Thinking Out Loud

March 24, 2018

Bill Hybels, John Ortberg: Why This Scandal Strikes Close to Home

John Ortberg (left) and Bill Hybels (right) – surprising combatants in a war of accusations.

Over the years, when a noted Christian leader has been accused or charged with any type of impropriety, it has usually taken place at a distance from what I would consider my circle. Typically these stories concern:

  • a Catholic priest
  • a member of the Reformed/New Calvinist community
  • a Pentecostal/Charismatic fringe church
  • a smaller African-American church
  • a story taking place overseas

This time it’s personal.

Bill Hybels was the subject of a Chicago Tribune story this week which rocked my world. (The term being used is sexual misconduct.) Part of the reason this hits closer to home is that he’s one of a select list of pastors whose sermons I listen to weekly. I’ve been onboard with Willow since a friend gave me a cassette entitled “Philosophy of Ministry” back in the early 1980s. I’ve championed the concept of seeker-friendly churches (most churches are seeker-hostile) and applauded them when they realized in 2007 that the spiritual needs of seekers had changed and that on their current course they were not producing long-term disciples. I’ve attended services at Willow; my wife attended a conference at the Northwest Chicago campus.

But John Ortberg, who is bringing the charges against Hybels is also on that list of pastors whose teaching has influenced me and I continue to enjoy. I tracked with Ortberg when he was on staff at Willow and have followed his sermons at Menlo Park Presbyterian. I’ve read and reviewed his books. When I started a church plant in my town, for six weeks we did the videos for If You Want to Walk on Water You Have to Get Out of the Boat.

I have had great respect for both men…

…As I’ve written before, my father was involved with Charles Templeton before and during the time when Templeton abandoned the faith (paving the way for Billy Graham, who once said he was only continuing the mandate which Templeton started and never finished.) This has taught me one very important principle:

In times like this we need to keep our eyes on Christ, not people.

We need to focus on Jesus, not Christian leaders or Christian institutions.

We need to not be surprised when stories circulate (a type of  ‘wars and rumors of war’ if you think about it) and continue to make Christ our focus.

For now, that’s all I have to say about this story. We’ll see how it plays out over the next days and weeks.  

Other coverage: See Christianity Today.


March 23, 2018

Mission Profile: Mustard Seed International

Earlier this week I had what I consider the special privilege of spending nearly 2½ hours getting to know the work of Mustard Seed International (MSI) a mission whose tag line is, “We teach. We love. They lead.” I had a very focused lunch meeting with Craig Jeffrey and Lucie Howell who direct the U.S. and Canadian operations respectively from an office near Toronto.

When we think of missions, usually two models come to mind.

The first is all about proclamation. This suggests the image of the missionary who learns the language of a particular tribe and embarks on a program of Christian education and evangelism with the goal of ‘winning souls to Christ.’

The second model is all about compassion ministry. This suggests going into a particular area and providing nutritional food, clean water and medicine. The goal of evangelism is not at the forefront; neither is it pushed entirely into the background for such organizations, but the primary purpose is to bring “a cup of water” in Christ’s name. This is the mission of Christian relief and development agencies.

Mustard Seed International provides an alternative, what might be a third model, namely a focus on education. As we discussed this, I could not help but think of something my oldest son said to me having just returned from his second trip to an orphanage in the third world. He pointed out that without a decent education, the kids are going nowhere. Education is the key to allowing a child to have, as the prophet Jeremiah conveyed it, “a future and a hope.”

As Mustard Seed’s website explains,

Through the schools we start, staff, and operate, we provide Hope to our students, teachers, and the communities they live in. The education, training and discipleship they receive nourishes their hearts and minds. In every classroom and children’s home we run, we teach in words and deeds about our greatest Hope. Driven by that Hope, teaching is our small act of worship. It starts mustard seed-sized, but with God’s blessing it will grow into something much bigger.

Some of the brightest and the best kids are given an opportunity to further their education in ways that would be not be practical without the organization’s intervention. With the possibilities that presents, do some take advantage of that to move on to better things? Craig Jeffrey said there is a small percentage of students who are lost to the lure of careers in larger cities and towns, but a larger number take their expertise and return to their home communities to bring leadership to those villages; hence the “they lead” part of the aforementioned tag line.

In 2017 alone they accomplished the following:

  • 34 teachers-in-training who are preparing to become world changers in villages.
  • 33 teachers in Java.
  • 30 teachers in the remote mountains of Eastern Indonesia.
  • 6 teachers in an outreach center in Java.
  • 8 teachers serving in a kindergarten.
  • 29 teachers in 3 schools located in a village along the K River.
  • 40 part-time teachers in Borneo.
  • A pastor and his wife who have dedicated themselves to teach in a remote village where Mustard Seed has opened a school.
  • Support for a widow who was left alone to raise her 5 children.
  • The rent to keep a kindergarten rolling forward, and a new 6-year contract for a kindergarten that serves 32 children.
  • The materials for 3-day training for 35 teachers on an Eastern island.
  • A youth center in Java that provides discipleship for 461 teenagers on 8 campuses, and CEC which provides discipleship materials and homework assistance to 55 children.
  • The tuition, food and other expenses for 50 abandoned or orphaned children in Seeds of Hope Children’s Home.

You can’t tell the story of Mustard Seed International without dropping a few names.

Lillian Dickson aka ‘Typhoon Lil’

I was interested in knowing more about Lillian Dickson (1901-1983) mainly because she was a huge influence on Bob Pierce who founded World Vision. In a section about her, Pierce’s daughter Marilee Dunker writes:

It is fair to say that my dad met his match when he was introduced to Lillian Dickson in 1953 on a visit to Taiwan (then called Formosa). Her willingness to take on human need wherever she found it reaffirmed my father’s own conviction that God will do impossible things when we don’t put limits on Him. Their lifelong partnership would bring thousands to Christ and become one of the enduring cornerstones of World Vision’s ministry.

The story of the diminutive founder of Mustard Seed International is all the more remarkable in that Lillian came to Formosa in the 1920s as a missionary’s wife. Her husband, Jim Dickson, was the “official” missionary in the family, and his bride devoted the early years to their children and home.

But when the kids got older, Lillian decided she wasn’t going to “sit out her life.” With Jim’s blessing, she packed up her Bible and her accordion and began hiking with a team of medical missionaries into the most remote areas of Taiwan. They went where neither modern medicine nor the hope of the gospel had ever reached.

During the next 30 years, “Typhoon Lil” (as she was affectionately named after surviving a particularly savage storm) walked thousands of miles, fearlessly wading through rushing rivers, crossing dangling wooden bridges, and facing down angry witch-doctors and headhunters. She slept, ate, laughed, and cried with the tribal people she loved, and every day God trusted her with new needs and a bigger vision…

Lillian Dickson earns a detailed page at Wikipedia and Pierce interviewed Dickson; the video is posted at Vimeo. While the organization looks to the future, ‘Typhoon Lil’ is an inextricable part of MSI’s history.

Paul Richardson – Missions runs in the family

The other name that’s inescapable in the MSI story is Paul Richardson, International Director. Paul is the son of iconic missionary Don Richardson, whose book Peace Child is both a powerful story and the textbook on a particular aspect of missions and evangelism called contextualization.

A 2010 story in The Christian Post tells the story of Paul and his wife Cynthia:

As Richardson and his family began to settle down in Compton, Calif., he and his wife received a calling from God and they were led to return to his hometown, a small village on the Island Irian Jaya, Indonesia.

They arrived in the Muslim-majority country to find a generation “as lost as you can imagine.”

“HIV/AIDS is spreading there more rapidly than almost anywhere in the world, a lot of the streets and cities are ruled by violent gangs, there’s a tremendous amount of drug abuse and alcoholism and there is illiteracy, a lack of skills,” said Richardson, director of Mustard Seed Southeast Asia.

But what was most shocking upon returning to the land where his parents served as missionaries was the extent to which the society had fallen to within two generations.

“During the 1960s to 1970s there were as many as 1,400 missionaries who moved there… As an adult I have a chance to go back to that same island … and what I see there, to be completely truthful, has been very shocking to me.”

In the same article he provided a reason why MSI chooses to work in education as opposed to traditional mission modes:

“In missions we are responsible to do far more than just start churches but we are to unleash a movement of discipleship in the young and instill this as a core value in the hearts and the minds of anyone who chooses to follow Jesus,” he stressed.

Mustard Seed Southeast Asia is currently involved with approximately 3,000 children across the region, working with indigenous leaders, other local teachers and the government to equip and mentor them with hopes they will rise up as the future leaders of the world.

The ministry has attracted teachers from all the over country – including many Muslims who teach at schools discouraging freedom of expression, while pushing for conformity – to participate in training programs.

“We have increasing influence among many Islamic teachers and just helping to set them free as teachers and discover God’s creativity in the classroom,” Richardson explained.

Our lunch meeting ended all too soon. Nothing I write here can capture the passion that Craig and Lucie have for this work. MSI is not a mission organization on the tip of everyone’s tongue, but I hope that with this article, by raising awareness, I can motivate some of you to pray and as God leads, give to support this work.

If you are among the givers and are looking to support a new project or cause, let me encourage you to connect with MSI using the following links. MSI is both EFCA (USA) and (CCCC) Canada approved.

TPT Matt.13.31 Then Jesus taught them another parable: “Heaven’s kingdom realm can be compared to the tiny mustard seed that a man takes and plants in his field. 32 Although the smallest of all the seeds, it eventually grows into the greatest of garden plants, becoming a tree for birds to come and build their nests in its branches.”

This article was voluntary on my part and was not requested or expected by MSI.



March 22, 2018

Marriage and Marijuana: When the Rules Change

Changes in the law are often viewed from a variety of vantage points.

I often wonder what happens when someone who has done prison time for pot possession thinks as they see state after state making weed legal. Or the person who was persecuted by family or friends for their homosexual cohabitation watching gay marriage legalized.

I realize that most of the people reading this fall into neither category. You may not directly know people who do. However, such individuals would have a rather different perspective on changing legislation in various states as well as Canada.

The end result of what pilots call a “graveyard spiral.”

Then there are those who will simply use this as an example of how society is going downhill; to use an aviation term, the graveyard spiral of society. It’s great sermon material if you want to get people revved up; what Skye Jethani would call pandering to the Fear-vangelical mindset.

But there’s another viewpoint I was considering today: The youth.

In particular, what does all this look like from the point of view of a child who is too young to smoke weed and too young to enter into a marriage relationship?

In some ways, it sends this message: If you wait long enough it — whatever it is — will eventually be made legal.

I know you’re thinking, ‘Yes, but some things are absolutely wrong and not subject to discussion.’

Really? Take the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill” and then consider euthanasia, abortion or (for some) even war itself.

“Thou shalt not bear false witness.” What about lying where it is expedient, or situation ethics, manipulation of statistics, or the popular term today, fake news?

Again, I’m not talking about the “moral decay” itself, but about the appearance all this must present to young people who see nothing as absolute. Rules regulating behavior and lifestyle appear as in flux or in transition with no fixed reference points.

I’ve noted elsewhere on the blog that rules are often created at one time or for one group of people or in one particular place; whereas principles are timeless and transcend the limits of who they apply to or where they apply. The rules derive from the principles.

So in a world where alcohol is in common use, the addition of marijuana to the recreational mix may not appear to reflect a change in principles, but a kid or young teen doesn’t know that.

To children and youth, as things are subject to constant revision and updated legislation, all bets are off when it comes to whether anything is truly wrong.

March 21, 2018

Wednesday Connect

Probably not your grandmother’s idea of church: A series titled “Villains, Bad Guys and Minions” at Church by the Glades in Coral Springs, Florida. (Source: Museum of Idolatry)

You would have recognized St. Catherine without reading the caption if you owned a set of SaintCards trading cards. See the Kickstarter preview below.

Welcome to our first ever Springtime edition of Wednesday Connect, where all the cool get people get their Christian news and opinion pieces. (If you missed the first one last week, it’s here.) You can also stay in touch during the week here at the blog and @PaulW1lk1nson on Twitter. (Just remember the number one substitutes for the letter I.)

► We don’t usually lead off with a video, but this piece by Andrew Peterson, based on Revelation 5, is especially powerful. There’s also a story behind the song, Is He Worthy?

► Andy Savage announced yesterday his formal resignation from Highpoint Church following the revelation of his abuse of power with then youth-group-member Jules Woodson.

► Persecution Watch: “Over the last three years, the anti-Christian persecution in India has continued to increase.  Open Doors’ World Watch List ranked India as the planet’s 25th worst persecutor of Christians in 2015.  Yet in 2017 it was found to be the 15th biggest persecutor and, this year, it climbed to 11th place. An Open Doors spokesperson informs us that before Christians face overt physical violence—in 2016, 15 Christians were murdered in India and many more beaten and threatened—’there [is] often…a long process of re-converting them to Hinduism, during which they faced discrimination, social exclusion and other types of pressure.’ A chief cause of the oppression, according to Open Doors, is the resurrection of Hindu nationalism.  The Hindu nationalist holds that only Hinduism should be observed in India.”

► Word of the Week: Christaphobe.

► Box Office Surprise: “The third-biggest movie in America this weekend was I Can Only Imagine, a Christian movie that shares a title with a Christian song that first charted 17 years ago…The movie’s success was unexpected for some, with analysts calling it ‘the big surprise of the weekend,’ given that it didn’t screen for critics and wasn’t widely marketed.(Pushing A Wrinkle in Time to 4th place.)

► By the numbers: Comparing 2015 to 2018, a look at Roman Catholic approval ratings of Pope Francis in various categories.  (Some rather significant declines.)

► American History: “Senator [Theodore] Bilbo used that power to craft an amendment (to the 1938 work relief bill), which would have relocated 12 million American blacks to Africa. The amendment failed, but Bilbo would defend it for the rest of his life. And he would do so in the name of God. His ideas of white supremacy and racial separatism were both advanced by making extensive biblical references. He really seemed to think he had God on his side.” 

► Youth leaving the church? Peter Enns says, “They have lost interest in what amounts to a shallow, quasi-biblical expression of Christian faith, one that focuses far too much on the not yet.

► Conundrum: Jesus never told Caesar how to run the federal government, correct? But what about the Religious Right today? “Let’s put it this way: their entire purpose for existing is to tell Caesar what to do.” So it wasn’t something Jesus did, rather, as Jerry Falwell, Jr. puts it, “That’s our job.”

► Christian apologist John Lennox reflects on the life and writings of Stephen Hawking. (24 min. video.) 

► One of my favorite authors (Michael Frost) quotes one of my other favorite authors (Skye Jethani) and the concept of “Fear-vangelicals.” Frost sets it up uniquely, however: “In the conservative Australian state of Queensland it was recently decided to remove any reference to a person’s height or gender on their driver’s license. That’s actually no big deal to those of us from other states where height and gender hasn’t been included on our licenses. But among the ultra-conservative evangelicals in that state it was cause for moral outrage.

► Albert Mohler, Jr. writes that sometimes controversy is necessary. “The New Testament is not evasive, as it reveals serious and consequential controversies within the earliest congregations and even among Christian leaders. The Apostle Paul defended the gospel against compromise as he entered into a controversy with the Galatians. He inserted himself into a moral controversy as he wrote to the Corinthians. Paul faced down Peter over the issue of the Gentiles and circumcision. Jude warned of the perpetual challenge of defending the truth against its enemies. John warned of a church that was so lukewarm and uncommitted to the truth that it could not muster a controversy. The history of the church also reminds us of the necessity of controversy when the truth of the gospel is at stake.”

► Stating that, “It is my religious conviction that a male cannot have a husband,” the publisher of a local newspaper northwest of Lubbock, Texas scrubbed the name of a grieving son’s partner from his mother’s obituary. The story adds that, “The newspaper’s publisher, Phillip Hamilton, says he’s a bi-vocational Baptist pastor.” So believing that a same sex husband is somewhat of an impossibility, Hamilton leans on his conviction that, “A newspaper cannot knowingly or recklessly publish false information.”

► The Wheaton Thunder football player involved in a March, 2016 hazing incident is now suing Wheaton College for $50,000 in legal costs and damages.

► Notwithstanding everything we wrote about Christian radio here yesterday, here are few ‘new’ CCM songs: First, Freedom Hymn by Austin French (which was actually posted last September) and second, Christian rapper Zauntee’s God Taught Me (originally recorded last May and also available at YouTube in a Chipmunk version.)

► In your younger days did you ever want a major role in the class play only to be cast as a tree? Well, it could be worse: “‘Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’.’ [John 12:20-21] I wish I knew more about these Greeks. They’re the bittest of bit parts, most extra of extras, to the story of Jesus. They wander into view, tell Philip they want to see Jesus… and then we never hear of them again.”

► Regular readers of Thinking Out Loud know that for years I championed the cause of Saeed Abedini when he was imprisoned in Iran for evangelism. Sadly, as this weekend headline reminds us, things have not worked out well for the pastor since his return to the U.S.

► Admittedly, it’s an advertisement, but for free you can read Barna Research’s top five American cities in three denominational categories: Catholic, Non-Mainline Protestant and Mainline Protestant.

► Not wanting to be outdone by conventional religious broadcasters, Scientology launched its own network last Monday. (At the same source, a rather cynical review of its programming.)

► Ever wonder what the choir director is doing when he’s waving his arms? This one doesn’t have a clue.  

► Kickstarter Preview: It’s actually launching at the crowdfunding site on Easter weekend. After years of distributing their baseball-card-type saint cards through Parish schools, SaintCards is getting ready to ramp things up a notch.

► Finally, you can breathe a sigh of relief: There’s been a major breakthrough in the manufacture of Mormon underwear for women.

The latest Twitter parody account had no problem approaching 1,000 followers. @DesiringDog echoes the name of John Piper’s website.

The question all our readers are asking; see if you agree with the answer!

“So where does all this Wednesday Connect stuff leave me? Do I still have a job?”

March 20, 2018

What’s Wrong With Christian Radio is Purely Intentional

For those of you who don’t know her, meet Becky. Becky is the fictional target audience for Christian radio stations. Christianity Today helped define her back in 2007:

Her name is Becky.

You probably know her. She’s recently turned 40, but is not quick to admit it. She’s a Christian and a devoted wife and mother. She drives a mini-van. Half-melted crayons roll around on the floor as she stops at a light en route to her daughter’s Tuesday night soccer practice. She laughs sometimes, chagrined that she is the very “Soccer Mom” they talk about come election time. Becky lives in the suburbs, likes to read, enjoys the women’s retreats at church, is struggling to remember algebra so she can help her son with his homework, and is a regular volunteer at the food pantry.

One more thing about Becky, a very important fact for this discussion: she listens to the local Christian music station almost exclusively…

We’ll get back to her in a moment.

On the weekend my wife pointed out something that the more I thought about it, the more profound it seems. She said something like, “There’s more variety on any given contemporary Christian music album than what is played on Christian radio.” In other words, the songs chosen to be the single off the albums tend to get chosen because they all match the station sound and therefore they all sound alike.

In my mind, I envisioned the following diagram where each line represents the range of the songs on any given artist’s album — some exploring a greater number of musical genres — and the dots representing the songs selected to be featured on the radio.

Wouldn’t you like to hear some of the songs from the edge of each artist’s collection?

I owe a lot of my spiritual nurture to Contemporary Christian Music, but I’m not a fan of what it has become. A year ago 20 The Countdown Magazine did a special show on the Best of Christian Worship. It could have been called Chris Tomlin’s Greatest Hits. There was a song which we knew by Robin Mark where they chose to play a Chris Tomlin version, again either because it matched the sound of that show, or because… well we won’t go there. Any possibility for musical diversity was eliminated. (Listening to how many times the host said “Chris Tomlin” during that two hour show became a bit of a drinking game.)

Not everybody likes Becky. In a January, 2012 article in CCM Magazine, Matt Papa, not sparing the use of Caps Lock, wrote:

I love Becky. I really do. That’s part of the reason I’m writing this. Becky needs to be ministered to just like I do and just like everyone else does. But Christian radio/industry people: please MINISTER TO HER!! Stop giving her what she WANTS….GIVE HER WHAT SHE NEEDS and that is the GOSPEL….or stop calling yourself “christian”. There is NOTHING “christian” about telling someone who has cancer that they are OK. Stop tickling her ears. Becky is a human being who needs to hear the truth of Christ, not an object to use for your financial gain. Woe to you. And here’s a novel idea: Why not target other people besides Becky?!?! The gospel has no demographics! Christ shed His blood for all people everywhere and you have misrepresented Him. I pray with all my heart that the money tables in your temple would soon be overturned.

Pastor Gabe Hughes, who apparently has some insider knowledge wrote this in the summer of 2016:

Like most radio and television programming, Christian radio caters to a specific demographic, and that demographic is women between the ages of 20 and 50 (give or take). Whether or not Christian radio is doing it on purpose, that demographic is also mostly white.

It gets way more specific than that: this target woman lives in suburbia in a house with a mortgage, drives a mini-van, has three kids, a dog and a cat, a husband who works full-time, she also works but it’s probably part-time, has a household income between $55 and $70K, vacations in July, doesn’t have enough time to read her Bible but she has enough time to journal, loves Beth Moore and Joyce Meyer, and goes to church about 3 times a month. This woman even has a name — Becky.

Some radio stations will put up a mock picture of this woman in the studio, and the DJs are told to look at it and know that’s who they’re talking to. I’ve attended seminars where this was the whole focus of each session: Becky, Becky, Becky. The entire radio station is programmed for her — not her husband and not her kids. Giving glory to God is incidental, or it’s presented like this: “By reaching Becky, you’re giving glory to God.” Becky’s name is mentioned more often at these conferences than God’s name is.

This is unofficially referred to as Becky Programming or the Becky Mentality. The gospel-minded might recognize this as exactly how not to evangelize. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for we are all one in Christ, right (Galatians 3:28)? But rather than giving an audience what they need to hear, Christian radio sections out a particular audience and gives her what the research says she wants to hear…

Why do so many of the songs sound alike?
Because radio is about producing the least number of negatives. Technically a radio station is not actually trying to give you something that you like. They’re trying to give you something you don’t dislike. As long as they can remain as even as possible without too much variation or fluctuation, they’re more likely to keep you on their radio station and not flipping to something else.

When the radio station maintains a continuous blend of sound, it just kind of melts into the background and you become oblivious that you’re still listening to it. You know how when you drive the same route to work every day, sometimes entire stretches of the trip will go by, and you’ll wonder where those miles went? Listening to the radio is kind of like that…

Even when it comes to production quality, songs have been equalized to be at the exact same volume level. Put on your headphones, find a song from the late 80s or early 90s, and give it a listen. Then pick a song from within the past decade and listen at the same volume. Notice the difference? The older song has more dynamics, highs and lows, crescendo and decrescendo, and the more current song is a lot louder and dynamically consistent throughout.

The reason why every single Christian recording artist sounds like they’re recording the exact same song is because they know K-Love won’t play it unless it sounds like every other song. Yes, Christian radio is the very reason every Christian artist sounds the same. It’s not necessarily the artist’s fault. They just have to play along (pun implied).

(There’s a lot more; I’ll be honest, I just wanted to copy and paste Gabe’s entire article, so click here to read more.

The early Christian music radio hosts were typical of FM radio guys in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There was no single off the album, they just picked a song they liked. They exposed and celebrated the things creative Christian songwriters and performers were doing across North America, and if you got lucky, some of the things from the UK (which even today we rarely get to hear, everything being so Nashville-centric.)

There are still some great songs being written and great albums being recorded, but I must say I feel sorry for the kids today who only know Christian music’s after and missed out on Christian music’s before. Fortunately for them, broadcasting is not the primary means of transmission in their generation. Indie artists survive and even flourish on alternative media, such as Fresh Life Radio which itself provides balance by playing some of the CCM fare, or the notable broadcast exception, Project 88.7 in Boise and Twin Falls, Idaho. 

Full disclosure: The business I own also sells Christian music. Sales are down. I am increasingly convinced that downloading or online sales of physical product are not blame. Many in the next generation are not hearing anything that captivates them. Groups are recognizable, but it’s increasingly difficult to differentiate one male solo artist from another.

The push for homogeneity is killing Christian radio.

Blogger and Pastor Gabriel Hughes posted this Becky collage in the article linked above. Maybe you know her.


Related? This was posted yesterday in conjunction with a new book release. The headline says it all: The founder of Christian rock music would’ve hated what it’s become.

March 19, 2018

Cultural Shifts: The End of “Going Shopping”

The Rolling Acres Mall in Akron, OH is an example of a once-bustling center of activity that now sits completely abandoned. (YouTube: Chris Condon)

The impending shutdown of Toys-R-Us announced last week serves as another reminder of how the way we acquire consumer goods has shifted in the internet age. In the process however, I feel something is being lost. Here are a few benefits of loading up the family in the car or van on a shopping excursion.

Exercise – Getting some fresh air, and walking the aisles of the mall or department stores is always to be preferred to just sitting on the couch watching Netflix. I found it also interesting that large homes are now being constructed to fill their respective building lots to the point where there are no backyards. The assumption is that you’re going to do everything indoors. This can’t be healthy.

Delayed Gratification – We raised our kids to expect that a trip to certain stores might result in us leaving empty-handed; carrying neither bags nor boxes. We had little money to spend, but it cost little to look. Sometimes the seeds of desire would be planted that would result in birthday or Christmas gifts, but there was never the sense that we were going to load up shopping carts with everything in sight.

Interactive Purchasing – We could ask questions as the salesperson qualified our needs. Are the extra features used by customers? Are many of these units returned? Is this compatible with another product we already own? Do we really need the extended warranty? (Some sales people were biased on that last one.) It was a process of give-and-take conversation that resulted in a better fit with little need for returns or exchanges.

Supporting Local Business – We knew that at least some of our money stayed in our city. Even with a chain store, if it’s franchised, you’re still supporting the local franchise owner. If it’s completely corporately owned, you’re at least providing local jobs, meaning wages for your immediate neighbors.

Exposure to Wider Range of Products – To get our youngest the set of pencil crayons the teacher had requested we had to walk past the fabric softener, and the set of socket wrenches, and the dog chow, and the snow tires. For the kids, every one of these was a lesson — even if nothing was spoken — in the bigger world and how it works.

Social Contact – In the late 1960s it was accepted that the shopping mall had become the new town square. It was the place to see and be seen; to run into neighbors and friends and coworkers and fellow-students. In a large city, this included people from a more distant past who, without the benefit of computers in that era, you had completely lost contact with. This was often followed with an agreement to get together soon for more social connection. As a Christian, I found this provided contexts where I could share my faith. (See also the update below*)

The Quest – Granted this is similar to the first point, but sometimes you simply need a destination; a place to go in search of a desired object. To this extent, life is like a movie. You had the need. You drove to the mall. You found a parking spot. You located the store. They had the item in stock. You made the purchase. You couldn’t remember where you had parked! There was story; on a small quest the hero had gone on a mission and returned triumphant.

I know I’ve left some things out, but as shopping becomes something we do sitting at screens and shopping carts become virtual instead of physical I just think we’ve lost something. In the process, we’re directing the profits to nameless, faceless corporations — one in particular comes to mind — but we’re also robbing ourselves of the personal profit that comes with interacting in the wider reality.

Did I leave anything out? Anything else you feel has been lost in the switch to online shopping?

*Update: This was left as a comment by Mark from England shortly after the blog published, but I don’t want any of you to miss it:

People who live alone might not see or speak to anyone for days on end. Visiting the local shops might be the only chance they have to interact with people. Not just people they know who they might meet but a friendly word from a sales assistant, a smile even, might relieve the crippling loneliness that they feel. And hey, who knows, they might make a new friend who might visit them from time to time. Isolation is not our natural state.

Good point, Mark. Where do those people find a replacement for those interactions?

March 18, 2018

St. Patrick Was Yesterday | 10 Other Irish Saints You Should Know Today

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:09 am

The Lord took pity on me thousands upon thousands of times, because he saw within me that I was prepared, but that I was ignorant of what to do in view of my situation; because many were trying to prevent this mission. They were talking among themselves behind my back, and saying: ‘Why is this fellow throwing himself into danger among enemies who know not God?’ Not from malice, but having no liking for it; likewise, as I myself can testify, they perceived my rusticity. And I was not quick to recognize the grace that was then in me; I now know that I should have done so earlier.

Because we already ran a short bio previously, The 411 on 3/17, I thought take the day after to debrief and delve a little deeper. The video is a piece called The Hymn of St. Patrick, though there are a few different compositions that use this title.

st-patrickThe quotation that opened this article is from WikiQuote as is the one which follows, from an English translation of by John Skinner in The Confession of St. Patrick (1998)

Therefore be amazed, you great and small who fear God, and you men of God, eloquent speakers, listen and contemplate. Who was it summoned me, a fool, from the midst of those who appear wise and learned in the law and powerful in rhetoric and in all things? Me, truly wretched in this world, he inspired before others that I could be — if I would — such a one who, with fear and reverence, and faithfully, without complaint, would come to the people to whom the love of Christ brought me and gave me in my lifetime, if I should be worthy, to serve them truly and with humility.

From, Patrick wasn’t the only Irish saint. And there’s a day set aside on the calendar for these as well. Think how much more green beer the pubs and bars could sell if they knew their Irish saints better. You’re thinking we’re a day late with this, but you’ll keep in file for 364 days, right?

Furthermore, with a little help from Wikipedia, you can pick one from the list below and be an expert on Brigid of Kildare, or Columbanus, or Oliver Plunket, canonized as recently as 1975 and therefore the first new Irish saint in 700 years. (Except the one whom another Wikipedia page states was canonized in 1903, but then Saint Keven is listed as living from 498 to 618 which means he was 120 when he died but strangely there’s no mention of this long life in the write-up itself.)

Anyway, you’ve got less than two months because the next feast day listed here is coming up soon, on May 16th.

Ten Other Major Irish Saints

Ireland, which was once known as the land of saints and scholars, has bred numerous saints, many of whom left their native country to Christianize the rest of Europe in the same fashion as St. Patrick.

Here are but a few:

  1. St. Aidan
    Feast day: Aug. 31
    The founder of a great center of Celtic Christianity.
  2. St. Brendan
    Feast day: May 16
    Patron of boatmen, sailors, travelers, and whales.
  3. St. Brigid
    Feast day: Feb. 1
    Patron of babies, blacksmiths, cows and dairy workers, Ireland, midwives, poets, sailors, scholars, and travelers.
  4. St. Columba
    Feast day: June 9
    Patron of bookbinders, Ireland, poets, and Scotland
  5. St. Columban
    Feast day: Nov. 23
    It is no wonder that this saint’s emblem is the bear, as he seems to have had a knack for causing trouble.
  6. St. Ita
    Feast day: Jan. 15
    The revered teacher of St. Brendan.
  7. St. Kevin
    Feast day: June 3
    Patron of blackbirds, the archdiocese of Dublin, Ireland, and Glendalough, Ireland.
  8. St. Kieran
    Feast day: Sept. 9
    A visionary who founded a great Irish monastery.
  9. St. Malachy
    Feast day: Nov. 3
    The first Irish saint to be canonized by a pope, in 1199.
  10. St. Oliver Plunket
    Feast day: July 11
    The last Catholic martyr to die at Tyburn, he was canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1975.

The fun continues at the same website, where you can continue with 50 St. Patrick Facts, about both the man, and the day.

March 17, 2018

Church Directories Build Community

Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name
And they’re always glad you came

~Theme from Cheers TV-Show

It was a heated congregational meeting that had been called nearly twenty years ago to address the implications of the rapidly growing church going to a two service format on Sunday mornings. The usual pros and cons were being kicked around when a woman at the back stood up and voiced an issue I hadn’t foreseen; “But we won’t all know each other.”

I never thought of that.

This was a church where, heretofore, everybody knew who everybody was. The kind of thing you expect in a rural church environment. Suddenly, that was about to change, and there was apprehension, if not plain fear about the implications of going to church on Sunday morning and not being in command of the first and last names of all the people in the auditorium.

# # #

Some churches have always resolved the identification issue by having a bulletin board at the back with photos of “Our Church Family.” A local church in our area raised the quality standard on this a few years back. When the professional company doing their photo directory was done, the church was presented with a couple of beautiful, framed wall prints showing everyone’s directory photo and name alphabetically. I’m sure it is often referred to, given that church’s size.

Another option is name tags. Besides the risk of the pin-type tearing clothing — many churches opt for the lanyard type — I’ve always felt it reminiscent of the “elder” name tags worn by the Mormon (LDS) missionaries who come knocking at your front door at inopportune times. But some churches thrive on this system, with visitors quickly assigned a quickly-scribbled Sharpie version which, I’m quite sure, would make seeker-friendly advocates like Bill Hybels shudder in horror; although it beats asking visitors to stand up and give their names, a practice I sincerely hope has disappeared by now.

It also raises an issue I don’t have space to get into here: The artificiality of the “turn around shake hands” type of forced fellowship. Or name tags themselves. If you click the image on the name tag at right, it will take you to a blog post on that subject.

Then there are various types of mixers including Newcomers Lunch, where established church leaders get to know recent arrivals; or the “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” events where, each quarter, people alternate between being a “host” or being a “guest” at a mystery house with mystery guests. (You can even heat things up by sending the charismatic-leaning, Arminian Smith family over for lunch with the conservative Calvinist Jones family; but who gets the Adams family with their ten children?)

Of course, the organic approach to getting to know people is small groups. You won’t know everyone, but you’ll build deep relationships and strong community with the others in your group. And possibly at that point, knowing everyone’s name won’t be so high a priority.

Which brings us to church directories.

# # #

When my oldest son was about six I showed him an entry in our church’s directory where one couple’s name was listed, but there was no address or phone number. It was easy to see why if you knew that he worked for the RCMP. (U.S. readers: Think FBI.) So I asked him, “Why do you think they don’t have an address?”

His answer was; “They’re homeless.”

I then explained the nature of his job, and the notion of privacy. There are other examples I can think of where families have chosen to opt-out completely from even having their names listed, but in most small and medium-sized churches, a church telephone directory is still considered useful, even though some online people haven’t picked up a phone handset in years; so most people participate.

Directories easily fit into the collection of things listed above (name tags, photo boards, etc.) but offer something else: A means to get in touch, or stay in touch with other people in your church throughout the week. You can call the kid’s teacher to see if he left his Bible in the classroom, ask the worship leader’s wife for the title of the book she mentioned in the lobby, and e-mail the woman who said she had a great recipe for carrot cake. You can see where people live, and the names of their children.

I am convinced that these directories — with or without photos — are in another category altogether, and sincerely believe that, where feasible, every church should have one.

Especially in an age of e-mail.

I know there will be pushback on this — some people will not want their e-mail address published — but I am convinced that we live in an electronic world where not having e-mail is like buying a house and taking down the mailbox. I believe there is potential for abuse, but it is outweighed by the contact that can take place between church family members.

As a business owner who does a monthly e-mail newsletter, I’m always tempted to steal e-mail addresses from directories, but we’ve learned over time that we’re better off initiating contact some other way before pursuing electronic communication. However, one local church meets this problem halfway by giving business owners a back page to list their name, the name of their business, the nature of their business, and business phone and e-mail information.

That same church also has a strong push for people to submit photos. They produce their own directory, and so there isn’t the hesitation associated with commercial photographers trying to sell families additional prints and print packages at inflated prices.

In an environmentally-conscious world, some churches have put their church directory online. A login is necessary so that only members and adherents can access the information, though the same login allows those listed to update their own data.

At the other end of the spectrum, in another church that we are actively involved with, the directory is simply a list of names and phone numbers. No indication of where people live or if they drive a great distance for worship. No opportunity to send an e-mail; which really grates on my wife and I, who use online communication extensively.

The other major liability of their system is that children under eighteen are not listed at all. I’m not sure I can even begin to grasp what kind of message that sends to, for example, the teens in the youth group. (“You’re not really part of our church family.”) It’s an oddity that sticks out all the more if your kids are accustomed to seeing their names in such a publication. The church in question doesn’t really have a large number of children. Coincidence?

# # #

Send me a postcard, drop me a line, stating point of view
Indicate precisely what you mean to say…

~Lyrics from the Beatles, “When I’m 64”

# # #

In a world where privacy concerns dominate so many discussions, and insurance companies advise churches against anything with the faintest hint of liability, the idea of a church directory may seem like a throwback to a bygone era; however this writer is sold on them. I even keep a few old ones now and then as a sort of yearbook of memories of what the church family looked like in the past. Once in awhile, I discover someone in the church family who only lives a few blocks away, or someone who lives next door to someone with whom I’ve recently shared my faith journey.

I also remain absolutely convinced that creating e-mail community is absolutely essential, especially as various factors seem to add to the isolation people experience. Your church may prefer to do this through Facebook community; but do update the thing now and then, okay? Computer contact is not the same as face-time, but it’s better than nothing. And those with hesitation can always choose to opt-out of listing their online address, but I find that most choose to share their full contact information.

Also, I cannot minimize the role that both standard telephone contact and e-mail contact can play when someone in the church faces an urgent need for prayer.

# # #

If we’re a family, then family members talk to each other, right?

And church isn’t just something we do on Sunday.

# # #

This 2011 piece was included today as a part two to a more recent discussion we had on this topic yesterday.

March 16, 2018

I Can Only Imagine Opens Today in North America

Filed under: Christianity — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:05 pm

It’s the song that brings ultimate hope to so many … often in the midst of life’s most challenging moments. Amazingly, the song was written in mere minutes by MercyMe lead singer Bart Millard. In reality, those lyrics took a lifetime to craft.

Your Church Family Directory

One of the two churches with which I’m directly involved has a church directory which includes email addresses. The major benefit I see is that it allows people to continue the conversations started on Sundays throughout the week; to initiate contact; or to follow up with friends they haven’t seen in awhile.

The church family phone directory is probably something that will disappear over the next decade because of (a) privacy concerns, and (b) the degree to which the megachurches set the agenda of smaller churches. Nonetheless we thought we’d visit this topic.

Since my church uses a photo directory, I had a thought today that it would be fun to do one where instead of actual photographs, people submitted an avatar, as they do on social media. It would be 100% contrary to the purpose for which photo directories were created in the first place, but definitely fun and colorful.

Full disclosure: I was looking at this picture of two cats when I came up with this, and thinking it might be better than the dated picture of Mrs. W. and myself they’ve been using for the past four years.

Next, there is the issue of people who appear in these directories who have long moved on, hopefully to another church.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon was a megachurch pastor. We often forget that numerically, he would qualify by today’s standards. The church experienced phenomenal growth. At their size, not to mention the cost of paper, a church directory would have been impossible. But there was a membership roll and people wanted their name kept on it. He wrote,

Let us not keep names on our books when they are only names. Certain of the good old people like to keep them there, and cannot bear to have them removed; but when you do not know where individuals are, nor what they are, how can you count them? They are gone to America, or Australia, or to heaven, but as far as your roll is concerned they are with you still. Is this a right thing? It may not be possible to be absolutely accurate, but let us aim at it… *

I don’t think that everyone I’m aware of actually wants their directory listing to be kept. They’ve possibly changed churches and aren’t giving it a thought. Rather, the fault lies with the church for not noticing their absence. (Having written that, I just got in touch with someone I haven’t seen lately to see how they’re doing.)

I see we’ve covered this topic before. Four years ago, I proposed something different:

How a social media hub is different from a Church directory

I’m writing this in a vacuum, because I haven’t exactly seen done what I am proposing here. I just see a need. So here’s the proposal, and if you have any suggestions or revisions based on experience with a church that’s doing this please leave a comment.

Social media, as we have come to know it, is with us to stay. The platforms will migrate over time, but a generation has grown up communicating on line, and overall, I would say that for the church, this is a good thing. We can start a conversation at a weekend service, and continue it all week. We can learn that people have specific interests, and send them links to articles and channels of interest. It replaces the classic “encouragement notes” or “thinking-of-you cards.”

  • Ideally, a church directory lists every member and adherent. A social media index lists only people who want to share their various social media platforms.
  • A Church directory contains addresses and numbers for mobile phones and land lines.  A social media index has names and locations for Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, tumblr, WordPress and YouTube pages.
  • A Church directory often exists in print; a church social media hub exists only online. It’s live, so information may be added or removed at any time.
  • Church publications generally promote the church’s own social media pages. A social media index highlights what the church family is doing online.
  • Church directories are usually only distributed to the people whose names are contained in them. A social media index can just be a page on the church website — “Central Community Church on Social Media” — with no restricted access, because each of the pages concerned are public anyway.
  • Knowing that anyone in your church can access your pages is a wonderful way of keeping yourself accountable for what you write, post or link to. Your social media pages may reflect a personal family focus and other interests and hobbies you have; but ultimately you are aware that fellow church members might drop in at any time, unannounced.
  • Social media is constantly changing. A social media index for your church family needs to be updated on a regular basis, perhaps weekly. If a given platform falls out of use, there can be a decision to delete all links to that platform.
  • If any social media platform from any church member is reported to have questionable content, all their listings would be removed.

If one of the basic problems in the church is that we don’t really know each other, I know of no other way to change that than to be interconnected online. This allows us to get to know each other to a greater degree.

We’ll look more at this topic tomorrow!

*Spurgeon quotation source, click here.

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