly shortened to fit the 20-minute window. In his mind he was back there. Two services. A thousand people every weekend.

One of the two staff members held up a cardboard sign that said “One Minute Left.” He thanked everyone for coming and gave a short benediction.  The staff members started getting ready to pull wheelchairs out of rows and into the hallway.

“Wait a minute! Stop!” yelled the man who had introduced the last song into the service mix; “That number you forgot. We aren’t 703 members, but there’s twenty-two of us, and we’re the best damn twenty-two people you’ve got right now.”

Conrad looked deep into the man’s eyes, and then noticed the smile.

And then he smiled back.

And then time froze and the staff stopped moving wheelchairs and everyone waited for Conrad to say something in return, except he couldn’t think of anything. Nothing at all. So he said the first words that popped into his head.

“This isn’t the dining room.”

 

September 5, 2014

If You Lived Here, You’d Know How to Get There

Filed under: Church — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:13 am

confusing street signageBeing unable to fully use our mobile phones (see yesterday’s post) we’ve spent the last 4 or 5 days at the mercy of others giving us directions.  This is a basic skill that apparently is not covered in the education system.

 

I am reminded of the classic comedy line where somebody is on a bus (or train or trolley) and asks for directions to a given place and is told, “That’s easy; watch me and get off one stop before I do.”

 

Being told that the restaurant in question is next door to Red Lobster is of no use if you don’t know where Red Lobster is.  Somehow, even though it’s rather plain that you need help, there seems to be an assumption that everybody knows everything there is to know about your home town.

 

This has got me wondering if we do the same sort of thing in the Church; if people are entering into our congregational life as outsiders and we’re simply assuming they know all the basics of both the Bible narrative and the way we do church.

 

Several years ago, we attended a church that had as a staff position, ‘Pastor of Assimilation’.  While there are negative aspects of the word ‘assimilation’, the position recognized the fact there were people who were potentially confused and the need to point them in the right direction.

August 18, 2014

From the Diary of Isaac Wotts, Church Janitor

Filed under: charity, Church, writing — Tags: , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:47 am

Isaac writes:

One of the things I hate is when someone comes up to me on Sunday morning and says, “There’s something in the men’s room you need to see.” I try to dress up a little for Sunday, but there’s a great deal of wisdom in actually attending a different church than the one which employs you, especially if you’re the church custodian. (But if you’re the pastor; then it doesn’t work out too well.)

Short StoriesIn the handicapped stall, someone had carried in a chair from an adjacent Sunday school room, propped it up underneath the ventilation grate and then apparently knocked the grate down, bending it somewhat.

“Would you like to know what happened here?” I asked the man who had located me. He nodded so I continued. “This happens every two years. A bunch of middle school boys are in here and hear the sound of the toilet flushing in the adjacent women’s restroom. They realize the rooms are not totally soundproof and then they recognize the voices of middle school girls they know talking loudly. They are determined to either hear more or see more and so they climb up here only to discover the vents point away from the floor and the whole exercise is pointless.”

I thanked him for letting me know about the problem, and then, since the chair was already in place, I climbed up to see if the grate could be fitted back on and when I determined it wasn’t too badly bent, I opted to go get a soft mallet so I could deal with it right away. Just before I climbed down, I discovered firsthand how clear the sound is when you are close to the ventilation system…

“…I don’t know how she manages with all those children.”

“I know, and she wears that same blue and white outfit to church week after week after week. Like, doesn’t she have anything else in her closet.”

“Well at least when those brats are acting up they don’t have to put her number on the screen; the ushers can always find her in that same white shirt and blue vest thing…”

At that moment someone came into the restroom and I thought it better to climb down lest I be accused of the very thing the middle school boys were up to.

About three minutes later I was back standing on the chair, ready to hammer the grate in place, and just as I was about to strike the first blow I realized there were different people in the rest room next door…

“Hi, Wendy how is it going?”

“Well, my brother Tom is being released from the hospital on Thursday, so then he says he’s ready to take the kids back over the next month; so we’re going to very slowly work our way down from six kids to just my three.”

“It must cost you a fortune to feed them.”

“Yeah, and they’ve all grown over the summer and need back-to-school clothes, and the hand-me-down thing doesn’t work because of the girl/boy distribution. I’ve got $75 to spend on all six of them. And that leaves me with nothing. I’ve got three changes of clothes to wear to work, and I don’t know how many times I’ve worn this one to church.”

“Why don’t you come by the thrift shop?”

“Oh I practically live there, Olivia; but not the one you work at, we go uptown because there’s free parking.”

“No, I want you to come to mine, downtown. I’ll use my manager key in the cash register and authorize the cashier to give you 50% off everything; I’ll explain it in the log somehow. Come next week, and park in the Jefferson Street lot, and bring the parking receipt into the store and I’ll get it authorized.”

“That would be awesome. I’m not gonna turn you down. I really appreciate…”

…And then they must have walked out the door.

Church CustodianI banged the ventilation grate into place, picked up the chair and emerged from the men’s room, noticing the two Grade Seven boys on the opposite hallway looking at me and laughing. Suspicions confirmed.

Inside the maintenance room, I replaced the mallet, and then grabbed a roll of masking tape from a nearby shelf. I reached in my wallet and pullet out a gift card from Sears that I knew had about $48 left on it. Not much, but still…

I placed two strips of tape on the card, and on the first I wrote, “$48 — Treat yourself;” and on the second “Use this for YOU.”

Wendy was easy to spot. She was wearing the aforementioned blue and white thing. “This is for you;” I said, “From someone who wishes to remain anonymous.”

She read it and said, “Oh I’ll bet this from Olivia.”

“No, I said;” It’s not from Olivia; when were you talking to her?”

“In the women’s room this morning.”

“No, Wendy, this totally predates that.”

I walked away. It predated it by about three minutes to be sure; it was part of the earlier conversation I overheard, so it wasn’t a lie, right?

 

 

 

July 31, 2014

Picketing a Place of Worship

A bunch of people plan to carry signs in a demonstration outside a Belleville, Washington church on Sunday morning. That’s hardly news. Heck, Fred Phelps was doing that for years.

But there’s more at stake with this one. The little protest has already garnered some mainstream media interest, and it hasn’t even happened yet.

The whys and hows of this story are complicated, and unless you’ve been following this for some time, it’s rather hard to catch you up. Suffice it to say that the volcano involving Mars Hill, the church co-founded and led by Mark Driscoll has been waiting to erupt for several years, though really the church culture is causing something more resembling imploding than exploding.

Social media has played a major role in getting the story told. I’m fairly certain Jesus didn’t have blogging in mind when he said this, but even if the context is different, the words, as Luke records them, certainly fit: “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs. (12:2,3)

Mark Driscoll - Not many of you should be teachersOne blogger has suggested that Driscoll really only has two options, to really repent (i.e. not the repentance seen in a recent half hour video) or to resign. Perhaps. He could also wait; i.e. try to ride out the storm.

With all the Christian movie-making that’s been happening lately, I would be very surprised if a movie about Driscoll’s life to date is not already in the works.

The point I want to make here is that that this Sunday a small protest will take place in the upper left corner of the U.S., but it is one that has repercussions in a much larger arena. Whatever single issue the demonstrators think it’s about, it raises visibility on so many other issues about Driscoll and Mars Hill.

It’s about church structure, secrecy, accountability, finances, hiring, firings, spiritual abuse, and how each of these things impacted the lives of countless families over the years. It’s about the overtones of everything from the role of women, to plagiarism, to how the authority structure in some Calvinist settings mitigates against truth and transparency.

Like I said, it’s the stuff that movies are made of, though perhaps only those who are ecclesiology nerds or theology nerds would buy the tickets.

But it impacts your church, and my church, and the church our children will inherit.

 

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