Thinking Out Loud

May 28, 2017

If This is Hipster Christianity, The Church is in Trouble

Filed under: Christianity, culture, media — Tags: , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:12 am

I will be the first to admit that not everything that appears on my computer screen in the course of a year is G rated. A few things might not even be PG-13. I tend to censor violence more than sex, but the latter has its limits; too far and we’ve crossed the line into p0rn0graphy. As for swearing, I find 99% of it unnecessary.

But nudity, sex and coarse language were what was on offer in the first episode of a 32-minute HBO series we tracked down and watched on Thursday night.

Why did we watch it?

It was the subject of a four-page spread in the current print of Relevant Magazine.

Of interest to Relevant were two things. First the setup: The key character is a former youth pastor who gets into stand-up comedy who discovers his wife is having an affair. Right away we see a conflict between the guy’s still-Christian worldview contrasted with what his wife has become and what the people in his profession already were. The second thing the magazine found interesting were a couple of clips where the same person is driving in New York listening to audio sermons by Joel Osteen.

I can see that from Relevant’s perspective the latter was a bit of a curiosity piece. It deserved one of those one-paragraph mentions in a sidebar toward the back, where the magazine offers a large variety of reviews of books, movies and music from both mainstream entertainment and Christian subculture.

But not four pages.

Furthermore, because the series is based on the actor’s real life, my wife wondered what the real life cheating spouse in the story would have to say about the manner in which she is portrayed. I trust the producers got her to sign a waiver.

I like Relevant. I often will check out their music reviews and then go to YouTube and listen to the solo artists and bands they feature. From that, I get to listen to some trending new music I might otherwise be oblivious to. I appreciate the book and movie reviews as well.

This was not that.

It was a four-page feature.

I really hope that in subsequent episodes of the series, there is something redemptive here that justifies the opener. I just would hate for anyone to be watching this because of a perception that Relevant had “recommended” it to readers.


I contacted Relevant Magazine online early Friday for a response but they did not reply.

 

 

May 27, 2017

The Grilling that Missionaries Get When Trying to Maintain their Funding

This is about one-tenth of a larger 2014 article that a friend sent my wife. I just about wept reading this particular section.  The article is titled Ten Things That Your Missionary Will Not Tell You and the author is Joe Holman. Joe and his wife Denise have 11 children and serve in Cochabamba, Bolivia with Ripe for Harvest World Evangelism.

…When we meet with mission committees, churches, sending groups and donors they always ask us very specific questions. I have NO problem with that. What drives me bonkers is when someone NOT doing what I AM DOING judges me because they don’t think that I am doing enough of what they are not doing.

The best example of this is when you meet with a missions committee and they ask us about our evangelism. I share how, this year alone, we have shared the gospel with over 2,000 people (true story) outside of the church walls and have baptized 35 adults. The committee talks a little and then says something like, “We are concerned about the follow up of the converts and why so few have been baptized. We would also like to hear more about your evangelistic endeavors. What do you do and how do you do it?” Then, after sharing what you do and how you do it, they have critical comments and corrections about methodology.

The problem is this. The church that this mission committee is a part of hasn’t baptized 35 adults in the last 10 years and does not have a single planned evangelistic event on their church calendar. I often want to say, “We have baptized 35 adults and shared Christ with over 2,000 people…what have you done?” Or, “That is a great idea on evangelism, help me put some flesh on it. How did you guys implement this in your church?’ Or, “What do you do for follow up after your community evangelistic event?” I can’t, but I really want to. It is honestly difficult to listen to armchair quarterbacks who have never suited up critique the game that I am participating in.

Another example of this is how people who are doing nothing to help the poor criticize us for how we help the poor. They tell us what we should do, what we should not do, how and when and to whom we should do it. They tell us of the latest book that they have read and/or the latest sermon that they heard. They do nothing themselves, but they know exactly what we should do and if we don’t do it their way, then the threat of cutting support is dangling over our head.

If someone who is actually doing the ministry has advice, input or corrections then it is infinitely easier to accept. It is when we are told what to do by someone not doing anything that we have to constantly check our hearts and put a guard on our lips.

May 26, 2017

42: The Right Guy in the Right Place at the Right Time

I’m not a sports guy. If you read this blog, you’ll know that it’s usually a full year goes by before something sports related appears in the Wednesday Link List.

But in 2013, reading Seven Men and the Secrets of their Greatness by Eric Metaxas, I found myself captivated by the chapter on Jackie Robinson; to the point that it was the only chapter in the book I read twice.  For any other non-sports readers here, Wikipedia explains that Robinson was,

an American professional baseball second baseman who became the first African American to play in Major League Baseball (MLB) in the modern era. Robinson broke the baseball color line when the Brooklyn Dodgers started him at first base on April 15, 1947. The Dodgers, by signing Robinson, heralded the end of racial segregation in professional baseball that had relegated black players to the Negro leagues since the 1880s.  Robinson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.

This was a gamble that simply had to work. Before even completing the review of Metaxas’ book, I wrote this brief synopsis of that chapter:

The essence of Metaxas’ take on Robinson is that without his strong faith in Jesus Christ, and the shared faith of the manager who signed him — first to a farm team, and then as the first African-American in Major League Baseball — the story would not have happened as swiftly as it did. Both parties knew that if they failed, there might not be another opportunity for another few years or even a decade. Why the faith element was so important is something I’ll save for the review, if I don’t decide it’s a spoiler. Suffice it say that whoever was going to break the professional baseball color barrier needed to be a special person. 

My friend Jeff Snow however is a rabid baseball aficionado. He’s also a pastor and youth and young adults worker whose writing you’ve seen here before in the series we ran twice on the impact of divorce on teens. So when Thomas Nelson released 42 Faith: The Rest of the Jackie Robinson Story by Ed Henry a few weeks ago, Jeff was at the front of the line to buy a copy. I asked him if he could share his impressions.

I finished 42 Faith last week. I really enjoyed it. First, some minor quibbles: It tries a little too hard to find faith where there isn’t really strong evidence from the situation, and the book meanders a bit. Also, the author interjects himself into the story; a chapter may start with him describing how he met a 90 year old former teammate of Robinson over breakfast to discuss Robinson.

The interesting thing for me as someone who has read widely about Robinson is that he uses sources that up to this point have not been touched on much, including correspondence filed in the Library of Congress and an unpublished manuscript Robinson wrote in the sixties that was supposed to be part of a series of book for young people where he talked about the importance of faith in detail.

Another positive part is that most of the evidence the author uses to back up his contentions are first person quotes from either Robinson or Branch Rickey, the other main character in the story.

The author’s contention is that, along with other considerations, that faith in God played a large role in motivating first Rickey in wanting to sign Robinson as the first African-American player in the major leagues, and in motivating Robinson to see this opportunity as divinely guided and as an opportunity to do what God put him on earth to do.

It’s hard to say how someone who has no clue about this story would enjoy the book. The meandering might throw them off. But I think anyone who has an interest in baseball, in the civil rights movement and social justice, or who enjoys inspiring true stories, would enjoy it.

 

May 25, 2017

The Quest for the Holy Grail of Worship Community

Filed under: Christianity, Church, reviews — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:21 am

Book Review: Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans

Searching for Sunday is the story of Rachel Held Evans and her husband Dan and their meanderings in being sometimes drawn towards and sometimes repelled from a place of weekend worship. Far from the usual oft-seen rant on this subjective, the book is very redemptive in tone and is in part a cautionary tale and in part of celebration of the great things the capital-C Church can do through the ministry of the small-c local church.

This book was actually published in 2015. A copy landed accidentally from the publisher; in other words I was under no requirement to read the book at all, much less write about it. My intention was to read a few chapters and then possibly give the copy away. Instead, I worked my way through eventually missing nothing from the copyright page to footnote #93. And also, it appears, wrote a review.

Rachel Held Evans is often seen as a poster girl for the progressive Evangelical movement. Her name is — and this is to be taken quite literally — used as a swear word on a popular Reformed podcast. Her roots are conservative and she describes her relationship to those days as analogous to someone who has broken up with their boyfriend, but continues to check their Facebook page every few days. She walks a tension between  traditional Evangelicalism and its more modern expressions.

My first exposure to her was on her blog, RachelHeldEvans.com, where she no longer posts as frequently, but back in the day, it was the springboard to my second exposure to her, the book Evolving in Monkey Town, the story of growing up in Dayton, the epicenter of the Scopes Monkey Trial. Searching for Sunday is relatively similar in the weight of its autobiographical content, but is also as informative as Evolving, if not more so. There is a commonality to the personal sections however. The book contains an ever-present tension between her story and my story; or yours.

The book is organized in seven groups of chapters (3-6 per group) each of which could be viable as a stand-alone essay. The groups themselves represent seven sacraments: Baptism, Confession, Holy Orders, Communion, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, and Marriage. The perspective of the author varies. Sometimes she is a congregant; a parishioner just like many of us. At other times, she finds herself on the platform; the result of speaking engagements brought about through the popularity of her blog, and later her books. So there is another tension here, between disciple, earnestly seeking after God, and church leader, the one at the front of the room holding the microphone.

Finally, her journey represents a constant vacillation — in a good way, mind you — between historical, liturgical denominations and upstart, informal church communities. Personal familiarity with both is helpful here, but not required. Let me rephrase that: Personal familiarity with both is probably recommended here; the book exposes the value of both types of Christian community. 

One last thing: Rachel is an awesome writer, no surprise given she was a literature major. Even if you don’t agree with her take on everything, I think you can still enjoy the reading of it, and come away informed and enriched.


Learn more at ThomasNelson.com

Follow her @rachelheldevans

May 24, 2017

Wednesday Link List

Above: Typing in tongues. A real page of Tim Keller sermon notes from which he preached a real sermon.

If today’s list ends up a bit short, it’s because I was busy playing Fiery Darts 2 “an Arcade Style game in which you maneuver Methuselah, and collect Biblical Prizes, while avoiding the Fiery Darts of the enemy.” (There’s even a DOS version available!)

Vintage Photo: Francis Chan talks to Tommy Smothers of the Smothers Brothers.


These days you can never be sure if the sign is real or generated, but either way this is brilliant.


In this case, what exactly do they mean by reveal?

May 23, 2017

One Word: Manchester

Filed under: current events — Tags: — paulthinkingoutloud @ 4:26 am

And so, another city joins the list of places which, in a single word signifies another location where terrorism has taken place. For the foreseeable future, one will simply say “Manchester” and that’s all they’ll need to say.

This is what we knew at 11:00 PM (New York Time) when we were starting to put together tomorrow’s article here. I decided to just forego that plan…

Here are some Tweets from last night:

  • Terrorists are targeting music concerts now.What a shame!! What’s the problem with these horrendous creatures?
  • No one should have to worry about a terrorist attack when going to a concert or even just in everyday life.
  • Absolutely heartbreaking reading tweets of parents looking for their children
  • There is a woman on CNN hysterical crying and trying to find her missing 15 year old daughter. As a mother of two children I can’t imagine what she’s going through.
  • I just woke up & got the news. I’m crying right now, why does something like this need to happen in our world!
  • Thank you for the concern and love, I am fine. 19 people can not say the same though, sick and twisted act, prayers to everyone
  • Concerts are supposed to be a safe space. So saddened and terrified by the attack
  • Sad, not only have they lost lives in Manchester. Ariana doing something she loves, name will be forever linked now!
  • Not only is the Manchester show a horrific tragedy but it also takes away the peace of mind that people will have at concerts in the future.
  • Cowards bombing concerts with little girls and teenagers. Zero tolerance from now on!
  • I have been to so many concerts already this year, which makes Manchester even more difficult to hear about
  • I feel ill, sick and ill. I can’t mentally deal with this. This can’t go on. It’s already been the norm for years.
  • Bewildered by the reports that there was no security at a concert filled with CHILDREN and YOUNG KIDS
  • Our hearts are breaking. Prayers for all who attended, their families, Ari and her whole crew.
  • Manchester attack eyewitness Chris Pawley: there was no security whatsoever.
  • “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” ~MLK 
  • Music halls are the purest non-denominational churches where we all can congregate to share magic. My heart is with Manchester tonight.

 

 

 

May 22, 2017

Creation Care and the Gospel

I grew up in an Evangelical world that tended to look down their noses at Christian groups which stressed environmentalism. The thinking was that these once-focused denominations had been somewhat hijacked by their move toward an environmental emphasis and that doing so meant that the proclamation of the gospel of the Kingdom taught by Jesus was pushed to the background or sacrificed altogether.

While I still believe that the teaching on the atonement provided by the cross, and the resurrection of Jesus must be our central themes, I am now more open to a Christianity that leaves room for some environmental concern. Three things contributed to this.

The first was a reexamination of Genesis and a greater awareness of it giving us a mandate to be stewards of the earth. Creation care is scriptural.

The second was a reexamination of the prophetic passages in scripture that made me realize that we’re not necessarily told about a heaven that’s up there somewhere, as we are told about new earth. Randy Alcorn’s Heaven is an excellent primer on this theme, but if you find a 530 book intimidating, consider the bite-sized portions he offers in 50 Days of Heaven. I don’t know if was him or someone else who said, “God has too much invested in this real estate to simply walk away from it.” Whether the renewal of the earth will take place as a simple reversal of what happened at the fall or whether human-initiated nuclear destruction will bring about the reset, I don’t know. But God seems to have more in mind for this particular planet, and while not throwing your litter out the window while you’re on the freeway may not help matters much in the grand scheme of things, we could at least show some respect.

The third thing was a quote I read in a copy of The Plain Truth. I think I was a student on a bus heading home from university classes — I was a commuter student who therefore never had the residence experience — and furthermore I can’t tell you if this was before or after Armstrong’s group’s crossing the line from cult to something more orthodox. I just know that I was a periodical junkie, so anything in a free rack got picked up by me.

The author — I don’t know if it was Armstrong himself or a staff writer — quoted Deuteronomy 23:12-13

You shall also have a place outside the camp and go out there, and you shall have a spade among your tools, and it shall be that when you sit down outside, you shall dig with it and shall turn to cover up your excrement. (NAS)

Interestingly enough, when I Googled the verse just now to find it, one of the first pages to show was titled “The Old Testamentary Latrine.” I checked some more modern translations, but nothing more is gained; the text above is rather plain on this.

I realize we don’t follow a lot of the guidance given in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, but I felt the wisdom of the Bible on this particular, practical topic has been lost. At least it has where I live.

Here’s the thing: I live in the Great Lakes region. Furthermore, I live on the Canadian side which is teeming with fresh water lakes of various sizes besides great. Where do you think our sewage goes? Not in the ground, as prescribed in the above passage. Into the lakes. Sure it’s treated beforehand, except on days where there are major rainstorms and then the raw sewage has to be released into the lakes. Yes, it’s treated before it returns to our kitchen tap.

But think about that for a moment.

Thomas Lynch praised the thing. “The flush toilet,” he wrote, “more than any single invention, has ‘civilized’ us in a way that religion and law could never accomplish.”

But not everyone agrees. I have two quotations here that I need readers to help me source. By helping me you’ll not only get your name at the bottom of this article, but a wing in our university will be named after you.

  • The flush toilet is the worst invention ever foisted on civilization.
  • It is inconceivable that any society would think to flush its waste into lakes and rivers and then attempt to render that same water drinkable.

Searching did not produce a name to attach to either quote, but I think the truth of the first statement comes through in the second…

…Together, these various factors combined to make me more inclined to think it’s okay to be a Christian and be an environmentalist. I’m sure Thomas Lynch was a wise man, but I think he got this one wrong.

I think Deuteronomy 23 has the right idea.

I’d spend more time on this, but right now I have to go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

May 21, 2017

More to Be Desired Than Much Fine Gold

Filed under: Christianity — paulthinkingoutloud @ 1:36 pm

Psalm 19; The Message: vs 7-9

The revelation of God is whole
and pulls our lives together.
The signposts of God are clear
and point out the right road.
The life-maps of God are right,
showing the way to joy.
The directions of God are plain
and easy on the eyes.
God‘s reputation is twenty-four-carat gold,
with a lifetime guarantee.
The decisions of God are accurate
down to the nth degree.

May 20, 2017

Giving Anonymously

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:35 am

The church I grew up in had a small 1′ x 3′ brass plaque on the end of every pew showing the name of the donor who had sponsored that pew. As far as I know, those plaques are still there. The senior citizens complex where my mom spent her last years had a wall which showed the donors for the building project, classified into various categories by size of donation. The university I attended does the same thing in their quarterly magazine showing the names in several amount ranges.

But what if you want to give anonymously? It isn’t always easy.

Still, some hold to a Christian ethic of doing good works in secret. They really don’t want themselves to be part of the picture.

The Direct Approach

This approach simply foregoes the anonymity. It says, this is something the Lord told me to do; or I don’t want credit for this, I am simply doing what the Holy Spirit is directing. I witnessed this just yesterday. It’s beautiful. But later I was asked by the recipients, “Who was that person?”

Online

If you’re giving to support a missions project (or something similar) that offers the option of giving online, the way these programs are set up make it difficult for the funds to reach the recipients without some type of notification being received which has a name attached to it. Some sites do allow the donor to remain unknown.

Other Electronic Options

You can email funds these days, but not knowing where it’s coming from, the recipient would probably suspect spam. Unfortunately that’s the world we live in.

Cash and Dash

We were the recipients of such donations on a few occasions. We opened the mailbox and there was an envelope containing, I believe $100 in cash. This is risky these days, and many people don’t carry enough cash to do this sort of thing spontaneously. Of course a check (that’s cheque for my UK readers) would cancel out any anonymity as the name and address are quite visible. I wouldn’t recommend actually mailing the cash envelope, so you might be seen dropping it off, unless you knew when they weren’t home. Complicating this are addresses which no longer have physical mailboxes.

The Intermediary

I have to do this over the next few days. I was given the gift card last week with clear instructions not to tell the recipient who it’s from. This is probably the best form of the type listed here, though the recipient might still connect the dots.

Gift in Kind

You could go to the utility office and offer to pay their bill. Would the local power company allow you to do this? Would they notify the recipient? Things are so bureaucratic these days that some might refuse.

Any other suggestions? How would you anonymously give someone money in a paper trail world?

 

May 19, 2017

Church Continuity, Summer Shutdowns and the Lake House Mentality

There was a time I thought this was more of Canadian thing, but apparently it happens in various types of churches: Big and small, urban and rural, independent and denominational, established and recently planted. We call it ‘Summer Shutdown.’ Simply put it means that many of the programs of the church start shutting down at the end of April and don’t resume again until after Labor Day (that’s the week after the August Bank Holiday for you Brits.)

The logic in shutting down various children’s programs has to do with competition from evening sports programs, particularly kids baseball and soccer (that’s football for you Brits.)

The logic in shutting down the Thursday morning ladies prayer time totally escapes me (that’s ‘totally escapes me’ for you Brits.)

This phenomenon seems to be more pronounced in North America, but here in Ontario it is coupled with something called ‘the cottage mentality.’ Perhaps where you live the term cabin is more prevalent than cottage. Or the lake house. It means that if it is the weekend in June, July, or August; one is officially at their summer cottage, even if they don’t actually own one. This means that the summer shutdown becomes evident even in the Sunday morning programming of the churches here.

To me, this just leaves a lot of people detached from other people; it leaves them with feelings of isolation and loneliness; it leaves them with more inactivity; and it leaves them increasingly disconnected from their local church. As I wrote recently,

Imagine the greatest institution the world has ever seen suddenly shutting shop. Imagine a movement so powerful that nothing can stop it dispersing its followers for an extended holiday. Imagine the Church of Jesus Christ simply not being there for the hungry, the thirsty, the needy.

It waves the white flag of surrender to the calendar, the school year, football games, and the arrival of hot and humid weather. It gives up because so-called “key leadership” decided to spend weekends at the lake. It broadcasts the message that summer ministry simply isn’t worth the bother. It says, “There’s a big game being televised so probably nobody is going to show up anyway.”

I remember one woman returning to church in September after an absence of at least 90 days, announcing to all nearby that she was back and ready to help “whip this place back into shape.” That did not go over well among those who had been faithful throughout the warmer months. She wanted to pick up the pieces and create a fresh start, when in fact the church had a colorful and vibrant ministry during the weeks she was at the cabin enjoying the sunshine, the barbecue and the swimming.

The loss of continuity here is gigantic. I have however noticed that among some megachurches the programs just become so overarching that it is impossible to curtail them in the summer months. This may actually be a major positive attribute for megachurches at a time when people are so quick to emphasize their negatives. But then these same megachurches will have a weekend where the simply shut down everything altogether. Everything. The doors are locked. For you mainline Protestants, think of it as the non-Sunday of Ordinary Time.

Can you imagine a Roman Catholic church not having the mass the week after Christmas? Or a long weekend? No. Neither can I. Where did this day-off-mentality come from anyway?

Two years ago I wrote on this subject with respect to a church which also shuts down the week after Christmas:

We live at a time when people are taking an extremely casual approach to church attendance. Families with children have already sacrificed weekly continuity on the altar of getting their kids into team sports: Soccer, baseball, three-pitch, t-ball, gymnastics, swim teams, etc. What hasn’t been destroyed by athletics has been decimated by dads working weekend shifts or moms working retail Sunday openings.

These days, if you can get a family out to church 26 out of 52 Sundays, you’re doing well.

So why chop that down to only 50 Sundays? Why create even the most subtle suggestion that taking time off church is perfectly acceptable?

We did attend a local church since moving to this small town where the Sunday School ministry didn’t really miss a beat in the summer. I noted their dedication. It was like they believed in a God that doesn’t take three months off each summer. Last year however, they succumbed to the influence of what other churches are doing.

So here’s to those local churches who provide spiritual nurture at full throttle during the holiday months. Good on ya. People are hungry for more of God’s word and teaching, and also opportunities for fellowship twelve months of the year. I’m willing to bet there are stories of spiritual starvation that take place when ‘spiritual providers’ take off. I’d like to start a crusade to fight on behalf of those who are simply not looking forward to the next few months of meetings suspended until the fall. Some of those are hurting and some are lonely.

The people making the decision to curtail programming or shut down a particular weekend are usually well-connected and have lots of social activity planned for the time they are away.

For many large churches, it’s all or nothing. They can’t do small church anymore. Think about it:

The modern megachurch simply cannot offer an alternative service in a smaller room in the church where Mrs. Trebleclef will play some well known choruses or hymns on the keyboard (or Mr. Coolhair on the guitar), the head of Men’s Ministry will speak, and then we’ll have a coffee time in the atrium. That would be a simple service. It would involve said pianist, the person giving the short devotional message, and the person to make the coffee, as well as someone to unlock the doors and check the restrooms before locking up. But that’s not the brand these churches want to offer. You can’t have a simple, grassroots service like that. Better to have locked doors.

So where do those KidMin, worship and parking volunteers come from on Christmas and holidays? They don’t. You change up the brand image for the sake of one Sunday and using a skeleton staff, offer something for the people who really need to be connected. Maybe not Mrs. T. on the piano. Maybe it’s a film. It might involve a guest speaker or guest musicians. Perhaps it’s a shorter service. 

Sadly however, this is not going to happen. ‘It’s not how we do things.

Wanna buck the trend? Light a candle! Use the summer to invite people over to your home for informal events. Can’t lead a Bible study? Just find a good teaching DVD and set up the machine in the living room; make some coffee and then let whatever is meant to happen next, simply happen. There are sermon DVDs from pastors you’ve heard of available as downloads online, you can purchase some from various ministry organizations, or you can buy them at Christian bookstores.

Can’t lead a Bible study? Don’t do anything fancy. Just pick a short Biblical book, invite people over; make the aforementioned coffee; and start in on chapter one. Don’t even suggest getting together the following week for chapter two; let those who are present suggest that. (Some may offer their home for the following week, especially if you don’t have air-conditioning!)

Counter the summer shutdown mentality with impromptu, informal events in your home this summer. And no, you don’t need your pastor’s permission; in fact, make it a non-church event by inviting some people from a different church. Or if the DVD has good outreach potential, invite some non-churched neighbors.


If you feel like you’ve read this before here, you have. This is a recurring, annual Thinking Out Loud rant. But this time around the rant you’re reading is a mash-up of four previous articles with additional content.

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