Thinking Out Loud

June 24, 2020

In the 1970s and 80s, Church Planting, Wasn’t Always “Churches”

In 1987, I wrote an 8-page document entitled, “Proposal for a New Kind of Church in Metro Toronto;” went to a copy store and had 200 copies printed to younger Evangelical leaders. The particular church itself didn’t happen — perhaps it was ahead of its time or perhaps God knew that I just wasn’t ready to lead something that significant — but it’s with some regrets I consider that I could have been known today as the founder of _______ Church. I’d like to think that because the recipients of that document were especially hand-picked that its distribution had some impact.

By 2007, I was part of a cohort of people from different cities who met monthly to discuss what had become a boom in church planting. People who didn’t quite know how to spell ecclesiology were talking about it. Lay people. Not clergy. The term was well-traveled.

This was reflected on the blogs, and I started one myself on a now-defunct religion forum at USAToday, and it was also the subject of many, many books that were published, many of which I carried at a small chain of Christian bookstores I owned. Our small group met every six weeks in a city chosen because it was somewhere in the middle. We continued to have some contact when the group disbanded. The phrase “a different kind of church” was on everyone’s lips and alternative churches were becoming mainstream.

I’ve had a lot of opinions on this subject, but a key word search this morning showed that not all of them have landed here at Thinking Out Loud. I would have thought they had, because this subject is something close to me.

Someone once put it this way,

“Church planting is the extreme sport of ministry.”

In 2004, I started a church of my own. Transformation Church was located in downtown Cobourg, a small town about 70 minutes east of Toronto, Canada. Our first series was 17 weeks entitled, “Ground Zero: Where Everything Ends and Everything Begins.” Just four years out from the World Trade Towers falling in New York City, the series name had more resonance then than it does now. That church ran until March of 2006. (It’s a long story.)

I was reminded then that while it’s probably a good idea to be theologically trained to administer a church, you don’t need a degree to start a church. Of two significant ones in our town, one was founded by a woman they simply refer to as Grandma Caffin. Another came out of a meeting of five families at a picnic table in the park. Most of the people attending those churches — Baptist and Alliance respectively — probably have no idea as to their inauspicious beginnings.

But today, in June 2020, I want to return to the title of today’s piece, but to do so involves one more time travel.

Back in 2008, I wrote an article about a weekly Saturday night event in Toronto called Reach Out.

The setting:  The first Reach Out took place in a Lutheran (I think) church that was built overlooking a large river valley parkland. The front of the church was all glass, so when you looked towards the front, you looked out on a beautiful view. (A later incarnation of Reach Out took place in a downtown church. I only attended that once, and it was so packed I had to sit on the stairs.)

The motto:  “Everyone Gives, Everyone Receives.”  Reach Out was based in I Cor. 14:26 which says, “When you gather together everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.”  (NIVMOL – stands for NIV more or less) So people would jump up — sometimes suddenly — and say, “I have a Psalm;” and then read it; and other would jump up and say, “I have a teaching;” and would give a 60-second teaching; etc. They always said at the outset what it was they were going to say. That way nobody could jump up and say, “I have a cute story about my dog!”

The format:  People gathering talking, mostly in their teens, 20s and 30s; then they would sit down; and then — I don’t know how else to say this — a holy hush would fall over everyone.  What a moment! There would be silence for a minute or two, and then someone would start playing their guitar.   There was blended worship.  This is where I first learned “Oh, The Deep, Deep Love of Jesus” and I had never heard younger people sing classical hymns with such passion. Then there was an extended prayer time. I can’t remember if we broke up into groups of 3 or 4 — I’ve got this part confused with another group I belonged to — but there was plenty of opportunity for people to share requests. Then a teaching.  Then some worship.

I don’t know if we considered it church or not. The test would be to go back in time and ask the people attending if they also had a connection on Sunday mornings. It was just an event that happened and we didn’t try to over analyze. The problem with dissecting a cat is that once you’ve got it all figured out how it works, the cat is dead. Today, Twitter provides us with far too much dissection.

There were other similar things in Toronto. A Christian Church on A Hill, Catacombs, Shekinah. Sadly, I never made it those. I did frequent Christian coffee houses — there were so many in Toronto that several people undertook to publish directories — and a monthly camp reunion (for a camp I’d never attended) called Power and Praise.

Part of what got me thinking about this was watching a YouTube documentary this week about Love Inn, a ministry in Ithica, New York founded in the 1970s by Christian radio personality Scott Ross and part of the Jesus People revolution which was taking place at the time. Watching the 8mm film footage reminded me of the whole vibe.

I know what you’re thinking. When are you going to get to the title of today’s article?

The point I want to make is that on reflection, those early events were created in lieu of church planting. The people who today might be scouting for community centers and high schools to hold weekend service were back then content to put together Tuesday night or Friday night events. They were interdenominational which means the people who attended, often under 30, were part of other fellowships on the weekend, including some who were mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic.

These days, the energy that might go into promoting something like this at a local level is often put toward conferences. They have the advantage of reminding everyone that ‘it’s a big tent’ and that we’re part of a larger family, as well as being able to bring top name speakers and musicians, but they do get expensive and unwieldy.

What about where you live? Is there a weekly Christian event that’s not church your city is known for? Or do people simply attend the megachurch for one service and then go to their own smaller church for connection to family and longtime friends?

I think that gatherings like the ones I described are still needed and hopefully — after the pandemic — we might see new expressions of what it means to be part of the body of Christ.

 

 

 

 

 

June 8, 2020

Hillsong Church: Hypnotizing People into the Kingdom

Filed under: Christianity, Church — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:22 am

 

Brian and Bobbie Houston in Los Angeles Sunday, reporting back to the mother ship in Sydney.

For all the influence that Hillsong has had on worship music — think of Shout to the Lord, Cornerstone, Touching Heaven Changing Earth, Mighty to Save, etc. — I realized a few weeks ago that in all my online travels, I had never watched one of their church services.

This dawning came courtesy of YouTube which put one of their live services into my suggested videos on a Saturday night. Australia is half a day ahead of us, so our Saturday night is their Sunday morning.

I was joining the service late, but got to hear Pastor Brian Houston preach. My wife, who was sitting next to me doing some work at her own computer was finding it to be ‘sermon lite.’ But I kept listening and was impressed with the remarkable number of scripture citations and allusions contained in the message. Here was a man seemingly less consumed with the mechanics of creating an impressive sermon and seemingly more concerned with reflecting the heart of a pastor.

I vowed to catch the thing again, but kept hitting roadblocks. Unlike the usual YouTube live links which then revert to on-demand status, Hillsong’s links kept disappearing. I went to the church’s website a few weeks later thinking I could short-circuit the process that way. I had missed the start of one service, but if I waited could catch one for another campus the next hour.

Well, sort of an hour. Some Australian time zones are apparently 90 minutes apart. I guess you need to be an insider to know how their various live streams function.

And then there was these attempts to use links that had been live just hours earlier:

I posted this to Twitter and noted that this like being invited to a party, only to arrive and find out your name’s not on the guest list. That feeling of being turned away. And how can a church service be private? Is this a way to silence your detractors?

I want to say that I’m not your stereotypical Hillsong critic. I have no reason to be. But overall, I’m not sure that my admittedly subjective online experience in any way enhanced my perception of the church.

Which brings us to hypnotism.

I noticed that throughout the entire Hillsong church service, there is a keyboard bed playing in the background. Announcements, prayer time, sermon. It reminded me of every science fiction movie I’ve ever seen.

Actually it reminded me of a trip we once took to a casino. I’ve appended that article below, which first appeared here in 2011.

The last service I caught, which was this weekend, as a musician I noticed something about the background keyboard.

It was a loop. A very, very short loop. A 4-bar loop. Repeating over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. No room for silence.

Once I realized this, my brain could not stop processing it. There was a guest reporting on the history of Australia’s dealings with its indigenous people, and how that relationship compares to other countries in the British Commonwealth, and I really wanted to hear what he was saying, but it was getting harder and harder to focus on his words.

Actually the whole earlier part of the service, with its concessions to Black Lives Matter events of the week — more focused since Brian and Bobbie Houston were actually in California, throwing back and forth to another pair down under — seemed artificial, forced, contrived.  It’s not up to me to judge whether or not it was, I’m just saying that with the particular droning in the background, that was how my ears processed it. I was becoming unnecessarily skeptical and started thinking the indigenous expert was just a token plant to appease that part of their audience.

I realized I was starting to go insane. Four bars, over and over.

So I did something I truly did not want to do: I stopped the live feed video and turned off my computer.

I could have had a completely different reaction. I could have just allowed my brain to be lulled into anything they were offering; to effectively be hypnotized into the kingdom.

I wonder how often that happens.


Appendix:

We dropped by one of our local casinos, mostly to see what the restaurant was like.  No money changed hands.  I’m always struck by the blinking lights that lure in the customers, but it was something on the auditory side of things that struck my wife. I’ll let her describe it:

The room was huge, I don’t know how many square feet, but we figured that it contained 6 or 7 hundred machines. Just a few green baize tables in the centre, surrounded by slanted rows of blinking, shining machines.  Each one a variation on slots, with different colour schemes, different images, but the same configuration.

The volume of sound, the pleasant sounds generated by the machines – of dinging and pinging and chirping and ringing – in the casino seemed almost deliberately modulated. Just loud enough to be engaging, but not loud enough to distract or interfere with conversation.

But the further we went into the room, the more it became apparent that every one of those 6 or 7 hundred machines was pinging and dinging in the same key. The same musical key. No discord, no clash, no change as you walked through. Exactly the same. It surrounded us like a warm pool. You could hum along with it.

And the more you listened – the more you swam through it – the more you became aware that most of the pinging and ringing and chiming was the same note. An octave or two apart, but the same sound, the same tone over and over and over, following you through, or propelling you. At just the right volume, with no irritating edges. Soft, round, mellow.

Hypnotic? Maybe. Deliberate? No doubt.

 

May 27, 2020

Drawing a Crowd Needn’t Be Seen as Problematic

In the past ten weeks, I’ve been doing more original writing at C201, than here at Thinking Out Loud. While I don’t want this to simply be a mirror site for the other one, I do want to share these here from time to time. This one appeared earlier this month…

Previous generations didn’t have the word, “megachurch.” Of course they didn’t have “televangelist” either. There were indeed large churches, however and there were preachers (George Whitefield is a good example) who preached to thousands — in the outdoors, no less — without the benefit of sound equipment. But we tend to look back favorably on those days, believing it was a matter of substance over style.

Today, we have popular preachers whose television ministries have huge followings and whose close-up pictures are plastered on the front cover of their books. (No, not just that one; I’m thinking of about six.)

The general conclusion at which people arrive is that they are getting those followers because they are saying what people want to hear. On close examination, it’s true that many of the hooks of their sermons and books are positive motivational sayings that also work on posters and coffee mugs.

For those of us who are insiders, we immediately default to the phrase itching ears. This is drawn from 2 Timothy 4:3

For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. (NLT)

This true, probably more true now than ever, but the challenge for Christians today is that everyone who drives by a church with an overflowing parking lot is likely to jump to conclusions and declare that church liberal in their theology or empty of doctrines; or infer that people only go there for the music.

It’s true that Jesus warned his disciples they were not going to win a popularity contest. In Matthew 7: 13-14 he tells his disciples,

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it”. (NIV)

and then immediately makes a statement about false teachers.

Jesus had his own fall from popularity when he began what I call the tough teachings and others call the “hard sayings.” A month ago I referred to “the ominously verse-referenced” John 6:66

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. (NIV)

Many of you grew up in churches where you were told you were part of “the chosen few” a reference to Matthew 22:14

“For many are called, but few are chosen.” (ESV)

Jesus told his disciples that they would experience rejection in some places. In Matthew 10:14 he is saying,

If any household or town refuses to welcome you or listen to your message, shake its dust from your feet as you leave. (NLT)

In other words, there is, at least in Evangelicalism, a mindset that says that we are a tiny remnant, and by extrapolation is suspicious of large crowds.

But there are exceptions.

I think of an American pastor who since Christmas has been walking his church through some very challenging sermons; raising the bar when it comes to expectations for both compassionate service and lifestyle evangelism. But he’s not off in a corner doing this, it’s one of the top ten churches in the U.S.

I think of two Canadian pastors, from two very different eras, who have a giftedness when it comes to taking Bible passage “A” and showing people how it relates to Bible passage “B.” I’ve seen both of them preach before thousands of people. It was far from “itching ears;” you had to work hard just to keep up with the note-taking, which is challenging when you’re sitting there with your mouth open going, “Wow!”

I think of Nicodemus who we characterize as coming to Jesus in secret. I was always taught that was the reason for his nighttime visit in John 3. But lately I read that the rabbis set aside the early evening for further discussion. He was coming back for the Q. and A. part of the teaching. He wanted more. I find him to be representative of people in the crowd who were there for all the right reasons. (Compare his motivation to that of Felix in Acts 24:25-26.) The itching ears crowd don’t come back for the evening service, the Tuesday morning Bible study, or the midweek prayer meeting.

The website Knowing Jesus has come up with more than 30 good examples of Jesus being surrounded by crowds. True, the Bible tells us that some of them were simply there for the miracle spectacle or the free lunches, but I’m sure that many of them were drawn to Jesus for greater, higher reasons. (There’s a limit to how many hours people will listen to teaching in order to get a fish sandwich lunch.)

So where did all this come from today? A friend posted this on Facebook. I’ve decided to delete the original author’s name.

His words appear deep, meaningful and mature, but indirectly he is lashing out against individuals or movements which are left unnamed. He’s implying that everyone who is drawing a big crowd is doing so at the expense of preaching the Word. I suspect his words land with people who are already on-side, so I don’t really get the point of posting things like this at all.

Furthermore, the inference is that the sign of a successful ministry is suffering, hardship and opposition.

Like so many things in scripture, there is a balance to be found.

In Matthew 5:14 +16, we find Jesus saying

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden”
“Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.
(NASB)

If all you experience is suffering, hardship and opposition, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing everything right, but rather, it could be you’re doing something seriously wrong.

Oswald Smith wrote the hymn which begins:

There is joy in serving Jesus
As I journey on my way
Joy that fills my heart with praises
Every hour and every day

I really hope that’s your experience as well.

 

May 18, 2020

‘Worship Leader’ Should Never Have Been Made a Paid Position

Today we have a guest post in which I agreed to allow the author to remain anonymous. Agree or disagree? Comments are invited. (Where the author responds, it might appear in the comments as a forwarded email under my name.)

The other day, a Facebook user on a worship music user group (there are several out there) posted a rather long-winded, tritely worded and somewhat repetitive rant on how modern worship music songs are getting longer and longer. The writer had, with quite deliberate irony, was illustrating (cleverly, some thought) how it may be a problem. In the rant, they had cited some worship song on YouTube from a prominent ‘song-mill’ that was about 15 minutes in length.

The irony was apparently quite lost on most, as I couldn’t help notice that it wasn’t long after the post that the majority of the post’s readers came at the writer with knives, daggers and claws out! I watched as the comments began to mount, one atop the other, calling him/her out as a ‘Karen’ (slang for a privileged white woman in her middle age who also happens to possess a cheesy bobbed haircut) and slagging him/her for such a negative post.

I think the writer had had enough of the responsive negativity, because when I went to comment, the post had been pulled.

I feel for this person, as I too am a worship leader who has been watching popular Christian worship music shift toward longer and leaner (light on originality and variation) songs, seemingly in attempts to foster a true ‘worship experience’ for attendees, esp. in the larger churches and gatherings. (If you’re reading this in the COVID-19 era ca. 2020, it’s even further irony that none of the above-noted protracted worship services can even be considered or thought of as reasonable for online church services as most social gatherings are suspended or restricted.)

Because ‘the times, they are a changing’ (showing my age much?) my team and I were ‘passed over’ for worship leadership in our former church when the pastor decided to go with this new model, figuring it would attract the younger generation. Hymns and songs older than 10 years? Out. Long ‘basking sessions’ of post-rock style worship with choruses that repeat over and over again til eye-rolling commences in even some of the young in attendance?  In.

But the post questioning the present state of Christian worship music and the visceral reactions from several worship leaders forced me to remember something.

Being a worship leader (particularly in the U.S.) for very many, especially in the very large mega-churches, is a paying gig.

Now I’m well aware that in the New Testament the itinerant or local preacher was paid for his pastoring (and ancient documents like the Didache back that up) but are we supposed to continue in this present millennia with the Jewish traditions of the Levite tribe for that which should really be volunteer work? Didn’t the apostle Paul – a roaming preacher of the Gospel – also have a regular job to cover his expenses to set an example and to never give the church a reason to say, ‘Well, if he weren’t getting paid, he’d not be teaching this newfangled doctrine!’ Yet, he affirmed that the ‘ox shouldn’t be muzzled while treading out the grain’ as well. But worship leaders? Where does it affirm in Scripture that worship leaders are to be paid for their singing/playing songs in a church?

I strongly feel that because many worship leaders are being paid (sometimes ridiculous amounts – I have a chart someone made somewhere that shows their average salaries), they are beholding to their craft, their worth and probably feel impelled to stretch out their song-playing – make the worship ‘experience’ a huge thing in order to justify or validate their salaries or church’s budget.

And maybe this is why Christian music now is so redundant, repetitive and long-winded in character. It was quite interesting to see how some of the folks who blasted the Facebook writer for questioning song-lengths and incessant stanza repetitions ran to Psalm 136, because it clearly shows the repeated phrase ‘His love endures forever’ and which, of course, justifies their 10-20 minute song audience-winder-uppers. The thing is, I can read/recite that particular Psalm in about 2 minutes flat reading aloud at an easy pace!

Another defense tossed about was, “You gotta go with the Spirit. If the Spirit moves, you gotta keep on going.” I am looking for a reference that occurred in the later days of the early church that shows that song-worship went for extended lengths of time. Nope – found nothing. The disciples prayed while awaiting Pentecost. I’m sure they sang songs too, but prayer was the big thing going on and that was BEFORE the Spirit moved on them in a special anointing. Afterward? I see a lot of ministry and amazing signs and wonders at their hands, but no protracted singing sessions, except maybe for Paul and Silas in their jail cell. |(I guess if your hands and legs are bound and you can’t serve the Lord in any other way, you’d be apt to sing a lot too to both praise God in your difficult circumstances and to keep yourself from going mad from the isolation. But it’s worth noting that their songs we’re being heard by their fellow prisoners who were not saved Christians.)

Another justification many Facebook Worship leader group members came up with for their hyper-extended worship songs and praise sessions was, “Well, buddy, you won’t like heaven then – cause you’ll be worshipping God all the time there!”

“Well, okay then”, I would have retorted had I the chance, “let’s work toward not spending more time in service to the suffering and poor or attending to the needs of our families while living on this often demanding earthly plain and just dance before the throne 24/7 right now.” Nope nope… that’s not what worship is. Romans 12:1-2 tells us what real worship is. Songs, hymns and spiritual songs are to be integral to our lives in Christ, but the whole worship scene … tainted by cash-in-hand paid-for-performance worship leaders who have too much invested in their own net worth.

Lastly, with paid worship leaders, another serious issue can arise: the salaried worship leader will oft be inclined to do whatever he or she can to protect his or her gig. When this factor is in play it affords little opportunity for incoming talent from within the local church (or from churches elsewhere) to be utilized in the church for worship leading. The salaried individual holds all the cards, can get possessive or even jealous and feels threatened by abilities that rival his own. And what’s worse, the rival doesn’t want to be a burden to the church by getting paid for their musical offerings. What a racket!

Maybe Luther (if it was him who said it) was right when he said, “The devil fell from heaven and ended up in the choir loft.”


Image sourced uncredited at Worship War Weariness in 2014; the artist may be Dan Nuckols.


Related article: Becky Goes to Church (June 2018)

May 6, 2020

Twelve Disciples Sorted by Categories

Two nights ago I couldn’t sleep. I often recite the names of the books of the Bible, but this time around I was compiling lists of the twelve students of Rabbi Jesus and mentally rearranging them into various sub-categories.

This is content from Christianity 201, where much of my attention has been over the past six or seven weeks. After reaching its 10th anniversary, as I did with Thinking Out Loud, I released myself from the conviction I needed to post daily, but then the world changed and I felt people might need this more than ever. Plus I need to keep doing it right now. This one appeared yesterday.

I’m told that there are gifted preachers who make the genealogies relevant and engaging. We often rush through those, but they are part of God-inspired scripture and full of applications we can miss.

I say ‘students’ or ‘apprentices’ in order to skip over the semantics of ‘disciple’ versus ‘apostle.’ There were actually many disciples beyond these twelve.

NIV.Mark3.16 These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter), 17 James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means “sons of thunder”), 18 Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot 19 and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

NIV.Luke 6.13 …he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles: 14 Simon (whom he named Peter), his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, 15 Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot, 16 Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.

While I don’t like stereotypes or putting people in boxes, let’s look closer at the list:

Inner Circle (Peter, James and John) – In this group of three we see a leadership position assumed by Peter, possibly because of his age and marital status, but also the intimacy of the relationship between Jesus and John. To function, the church needs core leadership, and even a core-within-a-core.

Brothers (James and John; Andrew and Peter) – No one hates nepotism more than I, but the history of the church, religious organizations, and perhaps even your local church is filled with family histories. Sometimes subsequent generations lack the zeal of those previous, and even within generations, some siblings are more attuned to the purpose, or perhaps carve out a different world. Is not the entire Bible story arc a story which begins with God’s loving promises to Abraham’s family?

Gospel Authors (John and Matthew) – Asked to name the disciples, many an outsider to Christianity will say, “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.” But only two of the gospels were written by disciples and only three disciples contributed to our modern day Bibles, the other being Peter whose two epistles appear near the end of the New Testament. This however does not preclude that Peter and the others contributed information to Mark’s account and Luke’s account. In an age where print-on-demand is commonplace and everybody has a book to sell on their website, it’s interesting to look back and discover that most of those closest to the action — the twelve students of Jesus — didn’t pursue publishing, even though others did. (Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us – Luke 1:1) If the others wrote — and we know they did produce some written content — their works didn’t make it into the canon.

Unlikely Choices (Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot) – I am sure there were cries of, “What is he doing here?” or “What are they doing here.” The inclusion of people like Matthew and Simon would pave the way for the Apostle Paul, and pave the way for the inclusion of Gentile believers. Sometimes we have difficulty accepting that people are capable of leaving a former life behind.

Disappointments in the Later Chapters (Peter’s denial, Judas’ betrayal, Thomas’ doubt) – Much has been written about Peter and Judas, but as I compiled this, I thought it strange that Thomas is not usually listed in their category. One website described him as “naturally cynical” and skepticism is a still a disease in our day. Why wasn’t he there when the others were gathered and Jesus appeared? My guess is that he was out shopping around his resumé looking for another job. Despite the familiarity of the Peter and Judas narratives, it’s worth noting that elsewhere in scripture there is an emphasis on finishing well. (See this comparison from II Kings in a very old C201 post.) After years with Jesus, how could Judas betray and Peter disavow himself of any connection? Or how could Thomas not be satisfied with the testimony of the other ten disciples? Also, Thomas makes a particular proof requirement of the risen Christ that has sparked many discussions about the nature of Christ’s glorified body and the nature of ours in the age to come.

People with the Same Name (James and James, Simon and Simon (Peter), Judas and Judas) – In a world where people stand out and stake their individual identity it’s often difficult for people to be in a school classroom where there are four Jennifers and five Jasons (among the most popular names in the 1980s.) I include this here because, well, you know who you are! Also, it’s no wonder that the other Judas is often listed as Thaddeus; I would have done the same!

Those Outside the Spotlight (Phillip, Nathanael aka Bartholomew, the other James, the other Simon, the other Judas) – You probably know the reference to “Judas, not Iscariot,” and perhaps have heard a sermon that referenced Nathanael as a man of integrity (NLT) in whom there was “no guile.” (KJV). But the list of twelve is rounded out by some whose contributions are minimal. And how would you like to remembered in history as “James the Lesser” or “James the Less?” (Debate continues as to whether or not this was the brother of Jesus who wrote the Book of James. My understanding is that he was not but was the son of Alphaeus.) Nonetheless, these men also were taught by Jesus and served alongside the others, and like ten of the twelve, tradition is that they died martyr’s deaths for their adherence to the Christ story.

Not Listed – In this list we find the family of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, the other Mary, the other other Mary (a popular name, they must have been Catholic), Clopas, John Mark (who was quite young at this point) and the two nominated to replace Judas. On the latter event we’re told:

NIV.Acts.1.21 Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, 22 beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.” 23 So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias.

Despite verse 21, one website dared to suggest Matthias had not been a witness to the life of Christ, but the text speaks otherwise. That did however make me think of Paul, whose Damascus Road experience is in the minds of many readers, a direct encounter with Christ. He describes himself as a man abnormally born, which is not a statement of physiology, but that he was simply elsewhere when the controversial Rabbi was teaching and performing miracles in Capernaum or Bethsaida or Sychar or Bethany. Check out our look at his life at C201 a few days ago.

Then there were the perhaps secret followers such as Nicodemus (aka Nick at Nite) and Joseph, who in offering to bury the body of Christ in his tomb was acting as a type of patron of which there might have been many.

…So where do you fit in this list? As a disciple of Jesus, where would your profile land? Perhaps you’re in a unique category not listed here or perhaps God is waiting to use you in a category that hasn’t been invented yet!


For more on the twelve, check out this article from October 2019.

 

April 22, 2020

Wednesday Connectivity

Filed under: Christianity, Church, links — paulthinkingoutloud @ 12:54 pm

We’re still at the point where so much of what is being posted online really concerns the one issue that is always with us right now.

But I just wanted to remind you that I’m still tracking stories and posting them to Twitter as I see them.

You do not need to be signed up for, or log in to Twitter to see these things.

Just go to this link.

If you lose that look for PaulW1lk1nson (notice the #1 substituted for the letter i.)

In the meantime here’s a few free ones.

■ Apparently Facebook has a “head of Global Faith Partnerships” who is a Christian. She was involved in their giveaway of 200 streaming kits to local churches.

■ If you haven’t seen it yet, there’s a great collection of top Christian artists performing from home in the Hope Rising Live Benefit Concert. Casting Crowns, Mercy Me, Kari Jobe & Cody Caries, Newsboys, Natalie Grant, Matthew West, For King and Country, and Gloria Gaynor perform as well as messages from Bishop T.D. Jakes, Kristen Chenoweth, Franklin Graham, and Lysa TerKeurst. (There’s a lot of ‘dead air’ at the beginning, fast-forward to 15:00.)

■ Not yet on my Twitter is a mention of this Internet Monk article on Covid-19 and the Future of the Church. It’s a balanced look at things several writers have been discussing.

■ I also really liked this short article by New Jersey pastor Ian Graham, an excerpt of which is below.

You see what I mean, though; everything is on a single theme. During this time I’m also posting more music links than usual. I think we all need it right now. Very few bloggers/tweeters do this; Christian music just isn’t the force it was even five years ago.

■ For those of you outside the US, who want a better window into the conservative Evangelical mindset in The States, this Q&A with Dr. Albert Mohler covers a variety of topics. (Over 300 questions were sent in.)

■ Currently reading: 7 More Men and the Secrets of their Greatness by Eric Metaxas. I’ll post the review closer to the release date.

■ Also, I’m doing more original writing at Christianity 201 (use the link anytime in the top right corner of your PC screen, or at the bottom of this page on your mobile device.)

 

 

March 10, 2020

Churches Respond to Coronavirus

Filed under: Christianity, Church, current events — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:59 am

With things moving quickly, I said to my wife this morning that who is to say, looking at it from a Tuesday perspective, that we will have a service this weekend?

The following (and today’s images) are all from a Twitter news sub-feed indicating what churches are doing, accessed at 9:00 AM EST today:

  • ‘No hugs, no handshakes’ seems to be the #1 rule in these times
  • Prevalence of hand sanitizer stations, or in one church, people receiving a pump of sanitizer from the priest before receiving communion
  • At many Catholic churches, the Holy Water has been temporarily removed
  • At other churches, no wine for Communion/Eucharist
  • At some, the priests are dispensing the wafers with a ladle
  • At Orthodox churches, parishioners are asked to honor the icons by bowing, not kissing them
  • Many churches are already streaming services online
  • People encouraged to stay at home if they’re not feeling 100%
  • Denominations and parachurch organizations are cancelling larger conferences and seminars
  • At a synagogue, the hamantaschen (triangular filled cookie; festival of Purim tie-in) are individually wrapped instead of being on a tray
  • Some LDS churches have purchased high-speed thermometers
  • Area around the Kaaba in the Grand Mosque in Mecca shut down for sterilization

While these address the more practical concern, there is also the issue of fear, worry, anxiety, etc., and the subsequent depression this situation can bring on. The ability of the capital ‘C’ Church to meet these needs will certainly be tested over the coming weeks. 

Addressing this climate of concern, while at the same time remaining transparent about urgency taking measures to not spread germs is a two-pronged challenge. 

Then there is the question if some of the things we do on a regular basis, such as the shaking of hands, the sharing of the cup at the Lord’s Table, etc., should be reexamined long after the current outbreak has passed.

February 28, 2020

The Thing Which Sets the North American Church Apart

Filed under: Christianity, Church, missions — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:08 am

On Monday, my wife Ruth shared here on the blog about the pastor and the church we connected with in Cuba. Overall, the trip had several factors which are all tied for first place in my reflections on the week:

  1. That we traveled by air to a foreign country with our adult sons. Admittedly, the flight was shorter than one to Denver or Sacramento, but considering the four of us now live in three different cities and that our cash position never allowed anything like this previously, it was a major accomplishment.
  2. The weather was absolutely perfect. 30­­°C each day.
  3. Our connection with the pastor and the church; the subject to which I want to return.

Really, many things were similar.

  • They begin with worship, we begin with worship.
  • They have a sermon, we have a sermon.
  • They take up an offering, we take up an offering.
  • They have announcements, we have announcements.
  • They sit in rows, we sit in rows.
  • They meet on Sunday morning, we meet on Sunday morning.

Sure, the tone of the service — the raw energy present — was quite different, and the singing was so loud and so passionate. And it’s true that when asked to bring greetings, I said I wanted to take the spirit of the service and put it in a box and take it home (something which apparently doesn’t translate well) because I was so pumped to be experiencing this, especially after never having had any direct foreign missions exposure to that point. (It was the one gap in my personal ministry history.)

But in the end the difference was huge, and it affects so many other things:

  • They walk to church, we arrive, for the most part, by automobile.

There was no parking lot. When we arrived by taxi, the driver tried to get closer to the church building, but was driving on a surface so uneven, I rather insisted that he stop.

I’m told that the woman who comes the farthest walks 2 km down a mountain to get to services and mid-week meetings, but then presumably must walk 2 km up the mountain.

I tried to consider the various impacts of this.

This is a community of about 40 believers which has far more context in which to interact during the week. In my church, there are people I don’t see except on Sundays. At a recent trip to Wal-Mart, I actually ran into three people representing two other churches, but the odds are fewer that I run into anyone from the church we’re presently attending. For them, it means they are living their lives — doing life together is the overworked phrase here — with each other, and in every aspect of life.

Nevertheless, it doesn’t stop people in the village from also attending events throughout the week, though we wondered if, in winter when sunset is earlier, a women’s prayer gathering that was scheduled for Thursday night was more likely to end by 7:00 PM instead of starting at 7:00 as it would here.

It also means the opportunities to “church hop” are fewer. The pastor’s father is also a pastor, and his church is just 4 km down the road. (I thought of proposing a ‘pulpit exchange’ as is done here at times, but not sure they would see any benefits.) It also means the two single girls in the church might be challenged in trying to find two single guys, although there are some yearly regional youth events to which they somehow travel.

It also means the pace of life is much slower. We run to the grocery store, realize we’ve forgotten something, and drive right back. In this type of rural, vehicle-less society, you would take more time to plan; more time to count the cost of the limited travel you are able to do.

It doesn’t mean they don’t know there’s a wider world out there. Until making the decision at the end of Grade Twelve — what Americans call senior year — to go into ministry instead of university, our Pastor host would still have learned much about the world in which Cuba is a small part. Maybe not so much about the benefits of capitalism; but still he did meet us twice at the resort, and the resorts are usually joint ventures between the state and more capitalist partners. In fact there is certain element of entrepreneurship in moving 4 km down the road from your father’s church and starting your own in a different village.

Even so, I thought of raising the subject of coronavirus, which was the primary topic on CNN back at the hotel, but realized the possibility of his people being aware of the potential pandemic might be rather small, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be the bearer of that news. Their world is…well…their world.

I’m not a sociologist, even though I play one on television. Okay, let’s try that again. I’m not a sociologist though that was my major in university. It left me, at the very least, with a better knowledge of what I don’t know, and in this case, I know that the implications of a church without a parking lot run far deeper than I’ve listed here.

What I do know for sure, is that back home, the cars, vans, SUVs and pickups all made one thing possible: The megachurch. Most readers here drive past 6-10 other churches to get to their weekend service destination. Remove personal automotive transport from the equation, and the megachurch ceases to exist. Partially restrict travel to public transport — as in Europe — and you don’t see as many of the sprawling suburban church campuses located at the intersection of major freeways.

So they could look at our situation and marvel at the space taken up by the parking area and then put their analytical skills to work to see what it costs us to worship in these modern cathedrals. While we might love the children’s program facilities, the professional-sounding worship band, and the oratory of Bible teachers trained to communicate in large auditoriums; I’m not sure that the benefits outweigh the costs.

Back home, I enjoyed the service the following week; but partly because the church we’re attending is small and I know 85-90% of the people by name. But another part of me wondered what the little church in Cuba would be like if were attending for a second week.

 

 

January 17, 2020

Helping Churches Navigate Uncharted LGBT+ Waters

Filed under: Christianity, Church, issues, reviews, theology — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:08 am

Towards the end of the summer I happened on an edition of the Unseminary podcast where Rich Birch was interviewing Texas pastor Bruce B. Miller, author of a book I was unfamiliar with, Leading a Church In a Time Sexual Questioning: Grace-filled Wisdom for Day-to-day Ministry.(Zondervan) I obtained a copy of the book but only this week completely finished reading it.

The thing I remember from the interview that day was the tremendous accommodation his church is making for visitors and regular attenders in a world of many different gender labels and complexities.

I really looked forward to reading the book but found that, in the perspective of the podcast I’d heard, it didn’t really hit its stride or have the same bite until about halfway through. I think there are a couple of reasons for that.

First of all there are things that you can quickly get into in a verbal interview that bypass laying the scriptural foundation for a particular view on issues related to LGBT+ people. He wants to begin with a theology of sexuality.

Secondly, I think it was important to the author to make clear his own position which is a traditional interpretation of key scripture passages.

But that said, especially the second point, only serves to show the tremendous grace that he and his leaders have offered to those who might be coming to his church for the first time or might be considering attending on a regular basis. The book is an excellent template for any church that is navigating these uncharted waters.

Miller draws largely from the writing of Preston Sprinkle (who wrote the foreword), Andrew Marin, Nate Collins and many others. (Lots and lots of footnotes for those who want do dig deeper.)

So how does the grace-filled response enter?

…[G]ay people are crystal clear on our church’s teaching that gay sex is wrong. In fact they go much further and imagine that we think being gay is the worst sin imaginable and that we hate them. Therefore, we have to go to great lengths to share what they do not know: that we love them and welcome them just as they are, as Jesus does. We have to say over and over that we want them here in our church family…(p.120)

And of course there’s two sides to this and so I also appreciated this quote from Kyle Idleman

“The church should not be known for outrage towards people outside of our community who need grace; we should be outraged by people inside our community who refuse to give grace.” (p.121)

Which tied in directly to this earlier statement,

We need as much grace for church people who struggle with gay people as we do for gay people who struggle with the church. (p.111)

So who it is that we’re dealing with?

…86 percent of people in the LGBT+ community reported a significant level of church involvement at some point in their childhood or teenage years. (p.118)

I also appreciated the way that he’s looking forward into the possibilities that can arise 10 or 20 years down the road from the position where are we now find ourselves. For example this comment about what happens as the gay population ages. Quoting Marin,

“What will churches do with the eighty-year-old gay man who has committed himself not only to the church but to celibacy as a theological conviction? He doesn’t have children to support him or to serve as next of kin or as power of attorney for his medical care. He doesn’t have descendants to listen to his stories or pictures of grandchildren to share with his peers. Who will be his advocate, his family, his community? It’s a reality that theologically conservative churches need to start planning for…” (p. 155)

In addition to discussion questions at the end of each chapter one feature of the book which I need to mention is found in chapter 10: A liturgy for sexual healing. This could be the basis of an entire service on this topic and there is content here that can be adapted by non liturgical churches.

I recommended this book to several people not because there aren’t other books on this topic in the market and others being written as I type this, but rather because it is written from a strong Church leadership perspective and as this issue becomes more front of mind in our churches it is the type of resource which, if I were a pastor, I would want to put in the hands of all of my key leaders and board members.


I wanted to include a section from the book on my devotional blog, Christianity 201, but that blog deliberately avoids topical issues so I found a general section which you’ll find at this link.


One more time, if you want to catch the podcast, click here.


I’ve used LGBT+ as that’s what this book uses. The author is clear at the outset that the focus is on gay and lesbian people, not transgender or “other sexual minorities.”


This was my first attempt at dictating an entire blog post into my phone. I think I caught the spelling and syntax issues, but you can let me know!

January 12, 2020

Service Cancelled Due to the Weather

Filed under: Christianity, Church, weather — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 12:48 pm

“Father MacKenzie, writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear…”
– The Beatles

Perhaps the lyric was on my mind as we recently watched the movie Yesterday. Twice actually.

On our own yesterday we had to make a run to Emergency as I was in great agony with a pain in my foot which was diagnosed as a tear in the Achilles tendon. Or something like that. I was more concerned with the care and the prognosis than the particular title the injury received.

Mrs. W. was in the waiting room, working on her laptop on a sermon outline that had been percolating for awhile, in case it was needed the next day. The pastor is in Montreal with family, and the scheduled speaker, who would have needed to drive a significant distance, had done the prudent thing and cancelled ahead of time.

So my wife had offered to be the back-up speaker for the other back-up speaker.

As it turned out, the church cancelled their service. About half of the Evangelical churches that are active on Facebook did the same, and another half did not. The Mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches had nothing on social media (if they have it at all) so we assume they went ahead.

Hence The Beatles quotation above. Poor Father MacKenzie. Did no one come to the service?

We saw this happen a few years ago. A priest in Boston was going through all of the forms for the 5:00 PM mass in an empty sanctuary. Empty, but for the two tourists peeking through a back door, on whom his dedication had a significant impact; so perhaps it wasn’t all for naught.

I have no memories of church services being cancelled when I was young. It was a large church in a big city, and maybe the roads were kept cleared enough that people could arrive without incident. We probably had a few rural members and adherents, but for the most part, this was an urban church, transplanted from a downtown location that made it even more urban. As long as public transit was operating, people could attend.

Some of that may also be due to the changing weather patterns we are experiencing. I’ve written about that five years ago. On the 6:30 U.S. network newscasts I’ve watched for as long as we’ve been married, the last seven or eight years have almost always included a breaking weather-related story among the opening headlines.

I’ve run the picture below, with the same caption, previously on the blog. It’s not always about the weather, but the extremes of weather we experience.

In the meantime, we’ve missed this week’s opportunity for fellowship, teaching and worship. My wife’s earlier attempt to watch a live stream of the church where she grew up failed due to unusually slow internet speeds. We went to different rooms and read different books. I had downloaded a sermon last night, and will probably choose another one (or more) before the day is over.

I hope that both Father MacKenzie and my wife get to deliver their sermons to some actual people. And perhaps one of the ladies in the church will step up and offer to darn the priest’s socks so he doesn’t have to do this himself.

On New Year's Day 2009, Ippswich in Australia was expecting a high of +38C, which is about 100F. Meanwhile, back at home, my Weather Network indicator on my computer is showing that we’re heading to a low of -18C, which is about -1F. Their high temperature on a summer mid-afternoon Thursday would be occurring at the same time as my Wednesday mid-winter night. That's 101 degrees F difference. That day I was asking,

On New Year’s Day 2009, Ippswich in Australia was expecting a high of +38C, which is about 100F. Meanwhile, back at home, my Weather Network indicator on my computer was showing that we were heading to a low of -18C, which is about -1F. Their high temperature on a summer mid-afternoon Thursday would be occurring at the same time as my Wednesday mid-winter night. That’s 101 degrees F difference. That day I was asking, “Are we even on the same planet?” (The left picture was actually Bondi Beach.) Where I live, houses, cars and our collection of clothing has to withstand wind chill factors as low as -50 C (which was reached in Winnipeg several times that year, almost not needing the chill factor) and humidity index temps higher than +40 C.


We plough the fields, and scatter
the good seed on the land;
But it is fed and watered
by God’s almighty hand.
He sends the snow in winter,
The warmth to swell the grain,
The breezes and the sunshine,
And soft, refreshing rain. 1

… He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matt 5:45)


1Classic hymn based on a poem published in 1782 and set to music in 1800; also the basis of the song All Good Gifts from the musical Godspell; section cited based on Psalm 147:16.

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