Thinking Out Loud

September 6, 2019

Stained Glass

Filed under: Christianity, Church — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:41 am

Guest post by Ruth Wilkinson

When Jesus talked about us, he used words like “family,” “vine” and “body” – images of life, growth and diversity.

The journey of a Jesus follower was never meant to be a solo trip. His own vision for His Church was that we would build it together. Even when things were frustrating. Even when we got hurt.

If you’ve been trying to live this life by yourself, maybe it’s time to think ‘inside the frame.’ Your shape fits together with all the other shapes of all the other believers to make something far better than we can make on our own.

What are you a part of? A rainbow? A blossoming apple tree? A tool box? An orchestra?

If you’ve walked away from “church,” you’re missed. You’re needed. You belong in the picture.

This Sunday, take a chance – see where you fit.

March 12, 2018

Cruising the Denominational Spectrum

Over the years we’ve known people who remained loyal to a single church over the course of their lifetimes. This degree of faithfulness is certainly commendable in some, while with others it seems to represent a measurable amount of stubbornness. In a few cases, it cost their children access to children’s and youth ministry which would have served them well; the absence of it having detrimental effects.

Others have simply packed up and moved on a regular basis. One couple I knew had a three-year rule. It wasn’t written in stone — sometimes it would be four years — but when they felt they were “getting too close” a particular church (their words) it would be time to hop somewhere else.

My thoughts today are about an aspect of this which is particular to the denominational choices implicit in moving from one church to another. In other words, we’re not consider church politics here, or situations where someone was hurt by a church member, or a pastor whose preaching was simply deficient. All of those are significant, but we’re looking at choices made for purely theological reasons.

Generally speaking, many of us will choose a church which is simply like the last one we attended. We may be moving from large church to small church (or the other way around) or moving from traditional music to contemporary music (or the other way around) but we’re not looking to rock our personal boat in terms of core beliefs on both primary and secondary matters of faith.

But there are others who want to shake things up and spend a season of life in a congregation which is quite different — perhaps even the total antithesis — of their current church home. Like these people:

Brett attends a church which is planted smack in the center of Evangelicalism. But he keeps hearing about assemblies which identify as Spirit-filled, move more in terms of gifts like prophecy and healing, have a longer, more dynamic worship time, and are equipped to handle issues in spiritual warfare and deliverance. He decides to check it out.

Amanda attends the same church as Brett. Increasingly she’s finding the services too unstructured. She keeps hearing about churches which follow a more pre-planned order of service including readings from both Old and New Testaments, the gospels and epistles. There are written prayers including classic ones from people long departed. For her this isn’t about superficial worship elements, it is a doctrinal thing. It’s about propriety in worship and she’s found a church that offers that without moving into liberal theology.

Both of these people are moving in different directions along the doctrinal spectrum.

There are also people making greater moves. Imagine someone moving from Brett’s new church to Amanda’s new church. That’s a rather significant change of address. Is this a bad thing?

I would be worried about people whose moves from one extreme to the other are more like pendulum swings. I would also want to watch out for people who are making moves too often; too frequently.

Where I would find value is with people who have spent time at various points on the spectrum; people whose background includes a variety of Christian experience.

The people in my opening paragraph have been, in my opinion, simply stubborn. I say that in their case because it has involved a price to pay — their kids’ lack of good youth ministry exposure in their teens and the results of that — that I would say is too high.

On the other hand, if your church gets high marks in all areas that are relevant to your family, you may find no need to move on. If you’re on board with the church’s programs and priorities, if the teaching and worship are to your liking, and if the community involves people you’ve been doing life with and you continue to be invested in their lives (and they in yours) then there’s no need to move on…

…Most people leave a church because of push factors or pull factors. In other words, there is either something happening where they are that has created in them a need to immediately vacate, or this something attracting them somewhere else that has created a desire to want to not simply check that out (for a visit) but to immerse themselves in such a community for a period of months or years.

The challenge comes when the desire is more of a pull, but the destination is not certain; when the name of the church being sought is an unknown quantity. That may ultimately involve some church-hopping. One does need to try some different flavors to know what one might like. That’s not a bad thing. As long as we’re worshiping God somewhere each week, we don’t have a problem. We are members of a worldwide family of Christ-followers and we should feel welcome anytime we drop into any branch of that family.

Eventually God will show us and circumstances will give us the language to describe what we’re seeking. In a large metropolitan area there will be greater choice. In non-urban situations, it may mean driving a half-hour to get to where we need to be…

…In the pendulum pictured above, there is an apple core. That represents our core beliefs. These are being shaped and formed over the course of our lives. Individual doctrinal spectra might have extremes, but I’ve deliberately chosen to rest the pendulum in the middle. Our core beliefs are formed from a balance on various issues.

Where I stand on issue “X” and “Y” and “Z” might be different from you. Hopefully we all agree on doctrines “A” and “B” and “C” and “D” which form the Statement of Faith of most of our churches. I hope even on “X,” “Y,” and “Z” I’m balanced in my perspective.

If you feel it’s time to move on, leave gracefully.

If you feel it’s time to simply to do some visiting for a season, then don’t burn your bridges. The place you currently call home represents family, and neither they nor God wish to see relationships fractured. You may want to return at some point, and you’ll do so bringing your charismatic or liturgical experiences back with you.

Like Brett and Amanda, be prepared for some new adventures.

Finally a caveat: Avoid chronic church hopping. When you find a landing place, be prepared to stay. Let some roots — even if they aren’t deep roots — sink in.

 

 

June 26, 2014

“That’s So Typical of Christians…”

I Like Your Christ - Gandhi

  • “I know what Dutch people are like”
  • “I know what left-handed people are like”
  • “I know what red-haired people are like”
  • “I know what people from Arkansas are like”
  • “I know what French people are like”
  • “I know what lawyers are like”
  • “I know what landlords are like”

No, you don’t; you know a few, not all.

  • “I know what Christians are like”

No, you don’t; you know a few, not all.

We are a community of the broken. We are fallen. We are flawed. So naturally you are going to see us at our worst as well as sometimes at our best. You’re going to see us not living up to the standard we should. You’re going to see us when we’re “moving toward the cross” and when we’re “moving away from the cross.”

Ideally, we are people of love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness… Ideally, we are people of grace. Ideally, we reflect the character of the Christ we follow. That’s what we call “positional truth.” In terms of “practical truth,” we miss the mark, often by inches; often by miles. Just as suddenly, we sometimes get it right.

But we’re also not all the same. We have good days and bad days. We have people among us who are a real embarrassment to us, and people who truly model the life of Jesus in everything they do.

We are a community of faith. You don’t have to be “pure” to get in. You don’t have to “clean up real good” to join. It’s a “come as you are” party. And people do.

There’s no status, no seniority, no gender, no ethnicity; nobody can claim “spiritual dominance,” or “spiritual oneupsmanship” over any of the others. It’s as long and wide and deep as any cross-section of the broader society.

In fact, there’s no generic portrait of a Christ-follower that captures us all. There’s no homogeneity. There’s no ‘Mecca’ to which we must travel. No rites or rituals in which we must participate. No prescribed term of missions service we must all complete. No earthly head who speaks for all of us. No secret mantra we all recite.

There is respect for elders, yet sometimes “a little child will lead them,” and truths are spoken “out of the mouths of babes.” Younger brothers — even youngest brothers — are sometimes served by older brothers. Newcomers can make as viable a contribution as seasoned veterans. The next generation is free to reinvent the wheel. The generation after that is free to rediscover the ancient practices and classic disciplines.

It’s an upsidedown kingdom. An insideout kingdom. It’s a family. It’s “two or three gathered together” in a living room Bible study; it’s a multitude of people on a grassy hillside listening to a summer conference speaker. It’s elegant cathedrals and small country chapels. It’s quietness and solitude. It’s the making of a joyful noise with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.

There’s the doctrine — what is believed. There’s the ethics — how that belief is lived out. There’s the experience — what happens to us when we believe the orthodoxy and live out the orthopraxy. There’s the ‘macro,’ big picture version of Christ-following; and there are people focused on the ‘micro’ issues, or a number of individual ‘micros.’

There are those who have locked in for life. There are those who will leave and then return. There are those who will drift away. There are those who will look in, but as one looking through a window from the outside.

Some will give tirelessly to this — in every waking hour. Some attend services at Christmas and Easter. Some give substantial parts of their income. Some give the minimum required to stay on a membership list. Some grew up with this faith. Others came as adults. Some nurture their children in their beliefs. Others feel their kids need to choose, to ‘take ownership’ of their concepts about God.

Personalities are factored in: While one person may be demonstrative about their faith, another might be reticent about their personal beliefs. Whereas one person might be given to an emotional, relational kind of worship; another might prefer a formal liturgy, a quiet, controlled worship environment.

So…

…do you still think you know what Christians are like?

I’m part of this, and I don’t. I just know that I’ve joined myself to a company of people who are trying to live a new life in a new way; a group of people who I otherwise would have nothing in common with.

Now, we have everything in common.

July 18, 2013

Fall Sermon Series: It’s a Family Affair

Filed under: Church — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:57 am

Family Affair sermon series

I am not in vocational ministry. So it was weird to wake up at 4:30 Wednesday morning with the song Family Affair by Sly and the Family Stone ringing in my head, followed by the notion, “Hey, this would make a great fall sermon theme.” It was even weirder to be in the kitchen at 4:35 AM with a pen and scrap paper outlining the theme. And now, here we are writing about it. (If you’re not in full-time ministry, but write some of your own Bible studies, you could adapt this for a small group fall kickoff.)

The series slide can include a few seconds (audio only) of the song.  (But don’t play the verse!) (Alternative: We Are Family by Sister Sledge.)

Week One: A Common History

We only know bits and pieces of our family history, and the average person reading this can’t do much going back more than four generations. Photography didn’t exist either, so we have little in the way of a snapshot of where we’ve come from. The best genealogists can do is give us lists of names or a sketch of a family tree.

Still, we have a common ancestry. Family gatherings consist of people we might never choose as friends, but you can’t pick your relatives. Sometimes families cut across socio-economic lines, and, through marriage, even ethnic lines. There is truly neither “Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, rich nor poor;” but there is neither ‘young nor old, intellectually astute nor intellectually challenged.’  Families are a mix. But there is “one Lord and Father over all.”

Having developed that theme, you can then skew a bit and talk about adoption. (But being sensitive to people in your hearing for whom this is an issue.) God has adopted us into his family. An adopted son or daughter who fully integrates into the family takes on that identity of what it means to be part of the ________ family.   In God’s family there are no secondary members because we’re all adopted.   Lots of good stuff in Romans 8 and 9.

Week Two: Common Values

No matter where I travel, if I am among people of the family of God, we have a common set of things we hold to be important.

This section could go many different directions as we consider the “things that matter.” It could be an opportunity to present and review a local church’s statement of faith and discuss the propriety of Christ’s divinity in the incarnation and his atoning work, the authority of scripture, the basics of salvation, the anticipation of the second coming, and whatever 7-12 things your statement contains.  (Video suggestion: The song Creed by Rich Mullins, though it runs 5.5 minutes.)

But then, this can move from the doctrine to the ethic; the Christian distinctives that play out against the backdrop of a broader society. (It would be better to focus on things like compassion and generosity than things with political overtones.)  Concluding comments might include how we can work together on projects to change our world and witness the Good News.

Week Three: BFF – Best Family Forever — A Common Destiny

This message would look at our common destiny; the eternity that we will spend with each other; the idea that we are heading to a common place.

This also allows us to look at our joining with the “cloud of witnesses” described in scripture. What might it be like to walk alongside believers from the various centuries of both the First Testament and the Second Testament? Their experience of church life was far different from ours; we know they even regarded some scriptural passages in a different light.

It’s okay to ask questions here, too. Is our commitment level the same as the saints of old? Do we long for eternity? Do we anticipate spending eternity with that portion of the Body of Christ we are closest to?

This could also branch out into a study of what we believe about heaven vs. new earth. This is an area where many of us are still ‘unlearning’ what we were taught as children. It can also branch out into a discussion about the concept of eternity itself. (C. S. Lewis has some good material here about how we perceive time.)

Week Four: Families Eat Together –A Common Experience

It would be ideal to wrap this up on what would normally be a communion Sunday, and to share the significance of what it meant to enjoy table fellowship, to learn about the intimacy that still attributed in Eastern cultures to sharing a meal. This can be developed through reference to extra-Biblical sources, but also filled out with references to eating together such as Rev. 3:20, Jesus giving thanks and breaking bread with the two men on the road to Emmaus, Jesus eating at the home of Zacchaeus and/or the Pharisee’s house, and the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.

Much of this is covered in chapter two of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s book, The Awakening of Hope which I reviewed here. The book deals with the features of monastic community, but there are ways we can borrow some of those concepts for our own 21st century lifestyle, in fact some of the chapters might even suggest alternatives for Week Two or Week Three if you chose not to go with those themes.  (There are some great movie clips of dysfunctional family gatherings around the Christmas/Thanksgiving table that work well here as a contrast to what such meals should not look like.)

Better still would be to have communion in the context of a full meal, as it was in that upper room. (Would everybody stay for a potluck dinner after the service? Depends on your church.) The Salvation Army doesn’t practice communion, but their ‘Love Feast” is probably closer to the original than anything we do with thimble-sized juice and crouton-sized bread as a worship service postscript. This probably only works in a small or medium-small church environment, and when you wish to either begin or return to the communion portion — especially if your church requires the Words of Institution — then everyone needs to be attentive.

…Anyway, I don’t know why I posted this today, but I hope it’s either helpful or inspiring to someone!  Some people wake up in the night and write songs, or sketch the ideal sports car, and then there’s church nerds who have been listening to far too many sermon podcasts… And yes, I realize this has been already thought of by others.

March 13, 2012

Thoughts on Church Life (3) – Worship

Filed under: Church, worship — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:47 am

When I looked to my right, there was Brett.

He looked angry. The worship leader had chosen a classic hymn, “A Shelter in the Time of Storm.” Brett doesn’t care for the hymns. Even though he’s the standby guitarist for three of the four worship teams, when a hymn comes along he doesn’t sing. Even the revamped versions of “When I Survey” and “Amazing Grace” don’t work for him. He just stands there with his lips pursed together.

When I looked to my left, there was Daniel.

He looked distressed. We’d moved on to a different song now, introducing the new modern worship Chris Tomlin song, “White Flag.”  Daniel is a retired school teacher. He gave up his NASB for a more modern translation, but he’s not giving in an inch when it comes to all the new songs we’ve been learning lately. So he stands stone-faced, silent, with his lips pursed together.

When I looked up, there was God.

I think he delights in the worship of this church, because I think beyond the songs, beyond the way the guy at the back mixes the band and the singers, beyond the misspellings in the projected lyrics; this is a congregation that really wants to give back to Him something in worship. And I think he appreciates that those in leadership do their best to find vehicles that allow people of different generations to express the heart overflow of their love for Him.

But He would really like to see everyone joining in.

He’s looking for a people who will corporately join in the song.

Who want to join in the song.

Who will raise the white flag of surrender to Him and extol His sovereignty as “a rock in a weary land, a shelter in the time of storm.”

He wants you to join in the song.

April 19, 2011

An Unceasing Anguish for the Lost

I find myself always introducing people to the ministry of Francis Chan, author of Forgotten God and Crazy Love.  This message has been posted online in various forms and from recordings in various locations.  This clip is about 15 minutes — it’s the second time this YouTube poster has put it up in some format — but it’s 15 minutes that could change your day.   Just let this roll and do whatever else you need to do online.  There’s a lot of discussion you can get from hearing this message excerpt.

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