Thinking Out Loud

September 18, 2018

When Everything is Working; While Together, Nothing Works

You have to feel sorry for this tourist.

After taking a funicular to see a hillside neighborhood up close and also be able to overlook the city, we discovered, like the man in the picture, that the latter was impossible.

The park benches were placed so that people could sit and enjoy the view.

The shrubs were planted probably to add some greenery, or stop erosion.

The tall trees probably had a mind of their own. It’s too bad nobody noticed them in their younger years and projected what might happen. Still, if they were the only problem, you would still get a good look at the city below.

The benches, as you can see are working perfectly.

The shrubs have grown in nicely.

Together, they have created a place from which to have a view of nothing.

…I’m always looking for analogies, so let me attempt one here. Thinking Out Loud is all about church life and church and culture, so let’s imagine for a minute that the bench and the shrubs represent different ministry departments in our churches.

Now I recognize that Christ is the head of the capital ‘C’ Church and that He also ought to be the head of our small ‘c’ local churches. Under God’s authority, local pastors are appointed, and I would think that about now you’re saying, “Whoever is in charge simply needs to point out that the view from the benches has been completely obscured by the shrubs.” That will solve everything. (Maybe there’s a blogger in the church who can find a pithy way of pointing out the current dilemma.) Perhaps nobody has noticed so far.

It’s like you can’t see the trees for the forest.

Or something like that.

I never said I was good at this, did I?

But many times in our small ‘c’ local churches different departments are allowed to flourish without anyone noticing they are actually running in opposite directions.

For example: The church has an amazing choral program, with junior and senior choirs, beautiful robes and a recently released album. You have to audition three times to get in.

But the youth minister is having great results with a very engaging program, and many teens are becoming part of a church family for the first time, and that leaves said youth minister wishing that the Sunday morning service was just a little less choir-y.

What’s the solution?

Back to the illustration.

You could cut the shrubs.

Or you could move the benches. (There’s a nice view just 50 feet to the left.)

Or you could decide that shrubs are also something worth looking at. (The guy in the picture seems a bit bewildered, though, doesn’t he?)

Back to the application.

Actually, I won’t. I’m already annoyed with myself for choosing a music-based example.

I’m all for empowering both laity and staff members to grow their departments. But in a decentralized structure (or even a top-down centralized one) there are going to be times when ministry objectives are in conflict.

Then again, we’re not just an organization; we’re also a family.

We can make this work.

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September 17, 2018

Irresistible — Andy Stanley’s New Take on New Testament Faith

By his own admission, publishing this book is a career-risking move.

Furthermore, the criticism that Andy Stanley has already endured over statements which are contained in Irresistible would cause some to lay low for several months until the storm passes.

But that’s not Andy Stanley. Instead, he takes nearly 300 pages to fully flesh out his reasons for saying that Christianity needs to “unhitch” itself from the Hebrew scriptures, or what we call The Old Testament. Yes, that. For some those were fightin’ words. For others, the implication was that those writings weren’t inspired or aren’t relevant to knowing the backdrop from which events kickstarted in Bethlehem 2,000-plus years ago. That’s called putting words in someone else’s mouth

…It’s hard to review a book when, for many weeks, you were tracking with the sermon series on which the book is based. There are usually few surprises. Irresistible: Reclaiming the New that Jesus Unleashed for the World (Zondervan) is based on a sermon series called Aftermath which the North Point pastor preached after Easter this year. The church website sums it up this way: “Jesus’ resurrection launched a series of events that introduced the world to his new covenant and new hope. But old ways don’t easily give way. Not then. Not now.” That could also well serve as a summary of the book.

The book is divided into four sections and like a good British mystery, each section is building toward the concluding chapters. I said, “few surprises,” above but unless I missed something in the teaching series, Andy pushes beyond the original conclusion and suggests something even more radical in the way we format our copies of the texts. (I’ve decided to avoid the spoiler.)

I was also struck by the humorous tone used to convey a rather serious subject. It creates a reading environment in which even a new believer — struck by the differences between the First and Second Testament and wondering aloud, “What’s up with that?” — can have a complete understanding of the world in which the news of the resurrection was first preached, and how the two parts connect.

In many respects, the book is personal. His motivation for writing begins with a 2007 trip to China in which he was asked a poignant question about the church in America. In the book (and elsewhere as well) Andy mentions a verse displayed in his office, Acts 15:19: “And so my judgment is that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” (NLT) He’s committed to removing any barriers to faith which might be hampering someone who would otherwise want to be part of Christ’s family.

As he has stated many times, one of those barriers is the material found in the Old Testament (or if you prefer, First Covenant). The violence. The scientific questions. The seemingly arbitrary rules for conduct. The supernatural occurrences. Instead, he believes (as the book’s subtitle affirms) that we need to be focusing on “the new” and in so doing, focus on what the first generations of believers had in a world before church buildings, a world before printed copies of the scriptures, and a world where the resurrection was everything.

It was a faith to die for.


Release Date: September 18, 2018 | 9780310536970 USA | 9780310536987 UK, Aust/NZ, Canada


Thanks to Dave K. at HarperCollins Christian Publishing Canada for a review copy.

 

 

August 28, 2018

Things Left Better Un-Blogged

As soon as she left, Pastor Matt picked up the phone and called his wife.

“You won’t believe who I had in here just now;” he teased her.

“Who?” she said taking the bait.

“Helena Morjann; and you wouldn’t believe how woefully confused she is about the Bible. She said some things and it was all I could do not to split my sides laughing…” and then he proceeded to tell her one of those in complete detail.

When he was done she was laughing as well she said, “I hope your office door was closed all that time. She obviously isn’t getting much from your sermons;” and then adding, “All I can say is, you totally have to blog that.”

Thinking it over for a few seconds, he replied, “You know I could never do that.”

In the year that he was between churches, Matt did an intensive doctoral program, occasionally blogging on a site he had begun many years ago. When he took his current assignment, most of his blog readers were people from his DMin cohort, as well as several he had met doing his MDiv.

Arriving at the church, the leadership there wanted to post his bio on the church website and after composing a few short paragraphs, they had quickly asked, “Are you on Twitter or Facebook?” and “Do you have a blog?” and without thinking of the long-term consequences he had quickly provided the answers.

Looking back, he wishes he had simply created a new blog for the duration of that position; a decoy blog that would prevent them looking for the real one, and that would allow him more freedom to write about the wild and wacky things that take place in interactions with his new congregation.

The things Helena had said in his office that morning would have totally cracked them up.

I’m not a pastor.

I’m also blessed with a fairly wide readership; a collection of people on several continents, in several time zones, representing the broadest diversity of denominational backgrounds.

Because the blog is faith-focused — I’ve never over the years wandered down the road of sharing much of our personal lives or things the kids did that week — I will often use events and situations which take place locally and have impacted me as fuel for blog posts, especially if they impacted my wife and I directly.

But there are some people locally who read Thinking Out Loud, and because of that, like Pastor Matt, I need to be careful. Many of the items which have appeared with the “Short Stories” graphic (above) are based on things which I needed to partially disguise as are the items in “The Lost Voice Project” collection of stories (which I would have loved to have seen develop into a book).

Today is one of those days.

There’s a topic I’m dying to get into today, but it strikes too close to home for some of those local readers. I need to table it for a few months and then find a way to introduce it, perhaps using a fictional story, or waiting until something similar breaks onto the Christian news scene, and then use it as a springboard to express some thoughts.

As someone once said, “Hurtin’ feelings is dumb.” I don’t want to scratch wounds, especially at a time of vulnerability.

So as much as I hope you enjoyed today’s story about Pastor Matt, the real blog post for today will have to wait.

Maybe I should consider this the decoy blog and launch another one. I could call it, “Dumb things churches do.”

We’ll have to wait and see.

 

August 20, 2018

Who is Mentoring Who?

Filed under: Christianity, Church — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:04 am

This weekend, an article in the automotive section of The Toronto Star on mentoring caught my eye. This is a topic that is often raised in the church, only the term often used is Paul/Timothy relationships. Either way, whether a person is religious or not, and no matter what terminology we use, we all have the picture of the older person instructing the younger. That’s the whole idea behind apprenticeship.

But in this article, a particular instance was raised which shatters the paradigm, namely technology. The writer, Susan Gubasta owns a Toyota dealership and is the president of a much wider car dealer association.

…About 10 years ago, I began to notice a shift in mentoring, at least in our industry. For decades, the older generation mentored the younger generation (millennials).

That all changed with the advent of online technologies and smartphones. Suddenly, the older generation began to seek help from their younger peers about the newest smartphones, online platforms and advanced technologies.

Millennials have grown up with these new technologies, platforms and devices, and they have become the teachers, or mentors, for the older generation. The role of the mentor has flipped.

At my Toyota store, the millennials are internet-savvy and possess a wealth of computer knowledge. New technologies do no confuse or intimidate them, which explains why older colleagues are constantly approaching their younger colleagues with questions about tech-related issues.

Does this mean that millennials have officially assumed the mentoring mantle from their older colleagues? Hardly. However, it does mean that dealerships (and workplaces everywhere) have become less about job titles and hierarchies and more about collaboration and engagement…

Again, you can decide how that applies to readers here. Are church leaders ready to submit to those from a different generation on topics such as: Using social media, designing websites, setting up a church office communications network? And if so, would they be willing to submit to their expertise on knowing what might attract their generation to that church? And what might turn them off? Their thoughts on music? Church design? Preaching styles?

As I say, it’s a paradigm shattering picture. We generally think in terms of older and younger. But it’s worth being open to a modified model. Collaboration and engagement are good goals to have.


Source for the article: Click here.

 

August 13, 2018

Willow Creek: From Bad to Worse, but with Some Hope

Filed under: Christianity, Church, current events, leadership — Tags: , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:07 am

Steve Gillen, interim lead pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, South Barrington, IL addresses the church’s weekend services.

Just six days ago I reported on the resignation of teaching co-lead pastor Steve Carter, incorrectly assuming perhaps that the worst was over. Instead, just days later co-lead Heather Larson resigned along with the entire Willow Board of Directors (in graduated steps to ensure some continuity in the very short term.)

I was greatly impacted by Willow in the 1980s, so for me, this is personal. While I’ve only attended 4 or 5 actual services — my wife attended an Arts conference as well — I’ve been a part of an extended Willow culture which preferred lost people over simply doing church for the benefit of the membership. Willow was a model for many of us attempting “seeker sensitive” churches, and when the needs of spiritual seekers was seen to have changed over a decade ago, Willow had the courage to change the model appropriately.

So for me it’s been a time of grieving the damage that has been done to one of the most significant movements of the last century, the loss of reputation for Bill Hybels, and the demise of the succession plan for Willow he worked for years to put into place.

I considered updating that story from last Tuesday but decided to revisit this again today.

Watching the Saturday night service live, new lead pastor Steve Gillen — previously at Willow Creek North Shore — was honest in his reluctance to accept the interim position at the main, South Barrington Campus. (You can read that here, or watch the service yourself.) But at the same time, as a seasoned preacher, he spoke with authority, while at the same time cautioning that the church is not out of the woods yet; more difficulties could follow.

Should they have chosen someone with a 20-year history in the organization or brought in someone completely fresh, from outside, to fill the position? Regrettably, time was not on their side, so they acted decisively and swiftly.

I tweeted that “I feel a small measure of optimism returning.”

I really do. I don’t think that all the families who have kids in Promiseland and youth programs are going to sever those relationships just yet, especially with a new school year commencing. I don’t think the people who are fixing cars and distributing food are going to just walk away from those they serve. Even in the middle of their own sorrow as a church, they rose to the occasion last week and welcomed a deluge of pastors and leaders to the annual Global Leadership Summit.

Willow isn’t the type of church where people stay away when it’s the pastor’s week off. Guest speakers have been common. That, at least, is something they built into their culture which other churches could emulate; especially those congregations in which attendance drops by 25% or more when the teaching pastor is on vacation.

Yet another investigation will commence, with Scot McKnight part of the team, though for many, what’s missing at present is an apology and confession from Bill Hybels.

Screen shot of capacity crowd at last week’s Global Leadership Summit at Willow Creek Community Church. Despite their internal challenges, church volunteers stepped up to serve pastors and leaders from around the world, and those watching by satellite in over 600 locations.

 

July 15, 2018

Worship Planning is both Simple and Complex

I write a lot about the worship part of our church services because that is the area where I have served most frequently and consistently. If I had spent a lifetime serving in the church nursery, perhaps that would be the focus!

Years ago, when my wife was putting together worship sets, she encountered people who saw her work has very specialized and perhaps a bit mysterious. They viewed her adeptness at this with awe, often saying things like, “I don’t know how you do that each week;” or “I could never do that.”

The point is, at the basic level, they could do it. They could pick 5 songs and put together a worship set just as easily as anyone reading this could.

But in the modern worship environment, if you’re having to supply chord charts for band members, prepare presentation files for projection, deal with sound volunteers, and organize rehearsals; the job can get quite complex.

There are certain songs which just don’t follow other songs, usually for reasons of the pitch or key of each, but often for rhythmic or lyrical reasons. There are songs some churches don’t know and others that used far too frequently. A handful of popular ones today would go against the grain of the doctrinal position of certain churches.

Trying to be helpful to my wife, and as an occasional member of her team (I play keyboards, bass, incidental percussion and occasional guitar) I created the above document. It was a recognition of several things we were dealing with at the time.

First, it’s easy in rehearsals to under-communicate introductions and endings. Second, we sometimes feel instrumentalist on stage needs to be playing on every song, when in fact, the instrumentation would work better if some people took a song out to just sing. Third, it helped me personally visualize where some of the spoken readings fit into the larger set list, especially if I was only given a song set list, and the readings weren’t actually introduced until the actual service. Lastly, she was often run off her feet and I thought she’d appreciate the use of an organizing tool where churches didn’t have a budget for anything more sophisticated or personnel were still dependent on print resources.

Feel free to borrow it.

Yes, there is some complexity to all this, but again, if the demands are less complicated, this is something anyone can learn how to do.

July 5, 2018

Theology for which we Don’t Have Songs

This post originally appeared under the title,

When We All Get to Heaven

Rapture art

If someone were to ask me if there are any paradigm shifts I’ve noticed in Christian perspectives on various issues, I would have to say that among my peers and those with whom I converse online, three things might quickly spring to mind:

  • A rethinking of the afterlife as ‘New Earth,’ rather than a ‘heaven’ that’s up there as opposed to down here. (For this, see the book Heaven by Randy Alcorn.)
  • A reconsideration of the ‘rapture theology’ that has dominated Evangelicalism for the past several decades. (See End Time Delusions by Steve Wohlberg.)
  • A re-assuming of our social justice responsibilities as opposed to placing the weight of our emphasis on doctrinal proclamation. (See Pursuing Justice by Ken Wytsma.)

However, the songs that we sing in our churches today — and by ‘our’ I mean those of us who have moved toward modern worship as opposed to gospel and classical hymns — do not reflect this change in thinking.

The hymns and gospel songs were consistent with things being preached in the pulpit and for many of us, these doctrines were ingrained through exposure to the music. Consider:

Some bright morning when this life is over
I’ll fly away

That’s rapture theology pure and simple. The hymn When We All Get to Heaven does talk about seeing Jesus and being in His presence, but implies that we are going to get to heaven, some place that’s out there.

Another example of a song under reconsideration, Onward Christian Soldiers talks about taking the cross to the world, but our crusade doesn’t appear to include demonstrating compassion or there being servant leaders among the soldiers. (Most people today agree that crusade is the wrong word; even the Billy Graham Association has dropped the term.)

I’m not opposed to those songs entirely; they shaped who I am today. It’s just that in today’s vertical worship environment, we don’t have songs that tell our story and describe more of the thinking that is currently being taught in our churches. Let me conclude with an illustration.

Last weekend we visited the anchor store in a large chain of musical instrument dealerships. I was telling the manager how my son, recently graduated in electrical engineering, has an interest in designing mixers, keyboards and especially synthesizers. I asked him if the store, when it hires people, is looking for product specialists or people who are good at sales.

He said basically that the product knowledge is a given. Nobody is going to apply who isn’t already a customer and very familiar with what’s in the store. So it’s the sales aptitude that they look for and develop in their staff.

Similarly, if I were asked to speak at a Christian songwriting conference, I wouldn’t talk about the basics of musical composition, I would, like the store manager, take that as a given. Instead, it’s a knowledge of the the lyrical foundation in the writing process that I would want to cultivate. I would want to encourage young Christian musicians to craft pieces that express where the church is today, the things that are central to us, and the things for which presently no songs exist.  

It’s not that vertical worship we have is inadequate in and of itself, but perhaps the whole vertical form is over emphasized to the point we no longer have songs of proclamation that fit our doctrine as it is constantly being amended (i.e. the parenthetic reference to crusade above.)

As we re-think certain Biblical interpretations, our music — or specifically our musicians — should be tracking with our different doctrinal emphases.


We found today’s graphic image along with a very thorough article at this website.

For an entirely unique view on this, here’s an old post I wrote about how a particular sect expresses their story in song.

July 3, 2018

Keeping Up With the Trends

Filed under: Christianity, Church — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 4:12 pm

I noted on a recent link collection that in the new Hillsong Young and Free video, keyboards, digital controllers and synths dominate. If you listen to the feeds from North Point and Willow and other large churches, you’ve probably heard the presence of keyboards increase over the last two or so years.

Today I was in a magazine store, and was looking for a good keyboard magazine for my oldest son.

You guessed it.

All guitar magazines.

There’s a trend in music that the magazine industry hasn’t caught up with.

They’re just doing the same thing they’ve been doing for the past several decades…

As you know, I’ve been collecting analogies that can be instructional for those of us in the church. By this one today I don’t mean the type of instrumentation in our worship bands, but rather the larger situation whereby the world is changing and the church hasn’t noticed. Blissfully unaware we keep doing our thing and wondering why the world doesn’t find it as relevant as they once did.

I mean, you can certainly take the lesson literally if you want to.

But figuratively, we’re playing guitar while the world has switched to keyboards.

We need to always be aware where our methodologies and structures have fallen behind, and where we need to catch up.

June 29, 2018

The Stories are Real When It’s Someone You Know

Filed under: Christianity, Church — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:33 am

Three stories.

First, I have been a longtime reader of Julie Anne and Warren and also of Dee and Deb. When I read the stories of spiritual abuse (not to mention mental, physical or sexual abuse) about which they (especially Julie Anne) are continually reporting, it’s easy to minimize the impact of those stories because they happened somewhere else to someone else.

But then this week I saw a “letter of dismissal” that some friends received.

I’m sure there are two sides to every story, but holding the letter in my own hands and reading it twice it occurred to me that (a) these types of stories are quite real, and (b) there are 100 better ways to phrase things than the way it was said in this letter.

The church in question didn’t use the term “letter of dismissal” but it was extremely dismissive. There was nothing redemptive in it at all. No, “We wish you God’s best in the next stage of your journey.”

What my brain was also processing as I read was, “Don’t get too concerned. These things happen all the time. You’re just seeing it close up right now.”

And then, perhaps God himself saying, “How would you like to be in my position? I have to see this sort of thing constantly.”

And last, a sense of, “Don’t be in a hurry to open your mail. You could be next.”

Second, I was throwing out old newspapers and found a story from April of this year in The Toronto Star about a Catholic Church whose current membership is being asked to contribute $500,000 as punitive damages that are part of a $2.6M settlement concerning a priest who abused one particular man when he was a student.

Imagine you’ve just started attending the Congregation of St. Basil and you’re told your church now faces this financial burden. The priest in question is deceased, but the jury felt that the church had participated in covering up the abuse. Perhaps it’s because I’ve driven by this church that it all seems to hit closer to home.

Cover up. That should sound familiar to readers here who follow the broader Evangelical scene. Time after time we’ve seen instances where it’s not the abuse that’s the big factor (as serious as that is) but the subsequent cover-ups that land churches in hot water. Which leads us to our next item.

Finally, Scot McKnight affirms this in a detailed analysis of this Spring’s soap opera involving Willow Creek. He maintains that the go-to response in cases like this is denial.

I have to say in all honesty, that would be me. I didn’t want to believe the charges in the Willow case were true, and I found myself angry with the accusers for instigating the accusations. Then, slowly, day after day after day, I found myself changing my position as more facts in the case came to light. (Truly, I’m still carrying a measure of disbelief.) He calls it “undoing forty years of trust.”

As McKnight points out, in so doing, the church only made it harder on themselves.

So what do these three stories tell us:

  1. There is a lot more going on behind-the-scenes in a local church office than any of us realize, and some of it quite unpleasant, and some of it is badly handled.
  2. Innocent people in church congregations bear the heartache when someone — perhaps someone not even living — has crossed a moral boundary. Covering things up only makes it worse.
  3. People like myself can find themselves in a place of denial when a respected leader has messed up. Such minds aren’t changed overnight; it can be an incremental process undoing preconceptions in the face of evidence.

 

June 4, 2018

The Fallible Pastor

Filed under: Christianity, Church — Tags: , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:20 am

That books like these ever existed is proof that the challenges faced by pastors and ministry workers are nothing new.

Pastors are people, too.

It seems obvious, but it’s not always the case that people really grasp the underlying principle: The humanity and fallibility of those we “set apart” as our shepherds. They are subject to all the temptations, frustrations, emotions, and disappointments that the rest of us face, with the added challenge of living out their lives in a fishbowl.

It’s a stressful, always-on-call-24/7 lifestyle.

And now, thanks to both mainstream media and social media, every time a pastor falls, it gets reported around the world. Nobody may have ever cared about the little neighborhood church in Nowheresville, Idaho before, but when word gets out that the youth pastor was caught at the Rest-Awhile Motel with one of the high school students, it becomes a trending hashtag.

And all of that impacts your pastor.

All those stories of moral failure denigrate the job.

Ever watched one of those funerals for a policeman who dies in the line of service? Representatives from forces across North America converge. A different city; a different state; but he or she is one of their own. They show support at those times; a loud chorus resonating, “We’re all one team.”

Pastors need someone to talk to. They’re reluctant to do this with parishioners because they are supposed to be strong for them. It’s unusual for a pastor to have someone in the congregation or on the board with whom they can be completely candid about a struggle they are facing. There are organizations which come alongside in tough times, and there is usually a denomination chain of command allowing a hurting minister to turn to his superiors in moments of crisis.

Not every pastor wants to ask.

There’s something about the job which either overtly, or subconsciously trains pastors to put on a brave face, or suffer in silence. From early days they are taught that sometimes their public position may not be the same as their private position.

All of this, bottled up inside with nowhere to go, inevitably leads to a breakdown.

Meanwhile, media continues to report on another failure of another clergy person. It’s like running a marathon where all of a sudden, the runner next to you runs into the ditch, and then the one on the other side simply collapses and drops. In the next mile, it seems like runners are dropping left and right. You can see the finish line in the distance, but the intellect is busy processing, asking, “What the heck is going on here?” And, “How long before I drop to my knees?”

At the beginning, I said that pastors are people. They are fallible. If you prick them, they will bleed. But the Apostle Paul reminds us that “love believes the best.” With no reason to proceed differently, we need to hold them in high esteem and not allow the stories on the evening news or on Twitter to have any bearing on our pastor.

What’s more, we need to come alongside them with support and encouragement.

We just don’t know what challenge or crisis they are facing, and due to the intricacies of their calling, they’re not always likely to tell us.

 

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