Thinking Out Loud

May 25, 2017

The Quest for the Holy Grail of Worship Community

Filed under: Christianity, Church, reviews — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:21 am

Book Review: Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans

Searching for Sunday is the story of Rachel Held Evans and her husband Dan and their meanderings in being sometimes drawn towards and sometimes repelled from a place of weekend worship. Far from the usual oft-seen rant on this subjective, the book is very redemptive in tone and is in part a cautionary tale and in part of celebration of the great things the capital-C Church can do through the ministry of the small-c local church.

This book was actually published in 2015. A copy landed accidentally from the publisher; in other words I was under no requirement to read the book at all, much less write about it. My intention was to read a few chapters and then possibly give the copy away. Instead, I worked my way through eventually missing nothing from the copyright page to footnote #93. And also, it appears, wrote a review.

Rachel Held Evans is often seen as a poster girl for the progressive Evangelical movement. Her name is — and this is to be taken quite literally — used as a swear word on a popular Reformed podcast. Her roots are conservative and she describes her relationship to those days as analogous to someone who has broken up with their boyfriend, but continues to check their Facebook page every few days. She walks a tension between  traditional Evangelicalism and its more modern expressions.

My first exposure to her was on her blog, RachelHeldEvans.com, where she no longer posts as frequently, but back in the day, it was the springboard to my second exposure to her, the book Evolving in Monkey Town, the story of growing up in Dayton, the epicenter of the Scopes Monkey Trial. Searching for Sunday is relatively similar in the weight of its autobiographical content, but is also as informative as Evolving, if not more so. There is a commonality to the personal sections however. The book contains an ever-present tension between her story and my story; or yours.

The book is organized in seven groups of chapters (3-6 per group) each of which could be viable as a stand-alone essay. The groups themselves represent seven sacraments: Baptism, Confession, Holy Orders, Communion, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, and Marriage. The perspective of the author varies. Sometimes she is a congregant; a parishioner just like many of us. At other times, she finds herself on the platform; the result of speaking engagements brought about through the popularity of her blog, and later her books. So there is another tension here, between disciple, earnestly seeking after God, and church leader, the one at the front of the room holding the microphone.

Finally, her journey represents a constant vacillation — in a good way, mind you — between historical, liturgical denominations and upstart, informal church communities. Personal familiarity with both is helpful here, but not required. Let me rephrase that: Personal familiarity with both is probably recommended here; the book exposes the value of both types of Christian community. 

One last thing: Rachel is an awesome writer, no surprise given she was a literature major. Even if you don’t agree with her take on everything, I think you can still enjoy the reading of it, and come away informed and enriched.


Learn more at ThomasNelson.com

Follow her @rachelheldevans

May 24, 2017

Wednesday Link List

Above: Typing in tongues. A real page of Tim Keller sermon notes from which he preached a real sermon.

If today’s list ends up a bit short, it’s because I was busy playing Fiery Darts 2 “an Arcade Style game in which you maneuver Methuselah, and collect Biblical Prizes, while avoiding the Fiery Darts of the enemy.” (There’s even a DOS version available!)

Vintage Photo: Francis Chan talks to Tommy Smothers of the Smothers Brothers.


These days you can never be sure if the sign is real or generated, but either way this is brilliant.


In this case, what exactly do they mean by reveal?

May 19, 2017

Church Continuity, Summer Shutdowns and the Lake House Mentality

There was a time I thought this was more of Canadian thing, but apparently it happens in various types of churches: Big and small, urban and rural, independent and denominational, established and recently planted. We call it ‘Summer Shutdown.’ Simply put it means that many of the programs of the church start shutting down at the end of April and don’t resume again until after Labor Day (that’s the week after the August Bank Holiday for you Brits.)

The logic in shutting down various children’s programs has to do with competition from evening sports programs, particularly kids baseball and soccer (that’s football for you Brits.)

The logic in shutting down the Thursday morning ladies prayer time totally escapes me (that’s ‘totally escapes me’ for you Brits.)

This phenomenon seems to be more pronounced in North America, but here in Ontario it is coupled with something called ‘the cottage mentality.’ Perhaps where you live the term cabin is more prevalent than cottage. Or the lake house. It means that if it is the weekend in June, July, or August; one is officially at their summer cottage, even if they don’t actually own one. This means that the summer shutdown becomes evident even in the Sunday morning programming of the churches here.

To me, this just leaves a lot of people detached from other people; it leaves them with feelings of isolation and loneliness; it leaves them with more inactivity; and it leaves them increasingly disconnected from their local church. As I wrote recently,

Imagine the greatest institution the world has ever seen suddenly shutting shop. Imagine a movement so powerful that nothing can stop it dispersing its followers for an extended holiday. Imagine the Church of Jesus Christ simply not being there for the hungry, the thirsty, the needy.

It waves the white flag of surrender to the calendar, the school year, football games, and the arrival of hot and humid weather. It gives up because so-called “key leadership” decided to spend weekends at the lake. It broadcasts the message that summer ministry simply isn’t worth the bother. It says, “There’s a big game being televised so probably nobody is going to show up anyway.”

I remember one woman returning to church in September after an absence of at least 90 days, announcing to all nearby that she was back and ready to help “whip this place back into shape.” That did not go over well among those who had been faithful throughout the warmer months. She wanted to pick up the pieces and create a fresh start, when in fact the church had a colorful and vibrant ministry during the weeks she was at the cabin enjoying the sunshine, the barbecue and the swimming.

The loss of continuity here is gigantic. I have however noticed that among some megachurches the programs just become so overarching that it is impossible to curtail them in the summer months. This may actually be a major positive attribute for megachurches at a time when people are so quick to emphasize their negatives. But then these same megachurches will have a weekend where the simply shut down everything altogether. Everything. The doors are locked. For you mainline Protestants, think of it as the non-Sunday of Ordinary Time.

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

Two years ago I wrote on this subject with respect to a church which also shuts down the week after Christmas:

We live at a time when people are taking an extremely casual approach to church attendance. Families with children have already sacrificed weekly continuity on the altar of getting their kids into team sports: Soccer, baseball, three-pitch, t-ball, gymnastics, swim teams, etc. What hasn’t been destroyed by athletics has been decimated by dads working weekend shifts or moms working retail Sunday openings.

These days, if you can get a family out to church 26 out of 52 Sundays, you’re doing well.

So why chop that down to only 50 Sundays? Why create even the most subtle suggestion that taking time off church is perfectly acceptable?

We did attend a local church since moving to this small town where the Sunday School ministry didn’t really miss a beat in the summer. I noted their dedication. It was like they believed in a God that doesn’t take three months off each summer. Last year however, they succumbed to the influence of what other churches are doing.

So here’s to those local churches who provide spiritual nurture at full throttle during the holiday months. Good on ya. People are hungry for more of God’s word and teaching, and also opportunities for fellowship twelve months of the year. I’m willing to bet there are stories of spiritual starvation that take place when ‘spiritual providers’ take off. I’d like to start a crusade to fight on behalf of those who are simply not looking forward to the next few months of meetings suspended until the fall. Some of those are hurting and some are lonely.

The people making the decision to curtail programming or shut down a particular weekend are usually well-connected and have lots of social activity planned for the time they are away.

For many large churches, it’s all or nothing. They can’t do small church anymore. Think about it:

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

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

Sadly however, this is not going to happen. ‘It’s not how we do things.

Wanna buck the trend? Light a candle! Use the summer to invite people over to your home for informal events. Can’t lead a Bible study? Just find a good teaching DVD and set up the machine in the living room; make some coffee and then let whatever is meant to happen next, simply happen. There are sermon DVDs from pastors you’ve heard of available as downloads online, you can purchase some from various ministry organizations, or you can buy them at Christian bookstores.

Can’t lead a Bible study? Don’t do anything fancy. Just pick a short Biblical book, invite people over; make the aforementioned coffee; and start in on chapter one. Don’t even suggest getting together the following week for chapter two; let those who are present suggest that. (Some may offer their home for the following week, especially if you don’t have air-conditioning!)

Counter the summer shutdown mentality with impromptu, informal events in your home this summer. And no, you don’t need your pastor’s permission; in fact, make it a non-church event by inviting some people from a different church. Or if the DVD has good outreach potential, invite some non-churched neighbors.


If you feel like you’ve read this before here, you have. This is a recurring, annual Thinking Out Loud rant. But this time around the rant you’re reading is a mash-up of four previous articles with additional content.

May 17, 2017

Wednesday Link List

If it turns out this week’s list is shorter than most, keep in mind that on Saturday we had a Weekend Link List. Above: Church Meme Committee. Below: Mike Morgan’s long running comic, For Heaven’s Sake. (click images to link.)

May 16, 2017

Letting the Other Person Win

In my younger days I attended a College-and-Career Bible study where the topic for the evening was deferring to others. Note I did not say preferring others. I’ve heard that sermon many times. Holding the door open for the other person. Letting the person cut in front of you in line at the bank. That sort of thing.

No, this was about deferring to others. Surrendering whatever authority you could possibly leverage in the situation in order to allow the other person to have their way. Letting the less experienced or less qualified person have power and control. Even when you know you have a better way.

The best example I can come up with is this: You’re playing chess with a child and you allow the child to win. You’re the better player. You watch them make mistakes and lose pieces. You see them miss an opportunity to put you in check. But eventually you allow them to get your queen cornered and you say, “Wow! You beat me!”

This happens in families. It happens in neighborhoods. It happens over and over again in workplaces. And it can happen in church life, particularly if you oversee a board or a ministry committee. Sometimes, just because the other person has been at the church longer, or their grandparents paid for the Christian Education wing, the people in charge are not necessarily the best chess players. You have experience from how another church did this, or a particular talent or gift you could bring to bear on a given situation, but your suggestions are not appreciated, much less likely to be acted upon.

At that point you have to shrug your shoulders and default to the existing paradigm.

Here’s a consideration: Everybody knows that from a technical standpoint, Beta was a better videotape format than VHS. But VHS won. Some places still sell the videos. But in church life, should we not aim for excellence? Should we not want to present to the community at large, and before God himself, our best?

Yes and no. Jesus never prayed for us to come up with the most attractive programs, or serve the tastiest coffee to visitors, or have the most amazing worship team played through a state-of-the-art sound system. He prayed for unity in the body. (See yesterday’s C201.) Part of the way we achieve that unity is to relinquish control; to let the other person win. In Philippians 2, we read that although he was God, he did not see his divinity as something to be leveraged. That’s my paraphrase. I might have said, something to be leveraged every five minutes.

It’s really hard when you’re facing a situation in church, neighborhood, workplace or family life where two very strong wills collide head-to-head, but the higher calling is to take the lower position.

If the other person, idea or methodology fails, perhaps then you might invoke an ‘I told you so.’ But if things turn out not bad or reasonably well, you can sleep better knowing you took the high road. If it makes you feel better, you can think of it as, ‘I am deferring to you, not because I think you are right, or have the better concept, but because you are my brother or sister.’


Image: WebMD

 

May 13, 2017

Weekend Link List

Every once in awhile I have to work a weekend shift, but at least it’s not as busy.

Welcome to the Weekend: A bonus feature for the faithful committed readers who don’t just turn up on Wednesdays. Drew Dyck didn’t say where he found this baby baptism pic, but the comments (click to read) were as much fun as the photo.


And now, to complete our weekly public service requirement, we bring you The Cycle of Fear:

May 10, 2017

Wednesday Link List

There’s this one blogger who totally hates everything unless it was written by John MacArthur, and every once in awhile I go on her weekend link list and I find things she is totally opposed to and find that, from my perspective, they are things worth celebrating and I include them here…

…For the above image a shoutout to Clark Bunch who wouldn’t share the origin of this $43 clothing item with his own readers, but clicking it here might yield something. 

One last thing: There’s some great stuff here this week. Please allow an extra few minutes to click more of these links than you might usually.

Finally, The people at Church Marketing Sucks really want to help you with things like having a better church bulletin, but in the meantime, completing this bingo card — among many membership benefits of working with them — isn’t too difficult in the average church.

 

Public Notice: “Will link for food.” If anyone out there with a major Christian website and a budget is interested in leasing the Wednesday Link List as Christianity Today & Leadership Journal did, contact me via Twitter. 

May 4, 2017

Reconnecting With Church Alumni

A friend of ours is trying to give new life to a dying church. Before the new year, the church held a reunion of sorts. They called as many former members as they could track down and invited them to come to a dinner. Just to reconnect. It reminded me of the following, which appeared here in 2013…

My wife received another alumni newsletter from her college in the mail. It’s somewhat of a miracle that it arrived, given what they do to her name. Because I graduated from the University of Toronto, which is a federation of colleges, I get three of these this type of thing regularly, one from the university itself, one from my college, and one from the Department of Philosophy even though I majored in Sociology.

I flip through these, and don’t entirely regard them as junk mail, though I’ve never yet made a donation and frankly, with Christian charities a priority, I’m not ever likely to.

Still, I wondered — minus the glossy magazine part — what it would be like if local churches had some of the mentality of college alumni associations, especially toward people who have either moved on or dropped out. Here’s what I think these higher learning institutions do well:

  • They’re really good at maintaining a data base of former students and knowing what each is doing. In church life we tend to assume that people have simply gone on to another church when that’s not always the case. They have an interest in where life has taken you, and they track you down, even if you move several times and think you’ve lost them! I’m going to guess here that 99% of churches have nothing formal in place to ‘follow’ former adherents and members, and truth be told, a significant number of them did not go on to another church.
  • They’re really excited about sharing their programs. It never occurs to us that if someone liked what we were doing as a church once, they might be interested in connecting again. We basically treat departures as a form of rejection, unless the person moved or was transferred.
  • The door is always open. We have nothing in the church that compares to the concept of ‘homecoming.’ Just think what might be if we created a culture where the welcome mat is always out for former members and participants. Colleges and universities invite you walk the corridors and sit in the classrooms to rekindle memories; why can’t a church do that?
  • They earnestly solicit your financial help to advance their work. Even though I don’t expect to benefit directly from what my alma mater is doing currently — and its entirely possible I may never step on the campus again — they invite me invest in its future. Many people who have stopped going to church have stopped giving to Christian causes even though the latest books tell us they still like Jesus, they still love God. There must a polite way to say, if you’re not giving to anything, the work of this church still goes on without making it sound like, ‘You may be gone but we still want your money.’ I certainly believe I could craft that appeal letter.
  • They share their stories. Related to the above item, they have a better system for hearing back from their ‘graduates,’ and what is being accomplished in and through their lives. In a world of email and Facebook, keeping in touch with former church adherents ought to be a cakewalk. Some are possibly very grateful to share how their time at your church impacted their lives. Everyone else needs to hear those stories.

What do you think? Are there analogies I missed? Can we do better at tracking people who were once part of our church family roll? Is it possible they’re actually waiting to hear from us; to see if we remember; to see if we care?

May 3, 2017

Wednesday Link List

Welcome to WLL Three-Five-Seven. The beast in the pic is the crafty ssserpent talking to Eve in Eden; as depicted in The Illustrated Bible by Jeff Anderson and Mike Maddox, published by Hendrickson in 2016. We apologize in advance for any nightmares it might cause. As for the hymn above, you’ll have to scroll down to the second link below.

If you need help posting bail, there’s always these guys:

Honestly, how could we resist this great quotation from T. D. Jakes? Click the image for commentary.

Finally, some worship service emojis:

The above image is from an article, Appropriate Emoji Responses during church. The first one “When the Welcome and Greeting Time Comes During Flu Season” would be my wife’s desired default during all fellowship times in the middle of the service and toward greeters at the door as well. Introverts unite! Click the image to see them all.

 

April 26, 2017

Wednesday Link List

Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber join Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live two weekends back.

Wouldn’t it be funny if it turned out they were related?

An observation from our friend Shane Claiborne

In addition to what you see here each week, I’ve recently updated the blogroll on the right hand side of the page. I’m generally looking to keep blogs which have been active within the preceding 30 days. It’s an ongoing process and suggestions are welcomed. Also, if you find yourself lost somewhere without your computer bookmarks, make your way to Thinking Out Loud and use our news, podcast and blog links as a portal to some great sites.

This week a slightly shorter list due to time constraints and the Canadian Income Tax Deadline on April 30th. 

Oh… one more thing: A big shout-out to Michael and Jenine in North Dakota. Thanks for your note this week!

Is it real or just a meme? “The Newest Testament” first came to my attention when Zach Hunt tweeted one of the covers

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