Thinking Out Loud

November 10, 2017

Feel Like a Misfit at Church? You’re Not the Only One.

At the start of the year, I reviewed Brant Hansen’s first book with Thomas Nelson, Unoffendable, which deals with the subject of anger, and is ideally suited to anyone who has ever ‘lost it’ over a particular person or circumstance. You can read that review at this link.

Brant Hansen‘s second book with Nelson is important enough that I’m eventually going to devote another column to it here, but wanted to make you aware of it prior to the November 28th release in case you’re making a Christmas list. The title is Blessed Are the Misfits: Great News for Believers who are Introverts, Spiritual Strugglers, or Just Feel Like They’re Missing Something.

This book is for people

  • who are introverts
  • who deal with social anxiety; mental health issues
  • who are diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (or something similar)
  • who feel they are just different; they don’t see the world like everyone else does

and the people who love them because they’re a family member, close friend, co-worker, fellow-student, etc. It’s one of those books where the target readership is somewhat select — not to mention that it also deals with how such people can function in the body of Christ — so mention on blogs and social media and word-of-mouth will do much to help this book find its audience.

I’m about 65% in at this point — thoroughly enjoying it — and will post a full review here when it’s closer to the release date as well as reasons why this book is important to our family.

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October 27, 2017

God’s Power? Yes, As Long as We Are in Full Control

If you grew up in Africa, the West Indies or even in the North American Black church, you’ll wonder what all the fuss is about in today’s column.

Lord, send the old time power;
The Pentecostal Power

Although we sang that gospel hymn at many of our church’s evening service, indications of God’s power were looked on with extreme suspicion. While the Charismatic Movement had contributed to explosive church growth in many locations, the megachurch where I grew up was having behind-the-scenes meetings to discuss how far they were willing to let that movement invade our fellowship…

…I noticed her across the auditorium from the corner of my eye. Middle aged woman positioned ideally on the aisle for what she was about to do. We were singing a very lively hymn, possibly even the one above and the music at the church was quite loud as she started moving to the music, then stepping out into the aisle putting one foot ahead and back, and then one foot behind and then back. The aisle sloped slightly so she was moving forward and backward, up and down the aisle, though never far from her seat.

The ushers serving that aisle watched each other from the back for confirmation and then wasted no time. Swiftly she was confronted but apparently lost in the music continued the dance.

Then the unthinkable happened. They attempted to pick her up. She went rather rigid at that point — to avoid injury to them one would think — and they carted her out of the service like she was a large piece of lumber. She was perpendicular to the floor and one carried her head and shoulders while the other carried her feet.

I kid you not. Down the aisle and out the door. Never to return…

…Maybe your church has stories of people shutting down Charismatic expression. (The man who ran up on the stage at John MacArthur’s church to give a word of prophecy comes to mind. That was dramatic!) …

…One of the songs in that church’s youth group was “The Holy Ghost Will Set Your Feet A-Dancing.” This was a noble goal for those seeking the fullness of God’s Spirit, as long as things didn’t get out of hand. I don’t remember us doing much more than clapping to that piece. But then a discussion would follow about wanting what the Pentcostals and Charismatics had; wanting to see more of God’s power displayed and active in our church and in our lives…

…Today’s there’s the bridge in “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever” which goes,

O, I feel like dancing.
It’s foolishness I know.
But when the world has seen the light
They will dance with joy like we’re dancing now.

My wife and I haven’t used that song much when leading worship, but when we did, we always skipped that bridge. The purpose of leading worship is to give voice to the congregation to express the worth-ship of God and their aspirations of response. Most of the people in our congregations did not feel like dancing in those moments, and if you’re not dancing, the song really makes no sense.

They would concur the second the line however, “It’s foolishness I know.” David danced before the Lord. Thank goodness we’re in the New Testament now…

…I’m sure the woman in my story recognized that our church wasn’t the best fit for her and eventually found a home in the many Pentecostal and Charismatic church springing up all over the city where you could take a few steps back and forth without being a distraction.

I wonder how many that Sunday night secretly admired her freedom?


It would be interesting to know what insurance providers and court judges would think of the physical confrontation I watched. Do not try this at home…

…And yes, YouTube would be several generations down the road, but this one would have been great to have captured. Today camera-phones would have been tracking her from the first few steps of her jig.

 

August 22, 2017

Church Life: Special Music

In a majority of the middle part of the last century, a feature of Evangelical church services was “the special musical number” or “special music” or if the church didn’t print a bulletin for the entire audience, what the platform party often logged as simply “the special.”

While this wasn’t to imply that the remaining musical elements of the service were not special, it denoted a featured musical selection — often occurring just before the message — that would be sung by

  • a female soloist
  • a male soloist
  • a women’s duet
  • a men’s duet
  • a mixed duet
  • a mixed trio
  • a ladies trio
  • an instrumental number without vocals

etc., though usually it was a female soloist, who, in what would now be seen as an interruption to the flow of the service, would often be introduced by name. “And now Mrs. Faffolfink, the wife our beloved organist Henry, will come to favor us with a special musical number.” This was followed by silence, with the men on the platform party standing as the female soloist made her way to the microphone. (We’ll have to discuss ‘platform party’ another time.)

While the song in question might be anything out of the hymnbook, these were usually taken from a range of suitable songs from the genre called “Sacred Music” designed chiefly for this use, compositions often not possible for the congregation to sing because of (a) vocal range, (b) vocal complexity such as key changes, and (c) interpretive pauses and rhythm breaks. These often required greater skill on the part of the accompanist as well.

A well known example of this might be “The Holy City” which is often sung at Easter, though two out of its three sections seem to owe more to the book of Revelation. “The Stranger of Galilee” and “Master the Tempest is Raging” are two other well-known examples of the type of piece. Sometimes the church choir would join in further into the piece. (The quality of the performance varied depending on the capability of soloists in your congregation.)

By the mid-1970s commercial Christian radio stations were well-established all over the US, and broad exposure to a range of songs gave birth to the Christian music soundtrack industry. More popular songs were often available on cassette from as many as ten different companies. Some were based on the actual recording studio tracks of the original; some were quickly-recorded copies; and some of both kinds were offered in different key signatures (vocal ranges.) Either way, they afforded the singer the possibility of having an entire orchestra at his or her disposal, and later gave way to CDs and even accompaniment DVDs with the soundtrack synchronized to a projected visual background.

Today in the modern Evangelical church, this part of the service has vanished along with the scripture reading and the pastoral prayer. If a megachurch has a featured music item, it’s entirely likely to be borrowed from the Billboard charts of secular hits, performed with the full worship band.

This means there is an entire genre of Christian music which is vanishing with it. This isn’t a loss musically — some of those soloists were simply showing off their skills — as it is lyrically. The three songs named above were narrative, which means they were instructional. They taught us, every bit as much as the sermon did; and were equally rooted in scripture texts. The audience was in a listening mode, more prepared to be receptive. Early church historians will still despair over the passive nature of listening to a solo, but I believe the teaching that was imparted through the songs was worth the 3-4 minutes needed.

My personal belief is that this worship service element will return, albeit in a slightly different form, as congregations grow tired of standing to do little more than listen to pieces they can’t sing anyway because of vocal range or unfamiliarity. This may be taking place already in some churches.

We’ll be better served when that happens.

 

January 17, 2017

Christians and Reading

bookstore-signThis is part two of two articles on the general subject of reading and language, especially as it relates to the closing of bookstores in the wider market, and Christian bookstores in particular. Click here for part one.

Times are a lot tougher than in the past. Millennials struggle to find jobs and wealth creation is not as it was in the days of double-digit interest rates. The R-word — recession — is occasionally mentioned; some say we’re moving into it, some say we’re in it, some say we’re in recovery. Christian bookstores could have reason to claim immunity for the following reasons:

  1. In full out economic depression, people turn to religion.
  2. Also in depression, people turn to entertainment. While the book industry doesn’t have the same profile as movies, music and television, it is most definitely a subset of the entertainment industry.

So why have so many Christian bookstores closed? As with yesterday’s article, I haven’t taken the time to cite studies and statistics, but trust me on some things I can offer anecdotally.

First, we mentioned the various time pressures, distractions, and diminishing attention spans. I would argue that this has led to decline in the traditional devotional reading time. Bill Hybels has tried to give this new life by christening it with a new name, Chair Time. I wrote about that in February, 2016. Curling up with a good book and building a personal library are becoming rare activities. The only way to ensure people have contact with books at all is sometimes to have small groups or home groups which are essentially book study groups. That doesn’t always happen however. Many house groups use church-provided outlines or small study guides related to DVD curriculum they are watching. I do like the traditional book groups, especially in the sense in which they provide accountability (to cover the chapters for the next meeting.)

Second, I think the problem is self-perpetuating. Focus on the Family did some studies a decade ago on the spiritual influence the Dad has in the home, citing things like church attendance over time. I would contend that a generation is arising that has never seen their fathers sitting in a chair reading and when I say reading here, I would settle for the Sears catalog or Sports Illustrated. Many homes no longer receive a newspaper; and I understand that, you can read it online. But online reading is very personal. I could be doing anything online now: Checking the weather, balancing my bank account, posting a social media status update, watching YouTube videos, playing an online game, reading a serious article, or writing for my blog. But when someone sits in a chair reading, they are very obviously reading. Kids need to see this modeled for them as a life component every bit as normal as brushing your teeth.

Third, I believe that leadership is not setting the pace. In the retail store where I hang out, we see Sunday School teachers, we see worship team members, we see small group leaders. What we don’t see is elders, deacons, board members. Sometimes I will visit other churches and I see the names of these people printed in the church bulletin and I don’t recognize any of those names. We even had an instance of a pastor who we were told on good authority did not use his book allowance in ten years. (The man was incredibly arrogant and probably felt he knew all there was to know.) There are a few exceptions to this, but many people are chosen to serve their church in this capacity because they are business owners or executives who are successfully managing the company they work for and are considered wise enough to run the affairs of the church. Maybe they’re too busy to work on their own spiritual formation. That wasn’t the case with Stephen however. When The Twelve needed to create another tier of leadership to do the everyday running of things, they chose, “a man of faith, full of the Holy Spirit.” (The solution to this is pastors who buy the books in bulk they want their elders to study and then give them out as required reading.) 

Fourth, the stores need traffic generators; they require a constant hit bestseller to pay the bills. The Left Behind series accomplished this. The Shack brought people to the stores to both discuss and purchase the book. The Purpose Driven Life did the same. (I know there are people here who aren’t fans of these three examples, but they make the store sustainable for people looking for a classic Spurgeon commentary, or something by Tim Keller, or an apologetics resource.) Even on the non-book side of things the Gaither Gospel Series DVDs provided that traffic. These days, whenever something takes off in the Christian marketplace, Costco and Barnes and Noble are quick to jump into the game. Conversely, it doesn’t help when major Christian authors experience moral failure. The publishers occasionally offer products exclusively to the Christian market, but they only do this for specific chains (Mardel, Parable, Family Christian, etc.) not the independent stores who so desperately need this type of support. You have to be inside the stores to see other products you might wish to read or give away.

Finally, we’re not presently seeing a spiritual hunger. People are not desperate for God in North America and Western Europe right now. We hear reports from Africa or South America, though it’s hard to really quantify what is happening when there are often fringe movements or revivals based on extreme Charismatic doctrine or a mixture of Biblical Christianity and local animistic beliefs. In my early 20s, I remember hearing a Christian speaker say (quite tongue in cheek) “We don’t need the Holy Spirit, we have technology.” There is a sense in which this is true. It does remind me of the adage, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink, but you can put salt in his oats to make him thirsty.” We have to find ways to instill that hunger for reading in our local congregations. Pastor recommendations of books from the pulpit are the most significant factor driving customers to make purchases or place orders.  Another way the technology can be made to work is by providing chapter excerpts for people to sample; but publishers are very reluctant to do this, for reasons which escape me. 

In conclusion, all the factors mentioned in the previous article are impacting bookstores in general, these factors listed here are some things that concern me about the Christian market in particular.

not_enough_shelves

January 10, 2017

A Tale of Two Churches

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

tale-of-two-churches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

December 29, 2016

The Opposite of Infant Baptism: Why Evangelicals Opt Out

This article was a link list item two weeks ago, but I found myself thinking about it somewhat continuously since, and last night it came up again at the supper table. The writer blogs at Patheos under the banner Troubler of Israel but I’m otherwise unfamiliar with his work.

I’ve quoted this in full, though you are strongly encouraged to read it at source and join the over 300 comments; just click the link in the title below. The only difference here is that I’ve placed one paragraph in bold face type which I believe deserves special attention.

The Real Reason Evangelicals Don’t Baptize Babies
by G. Shane Morris

Friends (especially those expecting children) ask me with surprising frequency why I believe in infant baptism. For a couple of years, I replied by giving what I think the best biblical reasons are. But I usually don’t take that route anymore, because I’ve realized that’s not what convinced me.

For most evangelicals, what stands in the way of baptizing infants isn’t a lack of biblical evidence, but an interpretive lens they wear when reading Scripture. That lens–shaped by revivals, rugged individualism, and a sacramental theology untethered from the church’s means of grace–makes conversion the chief article of the faith. We should expect this, since American evangelical theology was forged on the frontier, in camp meetings, to the sound of fire-and-brimstone preaching.

For Evangelicals, this is the far more familiar image which comes to mind at the mention of the term 'baptism.'

For Evangelicals, this is the far more familiar image which comes to mind at the mention of the term ‘baptism.’

The core assumption here is that you must have a conversion experience to be saved. You must turn away from a past life toward a new one, usually with tears and laments attesting your sincerity. And this view of Christianity works well in an evangelistic setting, where many have lived as open unbelievers. The problem is it’s an awkward fit when it comes to multi-generational faith.

Anyone who was raised in a Christian home and still believes in Jesus knows that there wasn’t a time when he or she transitioned from “unbelief” to “belief.” We were never “converted.” It was simply inculcated from infancy, and for as long as we can remember, we have trusted in Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins, whether we were baptized as a baby or not.

But because of the baptistic emphasis on conversion, many (if not most) raised in those churches found ourselves “converting” over and over, reciting the “sinner’s prayer” at countless altar calls during our childhood and teenage years, certain that each time, we were truly sincere, but always finding ourselves back at the altar. Some of us even asked to be re-baptized upon our fresh conversions. And everyone raised in evangelical churches will know what I mean when I say “testimony envy,”–that real and perverse jealousy you feel when someone who lived a nastier pre-conversion life than you shares their story.

This is where I think the chief difficulty with infant baptism lies, at least for American evangelicals. I don’t believe baptistic evangelicals really view their children as unregenerate pagans before their “credible profession of faith.” If they did, they wouldn’t teach them to say the Lord’s Prayer or to sing “Jesus Loves Me.” I think what’s really going on is a kind of alternative sacramentalism, where a dramatic conversion experience, rather than baptism, is the rite of Christian initiation.

Thus, children raised in this setting feel the need to manufacture tearful conversions over and over to prove their sincerity. And rather than their present trust in Christ, they’re taught (implicitly or explicitly) to look back to a time, a place, and a prayer, and stake their salvation on that.

Infant baptism runs counter to this entire system. It declares visibly that God induces a change of heart and a saving faith in those too young to even speak or remember their “conversions.” It illustrates that the branches God grafts in to His Son aren’t sterile. They bud and blossom, producing new branches that have never drunk another tree’s sap. And most importantly, it matches the lived experiences of believers’ children, rather than continually imposing a system on them that was designed for first-generation converts.

Almost always, I see the lights come on after explaining this point to an evangelical friend. And in most cases, their acceptance of infant baptism isn’t far behind.

 

July 19, 2016

A Caution to Seniors in the Church

…and Those on the Cusp of Becoming One

seniorsSo I’m sitting at my computer compiling tomorrow’s link list and I see this article and I’m thinking, ‘This is gold! How do make absolutely sure people read this?” Then I remember I still haven’t posted anything this morning.

This is by Thom Rainer. That’s right, the LifeWay guy. Me and LifeWay are not usually on the same page, I know. Still, you should click through (on the title below) and read this at source because you really want to read the comments as well.

Oh… before you think you really should forward this to somebody else, you might want to remember that if you’re not already there, you soon will be!

Five Things I Pray I Will Not Do as a Senior Adult in the Church

I received my first AARP material in the mail six years ago.

I turned 61 years old two days ago. One of my sons says I am fossilized.

I am a senior adult.

Have I noticed any differences in my life at this age? Certainly. I move more slowly. My idea of a mini-marathon is running to the kitchen from the family room. I see things differently. I don’t know if I am wiser, but I certainly have different perspectives.

And I have to admit I view church life differently. In fact, I sometimes scare myself with my rigid attitude. I need to write these words quickly lest I become too comfortable or too complacent.

I have five specific prayers. They are for me. They are for my attitude about my church. They are reminders I will need to review constantly.

  1. I pray I will not feel entitled because I am a key financial supporter in the church. This attitude means I consider the money my money rather than God’s money. That means I am giving with a begrudging heart.
  2. I pray I will not say “I’ve done my time” in the church. Ministry through the local church is not doing your time, like serving a prison sentence. It is an outpouring of joy and thanksgiving to God. I love those churches where senior adults are the most represented among the nursery workers. I need to be among them.
  3. I pray I will not be more enthused about recreational trips than ministry and service. There is nothing wrong about me getting on a bus and going to Branson, Missouri, or Gatlinburg, Tennessee. But there is something wrong when that is my dominant involvement in ministry in the church.
  4. I pray I will not be more concerned about my preferences than serving others. I’ve already blown it on this one. I did not like the volume of the music in the service at my church a few weeks ago. I complained about it to my wife. And then I was reminded of all the young people in the church that Sunday worshipping and praising God during the music. I was more concerned about my preference than seeing others worship God.
  5. I pray I will not have a critical spirit. I attended a business meeting of a large church some time ago. The total attendance at the meeting represented fewer than five percent of the worship attendance. One of the men who recognized me approached me before the meeting, “We come together at these business meetings to keep the pastor straight,” he told me. In reality, they came together to criticize the pastor and staff. I pray I will not become a perpetual critic. I don’t want to grow old and cranky; I want to grow old and more sanctified.

Now that I am a senior adult in my own right, I need to make certain I am not a stumbling block or a hindrance to health and growth in my church. I pray my attitude will be like that of Caleb:

“Here I am today, 85 years old . . . Now give me the hill country the Lord promised me on that day . . . Perhaps the Lord will be with me and I will drive them out as the Lord promised” (Joshua14:10-12, HCSB).

May the Lord grant me wisdom and service all the days of my life, including my senior years.

Let me hear from you. I bet I will.


Related: From 2014, here’s a look at the ideal, the multi-generational church.

June 27, 2016

Host Church Syndrome

Filed under: Christianity, Church — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:12 am

Outreach events

Host Church Syndrome is what happens when a local church decides to do a major event that is open to people from other churches in the community, but in the end, the majority of attendees are from the congregation which sponsored the event.

In our years living in this town we have seen this play out over and over again. Yes, the evidence is anecdotal, but there’s no denying it; some people simply won’t attend an event in another church in town. We’re the exception, but then the enterprise for which I work is interdenominational in nature, and therefore equips us with a different mindset on these things.

What made the event we attended more interesting was that the church in question had sought to open their event up to a wider demographic — including non-Christians — by holding it in a community hall. We ourselves — who attend different churches — were actively involved in helping promote this to the broader Christian community.

On the other hand, the event was a benefit for a charity, and the head of that charity had been a speaker at the church recently; so their people were more than motivated to support the fundraising event.

So about 80% of the people were from the one church. Nice that they supported it. Sad that the event didn’t have further reach.

Why is this?

Do our own events keep us too busy? Do we look on the other churches in town with suspicion? Do we not get disappointing with it’s our turn to promote something really big only to find the people showing up are just our own congregation?


People really wrestle with this. Here’s a comment on a forum for Christian moms where someone asked if it was okay to attend a Bible study at another Church:

I wish more people and churches would feel free to interact with each other.The building you attend is not the church. The church is the people of God. We should support the local church body, obviously our tithes should go to our “home” church body so they can grow and do God’s Work and our time and service benefits our “home” church body but “breaking bread” and “fellowshiping” with other church bodies should not be looked down upon. I know we are often made to feel we are somehow being disloyal to “the church” if we find something we need in a another part of the body of Christ but part of Christ’s plea in the garden was – “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one — I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17.21-22).

The Church as a whole needs to learn to work together, support and encourage one another, and loose the us/them mentality that is so prevalent. We are all Christian and Christ’s prayer was that our unity would speak volumes to the World. Just imagine if every church body were willing to pool resources and work together to build the Kingdom instead of holding on to “their” resources to build their buildings. Those churches who had great teachers but little money could be helped by those who have great resources but little time. Those who have strong leaders could help struggling smaller churches grow and train leaders. If we would all be willing to look beyond the walls of our local or “home” church building a lot more could be accomplished for the LORD.

 

June 23, 2016

The Labyrinth

LabyrinthOne of the Anglican churches in the town where I live has a labyrinth in the field behind the building. I remember the first time I saw it, probably well over a decade ago, and thinking it a rather odd sight for a Christian place of worship. Wikipedia (linked above) offers this origin:

In Greek mythology, the labyrinth (Greek: λαβύρινθος labyrinthos) was an elaborate structure designed and built by the legendary artificer Daedalus for King Minos of Crete at Knossos. Its function was to hold the Minotaur eventually killed by the hero Theseus. Daedalus had so cunningly made the Labyrinth that he could barely escape it after he built it.

Later on the article states

Prehistoric labyrinths are believed to have served as traps for malevolent spirits or as defined paths for ritual dances. In medieval times, the labyrinth symbolized a hard path to God with a clearly defined center (God) and one entrance (birth). In their cross-cultural study of signs and symbols, Patterns that Connect, Carl Schuster and Edmund Carpenter present various forms of the labyrinth and suggest various possible meanings, including not only a sacred path to the home of a sacred ancestor, but also, perhaps, a representation of the ancestor him/herself: “…many [New World] Indians who make the labyrinth regard it as a sacred symbol, a beneficial ancestor, a deity. In this they may be preserving its original meaning: the ultimate ancestor, here evoked by two continuous lines joining its twelve primary joints.”

Almost as a postscript, the article ends with a section headed “Christian use”

Labyrinths have on various occasions been used in Christian tradition as a part of worship. The earliest known example is from a fourth-century pavement at the Basilica of St Reparatus, at Orleansville, Algeria, with the words “Sancta Eclesia” at the center, though it is unclear how it might have been used in worship.

In medieval times, labyrinths began to appear on church walls and floors around 1000 C.E.. The most famous medieval labyrinth, with great influence on later practice, was created in Chartres Cathedral.  The purpose of the labyrinths is not clear, though there are surviving descriptions of French clerics performing a ritual Easter dance along the path on Easter Sunday.  Some books (guidebooks in particular) suggest that mazes on cathedral floors originated in the medieval period as alternatives to pilgrimage to the Holy Land…

I’m sure my Baptist friends, if I had some, would be more strongly shocked and possibly even repulsed at the idea of such a very non-Biblical thing being part of the structure of the church. Nowhere do the scriptures suggest the construction or use of such. It’s very foreign to our experience…

300px-Labyrinth_at_Chartres_CathedralIn the bookstore where I work a couple of days a week there are two aisles at the front, three in the middle and one at the back. Occasionally, when there are no customers (which is an increasingly common problem) I will pick up a book, kick off my shoes, and start walking up and down the aisles forming a somewhat random pattern of circles. I’m able to read and walk at the same time without serious injury; although this practice of pounding bare feet on a thin carpet supported by a concrete floor may have led to my current symptoms of plantar fasciitis. For some reason, I find I make great progress reading this way, not unlike the times as a teen I would play improvisations on the piano while studying the geography or chemistry textbook for an exam. Either the rhythm of this type of activity, or the built-in distraction helps me focus.

I wonder if there’s any real difference between what I do at the store and the Anglicans who walk the labyrinth?

We can be so quick to criticize; so hasty in our judgment that we don’t realize we are often doing the same things only differently; or with different terminology. I could just as easily pace the floor and meditate on a passage of scripture or even pray (keeping my eyes open of course so I don’t crash into a display of coffee mugs.)

I’m sure the focus of the labyrinth at an Anglican or Episcopalian church is prayer and meditation. Those are good things, right?

Still…this is clearly an extra-Biblical practice. I also wonder if the more things we add on to the elements of church life, instead of creating forms and devices that aid people in spiritual disciplines, we simply have layered on another disciplines, and thereby robbed people of the more basic approach to prayer and meditation. (Heck, my imaginary Baptist friends really don’t like that last word, either.)

The other challenge is the possibility that a few people make some of these practices which lie on the fringes of the Christian life more central than they need to be. It can be for some an obsession, or a ritual which obscures more important things we ought to be doing.

I’m quite sure there are Evangelical equivalents.


Top image: St. John the Evangelist Church in South Lancaster, Ontario. I tried to find one for the church where I live, but this one is similar.

Bottom image: Wikipedia

June 16, 2016

The Storefront Church

Storefront Churches

He was looking for something else, but either the map on the internet was wrong, or the other church had moved. So he went into the storefront church.

The people were extremely pleased to have a visitor, and turned on the charm. They gave him a free book by one of their faith’s key authors, and took his name and email address. They followed up and he ended up going back for successive visits.

The he in the story is my son. He had enough Bible knowledge and spiritual discernment that the church, while having its own unique flavor, passed his religious smell test. Ultimately however, he moved on.

o-o-o-o

I’m always mystified at how certain churches survive. Springing up in strip malls, industrial complexes, and in the downtown core; these places of worship must attract enough people to 4 or 5 weekend services to pay a monthly rent plus utilities, and yet somehow many continue for multiple years.

There are usually reasons why their adherents have chosen not to associate with larger, established churches, but to speculate as to four or five key factors would be to miss forty or fifty others. There’s almost always something quirky or distinctive about their doctrine, but as in the above example, it’s not necessarily a deal-breaker.

o-o-o-o

It’s important to remember that the aforementioned established churches didn’t start at the megachurch level. Trace their history, if they have one, and you find storefront types of beginnings.

A passion for world missions (Christian & Missionary Alliance). A concern for the poor and underprivileged (Salvation Army). A unique movement of the Holy Spirit (Assemblies of God).

Or today, many churches are springing up around ethnic diversity. In major cities you can find large clusters of people speaking any given language, but in secondary and tertiary markets, you’d be looking at strip mall type of fellowship.

Some people feel that in North America, the ethnic church simply is the hot church-planting story for the present time. But it’s a complex one, as the second generation, born and raised here, don’t always speak the parent’s language. So you have worship services in the native tongue, and others offered in English. You have kids that have ditched the language, but are always under the umbrella of the culture.

o-o-o-o

This week I ran into someone else who had chosen a downtown storefront place of worship. He had left a major denomination and was seeking something else.

And I think the s-word is key and deserves one more: People are searching. Their hunt doesn’t necessarily lead to the congregation with the largest parking lot, but increasingly, I think something in the small(er) church environment will resonate with them.

No church library? No child care? No comfy seats and air conditioning? I don’t think they really care. Those amenities are not in their line of sight.

o-o-o-o

Which may suggest something else. It might mean people are really looking for the house church or what is often termed simple church experience.  Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name… and they’re always glad you came.

There is something about the interactive and informal nature of certain types of gatherings that appeal to a wide demographic swath right now.

o-o-o-o

They say in music and art that every period is a reaction to the period it follows. My generation was raised on highly programmatic church environments. When I did a church plant a few years back in a Youth for Christ drop-in center, it was like a breath of fresh air.

Our advertising caption was, “Ever wanted to raise your hand in church to ask a question?  Now you can!”

For my wife, doing a church plant in a condemned motel for the people who lived there and didn’t have cars to get them anyplace else; the experience she had totally wrecked her for status quo churches. She has a hard time now dealing with business-as-usual worship services, following an order of service that was written in 1940.

So when I wonder, “Who is attracted to storefront churches?” I really don’t have to look any further than the other side of the bed. And when I ask myself, “What would draw someone to attend a service with just a small handful of others?” I already know the answer.

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