Thinking Out Loud

April 7, 2015

Now The Student Has Learned More Than The Teacher

In my life I have been privileged to lead people into a prayer of commitment to follow Jesus Christ. It happened at a Christian camp, and at a concert, and I believe in one other church-based setting as well.  I say ‘I believe’ because all these incidents were a long time ago. While I probably have more ‘ministry’ hours in my days than ever before — and have more to offer now than I did back then — I am rarely in or near what would be called ‘the delivery room.’

discipleshipInstead, I connect people and resources, and connect people to other people who can aid them in their Christian walk. While I don’t have any formal mentoring relationships with the people I serve, I try to be an encourager and aid to their spiritual formation and discipleship. My passion for apologetics is far from a passing interest, and I enjoy being on the “front lines” of ministry; yet most of my contacts are people who have already crossed the line of faith.

Sometimes, these people grow in their faith to a point where I have to be totally honest and say they have surpassed me.

There is no particular shame in this. There is nothing wrong with being the middle school math teacher of the kid who grows up to get a PhD in Nuclear Physics. It happens. I suspect there are lots of elementary, middle school and high school teachers who have stories of former pupils who have gone on to greatness.

Still, there is a certain strangeness associated with the point in the relationship where the person just doesn’t need you like they once did.

You can tell a lot about a person by how they pray. You can tell if they’re moving toward the cross. You can tell if they have a faith that is deepening. I’m thinking right now of some people whose background was a mix of various ideas and faith traditions. A sort of leftover soup of doctrines and experiences, or if you prefer an audio metaphor, a theological cacophony. Or maybe just a faith that was swerving all over the road.

I wasn’t the only one in their lives. But I tried to be there to answer questions or correct misunderstandings.

It didn’t take long. I could tell. You can tell a lot about people by listening to them praying in a group setting. They were getting it. Before long, their spiritual identity was more set. I don’t use that word ‘set’ randomly. In The Mind Changers, a classic book on the spiritual decision-making process, Emory Griffin compared the process to candle-making with three distinct phases: Melt, Mold, Make Hard.

Before long these people were stepping up to take leadership positions in the church they attended. And then they didn’t need us anymore…

…Sometimes in church life we have students who surpass their teachers; people who simply flourish spiritually and exceed the ones helping them. That’s a good thing. While gratitude to the ones who helped us take our first spiritual steps is a good thing, I don’t think anyone is expecting the Physicist to return to the middle school teacher for help solving complex equations.

I think at that point, you do what I’ve done, and move on and find the next person who needs your help. Like the clerk at the fast food counter, you can say, “Can I help who’s next?” (My wife and I hate that phrase.) You find someone who needs you. Right now I’m thinking of someone whose walk with the Lord is growing by leaps and bounds, but if anyone is keeping score — and God isn’t — I’m always going to have something to offer simply by being more well-read.

But that doesn’t count for much eternally speaking. If you want a better barometer of how far along people are, I would say for a third time, you can tell a lot about people’s spiritual depth by how they pray.

 

Disclaimer: Today’s post is a mash-up of a couple of things, including an article that was going to appear yesterday but was pulled at the last minute. Some people referenced here are composites of various individuals and situations.

April 6, 2015

Breast Feeding in the Church Sanctuary

After debating several possibilities, the editorial team at Thinking Out Loud decided to play it safe with some classical art

After debating several possibilities, the editorial team at Thinking Out Loud decided to play it safe with some classical art

It must be an April thing, because last year at this time, we asked the question, Should Couples Hold Hands in Church?

Now we want to look at a question which is often a hot button issue in some churches, that of mothers nursing their babies in the church auditorium or sanctuary. So just to be clear let’s make some definitions:

  • This would be happening as a worship service is in progress
  • We’re assuming a certain amount of modesty is in place; there is an attempt to use discretion and keep everything as covered-up as possible. (Or is that the problem where you attend? Are some moms simply not attempting enough covering?)
  • The woman in question is not sitting in the front row serving as a distraction to the pastor or worship team. (Unless, again, that’s the problem; though it’s hard to believe anyone would actually do this.)
  • There are no children or (especially) teens who might be overly distracted by the very hint of this. (Middle school boys are at an age where boobs are an obsession.)
  • The baby is not fussing, crying or providing any type of audio distraction. (Think of Maggie on The Simpsons.)
  • There isn’t a room for this purpose (ideally with opaqued glass) off to the side of the auditorium.
  • The mom isn’t a visitor (unless that’s specific to a problem with this at your church) so she’s been around the church for years and knows the drill.

Does that cover it? (No pun intended.)

So what do you think? Are there options that would allow for this, or is it a definite “no” as far you’re concerned?

Has there been a shift on this over the last few years in your church?

And where am I gonna find a picture for this article? 

The question, just to be clear, is: Do you consider breastfeeding in church appropriate or inappropriate?  Is this a divisive issue where you worship?

 

April 2, 2015

This is Maundy Thursday

Over the past five years we’ve seen a major shift in Evangelical observance of what the Mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches call Holy Week. There is much more consciousness of Lent and even debates — because of the rapid shift in some denominations — as to its incorporation in Evangelicalism. While we’ve always been observant of Good Friday and Easter Sunday, there is also an increasing awareness of Maundy Thursday and Holy Saturday. This article appeared here exactly five years ago…

2The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus. 3Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. ~John 13: 2-5 (NIV)

What’s that saying? “A fanatic is someone who loves Jesus more than you do.” Today I felt somewhat spiritually outclassed.

I spoke with someone and asked what their church was doing for Holy Week. They told me that their church was doing a service on Thursday, as well as Good Friday.

Thursday is called Maundy Thursday. The theological page Theopedia doesn’t cover it for some strange reason, but the regular Wikipedia site offers two explanations for the name, of which I give you the first:

FootwashingAccording to a common theory, the English word Maundy in that name for the day is derived through Middle English, and Old French mandé, from the Latin mandatum, the first word of the phrase “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos” (“A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you”), the statement by Jesus in the Gospel of John (13:34) by which Jesus explained to the Apostles the significance of his action of washing their feet. The phrase is used as the antiphon sung during the “Mandatum” ceremony of the washing of the feet, which may be held during Mass or at another time as a separate event, during which a priest or bishop (representing Christ) ceremonially washes the feet of others, typically 12 persons chosen as a cross-section of the community.

As an aside, if you’re into church hopping, this is the day for you:

The tradition of visiting seven churches on Holy Thursday is an ancient practice, probably originating in Rome, where early pilgrims visited the seven pilgrim churches as penance.

Anyway, this church is having a foot washing as part of their Thursday service, and I was told, “Come and join us and we will wash your feet.”

I’ve never said that to anyone. And I’ve never washed anyone’s feet. I’m not totally comfortable with doing this or having it done for me. But the Biblical mandate to do this is quite clear. I feel like my spiritual pilgrimage is somewhat incomplete, like the person who has never been to Israel (or Wheaton, Illinois; the one time Evangelical equivalent, now displaced by Colorado Springs or Nashville; I’m not sure which.)

14Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. ~John 13: 14-17 (NIV)

Does anyone see a loophole here? An opt-out clause? A reason why this doesn’t apply in the current dispensation?

I don’t.


…since the original article appeared, I have had to, on a couple of occasions, help my mother with some moisturizing lotion on her feet. Normally she has someone who does this for her. Another time when we were swimming and my wife was sitting on the side, I sort of pretended to be washing feet that by that point were obviously clean. I can’t describe it but there is something spiritual in the servitude of this; something God knew all along and something Jesus modeled for us. You may not want to go to a church and experience this — not yet, anyway — but it’s something you might start by doing as a family.

March 20, 2015

Baptismal Tanks + Hardwired (Corded) Microphones = Danger

Filed under: Church — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:07 am

This ran here in 2009 and then again in 2010, but now it’s been five years and I have a sense that we’re overdue for a reminder. I really think by posting it again we’re making sure that Kyle Lake’s death was not for nothing, but can serve as a warning to save other lives.

It happened again this morning. It was a great baptismal service, with an excellent lesson in persevering in prayer. But when it came time for the actual baptism, we sat there cringing hoping nobody would touch the hard-wired microphone places so close to the baptistry. I’ve e-mailed them about this before. After the service, a man came up to us and — on a totally different topic — said, “I’ve made suggestions to this church before and they don’t listen to me.” Sigh! Although I’ve run this blog post before, I thought I would repeat it here for the benefit of new readers. Doing so just might save some lives. Forward the link to whoever is responsible for the technical arrangements for immersion baptism where you worship. Hopefully they already know.

kyle-lake1On October 30th, 2005, Kyle Lake, pastor of University Baptist Church in Waco, Texas was electrocuted as he reached out to adjust a microphone while performing a baptism. He left behind his wife Jennifer, and three young children. (UBC was the church founded in 1995 by Christian music artists Chris Seay and David Crowder.) You can read more about Kyle, the accident, and the church here and here and here.

Months later, the family launched a lawsuit against the company that did work on the water heater in the baptismal tank. You can read more on that here. I want to focus on the microphone/baptism issue which will be more common to more churches. (These links are simple “first page” links from a Google search; see the comments re. the resolution was of that lawsuit.)

When I read of Kyle’s death, his widow and young children; I immediately pumped out an e-mail broadcast to as many leaders as I knew in churches where baptism by immersion is practiced. I targeted pastors, heads of worship teams, sound crew, and anyone else I knew who might be in a position to rig up a microphone anywhere near a large body of water.

As horrified as I was by the story, I was determined that we all learn from it.

This morning, I attended a baptism service at one of the churches that was on my e-mail list and — you guessed it — they had a live, hard-wired microphone on a stand far too close to the baptismal tank for me to comfortably enjoy what took place. I sat there cringing — and a bit of praying, but mostly cringing — the whole time.

A cordless microphone would have put me much more at ease, and would have put the two pastors and the four people baptized much more deeply inside the safety zone.

So here’s what you do. Immediately, send an e-mail to anyone in your sphere of influence telling them to link to this item at this blog. (Here’s the permalink.)

I never, never, never, never want to have to say, “I told you so.” Not on this one.

March 19, 2015

Why Are We Still Using Offering Envelopes?

Filed under: Church — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:58 am

Today’s article first appeared in the October issue of The Anglican, a newspaper for the Anglican Diocese of Toronto. Author Norah Bolton gave us permission to use it here, for which I am grateful because I have been trying to get this message across to a church in my area for a long time, a church which has a particularly young demographic, and they just don’t see it. So thanks, Norah for being a fresh voice on this subject.


envelope

What’s in your wallet? It might be fun to see what is there right now?

When I tried it, mine contained: Two $20’s, 2 loonies1, 8 quarters, 8 dimes, 3 nickels, a debit card and two credit cards – and a bunch of loyalty cards – some of which haven’t been used in years.

When you attend a church on a Sunday as a visitor, what would you be prepared to put on a collection plate from your wallet? What else might you need to hold back as cash for today or tomorrow? Lunch? Subway tickets? The kids’ pizza day at school?

I thought about this when our parish treasurer received a bill of $500.00 this week for a reprint of pew envelopes and, as warden2, I had to sign the cheque. Open collection is also down this year in our parish.

It will take 25 donations of $20 just to recover those costs. We will then issue a receipt on paper that will include a thank you card, a printed receipt, an envelope and a stamp now costing $1.00 to finish the transaction. So let’s make that 26 to 27 donations at least. That doesn’t include the volunteer counters’ time.

It will take 50 donations of $10 to recover the cost.

It will take 100 donations of $5.

It does not include those attractive pew envelopes hanging on the hooks used for other purposes and wasted – note taking, drawing, paper airplanes. We won’t recover those costs at all – but we will still pay.

In other words, we are using a system designed for another century – and we are spending time in committees discussing whether the colour of the band on the side of the pew envelopes should be red to match a recent brochure or blue to match the signs on the outdoor notice boards – rather than noticing how the world is changing.

We are also assuming that some of the users of the envelopes are potential parishioners, who will fill in the printed copy on the envelopes, when many folks are potential one time “friends” at best. They might or might not ever attend again. They might or might not have a pen in their pockets or purses to fill in the information on the pew envelope either. Some of the envelopes put on the collection plate are blank.

So maybe it’s time to re-frame the conversation.

How do people pay for things now – including making on-site donations?

img 031915I’ll use myself as an example. All my banking is now online. I pay for utilities, groceries, residential fees and taxes, car payments and monthly contributions to the parish via direct debit from my current account – and make two transfers a month to pay my credit card balances in full. Nearly all other purchases are paid via those credit cards – some as monthly deductions including the diocesan capital campaign – and others when I buy online. (The points I earn on one card add up to a free flight a year; on the other it brings me occasional cash deductions). I still have a small business account which receives the odd bit of income from an online order site. I have a line of credit to cover emergencies and a savings account to hold occasional surpluses. I make withdrawals of cash – usually to buy subway tokens – the withdrawal is always $60 in multiples of $20.

Sometimes the cash sits in my wallet for most of the month – but it is there for an emergency. I visited another church recently and didn’t really want to donate $20 but it was all I had in bills and I wasn’t keen to drop a bunch of change.

I donate to my college and TVO3 via their websites. I contribute to another warden’s charity walk online too – and get the tax receipts right away. I read my bank statements on my laptop, tablet or phone.

I’m a senior. Am I typical of my own demographic? How about a younger one? My guess is that the laptop is the least used device for the 20-50 crowd, and I look at the passengers on the subway car, it’s all about the phone.4

So here is the challenge: How are we going to encourage visitors5 to make one-time donations when they visit a parish church on a Sunday – in a way that works for them, not us?

The method does have to maintain confidentiality, be secure and allow us to obtain their basic information, issue a tax receipt and have enough information to thank the donor appropriately.

I think it’s time that churches begin this conversation. How about you?


1Affectionate term for Canada’s $2 coins
2Warden is (I believe) one of the highest offices in the Anglican Church open to the laity
3Equivalent to donating to PBS or NPR in the US
4A large church in west Toronto, which has been using a point-of-sale terminal for several years, has now set up a program where people can give through their phone. Many do this as the offering plates are being passed.
5While Norah’s article points to visitor donations, in many Evangelical churches right now visitors are actually discouraged from making contributions. My own take on this is that a point-of-sale terminal should be available to regular attenders, and I’ve seen this work in other churches. The machines cost to a church or charity is under $35/month, and they can be used for things other than tithing, such as paying for an upcoming youth or women’s retreat. The church I mentioned in the introduction also has a Daycare, with which they could split the terminal’s cost.

March 10, 2015

Echoes of a Life that Might have Been

Filed under: Church, ministry — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 10:03 am

img 031015

Take your Bibles and turn with me to…

In my last year of high school my parents arranged for me to have a tour of what was then called Ontario Bible College. Most of my friends were heading toward the University of Toronto; the hometown school offered the cheaper alternative of continuing to live at home. But I took the tour.

Classrooms are classrooms, libraries are libraries and cafeterias are cafeterias. I had no criteria by which to appreciate or not appreciate any of these. And then we got to the gym.

“All first year students,” the guide said, “are required to take Phys. Ed.”

And at that, we were done.

Take your Bibles and turn with me to the book of Luke…

I had not taken Phys. Ed. since my freshman year of high school and I barely passed. In fact, in my middle school, which ran on a trimester system, I actually failed a term of gym. I was terrible at basketball and volleyball, had no endurance for track, and while I could swim a lap or two I couldn’t dive, and still can’t.

Sadly, the required course was all it took for me to reject the school outright. After three years without having to face my lack of skill, coordination and strength, I was not about to be put back into that position of humiliation.

Take your Bibles and turn with me to the book of Luke, chapter 15…

Years after graduation, I worked on senior staff of a Christian summer camp where a large number of the counselors and instructors were students or former students at the seminary associated with Ontario Bible College. Seminary = graduate school = no gym requirement. Another tour. Another chance to catch the bus that was heading toward opportunities for church ministry.

But again, the bus left without me. I wasn’t enthusiastic about going back to school, and was already doing work for a number of Christian parachurch organizations.

Take your Bibles and turn with me to the book of Luke, chapter 15, and today we want to look at the parable…

After getting married we attended a church in the Plymouth Brethren tradition, a church where the laity (well, the men anyway) are expected to share in the teaching ministry of the Sunday services. I had already done a couple of midweek Bible studies, and I am sure that they had me on a draft list.

But I was immersed in parachurch ministry at that point. I was being offered a wonderful opportunity to plug into the life of a local church, but I tended to want to limit my contribution to things music-related. Eventually, we moved to a city where there was no such church, something I often regret.

Take your Bibles and turn with me to the book of Luke, chapter 15, and today we want to look at the parable of the prodigal…

We later ended up in a Christian and Missionary Alliance church which was between pastors. I got to speak about 15 times on Sunday morning and about 4 times on Sunday night. Some of those messages were great, the outlines would still stand up today, and some of them were terrible.

I always figured more opportunities like this would arise, and off-and-on, they did, in everything from a Pentecostal (Canadian equivalent to Assemblies of God) church to a Christian Reformed Church, both of whom normally have restrictions on who gets to be in the pulpit on a Sunday morning. I did some regular supply work for a United Church in Toronto as well.

But of late the opportunities have diminished.

Take your Bibles and turn with me to the book of Luke, chapter 15, and today we want to look at the parable of the prodigal son…

Every once in awhile I find myself lying in bed and suddenly there is this voice; it’s my voice and I am hearing myself speaking and it makes me sad. It’s frustrating to have a gift, to know you have a gift, and not have anywhere to employ it.

It’s like I’m hearing echoes of another life that might have been, another set of options that I could have chosen, a consequence of opportunities on which I chose to pass.

Take your Bibles and turn with me to the book of Luke, chapter 15, and today we want to look at the parable of the prodigal son, his older brother, and his loving father…

img 031015

March 2, 2015

Martha’s Busyness vs. Mary’s Devotion

Today’s post appears courtesy of Christianity 201

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things…” (Luke 10:41 NIV)

Most of you are familiar with the story of Mary and Martha. (Click this link if not.)

On the one hand we have Mary, so willing to just sit at Jesus’ feet and take in each precious moment of teaching.

I had an experience once where I was talking to a pastor after a church service while he in turn was trying to listen to some things the guest speaker was saying to people near the door as they were leaving. He made it clear that he wanted to hear what was being said, even though, of all the two thousand people in the building, he had the most unlimited access to this man before, after and during his time in the city. What I got from that was the local pastor’s teachability; his desire to be ever learning.

On the other hand, Martha is making lunch for their guest, so willing to express love through an act of service.

As a very small child, we visited a church in Wisconsin which had a group called the “Lend-a-Hand Marthas.” While it grates me to type that — I hope groups don’t get named like that today — it was a group that clearly wasn’t dedicated to prayer (though I’m sure they prayed) and wasn’t dedicated to Bible study (though I’m sure they had devotional times) but was dedicated to getting their hands dirty and helping those who needed help. A similar group where we live today is called Love in Action.

Mary and Martha imgGenerally speaking, the takeaway people get from this story tends to castigate Martha and put Mary on a pedestal. The KJV many of grew up with says, “Mary hath chosen that good part…” after all, so clearly, if the story needs a hero, that would be Mary.

But the church needs Marthas as well, or nothing gets done. Andy Stanley focuses on this in his recent series Brand New, and especially so in the fifth of five parts which you can watch at this dedicated link. (Select part 5.) We can’t equate holiness with Bible knowledge or an ability to teach the scripture.

We can’t be too quick to jump to conclusions about this story. Luke places it just after the story of the Good Samaritan. The moral of that story is that the person who truly kept the commandment to love their neighbor was, as the expert in the law states, “The one who had mercy on him.” Obviously not the priest or the Levite. But then we have Mary, who chooses the better part.

Is this what is echoed at the end of I Corinthians 12 where Paul wraps up an entire chapter on the exercise and use of spiritual gifts by saying, “And yet I will show you the most excellent way” and then proceeds to speak about love?

I think what is called for here is balance.

I have friends who attend Mainline Protestant churches, and after describing a period of dryness or frustration I will simply say, “You need to take a month off and do the tour. You need to visit the Baptist church, and then the Pentecostal church, and then the non-denominational church and finally a Missionary Alliance or Salvation Army church.

To those in a similar position in an Evangelical or Charismatic church, I will say, “You need to take a month off and do the tour. You need to visit a Presbyterian Church, and then a Lutheran Church, and then an Episcopalian church, and then a Catholic mass.”

The idea isn’t that they’re going to leave the church they attend, the idea is that they will return with a fresh perspective.

The same applies to today’s text.

There are some Marthas who need to set aside the service for a period of time and do the tour of Bible study and learning. Buy a few good Christian books; perhaps two recent ones and a couple of classics. Watch some sermons online from some of today’s top communicators. Immerse yourself in a deeper study of a particular book of the Bible using study notes, commentaries or a fill-in-the-blanks type of outline.

Then there are some Marys who need to do the tour of getting their hands dirty. Do some volunteer work downtown. Help out on the church Spring cleanup day. Sign up for church nursery duty. Offer to deliver hot lunches to shut-ins.

I am writing this today partly with one individual in mind. He runs around his church like the proverbial headless chicken, often tied up in some backroom activity while the rest of us soak in great teaching in the church’s main auditorium. I watch him and sometimes wonder if we even follow the same God (seriously) because his expression of his faith on Sunday mornings is so demonstrably different than anyone else in the building.

But perhaps you know someone who is so quick to quote chapter and verse and understands vast bodies of knowledge about doctrine and theology and church history and hermeneutics, but comes off like the clanging cymbal Paul writes about in I Cor. 13.

The key is balance.

While this may be slightly out of John 21:6’s context, let me encourage you to cast your nets on the other side.  Do the tour!

February 27, 2015

Target of the Month: Andy Stanley

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

Andy Stanley - Why in the WorldIt only takes one or two conservative bloggers to write something against a particular pastor or author and quickly, and all their many acolytes jump on the bandwagon. It was such with Mark Batterson’s book The Circle Maker, though few of his critics had ever bothered to read his earlier works, or, as the criticism continued, his new book The Grave Robber which is nothing more than straight commentary on the miracles in John’s gospel.

I noticed over the past week that North Point Community Church in Atlanta, Georgia has become the most recent target. I have followed Andy’s sermon series to the point where I can safely say that there is not a sermon that he has preached in the past six or seven years (or however long the streaming site northpointonline.tv has existed) that I have not heard. I believe I can offer an informed opinion based on a high degree of intimacy with where he is coming from.

While I believe he needs no defending I wish to offer what follows.

1) You cannot preach the whole compendium of Christianity in a single sermon.

Anyone who tries to isolate a particular theme in scripture from the larger picture, and then pretend that it represents the entirety of Christian doctrine would be foolish. So when Paul speaks in Philippians about adopting the attitude of humility, you could try to extrapolate from that the idea that Christianity consists merely of walking with a humble attitude as Christ did, and you would miss other themes such as his divinity, the need for repentance, the atoning work of Calvary, the second coming judgment, etc.

You can try to work everything in to your weekly sermon if you wish, but your preaching will become repetitive, and you won’t leave enough time to really grow your people in different areas. Each of the epistles and each of the minor prophets has a particular emphasis; and while it’s helpful to see the Christological features of a particular book, it’s not helpful it appears forced.

2) Veteran Christians are in emotional bondage to certain words and phrases.

It was Canadian pastor Bruxy Cavey who first pointed this out to several of us. He had just preached a long sermon where he passionately referred to “the Kingship of God,” and then as people were leaving took some criticism from a woman upset that he had never mentioned the sovereignty of God. Sovereign and King are the same thing in my dictionary, but because he didn’t use the right words, she wrote him off.

In the rush to condemnation, many critics have an imaginary checklist and as preachers use certain references they award approval. (Right now “gospel” is worth five points for the initial use and three points for each additional usage; “ESV” is worth six points.)

3) Sometimes it takes a fresh analogy.

I believe the purpose of Jesus’ parables was in part to restate truths in a fresh way.  In my own discussions with people about a particular issue, I’ll speak about the way I believe God intended us to live, and then borrowing a computer term, I’ll suggest we need to ask God to help us “restore default settings;” i.e. return to the original design.

I don’t believe for a minute that anyone doing this on a regular basis is departing from orthodoxy any more than translating the book of Mark into Swahili is an affront to the original Greek text.

4) The best local church preaching is contextual.

There is a clash of objectives that takes place when a local church puts their sermons online for the world to watch. For that reason I’ve heard that a handful of churches are opting out of media pages on their websites. The sermons were preached in a single location at a particular time for a unique group of people.

Andy Stanley has an interesting demographic thing going on right now at North Point. You see it reflected occasionally in the testimonies of people being baptized, but it really needs to be the subject of a whole other article than we have space for here. Suffice it to say that in the current sermon series where he is speaking about “the Temple model,” he is really addressing the problem of religion in a way that mostly avoids the R-word; and he’s doing this with a particular hearer in mind. Perhaps it’s just one person, that one person coming from a place in life where this approach resonates, and then it is being expressed to a larger audience.

5) It doesn’t get more exegetical than this.

The complaint is often that ‘seeker-sensitive’ churches have topical sermons, but as I watch Andy Stanley working his way through passages on a phrase-by-phrase basis, what I see is a very old-school style of teaching — you can easily visualize people marking their Bibles — being offered with freshness and passion. Last Sunday’s message (the fourth in the series) had six specific passages (they’re posted for reference before and after the sermon) of which at least a couple went into great detail.

But before I dismiss this, why are we still hauling out this ‘seeker sensitive’ label? That’s so 1983. Survey results at North Point among people attending five weeks or less shows a desire on the part of many to go deep and jump into service. The people who show up and brave the traffic congestion at the various North Point sites in greater Atlanta are not necessarily doing this just to fill a spectator role. (Study results at Willow Creek also confirm this.) When you castigate the church with a pejorative use of the ‘seeker sensitive’ adjective, you’re really demeaning very sincere people who hunger after more of God.  The problem is not that some churches are seeker-friendly; the problem is that too many churches are seeker-hostile.

6) Listeners are encouraged to come back for more.

There is a classic story of Dwight L. Moody opting one week not to give an altar call, which proved to be the week before the Chicago Fire in which many perished. The story is told to encourage pastors to lead people to a point of decision on a weekly basis.

While the imperative of the gospel is “choose today who you will serve,” and “now is the acceptable time, today is the day of salvation;” odds are that an Atlanta fire will not consume the city in the week to come. The whole point of a sermon series is to build toward a conclusion.

The first Sunday of any of the North Point series is intentionally introductory. But the final Sunday often ends with the band playing the 21st Century version of Just As I Am, or some song that leads people to a point of decision and taking next steps. I don’t believe it’s fair to isolate any particular messages without looking at the whole.

7) We often misunderstand the role and power of sermon.

I’ve written before about how ideally, Evangelicals need to see sermons through a sacramental lens. Compared to Roman Catholic or Mainline Protestant churches, we place greater emphasis on the message than the ‘liturgy’ which proceeds it in Evangelical churches, and we do sometimes pray that through the teaching of the word, ‘we will leave here different than when we came in.’ So we need to preach for change.

But we also have to understand that this sometimes takes place over time. Last summer I purchase some clear wood stain as well as a gallon of opaque wood stain for another project. With the clear product, it took layers and layers and application before I noticed a difference taking place and it immediately struck me that this is what happens with sermons. Applied to our life in layers, the effect is initially invisible, but evidenced over a lifetime of faithfully attending to hear from God’s set-apart leaders.

For those reading this, ask yourself: What was last Sunday’s sermon about at the gathering you attended? Some might have an answer; many might have forgotten.

8) I believe Andy Stanley crafts his sermons with the criticism anticipated.

There are times I’ve listened to a North Point sermon and it has struck me that Andy is saying something in a certain way in anticipation of criticism or misunderstanding. Obviously no one wants this. He works to make identification with conservative Evangelicalism, while speaking its truths to those who are new to the doctrinal and theological concepts.

Thankfully, the ministry that I believe God has raised up at North Point has operated in such a way that many of the complaints and accusations brought against other large churches just don’t stick; in fact their Christian Education program has been a model for churches around the world and their track record on charitable giving has been exemplary.

That people miss these obvious signals and forge ahead with criticism I believe says more about the critics than the one being targeted. The survival of many ‘watchdog’ or ‘discernment’ ministries hinges on always having fresh targets and their followers thrive on all the negative messaging.

All this to say, I encourage you to check out the series Brand New at the website brandnewseries.org .

 

 

February 23, 2015

The City Guy at the Christian Camping Mini-Conference

Short StoriesAs I thought about tomorrow’s 7th anniversary for this blog, I started reading some of the early stuff. This one seemed worthy of a third time around…I think that many of our organizations and local churches would be different if we could take this to heart…


 

The director of a large regional camp center had just returned from a large Christian Camping conference when he decided to host an all-day meeting for directors of smaller facilities who would never be able to attend such an event. He gathered the names of about a dozen small places from around the state, found 14 people who were interested in coming and amazingly found a Tuesday that they could meet.

Some of them only ran day camps, and one of them had a parcel of land that only operated as a camp for only two weeks out of the summer. He shared some things that had taken place at the conference but was careful not to be the big camp telling the small camps how to do things. They watched a few video clips, ate lunch together, and gave a tour of his site to those who hadn’t seen it before.

Mostly, he led discussions. Realizing that it was becoming a one-man show, he tried to get someone to come as a speaker to wrap up the thing before dinner. Everybody he picked, including members of his own staff and board, were tied up that day, so he invited a guy from his church who was a good Bible teacher but honestly wouldn’t know the difference between a camping facility and a dairy farm.

At 4:00 PM, his friend arrived, coming straight from the office in the city still wearing a suit and tie. Not a jacket and tie, but a suit that looked like he had just stepped off a New York subway into downtown Manhattan. He stood and stared at the group of nine men and five women who were wearing mostly jeans and golf shirts.

If he didn’t feel out of place enough for that reason, he had also realized about half-way through the day that he’d left his Bible and his notes somewhere else. However as he kept driving — and praying — a backup plan slowly began to take shape, so that when he was introduced, he knew the exact direction he wanted their time together to go.

“I don’t really know much about what you do;” he started, “but I want to ask you just three questions about your facilities. The first question is, ‘Do you have hard water or soft water?'”

This took everyone by surprise, including the person who had invited him. But it recovered quickly into a lively discussion on how all water is not the same, and mineral levels, and how it affects everything from laundry to making coffee.

“The second question,” he continued, “is, ‘Do you have hard soil or soft soil?'”

This time around they knew the drill, and discussed not only the growth of plants and trees, but lime and phosphates, and how soil type affects drainage during a storm, or putting up new buildings.

After another few minutes on that one, he put up his hand to calm the discussion and asked a third question.

“The final question,” he said, “is, ‘Do you have hard people or soft people?'”

One person laughed out loud but mostly there was silence.

At this point he said, “You know, I got invited here because I teach the Bible at our church, but the truth is I’ve checked my car twice at lunchtime and my Bible and notes aren’t there, and I’m lost without them.

“But I really felt directed to talk about this. In any organization there are people. Some work behind the scenes and only interact with the other staff. Some work on the front-lines and interact with the broader community. But all of us need to be people who the Holy Spirit can work through and can be seen working through. All of us need to lose the tough and rough edge and be people who have been softened, so that the higher purpose of what we do is evident to anyone who meets us. All of us need to develop the ability to communicate the love of God to people, not over the course of several days or hours, but over the course of several seconds. Those first impressions count. The love of God needs to be something we wear on our faces. There needs to be a difference.

“The problem — and I expect it’s true in Christian camping as much or more as anywhere else — is that we’re so task driven and so physically stretched that we lose sight of being the people God wants us to be in encouraging others and being salt and light in the bigger world. We miss the moment. We miss an opportunity to show that what we sing or confess on Sunday morning is a real factor in our lives. We appear to have it all together, when in fact, Christianity is meant to be a community of broken people. We give the impression that the job at hand is more important than the people we’re doing it with.

“I guess that’s it;” he concluded. He had driven for an hour out to the country to deliver less than 300 words of exhortation.

He decided the closing prayer would take the form of silence, with each person praying their own benediction on the time they had spent together.

So… here’s the question: In your church, in your ministry organization, in your family, do you have hard people or soft people?

~PW, originally published July, 2006

 

February 12, 2015

The Sin of Embellishment

Filed under: Church, ethics — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:55 am

Brian Williams NBC Nightly NewsNightly News host Brian Williams was in a war zone traveling in a convoy of airplanes. One came under attack. It was not the plane in which Williams was a passenger. But over time the story morphed into one in which the aircraft he was in sustained mortar fire. Or something like that. The allegation is that the story was therefore falsified by a person of trust, a network news anchor.

He certainly embellished the story. Or fell victim to false memory syndrome. As a result, he’s been suspended, without pay, from hosting the NBC national newscast for six months.

Some say it’s the end of his career.

For readers here, I couldn’t help but notice the similarity between Williams’ embellishment and Mark Driscoll’s plagiarism, though in Driscoll’s case, it may have been but one of many issues that brought down the end of the Washington state megachurch franchise known as Mars Hill.

But when it comes to embellishment, we do this don’t we?

By this I mean both we as individuals, and we as the church.

Individually, we paint an artificial picture of ourselves on social media. We idealize our children’s accomplishments and our recent vacation. We make sure our profile picture minimizes silver hairs or bags under the eyes. We minimize reports of failures and defeats.

Corporately, churches are known for enhancing numbers: Attendance figures, budgets, baptisms, altar call responses, and the number of kids on the Sunday School bus. Whether you call it an ethical lapse or deliberate dishonesty depends on how you interpret what’s been said, where you set the bar, or perhaps recollection of your own failings in this department.

It’s certainly akin to the fishing story; each time around the size of the fish caught gets larger and longer.

We can avoid being guilty of deceit or falsification — those are harsh words after all — by using terms like “approximately” or “as I remember” or even the euphemistic “evangelically speaking;” but the fact remains we tend to recollect the data in an upwards, not downwards direction.

So we need the Brians and the Marks; they serve to remind us that being ‘lax with the facts’ can catch up to us, that sometimes we have to pay the price for not being people whose accounts of things are reliable and dependable. We have to face the consequences of what scripture might describe as not ‘letting our yes be yes and our no be no.’

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