Thinking Out Loud

May 18, 2017

The Case for Online Church Community

Like “real” church though, you need to be all in…

I wrote this almost exactly eight years ago. At the time, what I had in view was the blogging community to which I had become a part. The word podcast wasn’t in my vocabulary though there was a healthy choice of online sermons on demand. There weren’t so many full service broadcasts (live or delayed) back then because of a nervousness concerning the worship song copyrights.

Also, more blogs allowed comments back then, and people engaged more. Today comments are closed at many sites and you also have a number of key bloggers who migrated to Twitter and other platforms. To relive those days, check out our post from Monday, A Golden Age of Christian blogging.

For those of you reading this on a PC, or subscribers who have always wondered, the default font for this blog’s theme is very small and to this day we take a minute to manually enlarge every paragraph. However, for a few years we also were putting everything in bold face as well.

Remember, this was all about community. It doesn’t purport to address the five other things I see as central to actually showing up in person at a physical church: Corporate worship, corporate prayer for others, potential prayer for your own needs and concern, corporate giving, and communion. I also think the level of personal accountability is higher when you’re there in person. 

I do know there are people for whom physical attendance at weekend worship is currently impossible for a wide variety of reasons. For those of you in that category, I hope you will endeavor to develop the type of online community I had in view when I wrote this. Many churches now have a online pastor to cater to the needs of those who don’t attend in person. 

Two “finallys”: Again, remember that I wrote this at a time when I envisioned the blog community becoming a surrogate church for some (which it did.) Also remember there’s nothing new about this; for generations the church wrestled with the issue of people dropping out on Sunday mornings to stay home and watch services on television. (I wonder what that would have looked like if it had a chat or discussion option as did blogging?) 

How can online churches better address the issue of community?

If your background is mainline

At a certain part of the service there is a time set aside for “the passing of the peace.” You greet one another with a hug or a handshake (or in a few places, a “holy” kiss) and say, “The peace of Christ,” or “The peace of Christ be with you.” In reply the other might say the same, or say, “And to you also;” or “And to you also, the peace of Christ.” If the church is smaller, you know these people, at least by name, but if it’s larger or it’s tourist season, you may not know them at all.

After the service there is a time when coffee and juice is served and you can engage people conversationally for about five minutes; usually people you already know. For an extended time like this, don’t miss the pancake breakfast and the strawberry tea held each year.

To get to know people a little deeper, or other people, you can join the choir, or volunteer for a host of guilds or committees that are always in need of help. You’ll also find a lot of the same people serve on civic projects and thereby will run into them in other contexts outside of the church itself. Don’t expect to break into the core community until you’re a “regular,” which occurs after you’ve attended and been involved for a gazillion years.

If your background is Evangelical

At a certain part of the service there is a time set aside for “greeting” or it may be formalized as “the ritual of friendship.” You greet one another with a hug or a handshake and say, “Good Morning;” or “Did you happen to catch the game yesterday?” In reply the other might say the same, or say, “Is that a new car I saw in the parking lot?” If the church is smaller, you might know these people, at least by name, or if it’s a mid-sized church, you can look them up in the photo directory when you get home.

After the service there is a time when coffee and juice is served and you can engage people conversationally for about five minutes; usually people you already know. For an extended time like this, don’t miss the annual potluck lunch and the annual bowling night.

To get to know people a little deeper, there isn’t a lot to volunteer for, since everything is done by the paid staff. The mens’ and womens’ retreats would help, but that’s $120 and $130 respectively. Better to join a small group. That way you’ll get to spend time in at least one person’s house each week, and get to know them and about four other families (or eight other singles) more intimately.

If your option is blogging community

There is a possibility that there will be people in your fellowship who you do not have any idea what they look like, or exactly where they live. However, you don’t have to wait for an opportunity to engage conversationally. Those opportunities occur at any time and may produce a variety of responses from a variety of people.

Through those conversations you will learn about their likes and dislikes, events in the life of their family, where they stand on a variety of issues, and what challenges and needs they face. You’ll possibly learn the names of — or see pictures of — their kids or their parents, be given insights into their job, and you’ll almost certainly know a little about every book they’ve read since they started blogging. And they’ll know the same about you.

You may find very quickly that their prayer requests become your prayer requests; you feel drawn to the needs of these people as one might with someone in their church family. If Twitter enters into the picture, you’ll know even more about their daily routine, the various thoughts and challenges that burst into the brain brought about by various stimuli. And if you Twitter, they’ll have that input from you also.

Plus, they will introduce you to their online friends, and you might pick a few of those to subscribe to or at least bookmark, and over time, perhaps their friends will become your friends also. It’s not unusual to pick up e-mail addresses from comments you’ve received and send out some off-the-blog messages. (In fact, two weeks ago, I sent out about 60 such e-mails about a project I wanted to get going that needed an off-the-blog start-up.)

Finally, if you want to get really hardcore, you might find yourself contemplating attending a bloggers event which sometimes take place in conjunction with other events, and at other times are stand-alone events. Not because online fellowship is insufficient, but simply because the relationships are already well established. (And nobody’s pretending to be a 17-year old girl from Ohio; at least I hope not!)

So at the end of the day, online community isn’t better or worse than Sunday church fellowship; it’s just different. And I would argue it’s a good different. One can’t entirely substitute for the other, and hopefully people using online community as a surrogate for a physical community that is currently absent from their life would, over time, find themselves drawn back to something resembling a church or house church; and then maintain a balance between the two relational paradigms.

January 27, 2012

Close Up: How Church Discipline Happens at Mars Hill Seattle

This is an article about how Mark Driscoll’s church — Mars Hill in Seattle, WA — handles church discipline issues and excommunication, presented anecdotally and in painstaking detail.

I have no hesitation in importing large amounts of text from other blogs if I think it means that people will actually read the subject matter in question, but in this case, you are indeed going to have to click, because the narrative is lengthy; but also because you need to reward all the work that went into making this story available.

In a two-part blog post,  Mark Driscoll’s Church Discipline Contract: Looking For True Repentance at Mars Hill Church? Sign on the Dotted Line and Mark Driscoll’s ‘Gospel Shame’: The Truth About Discipline, Excommunication, and Cult-like Control at Mars Hill author Matthew Paul Turner introduces us to a young man named Andrew.

Shortly after graduating from high school (he was homeschooled), Andrew wanted a change in scenery. The then Tennessee resident says he needed a change in scenery. He needed to get away. He needed to grow up. He needed to figure out what he was going to do with the rest of his life.

So when he turned 20, Andrew moved away from his quaint life in America’s Bible belt, and he moved to Seattle, and yes, in hopes of finding himself.

Once he was settled into life in the great Northwest, Andrew took the advice of an older sibling and visited Mars Hill Church, the congregational home of Mark Driscoll.

Andrew was born and raised Independent Fundamental Baptist, so not only was Andrew accustomed to Mark’s anger-laced fiery style of sermon, he had a deep appreciation for it. In the beginning, some of Mars Hill’s reformed theologies rubbed against Andrew’s Baptist roots, but Mark’s enthrallment for preaching “Jesus Christ crucified” eventually was what relieved Andrew’s doctrinal concerns, and it wasn’t long before he became a member. Soon thereafter, he was wading heart deep amid the friendly, committed Mars Hill community, becoming more and more comfortable in his born again reformed skin, guzzling the Driscollized water.

According to Andrew, joining Mars Hill was a good move for him. While he didn’t agree with every theological declaration that came out Mark Driscoll’s mouth, he loved his community, a devoted group of believers who seemed to love, support, and value him the way Jesus commanded. Over the next couple of years, Andrew became well connected. He volunteered. He became active in a community group. He even volunteered on Sundays as church security.

Toward the beginning of 2011, Andrew met and eventually began dating the daughter of a church elder at Mars Hill. The two fell in love quickly. Last fall, they were engaged to be married.

But shortly after becoming engaged, Andrew made a costly choice…

Again, here are the links:

May 28, 2010

Why Am I Still Here?

Though I had already been notified, a thought occured to me while I was reading yesterday about the death of Rhonda Glenn, who had worked in broadcasting previously as Rhonda London.

Rhonda enjoyed a successful broadcasting career in Ontario, Canada when she decided to join CTS, a family-friendly Christian television station affiliated with Crossroads, the organization that produces Canada’s daily Christian talk show, 100 Huntley Street. She was given her own afternoon talk show, but later decided to leave broadcasting altogether to persue a career in law.   She would have been called to the bar in just a few weeks.

She had married an Anglican minister and they had a son.   The next chapter of life was just beginning when she was diagnosed with brain cancer which ended her life just weeks after diagnosis.   Pray for her son and husband and family.

But I had this thought later on, that probably many of you have in times like this, “Why her and not me?”   Or, “Why am I still here?”

I think much of this has to do with the phrase often used in situations like this, “God took her.”   Years ago, my wife attended the funeral of a young girl who died several days after a brain seizure.    There was a poem read or sung that said something to the effect that ‘God must have needed another angel in heaven.’   It was perhaps comforting imagery, but not entirely sound theology.

I think the “Why am I still here?” question is directly related to the way in which we use words.

I took a course in university on the Philosophy of Language.   It was a seminar format, what I would call a 7-11 course (a minimum of seven people sitting around a table, eleven people if everyone showed up.)  The professor sat almost at a corner of the table and I sat in the corner at the opposite end.   There was something comfortable about that environment, and when people thought I was taking copious notes, I was actually writing songs.   But I enjoyed the readings, interjected ideas into the discussion, and somehow ended up with a B+.

Anyway, the point of the course was that our ideas and concepts are shaped by the way our given languages identify or reference those ideas and concepts.    So when we use a phrase like “God took her,” we’re loading the phrase with kinds of assumptions about the nature of God and His involvement in our day-to-day affairs.

Furthermore, since it often seems like some of the best and brightest die, as we might say, before their time, it then leaves us wondering why God would choose to take them.   This was the question someone asked me just hours after we heard the news of Keith Green‘s death:  Why him and not one of the lesser Christian musicians?   That question contains the twist of implying that somewhere that day a Christian singer or songwriter was destined to die, and it was just a coin toss as to which one.    (Fortunately, because people say things in moments like this that we shouldn’t judge, we have the liberty of excusing questions like this which are not more thoroughly considered.)

I don’t know what Rhonda might have accomplished in her family, church-life or new carreer.   My guess is: probably a lot.  I just know that I am still here, and while I think my life pales in comparison to all that she did accomplish, it’s up to me to try to make the most of the day for God’s glory.

You’re reading this, so you have been given another day, too; what are you going to do with it?

June 5, 2009

Only it Wasn’t ‘Once Upon a Time’

Filed under: Christianity, Church — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:32 pm

Once upon a time,  or maybe some of it happened just a few weeks ago,  there was a very personable, very charming guy who we’ll call Grant.   Grant lived in a place very much like the place that I lived in when I was much younger and not too far away, so as happens when people share common interests and live in similar locations,  I actually got to know Grant, even though he’s a ‘once upon a time’ character in this story.    People often tended to get to know him quite well at first, and then later on it would be at more of a distance.  But he did make a great first impression.

Grant always had a project cooking.    He was your typical “Type A” person, except that we didn’t use the term “Type A” back then.

One day,  Grant convinced a number of people to join him in a really big adventure, but the adventure didn’t work out the way it was supposed to — not even close — and he found himself in debt to a very large number of people and decided that he would be happier living in a place that was very different and actually quite far away, and where they didn’t know about the adventure and wouldn’t be asking for their money back.

So he moved to a place that rhymes with ‘blessed toast.’

This suited the very large number of people to whom he was indebted quite fine, since they were rather upset with him, and for a few of those, this wasn’t exactly the first time.

For nearly thirty years, Grant was completely off their radar, until a more recent time, when there were rumors that he had moved back closer to his original location.   (This of course, leaving some wondering if he had run up some debts there and now had a new set of people rather upset with him.)

When he returned, the idea may have been to make a fresh start, but the problem with that logic is, we tend to take ourselves with us every time we move.   Unless God really does a work in our hearts, and unless he is shaping and us into his character, and conforming us into the image of Jesus, our actions tend to resemble someone who is caught in a loop, running the same sequence over and over and over, like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.     So if somebody you haven’t seen in decades meets you and says, “Wow, you haven’t changed a bit;” …well, if you’re a Christ-follower, that’s actually a bit of an insult.

Because Grant was a bit of a schemer, it wasn’t long before he started telling people stories about some magic beans, and people were giving him money to get the magic beans, and the way the scheme worked, some people did think they saw a hint of magic.

Then, he sold some beans to his neighbours, Jim and Jack.   Jim and Jack were the co-pastors of a very large church.   They had a very big congregation.     People trusted them to be wise.   But buying the magic beans wasn’t the wisest thing you could do.   Jim and Jack felt very bad when the beanstalk didn’t materialize and so did their board of directors.    So they decided to take some time off church to reflect.

The problem was,  for a few Sundays, everybody came to church and said, “Where’s Jim and Jack?”   Good question.   People started making up stories involving Jim and his secretary and rumors that Jack had a drinking problem.    That’s what happens when you don’t tell people things.   It would have been better just to tell everybody about the magic beans.    But sometimes a magic beans story is so stupid that you figure it’s better to let people go with the secretary and the drinking stories.   Or you don’t know what to think.

Furthermore, there were already people looking for a different church, because in the 21st Century, church attendance tends to be somewhat personality driven.    The problem was, this church needed people to stay, because summer was coming, and we all know what the air-conditioning bill is like in a large church in the summer.

Meanwhile, Grant was told to stop selling the beans.    It turns out he sold a lot of them, maybe as many as 14.1 million  (and those are U.S. beans which translate into about 16.7 Canadian beans).    But his bean scheme could bring down Jim and Jack’s big church, which, even if you don’t like big churches, would still be rather sad for the people who enjoyed going.

The good news is, that up to a certain point, very few people know anything about the bean story.   The scribes figured Grant would be more interesting if he’d sold a few hundred million beans, and they didn’t think Jim and Jack’s bean buy was all that significant, because in their Kingdom, churches weren’t all that significant, period.   Newspaper revenue from advertising was down, and there wasn’t enough black ink to devote to a little bean bungle.

The bad news is, that sooner or later, if you’re a public figure, or especially if you’re two public figures,  you gotta come clean with everybody.

May 16, 2009

Church Community Versus Christian Blogging Community

If your background is mainline

At a certain part of the service there is a time set aside for “the passing of the peace.”   You greet one another with a hug or a handshake (or in a few places, a “holy” kiss) and say, “The peace of Christ,” or “The peace of Christ be with you.”  In reply the other might say the same, or say, “And to you also;” or “And to you also, the peace of Christ.”   If the church is smaller, you know these people, at least by name, but if it’s larger or it’s tourist season, you may not know them at all.

After the service there is a time when coffee and juice is served and you can engage people conversationally for about five minutes; usually people you already know.    For an extended time like this, don’t miss the pancake breakfast and the strawberry tea held each year.

To get to know people a little deeper, or other people, you can join the choir, or volunteer for a host of guilds or committees that are always in need of help.    You’ll also find a lot of the same people serve on civic projects and thereby will run into them in other contexts outside of the church itself.   Don’t expect to break into the core community until you’re a “regular,” which occurs after you’ve attended and been involved for a gazillion years.

If your background is Evangelical

At a certain part of the service there is a time set aside for “greeting” or it may be formalized as “the ritual of friendship.”   You greet one another with a hug or a handshake and say, “Good Morning;” or “Did you happen to catch the game yesterday?”  In reply the other might say the same, or say, “Is that a new car I saw in the parking lot?”  If the church is smaller, you might know these people, at least by name, or if it’s a mid-sized church, you can look them up in the photo directory when you get home.

After the service there is a time when coffee and juice is served and you can engage people conversationally for about five minutes; usually people you already know.    For an extended time like this, don’t miss the annual potluck lunch and the annual bowling night.

To get to know people a little deeper, there isn’t a lot to volunteer for, since everything is done by the paid staff.  The mens’ and womens’ retreats would help, but that’s $120 and $130 respectively.    Better to join a small group.  That way you’ll get to spend time in at least one person’s house each week, and get to know them and about four other families (or eight other singles) more intimately.

If your option is blogging community

There is a possibility that there will be people in your fellowship who you do not have any idea what they look like, or exactly where they live.   However,  you don’t have to wait for an opportunity to engage conversationally.   Those opportunities occur at any time and may produce a variety of responses from a variety of people.

Through those conversations you will learn about their likes and dislikes, events in the life of their family, where they stand on a variety of issues, and what challenges and needs they face.    You’ll possibly learn the names of — or see pictures of — their kids or their parents, be given insights into their job, and you’ll almost certainly know a little about every book they’ve read since they started blogging.     And they’ll know the same about you.

You may find very quickly that their prayer requests become your prayer requests; you feel drawn to the needs of these people as one might with someone in their church family.   If Twitter enters into the picture, you’ll know even more about their daily routine, the various thoughts and challenges that burst into the brain brought about by various stimuli.   And if you Twitter, they’ll have that input from you also.

Plus, they will introduce you to their online friends, and you might pick a few of those to subscribe to or at least bookmark, and over time, perhaps their friends will become your friends also.    It’s not unusual to pick up e-mail addresses from comments you’ve received and send out some off-the-blog messages.   (In fact, two weeks ago, I sent out about 60 such e-mails about a project I wanted to get going that needed an off-the-blog start-up.)

Finally, if you want to get really hardcore, you might find yourself contemplating attending a bloggers event which sometimes take place in conjunction with other events, and at other times are stand-alone events.   Not because online fellowship is insufficient, but simply because the relationships are already well established.   (And nobody’s pretending to be a 17-year old girl from Ohio; at least I hope not!)

So at the end of the day, online community isn’t better or worse than Sunday church fellowship; it’s just different. And I would argue it’s a good different. One can’t entirely substitute for the other, and hopefully people using online community as a surrogate for a physical community that is currently absent from their life would, over time, find themselves drawn back to something resembling a church or house church; and then maintain a balance between the two relational paradigms.

February 7, 2009

The Robert Schuller Saga: Another Voice Speaks

crystal-cathedral-interior-2Christian News Wire is quoting a new source who claims that —

The primary rift between the father and the son in the Crystal Cathedral Garden Grove, CA, pulpit was about changes the son, Robert Anthony Schuller, wanted to make in terms of transparency and accountability, but were resisted by his father Robert H. Schuller, key board members and ministry heads of the church, says a source knowledgeable about the church’s inner circle.

According to this report, the younger R.S. met with nothing but resistance when trying to implement changes —

In this case the source claims that “Robert A.’s goals were very simple–install an impartial board not paid by proceeds from the ministry, rework the Hour of Power to attract a younger audience, try different methods of worship to develop a more meaningful spiritual encounter, and to have public financial transparency. This process would install a level of accountability. As of now the leadership is accountable to no one. The leadership behind the scenes limited Robert A’s goal advancement and ridiculed him for lack of leadership,” the source says.

The Cathedral is not, for example, a member of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, a watchdog group giving transparency to faith-based ministries and organizations.

That last point was most interesting to this writer; one would have expected a ministry with its stature to be part of ECFA, but as investigations into some of the more charismatic televangelists by major U.S. network news departments have revealed, not all are.

It should also be noted that this is a ‘one-person’ news report, with material not subject to third-party verification; however its plausibility leads me to report it in this blog. You can read the entire article by linking here.

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Photo:  When my wife and I visited in 1989, all those empty seats were filled.  Check tomorrow’s TV broadcast, and despite the director’s best shot blocking, you’ll see clearly that this is not presently the case.

Related post in this blog -Crystal Cathedral Has Round of Layoffs  (Jan 24/09)

Related post in this blog – Crystal Cathedral Selling Office Building (Jan 5/09)

Related post in this blog – Robert A Schuller Resigns (Dec 17/08 )

Related post in this blog – Robert A Schuller Removed From Telecast (Oct 26/08 )

January 17, 2009

A New Use For That Empty Choir Loft

rejesusI’m just a few page into Re Jesus: A Wild Messiah for a Missional Church by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch.   In the first chapter a story is related from Charles Sheldon’s classic, In His Steps, concerning a homeless man who sits outside the church listening to people singing as to how they are giving their lives to Jesus, and can’t reconcile this with why they are doing nothing for the poor.

“It seems to me that there’s an awful lot of trouble in the world that somehow wouldn’t exist if all the people who sing such songs went and lived them out.”

Hirsch and Frost take this in a different direction; but what struck me was the idea that this guy in Sheldon’s story was listening in on the service and thereby holding the people accountable for what they were singing.

The thought then occurred to me that perhaps we ought to allow more ‘eavesdropping’ to go on by the community at large.   What if we invited a handful of people from the broader culture to sit in on our meetings; not just the marginalized, but also business and civic leaders and working class folk who don’t believe.   We’d tell them that the purpose is not to convert them, but we want them, by their very presence, to hold us accountable.

pulpit03In fact rather than have them sit on the sidelines or sit at the back, why not put them on the platform, facing the congregation, where they would best be able to observe us at worship.

Then the idea struck me, why not get 20 or 30 such people on a weekly basis, and put them in the choir loft. I’m thinking of those  evangelical churches in particular, constructed post WWII up to the turn of the century, where the choir faces directly at the audience, the very place where worship teams have rendered the choir loft redundant.* Your neighbors, co-workers, unchurched relatives, fellow students, etc.   They could just sit there while we sang, prayed and read our Bibles.   It’s Jim and Caspar Go To Church on steriods.

Would that give our worship and witness more authenticity?  How would we worship differently with the world not only looking in, but looking right at us; locking their eyes with our own; inside our too-often members-only club?

Jus’ thinkin’ out loud.

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*But I’ll settle for that large collection of chairs in the picture, also common to churches of that era; but rendered equally redundant by the move towards participants sitting with the audience until it’s time for their part. Finding the picture I actually wanted proved difficult, since most churches post pictures of their building exterior, not the inner chambers.

Personal postscript to above:  The church I attended in my teens in Toronto had such a large platform party that one of the pastors would come on to the stage about 15 minutes before the service started and count them, to make sure they had exactly the right number.    We decided his titles should be, “Minister of Chairs.”   But alas, I digress.   This is about accountability.

The book, Re Jesus is published in paperback by Hendrickson.

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