Thinking Out Loud

April 22, 2017

“We Know Where You Live”

front_gate

Thanks to the internet there are no secrets anymore. A few years ago I briefly turned my attention to the housing that certain pastors and church leaders enjoy and were building. With Google Earth and Google Street View tracking every square inch of the planet, major Christian authors and church leaders have difficulty concealing their personal residences.

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

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

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

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

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

I’m not sure what happened to that campus, but we’re well aware of the people that make up the Evangelical star system who live in similar neighborhoods.

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

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

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

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

Oh! The Gated Community

Is where we like to be

Our clothes are never dirty

And the lawns are always green

And when you come to visit

You can stand outside and see

What a tidy bunch we are

In our gated unity!

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

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

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

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

Pictured: Gated community in Atlanta, GA

April 17, 2017

Willow Creek Continues to Rewrite the Playbook for Weekend Services

Two weeks ago Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago’s Northwest suburbs had an “Authors Weekend.” Teaching pastor Steve Carter interviewed Anne Lamott and then went into an another exchange with Lee Strobel, the latter having been a former Willow staff member. (Later in the week Josh McDowell visited on Wednesday night.) You can watch those interviews at this link.

Doing an interview in a church service can be a hit or miss proposition. Especially if it is replacing a traditional teaching segment aka sermon. Furthermore, the reaction to any particular guest is going to be subjective. Just a week or two earlier, Willow hosted Olympic gymnast Gabrielle Douglas. That one didn’t resonate with me so much.

But watching Carter talk with Lamott and later Strobel, I realized what they are doing has some broader implications.

First, I have for a long time questioned how much time sermon has left.  With all due respect to those of you currently honing your homiletic craft at either the undergraduate or graduate level, I really think that this particular form is destined to go the way of the CD or the land line phone. I’m not saying there aren’t some great preachers out there; I spend my evening hours listening to sermon after sermon online. But that’s me. For others there are a host of reasons why sermon doesn’t work. ADD or ADHD comes to mind. Some sermons are simply too long. Some say it’s just not how they learn. Some claim that high profile Christian pastors have simply set the bar too high and average pastors can’t achieve the quality that is now widely available online. Others would argue that we’ve become accustomed to media bursts, sound bites, and increased concision.

Second, I have for a long time advocated teaching modules rather than a single focus half hour. A few of us are old enough to remember when NBC introduced the show Real People. Hailed as the first magazine format program — though I’m not sure it predated 60 Minutes — this variety-meets-information type of programming is now widely used. I always thought that the ideal solution in church would be to break up the 30 minutes into three 10 minute segments, separated by music, announcements, or scripture readings. One module might be topical. One might be exegetical. Or if you prefer, one might be light while one might go deeper. One might deal with family life. One might delve into an obscure Old Testament character. (If that last one sounds boring, remember, we’re talking ten minutes here. You don’t have time to lose people!)

What Willow and Carter did that Sunday met these objectives in the ways that follow, but I also want to add one extra point.

The interview was a nice alternative to a sermon. Key here was the fact that the two authors really had something to say. The aforementioned sports star was a good testimony, and she’s probably a role model for a lot of young girls — and they did have a sermon that week as well — but Strobel and Lamott brought a lot of substance to the table. There was also spontaneity, including an opportunity to text in questions. (I wasn’t there in person, but watching the Saturday night service live, I could have easily participated in this.)

The interviews would appeal to different people. Strobel’s was also a testimony, but also tied into an upcoming movie. A number key points in Christian apologetics were covered. Another aspect to this story is what happens in a marriage when one partner has crossed the line of faith and the other is hostile toward Christianity. I hadn’t read anything by Lamott but her personal, unaffected demeanor probably connected with people early in their Christian journey, with seniors, and also with women. In other words, a wide swath demographically.

The interviewer had done his homework. This was the thing that really impressed me. Steve Carter wasn’t just ‘winging it.’ He had spent some time studying both the literature and the biographies of his two guests. Willow had a point to all this, they were doing it for well considered reasons; otherwise they wouldn’t have done it at all. But if they were going to do it, they were going to do it well. (Their commitment to excellence shone through their Good Friday and Easter services this past weekend, also available online.)

Finally, a confession.

I’m a sermon guy. Yes, I just said it’s a dying art form, but I enjoy them. So it would be quite easy for me to feel disappointed I wasn’t going to get one from Willow that week. Truth is, I tuned in especially to see what Strobel would say, and because his connection as a former Willow Creek staffer made it especially interesting. Plus I’ve seen Carter and Bill Hybels do this sort of thing many times before and they aren’t exactly novices.

Can your church snag top name guests? You probably don’t have the budget, nor do they have a lot of availability. But there are probably some stories that Christian people in your community can tell better on a two-chair set than can be related from behind a podium. There are probably topics that can be presented with two members of the pastoral staff taking a tag team approach. There is probably preaching content that can be modified to suit a Q & A format, even if it’s not as spontaneous as you would like it to be. Finally, there’s possibly someone in your church who might, on a one-off Sunday, have something vital to share but would need the help of a more seasoned speaker to rein them in when they go off topic or off focus, or to simply keep the message moving.

I’m not advocating this for everyone; I’m just saying it deserves consideration.


 

 

March 28, 2017

When You’re Unfit to Serve at Your Church

Today’s post is a continuation of my wife’s guest post yesterday. I promised I would return to some of the issues raised to look at them objectively. So this post is a continuation of that; you really need to read it first.

1. How long does a person attend your church before they are considered for service?

Many years ago, Andy Stanley hired a Fortune 500 survey company to interview people at their church and found that in the first five weeks at NorthPoint, newcomers are already trying to “discern next steps,” and possible areas of active involvement. On the other hand, when 60’s rocker Barry McGuire came to Christ, his pastor suggested the famed composer/singer should take a seat in the back row to grow and nurture his faith — for a full year! Some say that in a small town church, “Once a visitor, always a visitor.” Where’s the balance? Of course, in my wife’s case, she wasn’t exactly a newcomer, which brings us to…

2. When someone who was a former member of your church returns, does their past experience count for anything?

Clearly, some churches expect you to jump through all the hoops as though you’d never been there before. One woman who wrote us off-the-blog put it this way, “It’s when your motives are questioned and you had thought you had enough ‘capital ‘ in years of service to be trusted…” Churches will have “Celebration Sundays” to revel in their glorious past history, but if someone who is part of that history should return, that experience, even if it involved some tough pioneering, isn’t always respected. For my wife to be classed as a “visitor” was simply equestrian feces. Which brings us to…

3. Is someone who has only been part of a church for ten years truly fit to reprimand, discipline or judge someone whose history with that church goes back twenty years?

Part of the problem in the body of Christ is that we really don’t know each other. But it gets even more complicated when people who have given years of service are being judged — or spiritually abused — by people who, despite their convictions otherwise, don’t know all there is to know. (Or worse, have been given short ‘debriefs’ by a departing pastor about individuals in the church, not unlike those student files kept in the school office.) Sometimes, this problem manifests itself where a church member finds themselves being rebuked by someone half their age. There may be Biblical precedent for that, but it’s still unnatural, and can be avoided by appointing a different mediator. Which brings us to…

4. Are the elders in your church really “elder,” or were they chosen by some other standard?

Typically, in many churches today board members are people who are successful at their vocation. Is your insurance business or car dealership doing well? Expect to be asked. Ditto teachers. But some churches really need to bring back the concept of elders and deacons. (See the story in Acts 7 on the choosing of Stephen for the nuances.) Some elders are on the church board for the wrong reasons, like, for example, their wives talked them into it. Some elders truly “represent” the congregation in a democratic sense, while others see themselves as a sub-priestly class of elite members. Again, another comment received in response to the first article; “…as I think you sense, the leadership there is like a team of soldiers walking through enemy territory with the rank and file members and adherents being ‘the enemy!’ It feels as if there are the leaders and then there are the rest of us — the leaders being a select group of others who think alike and run the show.” Which brings us to…

5. What about Church leaders who will look you right in the eye and lie through their teeth? Is that ever justified?

The conversation my wife had seven years ago revealed a number of statements which, at the very least, were absolute non sequiturs. (I’m being polite.) They told her that she was unfit to lead because people in the congregation didn’t know her, yet just three weeks before that, I had to ask four different people to find out the name of the woman who had led worship that week. (See also the footnote to yesterday’s article; turns out they brought in a guest less than a month later.) My wife was baptized there. Our children were dedicated there. Her husband served on paid staff there for four years. And nobody would know her? Maybe what this is all about is really…

6. Is the elders’ board of a church really where the heart of ministry is taking place? Or even in touch with the real ministry happening?

I doubt that. In fact, if you really want to see corporate life change (aka spiritual formation) take place and they ask you to serve on an administrative board, run as fast you can in the other direction. “Run, Forrest, run!” Just wanting to serve on one of these boards is like wanting to run for public office. And being involved in service is just as political, where you do everything you can to keep your reputation ahead of actual service. And just as in politics, these people will do everything they can to keep people off the stage who might, through raw authenticity and transparency, challenge the carefully developed status quo. People like that are, simply put, a threat. This is not where powerful, fruitful, organic ministry is taking place. Which bring us to…

7. Do people in your church get hurt or wounded or abused?

My wife was told that placing herself in profile ministry meant she was leaving herself open to hurt. Was this an admission on their part that this is a church that hurts people? The church leadership should bear ultimate responsibility for any hurting, wounding or abusing that takes place within their jurisdiction. Furthermore they should be strive to make their church a place of healing; a place of grace. Decisions taken at the board level which are simply leading to further hurt should be considered a worst-case scenario. But this is likely to happen because…

8. Can a church leader be doing “the Lord’s work” and at the same time be about “the Devil’s business?”

Absolutely. People are flawed. They are going to get caught up in what “may seem right,” but actually take perverse delight in stabbing someone and then twisting the knife. Any high school student who has studied Shakespeare knows enough about human nature to know that these personality types are out there. (As Mark Antony says, “These are honorable men.”) It’s all about building their kingdom and especially their desire for power and control. What my wife was subjected to in that hour was simply not of God. So the obvious question is…

9. Why do we keep coming back?

Small(er) towns simply don’t offer people the advantage of packing up and moving to another church. The mix of evangelism, teaching, worship, doctrinal slant, demographic composition; combined with an individual’s history in a place; plus a blind optimism that someday things will improve; all these things sometimes mean that there is literally nowhere else to go. (And trust us, we’ve done the church plant thing, too; it was a great experience; but the plants died or got put on hiatus for other reasons.) Besides, this church is our HOME. Figuratively, those are our kids’ height marks on the back of the door; that’s our kids’ artwork on the refrigerator; not so figuratively, that’s the corner where I prayed with that woman for a dramatic healing; that’s the song my wife taught the congregation just a few years ago; that’s the weekly group that we started.

10. Is it possible that it’s just time to step aside and let another generation have their turn?

If that’s the case, the people working so hard to evict us from active ministry really have only four or five years left themselves. And they are perpetuating a system which will truly come back to haunt them. (‘What goes around…’) But then again, many of the people doing worship service leadership in Canada are much older than their U.S. counterparts. So while a part of me is lamenting my wife’s loss of opportunity to do the thing she loves, and the thing she’s most gifted to do, I’m watching the horizon for that young, unshaven guy with a guitar over his shoulder who is going to bounce this crowd off the stage and, with his peers, bounce this particular collection of elders out of the church boardroom.

I guess that sounds a bit mean spirited, but honestly, things can only get better. Things can only improve. Of course I’ve said that before…

Related post: April 4, 2008 – Growing Deep RootsSometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name… and they’re always glad you came.

Related post: May 1, 2008 – Choosing a Church – This post is where I came up with the phrase, “a place where you can be comfortable being broken.” and the footnote, “When you have true spiritual family in various places, they don’t mind it when you crash!”


March 27, 2017

Loss of Church Leadership Position is Like a Death

It’s now been seven years. Sometimes when you lose a relationship with a church it’s like a death in the family. My wife and I have been through this with respect to one particular church both individually and collectively, but because of our long history with the place, seven years ago she went back for another final run at it, which means that this death for us has been somewhat recurring, much like the plot of The Terminator.

Much of the bridge burning took place on Thursday, March 4th, 2010 at a meeting my wife was summoned to attend in response to a request to have her volunteer position reinstated. Nearly a full fortnight later, she finally committed her thoughts to writing on her blog. The day after she allowed me to run this at Thinking Out Loud, I came back the next day with what I felt was an objective discussion of some of the other larger issues her meeting raised. That will appear here tomorrow.


By Ruth Wilkinson

I’m reading a book right now called Introverts in The Church by Adam S. McHugh. McHugh is a pastor and a self identified introvert who has struggled with the American-extrovert personality of so much of the Church.

It’s a very cool read for someone like myself. We’ve grown up in the church being told, explicitly and implicitly, that to be introverted is at best a character flaw and at worst a sin.

It’s refreshing to read a book that takes us seriously, as a group of people whose brains are hardwired differently from those of the majority, with strengths and weaknesses, beauty and pitfalls.

Especially after the latest chapter in my adventures with the churchIusedtogoto.

I used to be a volunteer worship team leader there and got fired by a pastor with whom I’d had some philosophical differences. He and I are friends again, both of us now being ex- of the aforementioned church.

But at the time, and since, I’ve mourned the loss of that ministry. Leading worship in a congregation is something I love love love doing. I told someone lately that losing it was like losing a finger. Especially since it ended so abruptly with no chance to say goodbye.

So I took a risk recently. I got in touch with the people at the churchIusedtogoto who are in charge of these things and asked them whether I could come back one time. Just once, to have a chance to stand in that space once more, to lead worship with a bunch of people I care about, and to close the door for myself.

They said they wanted to have a meeting and “discuss this.” Which is never good.

But I said “OK,” and one evening the three of us sat down to “discuss this.”

I wasn’t optimistic. I’ve known enough people who’ve been alienated from churches to know that you just don’t try to go back. You just don’t. Because it hurts.

One time a few years ago, I got a call from a woman who’s the wife of a former pastor of another church in town. Their time there had ended very stressfully and he’d been fired. But she had founded the local chapter of a national prayer group and they were having their annual shindig. Guess where. She couldn’t bring herself to walk into that building alone after what they’d been through and just wanted somebody to go with her. I said sure. She met me in the parking lot and we went in together. Those kinds of forays are tremendously difficult for the wounded.

Lately I’ve heard a couple of preachers say that “You don’t have to forgive a church that hurt you. You have to forgive the particular individuals in the church who hurt you.”

They’re wrong. Completely wrong.

Anyway, my meeting at the churchIusedtogoto was cordial. The answer was no. Or rather, “Maybe someday.”

Maybe someday. These are obviously people who’ve never read Proverbs 13:12.

The condition they set on the “maybe” was this: That there are people at the churchIusedtogoto who don’t know who I am. People who would wonder, if they saw me at the piano, “Who is that?” And their policy is that “We don’t have guest worship leaders.”

That’s it. That’s the reason. Not that I’ve failed morally. Not that I’m a bad example. Not that I’m incompetent or dangerous. Not that I’m a communist, or a heretic, or I dress funny. Just that somebody might not know who I am.

And their solution to this “problem” was that I should attend the church regularly, spend time after the services talking to people, shaking hands, chatting, getting to know folks and to be known.

Then, once I’d built these “relationships”, then “maybe someday.”

As I said, I’m an introvert. I think about things. I use my brain to ask myself questions. People say things and I actually listen, and then give them thought.

I thought about this. And decided it was bumph.

After a few days, I wrote them back. In part:

I respect your answer, and won’t pursue the question anymore, in spite of the fact that I really don’t believe I was asking for much. Just one Sunday.

But your reason for saying no was so absurd. There are people there who don’t know me. You don’t have guest worship leaders.

All through school, children show up in the morning, occasionally to discover that they have a substitute teacher. People turn on the Tonight Show to find that the host is away and there is a guest host. The evening news anchor goes away for a few days and his seat is filled by a guest anchor. Just the other week, you had a guest speaker as churches do all the time.

And you’d ask me to believe that your congregation is so simple minded that they wouldn’t be able to cope with a guest worship leader. It’s almost funny, if it weren’t pathetic.

I don’t know what you think you’re protecting them from, but if you treat your congregation like simpletons, don’t expect them to challenge themselves.

Not my most diplomatic, but I figured, hell, the bridge is on fire. What have I got to lose?

(Yes, I know I said hell. See above.)

There might be a few things at play in their response.

First, this is a church that had a burst of progressiveness in the 80’s and then just stopped. Since then the leadership has become dominated by policy wonks who seem to be always looking for one more loose end to tie down.

Second, we ‘worship leaders’ have been done a grave disservice over the last couple of decades by being given an exaggerated sense of our own importance. We’re told that we’re ‘leading people into God’s presence’, that we’re ‘temple musicians’ and stuff like that. Rather than that we are just one part of the body of Christ, whose diverse giftings are all of equal value and sacredness.

Which is all another post for another blog.

But reading McHugh’s book has given me the language to better define the vehemence of part of my antipathy to their reasoning.

McHugh points out that, since we introverts usually struggle with social interaction, we find our ways into community by different paths than extroverts and normal people do.

He makes me smile when he describes the hellishness of “unstructured social events”, and writes of a man who leaves church a few minutes before the service ends to avoid “the agony of the fellowship hour”. I love that phrase. It warms the cockles of my contemplative heart.

Those of us who can’t function in the schmooze and chat world of North American evangelicalism connect with their churches through the roles they find to fill. Having a place to step into when you get there is a tremendously valuable thing. It’s a piece of ground from which to meet just one or two people at a time, to find like minded friends and to, yes, build real relationships, not ersatz hi-how-are-you-fine ones.

To insist that one of us has to run the gauntlet of coffee time in order to reach that place, is cruel and unusual punishment. Like telling you that you have to park your car a mile downhill from your house. If you want to go home at the end of the day, you have to sweat for it.

Screw that. Guess I’ll have to make do with one less finger.

Which might be just as well.


To this day, I still get comments from people as to how much they appreciated Ruth’s worship ministry in that church. I may be biased, but it was awesome. Vast song selection. Custom made video clips. Dramatic readings. Times of bold proclamation and times of deep introspection.

Some even go so far to ask if she might consider a reprise of that role. Without going into detail, I tell them to contact the church with that suggestion.

Since the article appeared, the wounds simply have not healed. At the center of this was one particular individual who is otherwise greatly admired and respected by the people of that church. In hindsight — and we’ll get to this tomorrow — what he did at that meeting at night constituted spiritual abuse, not to mention certain aspects where we now know he was lying through his teeth. He continues in a leadership role that leaves me totally mystified.

There was another change of pastoral leadership after this was written and on hearing the full story the new pastor basically said, “He would never do anything like that.” In addition to what we’ve already had to deal with, I’ve now had to suffer the loss of credibility for attempting to defend my wife’s version of the events. 

Finally… saving the best (or worst) for last… Not more than three weeks later they had a guest worship leader. A recording artist who was also doing a worship workshop with them that weekend.  

It had to have already been booked at the time she was told they don’t bring in guests.

March 26, 2017

Should Christians Have Sex on Sunday?

This graphic image goes in a different direction than today’s topic, but I couldn’t resist including it.

This topic occurred to me while listening to a talk radio show last week. They weren’t addressing this specifically, but I decided to see what the internet had to say…

First, although our title says “Sunday” I thought if anyone has an opinion on this, the Seventh Day Adventists may be more schooled than most in the area of “Sabbath” and found this article:

…There are two schools of thought:

1)   The Sabbath is a holy day of rest onto the Lord and one should not engaged in sex on the Sabbath: Those who hold to this view, argue primarily from Isaiah’s warned against finding one’s own pleasure on the Sabbath:
 “If thou turn away thy foot from the Sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy of the LORD, honorable; and shalt honor him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words:”  Isa 58:13 They conclude that Sabbath is not the day for sex because sex is finding one’s own pleasure.

2)   Sabbath is a holy day and Marriage is a holy institution therefore sex can be done on the Sabbath: The supporters of this view contend that both the Sabbath and Marriage were instituted by God and as such sex is definately sacred, especially since God only sanctioned sex in the institution of marriage. They further argue that the Apostle Paul gave strong support for sex on the Sabbath when he said: “Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency” 1 Cor 7:5. The argument is that couples are not required to fast and pray every Sabbath. Some even go as far as to say that since Adam and Eve were married on the sixth day, God would not require them to wait that long before consummating their marriage.

Next stop — and the internet is filled with articles that can prove a distraction on this, so be discerning — was an article on whether or not it is appropriate to have sex during Lent. I figured that was timely so after a good explanation of what Lent is, there was a longer answer on whether a couple could have sex during days of fasting:

…I think we often fail to focus on the one time it is permissible to mutually decide not to have sex:  When you have decided to devote yourself to prayer and fasting, for a time, you MAY decide, mutually, to also refrain from sex.  To deprive each other, again, mutually.  This doesn’t mean you can say to your spouse “well, I’m praying and fasting, so no sex”.

So, if you cannot unilaterally decide that you cannot deprive your spouse of sex, but you may unilaterally decide that you, yourself, are going to pray and fast, then by simple logic, it must be that a couple can pray and fast, and still have sex.  So, should Christians have sex while fasting?  It’s up to you, together.  No one gets veto rights.  You have to both agree to not have sex, or else it’s back to business as God intended: frequent and awesome.

But, I want to bring up another point:  I think there is a reason why this is the only acceptable time to decide, together, not to have sex.  I’ve done some fasting in the past.  I once did a 16-day water fast (nothing but water).  The most startling thing I noticed:  I had absolutely no sex drive half way through it.  Seriously, it was gone.  I was shocked.  I’ve never not had a strong sex drive, for as long as I could remember.  In fact, I wrote about it in this post.  I think Paul must have known about this.  Why else say that every other time that you deprive each other, you are leaving them open to temptation, but during prayer AND fasting, it’s okay?  From my perspective, it’s obvious: you’re not as tempted when fasting because your body goes into survival mode.  It’s not interested in sex, it’s more interested in surviving until the next day.

So, in the end, I think you have to decide as a couple. If you are praying AND fasting, have the conversation about what to do with sex.

The article linked in the above excerpt is from Ministry Magazine and offers a lengthy, historical discussion on this topic:

There is no textual evidence to indicate that sex was forbidden on the Sabbath or the Day of Atonement. Rene Gehring argues that in the Hebrew Bible, sexual intercourse within marriage is not ritually defiling at all.

The next stop was a Jewish perspective, sourced at Yahoo Forums:

Under Jewish tradition, sex is advised on the sabbath.

In Jewish law, sex is not considered shameful, sinful or obscene. Sex is not thought of as a necessary evil for the sole purpose of procreation. Although sexual desire comes from the yetzer ra (the evil impulse), it is no more evil than hunger or thirst, which also come from the yetzer ra. Like hunger, thirst or other basic instincts, sexual desire must be controlled and channeled, satisfied at the proper time, place and manner. But when sexual desire is satisfied between a husband and wife at the proper time, out of mutual love and desire, sex is a mitzvah.

Probably the most interesting answer came from Nigeria. I’ll include the question from a pastor’s wife (implied) and the answer that was given:

[Q.] What is your take on a couple having sex before going to church. For instance, I discover my hubby doesn’t like having sex any time we have to go to church or the Saturday before Sunday because he feels it would reduce his anointing. I am not finding this funny at all and it is beginning to look as if I am sent to destroy his ministry by trying to have sex with him. Please what is your take on this matter sir?

[A.] Thanks for your question and the trust you have in us at TheCable to be able to do justice to this issue. I wouldn’t know the paradigm your man is operating with but I have met a number of people with the same beliefs. It is quite common among some religious leaders and it could have been part of the ministerial ethics that they were taught from the Bible school or it could have been borne out of personal revelation.

I tried to get a Catholic perspective, but the site containing the “Sex after Mass” article wasn’t loading, but apparently the sex before going to church is a theme in some marriages; though this question was a bit too graphic to quote here.

I would probably put the greatest weight on the first two responses, but unless I was completely out to lunch with search terms, I was surprised there weren’t one or two more articles on this subject. Feel free to mention something in the comments, I might amend the article later. (See also yesterday’s post here for something possibly somewhat related.)

So a general answer today would be, yes.  


Update: After posting this and re-reading the responses I collected, I was surprised that given the preponderance of Christian marriage resources, there was so little mainstream Evangelical answers on this question. Perhaps this just isn’t a concern, or perhaps I didn’t dig deep enough.

March 10, 2017

House Party: Barbecue, Pool, a Movie, and “We’re having a guest preacher.”

It’s a summer weekend. You invite a few friends over to use the pool, enjoy a barbecue, and watch a movie on DVD. Oh, and you’ve also invited a preacher who will sit everyone down in the living room for a 40 minute sermon. Wait, what? Wouldn’t an Amway Ambush be better than listening to a sermon?

While your swim, burger, and film night might include comfortable chairs, popcorn, refreshments, etc. in 2017, inviting a preacher might have been the equivalent type of party in the 18th century.

Victorian ParlourWhile reading 7 Men and the Secret of Their Greatness by Eric Metaxas a few years ago, I encountered the term parlor preaching, or if you prefer, the more Anglicized spelling, parlour preaching. Apparently William Wilberforce’s family would have John Newton over for the evening as a guest speaker. If magicians can do parlor tricks, I suppose pastors can parlor preach.

A short trip to a few search engines later, I am not a whole lot wiser on this subject. How widespread was this type of social event? Was it the province of the aristocracy or upper class, or could anyone commission the pastor for a thousand words of exegesis and exhortation?

Though it seems to harken back to a long bygone era, I love the concept. I just can’t see anyone pulling this off successfully today, especially if you get the kind of preacher whose voice raises when he gets passionate. The sermon, as an art form is slowly fading. Rhetoric in general is getting lost in a world of txt msgs and 140-character Tweets. Most party invitees don’t want to arrive at your home only to find they’re at church.

With the absence of information we have to do some guessing. My money’s on this phenomenon as being more church service than small group, but as one-off event. A theological education was highly prized and respected, so the type of interactive format we enjoy in small groups wouldn’t be as likely to occur. You certainly would never offer an alternative view and you might not feel comfortable asking a question, either. At best, you’d save it until afterwards when tea was served.

But it could have resembled house church. There would be a piano in the parlor (aka ‘front room’ or what we would call the ‘living room’) so possibly there could be some singing, with the latest worship songs being transmitted from place to place via printed sheet music (no doubt, CCLI song #5) followed by something the preacher had prepared. Start time and dress would be less formal than Sundays and probably children (if present) would be free to sit on the carpet.

Again, I’m making all this up because there is very little corroboration online for this. If you know differently, please fill the rest of us in.

We do this today, sometimes inviting friends over to watch a sermon podcast, though we have the freedom of hitting the pause button. Today, we don’t expect our pastors to be suburban circuit-riders, in fact pastoral home visitation in general is going extinct, a topic for another article, I suppose.

Still, I would love to travel back in time to be part of one of those informal house meetings; a kind of house concert with a spiritual orator instead of a singer. I’ll bet the preaching would be first-class.

February 7, 2017

I’ll Have Some Expository with a Side of Topical

Expository versus Topical

From Todd Rhoades who sourced it at Sacred Sandwich.

Expository preaching consists of working through a passage on a verse-by-verse basis. For many of you, it’s the sermon style you grew up with; for a few it might be the only Bible teaching form you know.

Topical preaching seeks to look at selected scriptures and build a picture of the Bible’s wider teaching on a particular subject or issue. It grew in popularity when the seeker-sensitive church movement started, and is therefore often associated with that paradigm.

preacherExpository preaching is a necessary skill for pastors. If you can’t exegete a passage, you don’t pass homiletics or hermeneutics in Bible college or seminary.

Topical preaching is sometimes mistakenly thought of as “sermon lite.” It’s been — dare I say it? — demonized because of its association with things traditionalists don’t care for: contemporary music, casual dress, modern Bible translations, seeker-targeted services, etc.

A good speaker should be able to do both approaches, and should know when to do both.

But every once in awhile I run across an online article that is waving the flag for the expository style, and therefore reiterating an implied disdain for the alternative, topical preaching.

On many aspects of the debate I agree that there is an engagement at a different level with the expository style. But the rhetoric of these articles is usually completely over-the-top; indeed there is almost a venom in the words chosen to state what is, at the end of the day, the author’s preference. The following, archived here, is a good example:

Topical preaching is more like a steady diet of fast food. It takes great but is not good for you. McDonald’s will make you happy and it does taste good but a steady flow of McDonald’s is not good for you. You need healthy substance to survive. Fast food makes one fat and lazy… A steady diet of fast food Christianity that tastes good but is not producing healthy disciples. Fast food Christianity produces shallow, self-focused people who want their felt needs met and view God as an end to their own problems. Lost is the holiness of God, the hatred for sin, the passion for God in prayer, the hunger for the Word of God, a zeal for evangelism, a passion to have a biblical worldview and to be as godly as one can be in a sinful world.

You can’t teach the holiness of God in a topical sermon? A steady diet of theme-based teaching fails to produce healthy disciples? By what metrics? Where is the research on this?

Then the writer felt the need to add one more paragraph, just in case you missed it:

So why do most churches avoid expository preaching? I would answer that by saying that 1) many churches want to entertain to draw crowds which equals money and success in their view and 2) the preacher is simply spiritually lazy and will not take time to study the Word of God to teach the Word as it should be honored and taught. In turn, topical preaching doesn’t teach the Word of God but is simply the preacher picking what he wants to say, makes his points, and then proof texts his points. That is not teaching the Bible. That is your teaching backed up by proof texts from the Bible.

Did you catch that second last sentence? Topical preaching “is not teaching the Bible.” Wow! That’s a rather heavy accusation to level. Caught up in the genuine emotion and passion about this subject, the writer kept keyboarding too long. (It reminds me of the writer describing an upcoming conference whose favorite speakers were noted as “friends of the gospel;” as if the others were not.) This is spiritual pride, plain and simple. A religious superiority complex.

Still, in the spirit of conciliation and peace-making, I decided to wade into this blog post’s swamp and try to post something redemptive; borrowing an idea from the music wars that have plagued many a church:

In February, 2013 I responded to their article:

This may not be popular here, but I want to offer a third way.

Many years ago, as churches agonized over the “hymns versus choruses” debate, the late Robert Weber introduced the term “blended worship;” a mixture of classic and modern compositions.

I believe there is some merit in bringing that mindset to this topic. I don’t necessarily lean to either the topical or expository style of preaching, as I believe there is only good preaching and bad preaching. The problem with topical preaching is that sometimes you never get deep enough into the context of the passage to learn anything new; it tends to have a guilty-by-association link with weak or entry-level teaching. The problem with expository preaching is that you miss the beauty and majesty of how the whole of scripture fits together, how the Bible speaks to various themes, and how seemingly contrasting verses hold a particular issue in tension.

So a blended approach would involve the use of related passages, but with a particular key passage more fully exegeted. None of this approach negates any of the nine points above, but it avoids the mindset that I’ve seen exist among some who are steeped in the expository approach and seem to have a phobia about introducing cross-references or parallel passages.

Now, at risk of being guilty of the very thing that I abhor about the approach taken in the article, let me add something else: It is far too easy for someone to get up, open their Bible to a single passage and basically ‘wing it.’ Drawing on your familiarity with the text, it is extremely easy to simply start reading verse by verse and improvise or amplify what is on the page without providing any added value.

In other words, while it’s possible for either type of preacher to get up unprepared, the topical sermon must have involved, at the very least, some gathering of related or parallel texts through commentaries or word studies.

So I’ll take my sermon topically, please, with a slice of exposition; and hold the personal opinions.

The most powerful thing a pastor can say in his sermon is, “Take your Bibles and look with me please to the book of …” And anywhere Bible pages are being turned or text is appearing onscreen, as far as I’m concerned, that’s a good thing.

February 3, 2017

Review: The Worship Pastor by Zac Hicks

Zac Hicks should write a novel. In his book The Worship Pastor: A Call to Ministry for Worship Leaders and Teams (Zondervan) he proves himself as a master of analogy. Not one or two, but more than a dozen comparisons between the person you might see on the stage at weekend services leading us sung and spoken worship, and other ministry and non-ministry occupations with which you are familiar.

the-worship-pastorThe need for these comparisons is simple: Worship leaders wear many hats. Those who are paid full-time to do this vocationally at larger churches are definitely multi-tasking, but even in smaller congregations, the task of directing us, as well as leading the worship team itself, is multi-faceted.

For that reason, I would argue that for those who perform this function, this is a book that will be referred to on a constant, ongoing basis. The Worship Pastor is basically an encyclopedia of everything related to the responsibility of planning and executing what is, in many of our churches, up to if not more than half of the total service time.

The author has been writing at his blog, ZacHicks.com since May of 2009. His bio notes that he “grew up in Hawaii, studied music in Los Angeles, trained in Philosophy and Biblical Studies at Denver Seminary, and his current doctoral work is in the theology and worship of the English Reformation. Zac’s passions include exploring the intersection of old and new in worship and thinking through the pastoral dimensions of worship leading.”

Indeed, the brilliance of the book is his ability to speak to two vastly different audiences: Those leading in a traditional, liturgical setting, and those serving in a modern, free worship environment. In both cases those leading have more in common in than they realize, and face many of the same challenges.

Back to the analogies. At the book’s website, these are spelled out and it helps you understand the book best to restate them here:

Chapter 1: The Worship Pastor as Church Lover
Chapter 2: The Worship Pastor as Corporate Mystic
Chapter 3: The Worship Pastor as Doxological Philosopher
Chapter 4: The Worship Pastor as Disciple Maker
Chapter 5: The Worship Pastor as Prayer Leader
Chapter 6: The Worship Pastor as Theological Dietician
Chapter 7: The Worship Pastor as War General
Chapter 8: The Worship Pastor as Watchful Prophet
Chapter 9: The Worship Pastor as Missionary
Chapter 10: The Worship Pastor as Artist Chaplain
Chapter 11: The Worship Pastor as Caregiver
Chapter 12: The Worship Pastor as Mortician
Chapter 13: The Worship Pastor as Emotional Shepherd
Chapter 14: The Worship Pastor as Liturgical Architect
Chapter 15: The Worship Pastor as Curator
Chapter 16: The Worship Pastor as Tour Guide

The title of the book (reiterated in each chapter) also deserves a second look. Hicks clearly sees the job as pastoral and would have those who serve in this capacity see it as nothing less. For those of us who have been criticized by pastors who felt their toes were being stepped on by a music director wanting to express this type of role in the statements, readings, and off-the-cuff remarks on a Sunday morning, this book grants them the authority to pursue their calling as a pastoral role. 

I couldn’t help but note that for a book written by a musician, this one definitely builds to a crescendo in its later sections. 

Wondering about that 12th chapter? “Death is the unspoken anxiety of North American culture…Our people bring all those fears right into the services we plan and lead. Each week, death is the biggest elephant in the sanctuary.” That one was fun reading. (Full disclosure, the chapter also deals with worship directors called upon to assist with funerals.)

Chapter 14 is actually a high point in the book and one that is anticipated throughout earlier sections. We’re presented with a worship flow (my word, not his) which then maps onto various liturgical and contemporary church service models, from Vineyard to Anglican.

But what about choosing some songs? Hicks doesn’t get around to anything as pedestrian as song selection until Chapter 15, and he does it in a rather unique way: By calling on the various ‘people’ in the previous models he is basically asking us to consider what songs ‘they’ would choose. (As a practitioner, I once commented that a longtime worship leader has heard about 5,000 compositions, but song selection isn’t about the five songs you choose, but the 4,995 you have to leave out.) He applies this also to choosing prayers (and how they are worded) and considering transitional segments.

Through the use of illustrations from the author’s experience, this book is accessible to all, however having said that, I believe it is also written at a somewhat academic level, thus I would expect The Worship Pastor to appear in textbook lists for worship courses. For those who want to go deeper, the footnotes represent a vast array of literature which sadly ended up on the cutting room floor. I would love to see Hicks explore those writers in greater detail. (The Worship Pastor: Director’s Cut, perhaps?)

My recommendation? This should be required reading for both worship leaders, singers, musicians, and senior pastors.


zac-hicksThanks to Miranda at HarperCollins Christian Publishing Canada for an opportunity to read The Worship Pastor. Any physical resemblance between Zac Hicks (pictured here) and Steven Curtis Chapman is purely coincidental.

January 10, 2017

A Tale of Two Churches

What follows was inspired by yesterday’s article here. Lorne Anderson lives in Canada’s capital city and has a colorful resumé which includes missionary work in Liberia, Christian radio in Saskatoon and being a Parliamentary Assistant in Ottawa. It will appear later this week at his blog, Random Thoughts from Lorne.

tale-of-two-churches

They have been sitting just a few blocks from each other on one of Ottawa’s main streets for more than a century. The little red-brick Baptist Church, founded in 1888 and it’s beautiful stone Presbyterian counterpart that started 14 years previously.

By the mid-1970s, both congregations were past their glory days. The Baptist sanctuary could hold a couple of hundred people if they were really friendly with each other, but average Sunday morning attendance was closer to 80, most of them elderly. Obviously a church on its last legs.

The Presbyterians weren’t in much better shape. They had a bigger congregation, but the church always seemed empty with their 900-seat sanctuary. Their 12-speaker audio system produced more echo than sound.

It had become the custom, probably through a friendship that had developed between long-serving pastors, for the churches to have joint services in the summertime. In July the Presbyterians came to the Baptist Church while their pastor went on vacation. In August the traffic went the other way. The system worked well for years, with the churches saving the cost of pulpit supply, and the people of the two congregations discovering they were pretty much alike. Greying and not quite sure how to make the Christian message relevant to the age.

Then there was a change at the ‎Baptist Church. The new pastor wanted July off. He was told what the arrangement with the Presbyterians was, and wasn’t thrilled. The church board consulted their Presbyterian counterparts and a compromise was reached.

The Baptist pastor would have to take his vacation in August that first year. In subsequent years however they would alternate months. He was agreeable to having every second July for vacation, and apparently his counterpart was also. Everyone seemed pleased that the long-standing arrangement would continue.

In the second year the Presbyterians informed the Baptists that their pastor would be taking his usual July vacation, previous arrangements notwithstanding. The Baptist pastor’s family plans were already made. His board knew it would not have been right to ask him to change.

Being budget-conscious the Baptists turned to their congregation. Men (naturally) were asked to preach while the pastor was on vacation. People discovered gifts they didn’t know they had. The caliber of the lay preaching was pretty good. At least, the Presbyterians thought so. With their pastor on vacation their church just shut down for a month. Many in the congregation joined the Baptists in worship – that was what they were accustomed to.

Almost forty years later, that little red-brick Baptist church is still struggling. It still has an aging congregation and perhaps even fewer people most Sundays.

Three blocks away the story is quite different. That church is bustling, lots of young families, you can feel the excitement. It is so different than when they chose to shut for a month so the pastor could take a vacation. So much has changed in forty years.

I guess the biggest change has been in the use of the “P” word. Today’s congregation is Pentecostal. The Presbyterians closed up shop in 2008. The building sat empty for a couple of years, then this new Pentecostal congregation looking for a home purchased the magnificent structure at a bargain price.

I would argue that deciding to shut down that month back in the 1970s, in deciding there was no necessity to hold services, that Presbyterian congregation was laying the groundwork for the church’s demise.

A Presbyterian theologian might have said it was predestined. A Baptist would reject that.

 

 

January 9, 2017

Rethinking the Christmas Day Church Closings

closed signIn just 2176 days, in the year 2022, Christmas will once again fall on a Sunday. There was a great deal of angst this year about the number of churches which opted not to have a service. With only six more years to get this right, I want to address this issue now, while the subject is still fresh in my mind and yours.

First of all, I believe what we saw in 2016 was another example whereby the agenda for the church at large, at least in North America, is being dictated by the modern megachurch. The type of church service now in view is very complex and involves a multitude of staff and volunteers. Just the technical specifications for the worship service itself — and that’s not counting the children’s ministry, or the people directing traffic in the parking lot — requires an army of sound, lighting, music specialists as well as ushers. To expect a consistent turnout of these people on a morning when their hearts are at home, gathered round the Christmas tree hearing those familiar Christmas words, “This one says, ‘To Ben from your sister Julie'” is possibly asking too much.

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

Instead, the service is canceled and then the contagion spreads to smaller (and smaller and smaller) churches where not having the service becomes normative. Evangelicalism: Closed for the day. Be back next week.

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

Well, actually it came from megachurches who have started doing a similar week off thing in the summer, usually on Memorial Day weekend. “If you come next week, we won’t be here.” Seriously? What about visitors who didn’t know that’s the pattern? Or the Griswalds, who have driven cross-country just to see the celebrity pastor? Goodness knows these big box churches are doing something right, so if they’re not having a service, perhaps our little 200-member church should do the same. Heck, we’ll also cancel Labor Day weekend while we’re at it; this is obviously a key plank in church growth, right?

But that diverts from the more serious issue. What about the people who are lonely? The people for whom weekend services are a spiritual and social lifeline? The people who need that one hour to ramp up to the 167 hours that follow? My wife and I learned from doing the Christmas Dinner on Christmas Day in our own hometown that the people who most need some level of fellowship or companionship — not that the capital-C Church is particular good at this — know no particular stereotype.

There’s also the matter of cost. By this I don’t mean the cost of turning on lights and having people consuming coffee cups and flushing toilets. No, I mean the cost of building church buildings and then having the auditoriums sit empty for the 13 days between one service, and the one which would follow in two weeks. It’s not about having offering revenue. Skip the collection on long weekends by all means. It’s about the investment in erecting places of worship and equipping them with comfortable chairs, state of the art sound and lighting, and engaging child and youth facilities, and then shuttering the place on what is usually the prime traffic day…

…Does this make any sense to you?

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

Just. Don’t. Lock. The. Church. Doors.

If weekend worship has gotten so complex that we can’t do it without a volunteer roster the size of the Marine Corps, maybe we need to be rethinking what it means to do and be the church.

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