Thinking Out Loud

February 12, 2018

Winter: A Test of Faith

Filed under: Christianity, Church — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:51 am
On New Year's Day 2009, Ippswich in Australia was expecting a high of +38C, which is about 100F. Meanwhile, back at home, my Weather Network indicator on my computer is showing that we’re heading to a low of -18C, which is about -1F. Their high temperature on a summer mid-afternoon Thursday would be occurring at the same time as my Wednesday mid-winter night. That's 101 degrees F difference. That day I was asking,

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

While every post here every day is supposed to be faith focused, a lot lately have had the church life tag. Today is no exception. The pictures are repeats that I’ve now used four times here — I find the contrast fascinating — but the written part is new.

It’s anecdotal and it’s subjective, but it seems to me like whenever a massive storm system is moving through our region, it impacts Sunday morning church attendance. Yesterday was the second week in a row where the crowd size was down in our part of the world. The week before it was a snowstorm. Yesterday it was a threat of freezing rain.

The word threat is key here. The Weather Network seems to send out more warnings than necessary, but of course each time you tap the prompt on your phone, they are selling more advertising, I guess. I use something called Weather Underground, which I’m told is connected to AccuWeather. They seem to be in panic mode fewer times each month.

Threat is also important because as Canadians, we know how to drive in winter, and part of that knowledge is that sometimes you just stay home. We’re just that extra bit laid back so that if we don’t make the sales appointment, or don’t make it to the office, it’s not the end of the world. I get the impression that most Americans think they can just force their way through the elements to get where they perceive they need to be. And then the 6:30 newscasts in the U.S. are peppered with accident video. Cars spinning out of control, trucks flipped over, wreckage being towed away.

But back to our subject.

I would think pastors get discouraged with weather developments. After all, they’re playing on God’s team. It’s not supposed to be that way. Talking to a Children’s Ministry director yesterday, I also considered that if your kids are local, and therefore make it to church, but your volunteers live a greater distance away, then you’ve got other problems. There are also fewer visitors. Lower offerings. And preaching a series means that some people, if they don’t catch up online, have missed key developments in the teaching sequence.

So Sunday at lunch I prayed and asked God if he would at least consider arranging the weather elements so that churches in our area could catch a break next week. These storm systems take days to develop and migrate, so I figured a week’s notice was giving him a lot of time to put something together.

cat-can-part-snow

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February 11, 2018

A Great Reason for Joining a Local Church (Sort Of)

Filed under: Christianity, Church — Tags: , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:52 am

Short StoriesPastor Henders shifted on his chair several times. It had only been two years, but he really needed to ask the church board to consider a replacement office chair. The one he had was less than ideal, especially after a full day of office appointments. Thankfully there was just one left to go. His secretary administrative assistant said that he was on time for the Allerbys, a couple that had been attending for about a year, and then announced she was leaving for the day.

Mark and Diane Allerby had said they were interested in church membership. This appointment would be quick, especially since the Pastor had found a way to fast-track the process. After some customary small talk with both of them, the balance of the first part of the conversation was mostly between Mark and the pastor, with Diane joining in later.

PH: You’re already getting this in a letter, probably arriving on Monday, but I wanted to thank you for paying for the classroom set of Bibles for the Grade Six class. You were quite generous.

MA: We’re glad to help.

PH: We got an even better deal and were able to purchase more than we expected with the money, so we bought some early reader Bible story books the Grade One class has been asking for.

MA: Glad it all worked out.

PH: So as you know, membership requires you to take the newcomers’ class, but we just started one two weeks ago, and once we start, we don’t add people to that group. So, although you didn’t come here directly from Maple Grove Church, I called their pastor last week and he confirmed that you were members there for ten years, so I think we can call this a transfer even though there’s the three years in-between; but first I needed this office appointment that we would have done either way.

MA: Did the pastor at Maple Grove say anything about us? [Shifts awkwardly] I mean, did he say to say ‘Hi’ or anything?

PH: Well, he’s only been there for four months. So he just went through the records and confirmed the duration of your membership. He said he thought the secretary, er, administrative assistant might know you, but she was off for the week.

MA: That would be Thelma. She’s been there a billion years now.

PH: I’m not sure exaggeration is scriptural, Mark. Anyway, the main thing we always ask in these interviews is, ‘Why do you want to enter into membership.’ Everyone has their own reasons; at one point you had to be a member to sing in the choir, but nowadays nobody knows what a church choir is. Of course you need it to teach Sunday School or teach in the midweek programs, but not to volunteer for a non-teaching role.

MA: Well actually…we’re interested in sort of getting involved in the issues.

PH: I’m sorry, issues?

MA: Well, yes. We want to be able to be more involved in various issues and concerns that arise in the life of a church and be able to speak to those issues with an involvement that is best expressed by being actual members and not just attenders.

PH. That’s encouraging. Are you thinking you’d like to put your name forward to be on the board? I mean, usually people are here two years, but if you join by transfer…

MA: Well, not exactly. We just want to be able to respond to things in a way that only church members can.

PH: I’m not sure I’m getting this.

MA: Well, for example, if the church was heading in what we were considering an unhealthy direction on a specific issue, we could then pull our membership.

PH: [blank stare]

MA: But we can’t do that if we’re not members.

[at this point, Diane clears her throat to speak]

DA: Basically, Pastor Henders, right now, we have no leverage.

PH: Uh…

MA: Membership gives us the voice we don’t have.

PH: So basically, you want to join the church because it gives you the option of quitting the church?

MA: Yes, that would sum it up, I think.

PH: We do have membership votes on anything that is considered controversial, you know. You can vote for, you can vote against, or you can abstain. It’s not necessary to threaten to withdraw from membership if there’s something you disagree with.

DA: [mysteriously] But it’s far more dramatic.

MA: What my wife means is that it has more impact than if we were just attenders.

PH: But attenders don’t vote at those meetings at all.

MA: No, I guess they wouldn’t.

PH: Is this what happened at Maple Grove?

DA: [in a Mississippi Southern Belle voice] Well now, isn’t that just a lucky guess?

PH: And the church you just came from?

MA: No, we couldn’t get membership there, so all we could do there is threaten to leave. And we did.

DA: And then we did.

PH: But then, why not just do that here? If there’s something you don’t like you can simply threaten to leave.

DA: And then we would.

MA: But it would never show on any records. This way, we’re listed in the official church register as members one year, and the next year–

DA: [in a Kindergarten, sing-song voice] –Now you see us, now you don’t.

PH: Poof! [throwing his hands up in the air]

[Everyone laughs, except the pastor is clearly only pretending to laugh.]

PH: Okay [filling in form while shifting uncomfortably on chair] …’Reason for seeking membership’ …Joining… in order… to be able… to quit… being a member.

DA: It doesn’t get more committed than that.

PH: This form needs to be approved before we can include you our next membership Sunday. Right now I’m not sure–

MA: What about the Grade Four class? Someone said they needed a new classroom set of Bibles as well.

PH: Well we don’t expect one single family to pay for everything.

MA: Well see, there’s a policy right there we could take exception to. We could say, ‘Unless they allow people to throw their money around, we’re going to pull our membership.’

PH: [firmly] You’re. Not. Members. Yet.

MA: That’s just the point.

DA: Yeah, now you’re getting it.

To be continued, unless of course the Allerbys have some objection…

February 10, 2018

Testing for Christianity

Several years ago my doctor sent me for a particular test. He told me upfront that this test can be inconclusive but added, “Right now, it’s the only test we have.” (Everything turned out okay, in case you’re wondering.)

I was thinking about that this morning in terms of church attendance as a test of Christian faith. This particular test can be inconclusive for a variety of reasons.

I know people whose spirituality runs deep. They pray and meditate on the scriptures, they read Christian books, they give to Christian causes, and their faith graph continues to move up and to the right. But they have no connection at all to a local church. For some of them it’s been 3-4 years, for others 8-10, and yet others much, much longer.

Going to church does not make you a Christian any more than going to McDonald’s makes you a hamburger.

However…

There are eight things you can’t do when you (or you and your spouse, or you and your entire family) exist as isolated Christians.

  1. Corporate worship
  2. Corporate local/world intercession (and being made aware of these needs)
  3. Corporate liturgy (hearing the word read out loud and speaking it out loud yourself)
  4. Corporate prayer covering (this, for when it’s you that needs prayer, your faith community steps in)
  5. Corporate giving (and being made aware of special needs)
  6. Fellowship (everything from asking, “How’s it going spiritually” to talking about yesterday’s game)
  7. Communion / Lord’s Table / Eucharist
  8. Sitting under a teaching you did not choose (or in a Lectionary church, the pastor him self did not select specifically)

But there is an ninth thing that happens when you are part of a body and that is

  • Identification as a member of the local church

It’s this last thing I was headed toward today specifically with the medical test analogy. It’s the only test we have. Without participation in a local church there is both the perception and the possibility that your doctrine has moved away from orthodoxy. There isn’t a church locally which satisfies your needs, therefore your beliefs must be somehow different. Or worse, that your beliefs have simply migrated to some other faith system, or just plain died.

Listen…I have heard the stories. I know you may have been hurt. I know the preacher on the TV/podcast is such a great speaker. I know the bed never feels more comfortable than it does on Sunday morning. I know there are people in the church who are just taking up space; some who don’t believe any of it. I know the people in your local church are jerks because I am one of them.

But without identification among the numbers of people who publicly identify with the crucified and risen Christ, you’re simply part of the crowd. You may have been part of a church 25 years ago that was committed to reaching “unchurched Harry and unchurched Mary,” but over time, you’ve become unchurched Harry or unchurched Mary.

I’ll leave the last word to The Beatles:

Get back, get back
Get back to where you once belonged

 

 

February 8, 2018

Times of Contraction

I checked through the archives here, and thought I had shared this before, but right now it’s eluding me.

I have a friend whose career resumé consists of working in these industries:

  • the post office
  • greeting cards
  • Christian publishing

The first was impacted greatly by the introduction of email. The second one equally so, along with generational attitudes toward sending cards, and increasing postal costs. The third — and reading in general — has been under attack from various factors which we’ve listed here before.

When I first met him, over a dozen years ago, he shared the challenge of working in industries going through periods of contraction. It’s counter-intuitive — I would argue especially for males — to not have the thing you’re giving your energies to be growing.

Yesterday morning, while shoveling snow, it occurred to me that this is true for the Church at large, as well as for local churches. The lament of many local church pastors is that attendance simply isn’t what it once was; that the church’s days of glory seem to be in the distant past; its best days are not ahead of it.

Contraction. It’s no fun.

For the Jewish people, it wasn’t about numbers; it was about exile. (Read more in this book review.) The minority status they experienced was partly numeric (though their numbers continued to grow, see Exodus 1:9) but partly due to living in a land that was not their own.

We are experiencing both situations.

Christianity in Western Europe has lost great numbers and influence. England followed suit. Then Canada. The United States is next, the trend continuing. One projection I saw had Islam as the largest religion in the U.S. in the year 2040. Really? In addition to being somewhat unbelievable when we currently see Evangelical megachurches everywhere there’s a convergence of major freeways, that’s only 22 years from now. One generation!

Are individual Christians strong enough to hang on to their faith in the middle of that?

Am I?

Are you? 

My friend who works in publishing soldiers on in the middle of many frustrating developments. His resilience — I would say his courage — in this is remarkable and encouraging. I look to him as an example of fighting on in the face of contracting numbers and influence. 

It was never about that in the first place.

 

February 6, 2018

First Church of Apathy

Sunday morning began with my wife stirring rather early. She was on worship team and needed to be there, on the platform, ready to sing at 8:00 AM.

It was then my phone went off. I was being called in to check a relay station about 30 minutes from my house. They were getting a warning light, which was probably a faulty sensor. It was usually matter of verifying nothing more serious was happening, and then replacing the sensor module. But the rules stated I couldn’t do this alone, just in case. My partner would be Derek.

Derek was a fairly new Christian with whom I had numerous conversations on jobs, in the truck, and in the lunchroom. I texted him quickly and said there was a church almost next door to the relay station if he was interested, since I wouldn’t make it back on time for our own. He said he was open to the visit.

Rock Heights is a beautiful subdivision. The church has grown quickly and while I wouldn’t call it a megachuch, it’s certainly bigger than where our family attends.

Sure enough, it was a sensor module. We exchanged it, locked the gate and had 5 minutes to make it to the 10:00 AM service. We could see the church parking lot, which was rather small, from the ridge and it was already full, so the plan was to park in a strip mall next door which was mostly tenants who would be closed on Sunday. Other people from the church also parked there.

We arrived and ditched as much of our work clothes as possible, though I regretted not taking different shoes to replace the work boots. When we walked in, I was disappointed to see it was some type of children’s service, and they had roped off a large number of the center rows for the kids to sit. Everything else was full and people were walking in circles trying to figure out where to land. We found some extra chairs that had been set up in a corner, but one of them was really wobbly and they were quite uncomfortable, mostly because the floor sloped at that point and the chairs weren’t made for that.

So we made our way to the balcony. I’d never sat up there before, and you had to look twice to realize it was there, since it was somewhat off center to the main floor. Seating only about 125 people, it looked more like someone had cut a hole in the wall just in case they needed more capacity. It was about half full, which surprised me, given the crush of people downstairs. It had its own speakers, since a lot of sound would be blocked by the wall. Ambient sound from the main level was not to be expected.

And those speakers seemed not to be working. There were announcements, and then a woman did a solo number with piano accompaniment. Even the piano sound didn’t carry into this upper perch. Derek said he couldn’t hear anything. That was obvious. Other people up there started complaining to their seatmates and I’m sure the people on the lower level were aware that some commotion was taking place upstairs.

Nobody seemed to be in charge. I figured we were all visitors, but I’d been here a few times and knew where the audio room was; it was on this level. I would get this fixed faster than you could exchange a relay sensor. The door wasn’t locked and I walked in. Three people working hard. Sound inside was state of the art. One head turned so I quickly said, “We’re not getting any sound in the balcony.”

There was no response. The person simply pointed at some rack mounted sound equipment, and gestured toward one which had been labeled, ‘Not Working.’ Then he shrugged his shoulders and turned away. There was to be no discussion.

How could they not bother fixing it? They knew this would be a busy Sunday with lots of kids and the parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles of these same children, some of whom had been sitting the row in front of me.

I went back to the balcony, which was now filled because of the time it took people to find parking and realize there was no seating left. The murmur of complaint had turned to anger. Heck, if I could slip downstairs and place my cell phone next to a speaker, I could send the audio to Derek’s cell phone which had a great speaker. At least someone would hear. Couldn’t they have thought of something like that, or better?

But Derek wasn’t there. A woman turned to me and said, “Your friend wasn’t sure where you went, but he said he’d wait for you in the lobby.”

Another church. Another Sunday. Another overlooked detail. Probably none of the people in the sound room had ever been forced to sit in the balcony. They had no experience of it.

I brought Derek back to my place and we watched a televised service instead and had a good talk afterward. Morning redeemed. In spite of everything. But for me and up to 123 other people who were at Rock Heights Church that Sunday, it was a case of never again.


This object lesson should lead you to think of at least FOUR things this church could have done differently, and probably a few more as well. What comes to mind?

February 4, 2018

Worship: Do You Prefer Printed Map Books, or Phone Apps?

Filed under: Christianity, Church, worship — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:39 am

We found this yesterday at the blog of Emily Howarth (tag line: Because writing a novel is too long) who writes from London, England. Click the title below to read at source.

The A to Z of Worship

I passed a contented fellow stroller of the pavements the other day. She looked in her 70s, other than that fairly non-desript. She was poring over a London A-Z, flicking through page after page of detailed map.

I am a recent migrant to the big smoke, so an A-Z book is the stuff of fables. A world before mobile maps exists online as a memory. In fact, it’s such a legend that the online people I imagine relying on them are hipsters. But here she was, poring over the pages and working out her route. I admired her choice all the way back to the office.

Her A-Z would not run out of battery. Once she bought it, she would not have to pay a monthly data allowance to keep using it. She would not be reliant upon mobile signal to guarantee it would load.

However, her map doesn’t also come with a telephone, diary, internet access, access to infinite other books and films, camera and even a calculator. It doesn’t fit in your pocket if you wear modern female clothing (that’s a discussion for another time though). And it doesn’t come with free upgrades every time Transport for London change their route or a new road is built or the access is changed in any way.

Each is reliant on a prior knowledge of how to use it. Each has it benefits. Neither is flawlessly perfect.

But each will get you to the same destination: God’s presence here on Earth.

This was the point where my mind got a bit … deep. I got to thinking of similar comparisons. With many things, we use a different route or route-finder to get to the same place. It got me to thinking about expressions of faith. Now before we go any further I want to take a moment to explain this is not a pitch for universalism. That’s a blog for another time. But I mean, when you think of church, what do you see?

How about incense and carvings?

Do you think of hymn books and candles?

Do you think of a lean-to and fans?

Do you think of guitars and ripped jeans?

Do you think of a living room?

Each achieves the same thing. Each is creating a place where a community feels comfortable to worship. A place where they can pray together, sing together, share communion-Euacharist-bread-and-wine together. Each comes with its benefits and each comes with its flaws. But each will get you to the same destination: God’s presence here on Earth.

 

 

January 22, 2018

Not Uniquely Gifted

You’ve been there and I’ve been there also. It’s usually the first Sunday of the New Year, or the Sunday the church launches into Fall kickoff mode.

The appeal for help. The big ask for you to consider using your time and talents to serve your church.

You know the word…your gifts.

My wife and I have mixed feelings about these appeals at one particular church. Here’s why…

…Without sounding arrogant, when we arrived at our new church home 28 years ago, I’m sure there were people there who thought we were God’s gift to that church. The church had undergone a radical change in direction that meant some key people had departed for the church down the road, and that left the first church in dire need with someone who possessed musical talent.

Working entirely alone for four years, I organized a palette of worship materials to be used in three different services on Sundays, and then chose from that to create distinct worship sets for each. Using only the electronic piano provided, I had to create the momentum of a band on high energy songs at our outreach service, but still be able to bring the volume down a notch for the hymns at the traditional service.

It was exhausting, and my wife will tell you that I frequently spent an hour or two lying on the living room floor on Monday morning…

…The efforts paid off however. The faithful team of Sunday School teachers, ushers, offering counters, church board leaders and one musician eventually caught on with our town to the point it is today the most growing church of the two dozen or so in the immediate and surrounding area.

But with that growth, some other musically talented people showed up and I took what I thought would be a break. Possibly even a short break.

At first it was just the new pastor’s wife. She was busy with two infants who eventually freed her up to take my place leading worship. It turned out that one of the elders was a lapsed drummer. A guitarist showed up after another church in the area closed. A bass player was transferred to the area by a large utility company. A couple who once traveled to different churches doing duets decided to settle down and become backup vocalists for the slowly expanding church.

She had enough people for one team, and that was all she needed…

…Fast forward a few years. Right now, by my last count there are eight people at this church who are capable of organizing worship sets, procuring chord chart sheets and running a rehearsal for a group of 5-10 musicians and singers. That’s right; this one church has eight worship leaders. There are at least five rhythm guitarists. Four keyboard players. Three bass players. Two drummers drumming. And many, many capable backup singers. Furthermore, this doesn’t include the youth band, which is building its own roster of capable players, many of whom grew up with modern worship and have always considered this the normal way to do church.

It also means that there is a generation of people at this church — I would estimate at least 80% — who have never heard me play an instrument or lead worship. When I tell them that I simply was the worship team for four years and that I was on paid staff at the church, they are always a bit surprised. What I don’t tell them is that I’m also an example of how this particular church puts people out to pasture. I would have thought that at least once someone would have reached out and asked me to join a team for old time sake. Or even organize a retro worship set featuring some of the songs we did in that era. (Some of them are still viable, and there are many worth re-casting with a modern sound.) That never happened. And regular readers here know what happened when my wife tried to suggest such a thing, and the wounding that occurred in that process.

Fortunately, I get to apply those gifts elsewhere. There’s another church where I am occasionally put to use and am able to bring a lifetime of experience with church music teams and church orchestras to bear on helping younger musicians.

But this article wasn’t supposed to be about me…

…There are many people who have gifts, but they just aren’t unique gifts. Or they’re gifts the church isn’t particularly interested in using. While they might help out in the church kitchen, or drive the church van to winter camp, etc., these are often one-time things that aren’t very fulfilling, never get recognized, and are not the best use of that person’s unique talents.

If anything, the glut of volunteers prepared to do exactly the same thing just makes them feel average. The church has needs in other areas, and while one wants to be adaptable and keep a servant attitude, the fact is they are not able to use their full potential. I am not able to use my full potential. You are not able to use your full potential…

…When we arrived at that church, there was a month where we got invited to lunch every single week because we were perceived as offering something which the church needed. But when your gifts are or become commonplace nobody really cares or notices. It’s easy to get lost in the crowd. And if you have for example, the gift of singing like my wife does, and it’s part of the essence of who you are, and you never get to use that gift again in the church, then the people there don’t truly know you, because they don’t know that dynamic that is a central part of your life.

Unfortunately, the church cannot accept every volunteer in a ministry department that is already highly subscribed to. So, church; please stop guilting us once or twice a year with your requests to sign up and start using our gifts.

Preach a different text that Sunday.

 

 

January 15, 2018

Another Reason the Kids Aren’t at Church

Looks like nearly half of the 15 kids in this class are on their way to a ‘perfect attendance’ award; leading some Children’s Ministry directors to suspect this image is more fantasy than reality in many of our churches.

It wasn’t all that long ago that Sunday School classrooms were adorned with attendance charts with stickers applied for each Sunday kids were present. Today, those charts would be rather spotty as church attendance has suffered greatly over the past 20 years.

Back then we also were graded on a weekly point system with points applied for:

  • being present
  • being on time
  • bringing your Bible
  • bringing some money for offering
  • knowing the memory verse
  • completing the lesson in the “quarterly” (often done in the car en route to church)1
  • staying for “big church” afterwards

The Christian Education (CE) curricula of those days weren’t perfect, perhaps; but over a 3-4 year cycle we were exposed to the major body of Christian literature. Today I’m grateful to be Biblically literate2 and especially for the verses committed to memory, something harder to accomplish as you get older.

So why aren’t the kids showing up more consistently these days? In past writing and discussion I’ve always isolated two reasons:

  • Sports: Sunday morning and midweek programs for kids and teens is taking a major hit because of scheduling of competitions and practices involving soccer, baseball, swimming, gymnastics and for those of us in Canada, hockey.
  • Shift Work: Families with a single vehicle find it impossible3 to get to church if someone has to work a Sunday morning shift (or is coming off a midnight shift).

However, in a discussion last week with a CE specialist — today sometimes referred to as a KidMin specialist — I realized I was completely overlooking a significant factor.

  • Custody Arrangements: When spending the weekend with one parent, church is part of the package, but the other parent doesn’t attend, so on those weeks the kids don’t get to connect.

I asked this person how many children in her program would be affected by this, and she said, “20 percent; adding, “I have kids for whom I’ll put some extra weeks of material together for them to take home, knowing I may not see them for a few weeks.”

(Related: If you missed our 3-part series on divorce, guest-written by a youth ministry specialist, click this link.)

We don’t have room to get into this here, but statistically, if the male parent takes the kids, there is greater likelihood of the children continuing to attend church as adults.4

Either way, not only do the kids miss the benefits of the lessons presented, but they also miss the more consistent contact with their church friends, often the only Christian friends they have. By the end of my junior year in high school (Grade 11 for my Canadian readers5) my friends were largely church friends, not school or part-time-job friends. If weekend services are missed, but they get to a solid midweek program at the church, much is redeemed, but the same factors (shift work, custody, and especially, sports) play havoc with those as well.

Then there is the issue of blended families. One parent may wish to take his children or her kids to church on Sunday morning, but the other kids weren’t raised with it. Just as water seeks its lowest level, I think you know that this might easily end up with the church-raised kids wanting to opt out for whatever reason.6

With the divorce rate showing no sign of changing, this is going to continue to be a challenge facing the church at large.7 You can’t have teens leaving church who were rarely there to begin with. 

If yours is a traditional family, encourage your kids to build friendships with those whose attendance is sporadic because of any of the three issues mentioned at the top of the article and then offer to pick up these kids and drive them to church yourselves.

 


1 If the church could afford the lesson books for each kid. Our church did for awhile, but we used a 6-point evaluation system, and I’m not sure which one in the list wasn’t included. Today, the cash cow for curriculum developers is VBS, and I suspect that many churches pour a lot of their CE budget there, instead of on weekly lesson workbooks.

2 Somewhat Biblically literate, that is; please don’t challenge me to a Bible trivia contest. For some reason I do not fare well at those.

3 Even if the parents weren’t attending, getting the kids to Sunday School was easier when there was a church bus available. Today, the phrase ‘church bus’ is a bit of an anachronism.

4 Focus on the Family did this research in the 1990s, I think. Extrapoloating from this, I’ve developed a theory that it’s equally important for kids to have memories of the male parent reading. (Related, see this item re. Bill Hybels’ ‘Chair Time’ concept.)

5 The American system of ‘freshman, sophomore, junior, senior’ is now under attack because of the men in freshman. To non-Americans, junior would tend to imply the first year of high school or college.

6 In some middle school and high school communities, it isn’t cool to go to church. But churches such as North Point have created curricula that the kids and teens find to be the highlight of their week. They can’t wait to get there each weekend.

7 For more about the impact of kids being shuttled back and forth between custodial parents, check out the 2008 Abingdon title, The Switching Hour.

 

January 12, 2018

Theological Comparisons: What Type of Church Do You Attend?

I’ve been amazed recently at people who attend a church which has a denominational affiliation, but they don’t know what it is. Visiting? Maybe. You’re just passing through. Attending frequently? I would have thought it was a basic question. When it comes to actual doctrines, overarching theology, spiritual values, church culture and core beliefs1 I would think people would want to know where their church fits in across various spectra2 but apparently if the worship is good, the children’s ministry is high quality, and the sermons are engaging, people are happy not knowing whose name is on the door.

A few days ago we asked the question, “What is a Charismatic.” It seems to me that a diligent blogger could start a series on this, “What is a Baptist?” and “What is an Episcopalian?”3 being next in line. Unfortunately I am not that writer. However…

We started the work week on Monday with Michael Patton, so it seemed like a good place to end the work week. First of all, for those of you who are subscribers, I need to clarify something that we updated a few hours after the piece appeared, and that is that Michael’s blog Parchment and Pen migrated to CreedoHouse.org. The specific article, What Does it Mean to Be Charismatic which we quoted, is available in full at this link.

In the interest of getting it right this time, while I couldn’t find the image below at the new site, a full explanation of it appears at this link.

My motivation in all this is often very perfunctory. As regular readers know, I spend at least two days per week serving customers in a Christian retail store. So when the above chart first appeared, I introduced it as follows:

Sometimes, I have to admit, I need to be able to put people into a box.

It’s not that they will necessarily fit into the box comfortably, but frankly it saves time; it lets me know what set of terminology to use; it indicates to me what schools of doctrinal thought are off limits; it helps me find common ground with authors or worship styles or even Bible translation preferences.

This is not good.

However, sometimes it does cut to the chase. Give me some indicators and let me make assumptions. Is that the ESV Study Bible you’re holding? Here’s a new book from John Piper you might enjoy. You attend the Revival Center? You might enjoy the new Jesus Culture album.

Stereotyping, as we once called it; today it’s called profiling.

The same day as that ran, I also ran another chart, this one from Matt Stone. His blog has also migrated, but at the risk of making the same mistake twice, I did more research this time, and the chart can now be located at this link. The new website is called Curious Christian (and he’s still very much into visuals.)


I hope this helps somehow! I realize the title of today’s piece asks a question and only gives you a minimalist framework to formulate an answer, but such as the two graphic images are, they help us get back the superficial (see cartoon above) and think about things in more important terms.


1 This phrase is all about the cadence and rhythm of the sentence. Some of the words themselves are redundant. Speaking of words, it’s interesting that the modern dichotomy of Calvinism and Arminianism is nowhere to be seen in the two graphics.
2 Spectra, as in plural of spectrum. Usually churches can be measured in terms of where they land on the spectrum for three or four major discriminators. Instead of a double-axis graph, picture something that looks more like an asterisk.
3 Or, if you prefer Anglican; but although based in Canada, I’m writing for a dominantly U.S. audience, so Episcopal it is! Some would argue that only those within a particular movement can accurately describe it or write about it. What do you think?

January 9, 2018

When Churches Become Self-Serving

Filed under: Christianity, Church, evangelism — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 10:49 am

Years ago I heard someone state, “Libraries aren’t made for the public, they’re made for librarians.” While some might object to that notion, there is a grain of truth, particularly in terms of the organization of the facilities, which often leaves those of us who haven’t memorized the Library of Congress classification system or the Dewey Decimal system asking for assistance.

Are churches any different?

Many times, especially around Labor Day Weekend in the U.S. or New Year’s Day, churches will get serious about appealing for volunteer help. And the pitch is always the same: Serve in our Sunday School; join our choir; lead one of our small groups. We’ve been there.

My wife and I visited a Presbyterian Church once and after the service ended, she was approached about joining the choir, without even an inclination as to whether or not she can sing. (She can and does.) There was no qualification if she considered herself a Christian, although I suppose visiting this church on a Sunday morning increased the odds.

More recently, a local Evangelical church wanted to replace traditional membership, with a form of covenant membership that would require one be involved in an area of service at the church in order to maintain that status. The problem is, many people in that church are involved with parachurch organizations based both in the community and nationally. They are already serving, just not within the confines of the congregation.

The problem is that this has no outward focus.

Furthermore, when we give, we’re subconsciously giving to ourselves. We are the beneficiaries of the programs the church offers. Our children attend the mid-week program and consume the resource materials and goldfish crackers. We show up Sunday night and consume the video material that’s part of an adult elective. We take notes during the preaching and sing with the worship team and consume what’s projected on the giant screen (and relayed to the baby/cry room; and later posted online.)

But at the first mention that some of our donations might be spent on projects in the broader community, or to a major overseas project, we bristle at the suggestion.

Surely, there are greater needs at home; and by home we mean within the church building. (“Lord, Bless me today and my spouse and our two children; us four, no more.”)

And then there’s the strange logic of the idea that we need to develop more inwardly in spiritual depth and discipleship before we’re ready and able to reach out to the broader community. This just in: It will never happen! We’ll never reach that point where we’ve got it all together and are now prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder and reach the world. We have to reach them not having it all together. They might actually like us better that way. They might be more inclined to want to join a family of the broken than a family of the perfect

…Are we missing something? Do our neighbors see us leave for church on the weekend and mentally follow us and ask themselves, ‘What goes on in that building?’ Indeed, what? Are we more like a community center or more like a secret society? (Especially given the current penchant for not having windows in our auditoriums.)

I think as we’re only days into a new year, we need to ask ourselves how much of our church activity, and how much of our church budget is completely self-serving.

To repeat, we need a greater outward focus.


Graphic: Sermon video (39 min.) from Vermon Pierre at Roosevelt Church, a Gospel Coalition Church in downtown Phoenix, based on this text:

NLT Mat. 20:25 But Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. 26 But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. 28 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

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