Thinking Out Loud

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.

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.”

 

August 9, 2014

“Oh, are you any relation to John Piper?”

I would not want to grow up in the shadow of a famous person, let alone a celebrity in the present Evangelical/Christian milieu, so after listening to several episodes of The Happy Rant Podcast, of which Barnabas Piper is one of three hosts — I decided it was time to see how iconic Calvinist John Piper fared in his son’s book, The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity.

The Pastor's Kid - Barnabas PiperDespite a rather intense introduction from the elder Piper, no family secrets were revealed, in fact there is such a universality to this story that perhaps it should be titled, The Church Leader’s Kid, or The Board Member’s Kid, or The Sunday School Teacher’s Kid, or even The Usher’s Kid. (Note: This list was not presented in descending order; I am not implying that ushers are any less important than board members.) The point is that all of us who grew up in church sometimes feel undeniable pressure to be good.

The book itself is rather light reading, though this is not a light subject. The younger Piper comes at this from various perspectives and with absolute transparency. The ministry life is an individual calling, but as I know from my own household, spouses and offspring get dragged into that life whether they want it or not.

The immersion into ministry life for a child is not simply a matter of meshing a church schedule to a school and sports schedule. The expectations are gigantic.

In some sense the “Bible expert” identity is one that PKs can’t help. It takes very intention effort not to learn biblical facts and references when it is your parents’ full-time job and home life both. We absorb biblical knowledge passively whether we care to or not. And the higher expectation naturally follows.

When you combine this ever-present reality with the fact we are the progeny of clergy, a further challenge arises — PKs are often expected to be theologians (sometimes by our parents, usually by the church). This is distinctly different than being a “Bible expert,” someone who knows the facts of Scripture. Being a theologian is a discipline, a cause, a passion. People expect that one of our great passions will be the systematized exploration and explanation of God. And while it is good for everyone to give careful thought to the things of God, the expectation of “theologian” placed on PKs is much more than that.  (pp. 52-53)

The book also is strong in its examination of the relationship of the PK to the pastor/parent.

American church culture has created a double standard for pastors. They are expected to be dynamic leaders, teachers, counselors and organizational heads. And one of the job qualifications is that they be dynamic family men. These two demands would not necessary be at odds except that both far surpass reality. Pastors are expected to be superior in both roles, even when they are at odds with each other.   (p.  119)

If the church wins the battle for the man’s time, the family (i.e. especially the kids) lose. “What we get are the leftovers. When that happens, while he may be seen as great pastor, he is a flop as a parent.”

Barnabas Piper and John PiperThere is more than a direct hint from Barnabas that his famous father really isn’t drawn to any particular hobbies.  In a rare candid paragraph he laments that “…to this day, I still yearn to have a shared hobby with my father, something as simple as golf or hiking. Such little things have big meanings.” While I am not a pastor myself, I saw myself in this section of the book, especially the notation that, “…what he loved was studying, theology, writing and preaching — not exactly the hobbies to share with a twelve-year old.”

That’s possibly why I said the book really has a more general application, especially for Christian men. I know men aren’t big consumers of Christian books, but the 137 pages of core content here includes 21 essentially blank pages (something publisher David C. Cook is frequently guilty of) so at least the guys will feel they are making progress as they read.

As universal as are the parenting issues this book speaks to, the very designation “PK” shows that the issues are unique.

You can tell we have a reputation because we get our own abbreviation. You don’t see a teacher’s kid getting called a “TK” or a salesman’s kid getting called an “SK.”  (p. 23)

There are two things that are absent from The Pastor’s Kid which I feel are worth noting.

First, Barnabas is the son of both a famous preacher and a famous preacher’s wife. (Some churches even refer to the Pastor’s wife as the church’s “First Lady,” in the same sense as the wife of the U.S. President.) Perhaps he is saving this for a sequel, establishing a brand. (The Pastor’s Wife followed by The Pastor’s Cat and Dog.) It’s also possible that Noël Piper wisely suggested something like, ‘Leave me out of it.’ Either way, there is only a passing reference to his mother.

Second, and more importantly, while the subject frequently arises, there isn’t nearly enough direct treatment of what Barna Research refers to as Prodigal Pastors’ Kids. Perhaps their circumstances make them overly visible, but we all know PKs who have gone off the deep end, either theologically or behaviorally. (See infographic below.)

Those two things said, this is still an important book and one that every elder, board member needs to read, as well as passing it down the line to kidmin and ymin workers who deal with the PKs in Sunday School, midweek club, or youth group.


Thanks to Martin Smith of David C. Cook Canada for a chance to come late to the review party and still get a seat!  For another excerpt from the book, see the second half of this devotional at C201.

Barna Research - Prodigal Pastors' Kids - from infographic

August 7, 2014

The Divorce Effect

Jeff SnowJeff Snow has spent the last two decades working in youth and young adult ministry in southern Ontario, Canada, and he has become a friend of our family for much of that time. For his Masters thesis, he wrote on the impact of divorce on middle-school, high-school and college youth. Ever since I heard about this, I have been asking if he could summarize some of his findings for us here.

This is longer than we usually roll here, but it’s important to read every paragraph. This is actually the first of three parts, on the effects of divorce. The second will focus on the theology of the topic, and the third on practical suggestions for the church to minister to teens of divorce. We’ll interlink the parts as they appear here.

divorce effectBe sure to forward the link for today’s post to anyone involved in children’s or student ministry at your church or in your community. Feel free to leave questions in the comments section.


by Jeff Snow

A defining moment in my 16 years of youth ministry came a few years into my stint running a drop-in for unchurched teens. I was driving a number of youth home after drop-in one evening when two of them began a discussion in the back seat. They were listing off a number of their friends, maybe 15 in all, most of whom teachers at the high school would identify as “at-risk” youth. At one point, one of them exclaimed to the other, “Hey! We’re the only two who still live with both our parents!”

From that point onward I began to take more careful notice of the connection between youth who find themselves in trouble in various forms and the fact that a great majority of them do not live with both their biological parents. Those observations eventually led me to a Seminary paper on the effects of divorce on teens and an examination of what we as the Body of Christ can do to minister to these young people.

As in any other area of study, the research sometimes presents contradictory results. While almost all researchers agree that divorce is a traumatic event that has negative effects on children, particularly in the first year after the divorce, there are some researchers that maintain while some youth face ongoing lifelong effects, most youth will emerge relatively well-adjusted after going through a 2-3 year adjustment period.

Divorce LawyerThe problem I see with this assessment is two-fold. For an adult, three years is just a blip on the radar. But for a teenager, three years is half their adolescent life. A teen experiencing a divorce in junior high school will spend half of their formative teen years trying to adjust to having their world turned upside down. It is hard to believe that this will not have a long-lasting impact, at the very least in terms of missing out on the formative development they would have experienced in an intact family.

Secondly, many of these studies focus on a single factor, such as school grades or adult earning potential, as a means of measuring overall health. They also depend widely on statistical analysis and questionnaires. But surveys that rely on interviews with teens of divorce, that rely on actually listening to their stories, paint a much different, somewhat bleaker picture.

Divorce is not a benign event. Many people like to view its impact like that of a cold, which may knock you down for a short time but which you eventually get over. But the effects of divorce on teens is more like a chronic illness. It may lie dormant for a while, but it flares up at the most unexpected times. It never totally goes away. It can only be managed in order to live life to the full.

The effects of divorce on teens can often be very visible in their behaviors, yet often it is unseen. Elizabeth Marquardt wrote an eye-opening book entitled Between Two World: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce. In another article she writes, “I’ve interviewed dozens of young adults from divorced families … If you gave them a questionnaire and asked, for instance, if they had ever been arrested, dropped out of school or been diagnosed with a mental illness, practically every one of them could respond ‘no’. But that does not mean they were unaffected by their parents’ divorce.”

Divorce is a time of loss for a child...like a death

Divorce is a time of loss for a child…like a death

So, how does divorce impact teens? Most researchers describe divorce as a time of loss for young people. This goes beyond the loss of a parent. They have lost the security of their home. They have lost connection with grandparents and other extended family members. The divorce is often only the first in a long string of losses, as numerous new boyfriends and girlfriends come in and out of their parents’, and their, lives.

Teens lose something as basic as their own room. They end up having to divide their lives in two, splitting their possessions between their parents’ two houses. In the case of step families, teens will end up having to share personal space with step siblings. I still remember a grade eight girl telling me of the difficulty she was experiencing as her mom’s new boyfriend’s family moved in, and she was forced to share her room with someone who was supposed to be a sibling, but who was to her a complete stranger.

Teens experience the effects of what is called “diminished parenting.” As parents deal with their own trauma and grief resulting from the divorce, they have less time and emotional energy to help their children through their grief. As time passes, parents become engrossed in moving on with their lives, and the needs of teens are unconsciously put aside as the parent looks for a new partner. This neglect is almost always unintentional, but the results are the same. The teen does not receive what she needs from the parent, and in fact, at times care-giving goes in the opposite direction as the teen, particularly the teen girl, takes on the role of a support to the parent whose life is falling apart.

Caught in the Middle - DivorceAs the two parents’ worlds begin to move apart, the teen is stuck in the middle, trying to navigate the chasm on their own. They are often faced with divided loyalties, as pressure is put on them by parents to take sides or to report back after custodial visits. They are faced with inconsistent parenting, as each household develops different rules for living. This even impacts teens as they work to develop their own morals and values. In an intact family, the two parents work together to present a united front of morals and values that they present to their children as the way their family is to live. But in families of divorce, the parent’s value systems will invariably start to differ with each passing year, and the adolescent is left to forge their own morals and value systems on their own, at an age where they are not yet able to successfully accomplish this task.

Diminished parenting shows itself in the lack of protection afforded, particularly to teen girls by the non-custodial father. Without a father figure, with less accountability and with decreased monitoring of activities, studies show that girls from families of divorce engage in sexual activity earlier, more often, and often with men older than they are.

Though teens of divorce will achieve grades in school that are close to those from intact families, the issue is in getting them to school and getting them to stay there. Teens of divorce are late for school more often, will skip class more, and get suspended or expelled more than teens from intact families. Teen of divorce are 30% less likely to complete college, as non-custodial parents generally feel that their financial responsibility is over once the child reaches 18, and will rarely provide the funds for college.

Family ConflictSome statistics from the website Rainbows, which is a curriculum for divorce support groups, state that 50-80% of patients treated in Canadian mental health clinics are from separated families, and that teenagers of divorce are three times more likely to be in psychological counseling than those in intact families.

For those of us in the church, it is interesting to see how divorce affects a teen’s spiritual life. Generally, interest in the church and religion will diminish, but interest in spiritual things, even in prayer, will not. One author posits the theory that the increase in divorce may be behind the contention of many under the age of 35 that they are “spiritual but not religious.”

Teens who are heavily involved in church activities will experience a retreat from spiritual things. They will wonder why their prayers were not answered, and why parents who said they loved God and believed in Him would then give up on a marriage which was supposed to be sacred. Teens who are nominally involved in church, however, will go the other way and will turn more towards the church as a coping mechanism.

Broken HomeTeens from families of divorce are more likely to be kicked out of the house, more likely to report not feeling emotionally or physically safe at home, more likely to be abused. Anywhere from one third to one half of girls from families of divorce report being sexually abused as children or teens, most often by stepfathers or stepbrothers. Two leading researchers conclude that living with a stepparent remains the most powerful predictor of severe child abuse.

Though there are many effects of divorce, the one most people will refer to first is economic, and while this must not overshadow the devastating effects that are more hidden, economic factors still cannot be ignored. Families of divorce will experience a decline in income of as much as 50% as compared to their pre-divorce lives.

Though as we said, some researchers see divorce as a temporary setback for young people, Judith Wallerstein, from her 25 years of study, has put forth the idea of “the sleeper effect” of divorce. She maintains that many teens of divorce will emerge from adolescence relatively unscathed, only to have the trauma of the divorce hit them when they reach young adulthood when they begin to seek out their own romantic attachments and consider marriage. Without role models, many teens of divorce find it harder to maintain long-term relationships, and are 2-3 times more likely to get divorced themselves.

Elizabeth Marquardt uses the phrase “happy talk” to describe how most of society talks about divorce and its effects on children and teens. We convince ourselves that teens are resilient and that we don’t really have to worry about them. Marquardt suggests that we do that in order to defend our own adult decisions. In view of the pain that I have seen both in youth ministry practice and in my research, this has to stop. There was a time when adults sacrificed for the sake of the children, not the other way around.

We as adults in the church need to have the courage to dismiss the temptation toward “happy talk.” We in fact need to stop talking and start really listening to the pain and hurt that teens of divorce would be willing to share with us if we only gave them the chance, and to find ways to support them as they attempt to navigate their way through life “between two worlds.”

to be continued…

July 22, 2014

Guest Post: Carlo Raponi — Sudden Urgency

Carlo Raponi is Evangelism Outreach Director with Kawartha Youth Unlimited, a Youth for Christ chapter in Peterborough, a city about 75 minutes northeast of Toronto, Canada. This is his second time at Thinking Out Loud.


There is not a day that I can remember where I’ve woken up alone in the world. Literally. I have no memory of any day of my life where I spent a whole day without ever encountering a single person. I think that if this ever happened it would carry with it a strange unfamiliar feeling that only gets seen in post-apocalyptic horror films. Instead, I, like all of us, am surrounded by people every day.

Most of the people we see are people we don’t know, many are people that we do; and some we only get to see on occasion. However they are all people that come into our spheres of influence. They are people with whom we have a chance to share the message of Jesus. Some of these encounters afford us time to develop His narrative slowly; other encounters require a faster and more succinct explanation of His hope. Either way, they all pass before us with a ‘best before’ date invisibly stamped upon them.

Last weekend one of the youth that attends The Bridge Youth Center told me that she’s moved to Toronto. She was only in town to deal with some court issues and then she would be returning back to the city. She is a girl that I have known for a few years now. When she first began coming in to the youth center she was a walking terror. Loud, boisterous and with a stubbornness that seemed incorrigible…she reminded me a little of myself. Perhaps that’s why we connected so well. But now she would be leaving, possibly for good. And so I apologized to her.

She asked me why I needed to apologize and I told her that in the years we have known each other I have approached the subject of our need for Jesus and who He is, but I never sat her down and REALLY challenged her. The ‘time’ never seemed right or the ’occasion’ didn’t present itself. There always seemed to be a reason that trumped the moment. Now she was leaving and I felt that I had done her wrong by not introducing her to the greatest thing she could ever possess – a relationship with the one who could change everything she knew about everything she knows.

I told her about a friend who’s younger brother had asked him the awkward question. He asked if he thought that the young brother would go to hell for not believing in Jesus. When the awkward reply came out as a ‘yes’ the younger brother’s response was, “…then if you love me, why haven’t you sat me down to tell me about Jesus?”

I told her that I owed her an apology because I wasn’t intentional enough to prove that I care by sharing this truth with her. The conversation that ensued was beautiful and honest, on both our behalves. It ended with her making a promise to find a church that she likes and to attend it 3 times. After that she could do as she pleases. With a smile she made me a pinky-promised that turned into a weird handshake of sorts (then I took this picture of it for proof).

the handshake

Now I must entrust her faith into the hands of God and the actions of others who I hope will do a better and more proactive job than I did. But I won’t forget this lesson. People pass in front of us every day. We’re surrounded by people all the time. There is a reason for this.

 ~ Carlo Raponi

 


 

Previously at Thinking out Loud: Three Conversations and a Wedding (March 2012)

May 18, 2014

Modern Worship Movement Dead-Ended

Filed under: ministry, music, worship — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:34 pm

worship_tshirt

As of today, I have seen the future of the modern worship movement, and even now, I am convinced that we are not being well-served.  Today I got to observe the height of performance-oriented worship formatting; songs that were completely unfamiliar pitched in keys that rendered them completely un-singable. I also saw the approach toward casual dress of platform/stage personnel at its worst. I also observed song lyrics that simply cannot be supported theologically. Throughout it all, I was expected to remain standing.

Oddly enough, part of the reason we decided to take our free Sunday at this church was because of its history and reputation for outstanding worship. I really don’t want to be a curmudgeon, but I honestly feel that worship leaders to need to rethink some basics before assembling a worship set.

  • At least one hymn (yes, mostly for demographic reasons, but also for theological ones)
  • At least one modern hymn (as in Townend, Kendrick, Gettys, Sovereign Grace)
  • At least one modern worship composition that proved itself in the ’80s, ’90s or early ’00s.
  • For another two songs, you can have your recent modern worship songs, but try to go with something of substance. (Doerksen or Baloche for at least one would be nice)

There’s a five song worship song list I could live with.

In the meantime, if I were in leadership at the church we attending this morning, I would be convening an emergency meeting early in the week.

Just because your church has achieved success numerically is no reason to assume you’re doing everything right.

April 24, 2014

Of Fancy Homes in Hidden Places

front_gate

Lately, a lot of attention has been turned to the housing that certain pastors and church leaders enjoy and are building. In an internet world, with Google Earth and Google Street View tracking every square inch on earth, there are very few secrets.

If you believe that Christians inhabit a world where there is neither “male nor female; this ethnic group nor that ethnic group; or rich nor poor;” get ready to have that ideal shattered. The divisions between rich and poor exist, and some of your favorite writers or televangelists live in places that, were you able to get past the gate somehow, the security force would be tailing you within seconds.

And the sign said long haired freaky people need not apply
So I tucked my hair up under my hat and I went in to ask him why
He said you look like a fine upstanding young man, I think you’ll do
So I took off my hat I said imagine that, huh, me working for you

Several years ago we did a story — and ran the same pictures and the song lyrics — when a Saddleback campus was planted in the middle of a gated community in Laguna Hills. On one level, just another unreached people group, I suppose. On another level, rather awkward.

And the sign said anybody caught trespassing would be shot on sight
So I jumped on the fence and yelled at the house, Hey! what gives you the right
To put up a fence to keep me out or to keep mother nature in
If God was here, he’d tell you to your face, man you’re some kinda sinner

To be fair, (a) this was a community of 18,000; an unreached people group you might say, and (b) southern California invented the whole gated community thing; they exist there on every block the way Waffle House or Cracker Barrel exists in the southeast. Still, there was something unsettling about this, if only because (a) if it’s been done before, it’s certainly been low key and (b) it’s hard for anything connected with Saddleback to be low key.

When we tried to track this particular campus this week, we couldn’t locate it. But we’re well aware of the people that make up the Evangelical star system who live in similar neighborhoods.

And the sign said everybody’s welcome to come in, kneel down and pray
But when they passed around the plate at the end of it all, I didn’t have a penny to pay,
So I got me a pen and a paper and I made up my own little sign
I said thank you Lord for thinking about me, I’m alive and doing fine

Do major Christian leaders need a “retreat” from their parishioners, the press, and the public at large? Certainly Jesus tried to break away from the crowds at time, seeking some rest and renewal, but the texts also tell us the crowds followed him. And far from a gated community, we’re told he was completely itinerant, “having no place to lay his head;” and sometimes camping out on the fold-out couch in the homes of his followers.

veggie-gated-communityThe Gated Community
Is where we’ll always be
Our smiles are white
Cause we’re inside
In comfy custody
And when you come to visit
You can stand outside and see..
What a smiling bunch we are
In our gated unity!

The question is, “How much money is too much?” “When does a house become excessive?” It’s sad when it reaches the point where someone has started a Twitter account from the viewpoint of a pastor’s grand estate.

Oh! The Gated Community

Is where we like to be

Our clothes are never dirty

And the lawns are always green

And when you come to visit

You can stand outside and see

What a tidy bunch we are

In our gated unity!

I guess my biggest concern is that everything we do should be without a hint of suspicion.  I often think about Proverbs 16:2, which says (he paraphrased) that everything we do can be rationalized one way or another, but God is busy checking out our motivation. (And also reminded that no one is to judge the servant of another.)

The Gated Community
Is where we’ll always be
Our smiles are white
Cause we’re inside
In comfy custody
And when you come to visit
You can stand outside and see..
What a smiling bunch we are
In our gated unity!

So what are your thoughts? If you have an issue with this, what’s the problem? If you’re at peace with this, why do you think it’s got so many others steaming?

Lyrics from “Signs” by the Five Man Electrical Band (lyrics from the band’s home page) and from “The Gated Community” from Veggie Tales’ Sherluck Holmes and the Golden Ruler (from Veggie Tales lyrics site.) See sites for full lyrics with choruses not printed here. Pictured gated community in Atlanta, GA

April 19, 2014

The Pastor in the Movie “Heaven is for Real”

Heaven is for Real books

Throughout all the success of the Heaven is for Real book, and with attention now being refocused because of the movie, I am sure that Todd Burpo’s phone, if he dares to still have one, is ringing off the wall. (A dated reference to wall phones, in case you’re wondering.)

The appearances and interviews that the family has done prior to film release have been very tightly controlled and for anyone else, access is a total impossibility. Even the Christianity Today review of this past week contains the phrase, “Burpo responded to questions sent through the film’s publicist…” which may be a polite way of saying the publicist selected phrases from a prepared list and arranged them into sentences.

A few years ago, I tried to get past what others were writing about, and dig a little deeper and get to know Todd Burpo the Pastor. Throughout this whole process he remains first and foremost a local church minister. How do you do that with reporters knocking at the door? This was the largely unsuccessful result of that quest…

Our Non-Interview with Author Todd Burpo

Feb 9, 2012

53 weeks atop the New York Times’ Non-Fiction Paperback chart and counting. That’s a great accomplishment for any writer, but even more so for a title which began its life with copies shipped to Christian retailers.

But we figured that a full year should have caused some of the excitement to die down, and thought this might be a good time to ask Todd Burpo about that side of his life that never comes up in media interviews: His role as a local church pastor. Furthermore, we thought he would find the change in interview direction somewhat refreshing.

We were wrong.

Apparently the miscalculation was the part about the excitement dying down. Despite several different approaches over the past month, the best we could come up with was some rather terse responses from Belinda, Pastor Todd’s director of correspondence. She begins, “What little free time Todd does have, he tries to spend with his family.”

However, we’re not going to let this deter us from running the piece anyway. After all, if the tabloids can come up with speculative articles based on nothing, we ought to come up with something here based on Belinda’s 190-word response. Besides, we’re just going to stick to the facts.

Crossroads Wesleyan Church

Todd Burpo is the pastor of Crossroads Wesleyan Church in Imperial, Nebraska; population just under 4,000 and the county seat for Chase County. The Sunday services are broadcast on the local radio station. This kind of church setting is actually the reality that the greatest number of people experience on Sunday mornings in the United States, but for some reading here, the image is probably a throwback to a gentler time and place. A 21st century Andy Griffith would worship here, and so would Aunt Bea. In an interview* with Pete Wilson, Todd Burpo quotes the country music lyric, “Everybody dies famous in a small town.”

So we’re talking small, mid-west town, and relatively sized church. But the publication of Heaven is for Real has resulted in a few tourists — our word — though Belinda prefers the term visitors, and leaves us somewhat in the dark if this implies the occasional unfamiliar face or if the place has become a shrine that requires tour bus parking. Either way, it would be a unique dynamic for a local church pastor to deal with. It’s one thing when a megachurch pastor is the author of Christian books for a major publisher. It would be quite different in a small town.

On this we’re told, “Todd works diligently to try to keep balance in all of his responsibilities.” Good answer. Now I know how Belinda got the job. Moving forward, I see her as definite White House material.

But we wanted to get further inside Todd Burpo, the pastor; and nothing spells out a pastor’s vision like the current sermon series he’s preaching. We’re told, “In September, he started preaching the first of a group of series of sermons that examines what Crossroads Wesleyan should look like if it is Christ’s church. The series included: A Culture of Honor, A Culture of Faith, A Culture of Giving, A Culture of Growing and A Culture of Grace.”

That was the best answer we got to our questions, and from the church website, it appears those messages aren’t posted online.

Still, a lot of pastors — even in small towns — often feel they “have a book in them.” So we wanted to know if that was the case with Todd; if there was a book that he might have considered if Heaven is for Real hadn’t happened. But the answer is one that we had heard previously, “Todd has often said, he is not an author and never wanted to write a book.”

But pressing the same question from a different angle, I asked if the publisher, Thomas Nelson, had been talking about any future projects. On this, I was somewhat perplexed by the referral to the HIFR Ministries website, but after checking the site from top to bottom, I couldn’t find reference to anything other than the DVD curriculum and the kids’ edition of the book, both of which have now released. I guess I was thinking in terms of the publisher riding on the popularity of the book but with something a little different. Publishers do tend to do that sort of thing when they have a success on their hands; though the ‘brand’ here is somewhat limited.

So, sadly this is not the interview — even a short five question interview — with Todd Burpo we had hoped for; though The National Star might be interested anyway. In the meantime, we’ll leave the last word to Belinda, correspondence director extraordinaire:

It is the Burpos’ prayer that Heaven is For Real will point people to Jesus and we pray that Colton’s testimony will help people find hope and peace. Todd puts it this way—“In John 16:33 Jesus taught his disciples, in this world you will have trouble, and to that we all say, ‘Amen,’ because this world has plenty of it. But may the hope of heaven and the peace that only Jesus can give, be poured into your lives. But praise God, heaven is real, and don’t ever lose sight of that!”

If there’s a Christian author or pastor you’d like to see non-interviewed here, just drop us a line and we’ll do our best.


Images: Pete Wilson’s interview* with Todd; see below for link.

*For those of you hoping for more of a genuine interview with Todd, you can’t do any better than the 20 minutes that Pete Wilson spent with Todd and Colton in late spring 2011. Maybe it was worth coming here just to link to that. The entire interview played on a Sunday morning at Cross Point as part of a series on heaven.

April 8, 2014

The Equivalent to Hiring Someone Who Is Gay

Hiring Policy

In the last 17 years, we’ve hired over 40 people to work with us in a ministry setting in four different locations and three different cities. To the best of my knowledge we’ve never had an employee who is gay. But we have dealt with the equivalent.

In conservative Christian circles, especially going back a few years, the equivalent was hiring someone who was divorced. The religious stigma was huge. We did this. More than once. As an adjunct ministry of local churches.

In one case, I know that the family were outsiders, so the story was not apparent. But in another case — life in a small town being what it is — I know some former customers voted with their feet. Nobody ever said to me, “How could you hire her?” but we always had the sense that certain people were part of a silent boycott.

Thinking about those two in particular, I can look back and say with the benefit of hindsight: They were among the best employees we ever had. They knew life. They knew pain. They knew joy. They knew Jesus. Therefore, they were able to connect with certain customers in ways I could not then and cannot now, and I’m thankful for their part in our story.

March 7, 2014

Scandal Tracking: Prominent Christian Authors

Some of you know that for the last [oh my, has it been that long?] years I have done the buying for a chain of Christian bookstores that has now been reduced to a single location. Cutbacks in the industry necessitate very careful buying and frankly, I don’t need a lot of excuses to cut back on any given author’s quantity commitments, or even skip a title altogether.

So all the recent discussion that is taking up a lot of space on Christian news pages and in the Christian blogosphere certainly tempers my buying for these writers, and saves me some money in the process. Maybe I should thank them.

Anyway, if you’ve not been keeping up with some of the latest ones, here the current top five — Pat Robertson and Jack VanImpe are assumed — and if you can think of others I’ll add them.  And we’ll give Joyce Meyer a pass on the private jet for today; maybe it is more efficient than booking commercial flights.

Mark Driscoll

  • allegations (proven) of widespread plagiarism over several years involving many titles and three different publishers
  • allegation that he manipulated the system by which books appear on the New York Times bestseller list for the title Real Marriage
  • suggestions that church funds were used to facilitate the NYT list placement
  • question of ethics over distributing copies of a book on the grounds outside the Strange Fire conference (may or may not have been escorted off the grounds by security staff, depending on version of story)
  • requires church leadership to sign non-disclosure agreements preventing any discussion of church policies or revelation of insider information
  • various questions about church discipline and shunning and dis-fellowship of members who voice dissent
  • various concerns about ultra-conservative views on the role of women, to the point where spouses of staff members may not work outside the home

James MacDonald

  • allegations of various types of financial improprieties and secrecy concerning compensation and benefits and/or concerns over lavish lifestyle, resulting in many staff and leadership departures and the creation of a watchdog blog containing a variety of other revelations concerning the authoritarian style of church government
  • linked to at least one gambling venture with Jerry Jenkins (see below)

Jerry Jenkins

  • concerns over Jenkins’ “hobby” as a “recreational gambler” in Las Vegas and timing/relationship of relaxed standards for Moody Bible Institute faculty and staff (but not students) for which Jenkins is board chair

John McArthur

  • concern that the Strange Fire book and conference has now polarized the Pentecostal/Charismatic community and non-Pentecostals; that his rant goes too far and is dividing Evangelicals

Steven Furtick

  • concern over $1.75M home he is building and statements that the home is paid for from book royalties
  • allegations that he used the same New York Times Bestseller sales strategy as Mark Driscoll to plant his new title, Crash the Chatterbox on the list. (Driscoll and Furtick are friends.)
  • possible implication of involvement of church funds in so doing
  • concerns that strategic placement of volunteers throughout the Elevation Church auditoriums manipulate the response to baptism altar calls
  • questions as to whether Furtick’s contemporary and creative preaching style may leave new Christians confused as to the fundamental application of popular scriptures and themes

It should also be noted that several of the megachurch pastors have a ‘council of reference’ that includes other megachurch pastors, and it is these, not the local church boards or directorates, that advise on salary issues. Many of these pastors are also compensated for appearing at each others’ conferences; the whole conference subject being an issue for another discussion entirely.

February 27, 2014

30 Key Evangelical Movements

Brad Lomenick’s name has come up repeatedly over the years here at Thinking Out Loud. He has been a force in the Catalyst conferences, and we often reference and link to his monthly list of Young Influencers, younger leaders who are making a difference.

A few days ago he published a list of 30 links to organizations that he considers to be the top 30 vital movements currently shaping Christian community. Many, but not all, are American. Three of these I had never heard of. I’m taking the liberty of reproducing it here, but if you wish to comment, why not do so at Brad’s blog.

1. Hillsong

2. Passion

3. Catalyst

4. Jesus Culture

5. Exponential

6. Worship Central (London)

7. Verge/Austin Stone

8. Q

9. IF Gathering

10. Reach Records/Lecrae

11. Leadership Summit/Willow Creek

12. Misfit/Christ Tabernacle

13. Compassion

14. Orange

15. North Point Ministries/Drive Conference

16. LifeChurch.tv

17. ARC

18. Resurgence

19. FPU/Dave Ramsey

20. Rick Warren/Saddleback/PEACE

21. Gospel Coalition

22. HTB/Alpha Course

23. Leadership Network

24. Thrive Conference/Bayside Church

25. Luis Palau Association

26. Women of Faith

27. Send North America

28. The Bible Series/Son of God Movie/Mark Burnett and Roma Downey

29. Relevant Magazine/Media Group

30. PlanetShakers

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