Thinking Out Loud

February 28, 2020

The Thing Which Sets the North American Church Apart

Filed under: Christianity, Church, missions — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:08 am

On Monday, my wife Ruth shared here on the blog about the pastor and the church we connected with in Cuba. Overall, the trip had several factors which are all tied for first place in my reflections on the week:

  1. That we traveled by air to a foreign country with our adult sons. Admittedly, the flight was shorter than one to Denver or Sacramento, but considering the four of us now live in three different cities and that our cash position never allowed anything like this previously, it was a major accomplishment.
  2. The weather was absolutely perfect. 30­­°C each day.
  3. Our connection with the pastor and the church; the subject to which I want to return.

Really, many things were similar.

  • They begin with worship, we begin with worship.
  • They have a sermon, we have a sermon.
  • They take up an offering, we take up an offering.
  • They have announcements, we have announcements.
  • They sit in rows, we sit in rows.
  • They meet on Sunday morning, we meet on Sunday morning.

Sure, the tone of the service — the raw energy present — was quite different, and the singing was so loud and so passionate. And it’s true that when asked to bring greetings, I said I wanted to take the spirit of the service and put it in a box and take it home (something which apparently doesn’t translate well) because I was so pumped to be experiencing this, especially after never having had any direct foreign missions exposure to that point. (It was the one gap in my personal ministry history.)

But in the end the difference was huge, and it affects so many other things:

  • They walk to church, we arrive, for the most part, by automobile.

There was no parking lot. When we arrived by taxi, the driver tried to get closer to the church building, but was driving on a surface so uneven, I rather insisted that he stop.

I’m told that the woman who comes the farthest walks 2 km down a mountain to get to services and mid-week meetings, but then presumably must walk 2 km up the mountain.

I tried to consider the various impacts of this.

This is a community of about 40 believers which has far more context in which to interact during the week. In my church, there are people I don’t see except on Sundays. At a recent trip to Wal-Mart, I actually ran into three people representing two other churches, but the odds are fewer that I run into anyone from the church we’re presently attending. For them, it means they are living their lives — doing life together is the overworked phrase here — with each other, and in every aspect of life.

Nevertheless, it doesn’t stop people in the village from also attending events throughout the week, though we wondered if, in winter when sunset is earlier, a women’s prayer gathering that was scheduled for Thursday night was more likely to end by 7:00 PM instead of starting at 7:00 as it would here.

It also means the opportunities to “church hop” are fewer. The pastor’s father is also a pastor, and his church is just 4 km down the road. (I thought of proposing a ‘pulpit exchange’ as is done here at times, but not sure they would see any benefits.) It also means the two single girls in the church might be challenged in trying to find two single guys, although there are some yearly regional youth events to which they somehow travel.

It also means the pace of life is much slower. We run to the grocery store, realize we’ve forgotten something, and drive right back. In this type of rural, vehicle-less society, you would take more time to plan; more time to count the cost of the limited travel you are able to do.

It doesn’t mean they don’t know there’s a wider world out there. Until making the decision at the end of Grade Twelve — what Americans call senior year — to go into ministry instead of university, our Pastor host would still have learned much about the world in which Cuba is a small part. Maybe not so much about the benefits of capitalism; but still he did meet us twice at the resort, and the resorts are usually joint ventures between the state and more capitalist partners. In fact there is certain element of entrepreneurship in moving 4 km down the road from your father’s church and starting your own in a different village.

Even so, I thought of raising the subject of coronavirus, which was the primary topic on CNN back at the hotel, but realized the possibility of his people being aware of the potential pandemic might be rather small, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be the bearer of that news. Their world is…well…their world.

I’m not a sociologist, even though I play one on television. Okay, let’s try that again. I’m not a sociologist though that was my major in university. It left me, at the very least, with a better knowledge of what I don’t know, and in this case, I know that the implications of a church without a parking lot run far deeper than I’ve listed here.

What I do know for sure, is that back home, the cars, vans, SUVs and pickups all made one thing possible: The megachurch. Most readers here drive past 6-10 other churches to get to their weekend service destination. Remove personal automotive transport from the equation, and the megachurch ceases to exist. Partially restrict travel to public transport — as in Europe — and you don’t see as many of the sprawling suburban church campuses located at the intersection of major freeways.

So they could look at our situation and marvel at the space taken up by the parking area and then put their analytical skills to work to see what it costs us to worship in these modern cathedrals. While we might love the children’s program facilities, the professional-sounding worship band, and the oratory of Bible teachers trained to communicate in large auditoriums; I’m not sure that the benefits outweigh the costs.

Back home, I enjoyed the service the following week; but partly because the church we’re attending is small and I know 85-90% of the people by name. But another part of me wondered what the little church in Cuba would be like if were attending for a second week.

 

 

March 8, 2019

What’s Missing in the Modern Church Experience?

Filed under: Christianity, Church — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:15 am

This is about half of an article by guest writer Mike Glenn at Scot McKnight’s blog, Jesus Creed. You really need to click through — click the header below — to read it all, and the follow through to his conclusion. (I’m not including the spoiler.)

Church Attendance is Down, But Why?

…Fewer people are going to church.

Yes, there are reasons. For one thing, streaming services have impacted church attendance. If the weather is bad (meaning it has rained, might rain or … well, you get the picture), I’m sure to get several screen shots of people watching the services on line while wearing their pajamas. Not long after, a lot of these people will discover they can stream the service regardless of the weather.

Organizations that used to respect Sunday morning no longer do. Children have field trips and sporting events on Sunday morning most every weekend. Travel teams take up family weekends as the entire family follows the dreams of one of their children to play hockey, football, baseball, debate or gymnastics. Stores that used to be closed on Sunday start opening at 1pm. Now, they’re open all day.

Entertainment has discovered Sunday morning. The NFL kicks off at noon, but if you’re going to go the game, you have to go early for the tailgate. Concerts in the park, music festivals, food festivals, book festivals, and classic car rallies now consider Sunday morning to be prime time for their events.

I guess this is to be expected. Churches should not expect any culture to support the practices of their faith. Yet, there’s more.

For one thing, everyone is in a time crunch. Families are facing multiple demands from careers, schools and social obligations. The work/life balance has been compromised to the point many Americans can’t tell you when their work day actually ends and their home life begins. Most people are working longer hours than before, and social media demands more and more of our attention. Because of these growing demands on our time, most of us aren’t getting enough sleep.

When the weekend gets here, if we can catch up on some sleep we do.

All of this means when a person or family decides how they are going to spend their time, every investment of time has to be worth the time required. That is, more and more people are spending their time like they spend their money.

Every investment has to have a significant ROI – return on investment – or they won’t do it.

This brings me to a very hard question for those of us in church leadership. Is going to church worth it?

Why would anyone go to church?  …

February 3, 2019

Hymnophobia

hymnophobia \ hɪm-noʊ-‘foʊb- \ – (adj) – having or possessing the fear of hymns or (n) the fear of hymns

I think many contemporary churches suffer from Hymnophobia.

By hymns, I don’t mean the classic hymns that have been adapted by contemporary songwriters, sometimes with the addition of a bridge. That works sometimes.

By hymns, I don’t mean some of the ‘gospel’ hymns that came in the period of around 1940 and following. That’s the period that the present period is a reaction to, and it’s okay to set those aside. It’s many of those pieces which drove us to a more modern church in the first place.

I’m talking about the real, absolute classic hymns: All Hail the Power and A Might Fortress and other songs of that ilk.

Hymnophobia is really a fear of doing something that’s outside the only homogeneous, modern style that’s the trademark of today’s churches, especially megachurches.

There’s no variety.

I’d have no problem with a church doing a classic like Our Great Savior if they did it in the style in which it was originally presented.

In other words, not with “an organ” but with a high-church pipe organ sound, played in the manner that an organist would have played a pipe organ. Something that mentally transports you to one of the great 19th century cathedrals.

And let’s not forget that today’s modern keyboards have that sound built in.

Or for that matter:

  • a song sung in an authentic bluegrass style by people who really know that style of music
  • a song presented in a barber shop quartet style by people who really understand that genre
  • a song performed in a genuine operatic style by someone trained in that form

Not every Sunday, not every month, just not being afraid to try something different every once in awhile.

With the condition that it’s done so well, nobody considers it a caricature or a mockery of those forms, but actually finds the form works to communicate a particular set of lyrics.

Honestly, what are we afraid of?

Furthermore, why do we exclude people whose rest-of-the-week involves participation in a musical forms that are so removed from what we do at church on the weekend?

Why does every church service now have to 100% resemble what we hear on the local Christian radio station?

I rest my case.

 

January 21, 2019

Eyeing the Competition

While 99% of the people in Pastor Reynold’s congregation met with him at the church or in a coffee shop, Olivia was good friends with his wife which gave her somewhat unfettered access to the pastor at his home.

Dropping in one day while Mrs. Reynolds was out, they stood at the front door and talked for five minutes, and as usual, Olivia was going on and on about the latest podcast she’d heard from some U.S. preacher. “You should check him out sometime; it was absolutely awesome!”

It wasn’t just her; there were a bunch of twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings in the church who seemed to trade teaching links the way his generation traded baseball cards. It was as though everyone is looking for the next big thing.

Finally he decided to state the obvious, “So did you like my sermon this week?”

“It was okay.” She seemed to be reluctantly volunteering that assessment.

“Would it be better if I got some skinny jeans?” he asked her, but she just laughed.

So he tried it another way, “Would it be different if I had a podcast?”

“You do have a sermon podcast; the tech team posts your message every Monday.”

“Oh right…” at which point he had to admit to himself that he’d forgotten that; in fact, he’d never even been to the page where the sermons were posted.

Olivia got a text back from Mrs. Reynolds saying she wouldn’t be home for an hour, so Olivia texted back that they’d meet the next day instead.

Pastor Reynolds went back to his computer and tried to find an email he’d received several weeks ago from Jordan, Olivia’s husband. Jordan had recommended that the pastor watch and listen to a particular speaker but the email had sat ignored.

“Where did he say that guy was from?” the pastor asked himself. “Bismark? Boise? Bakersfield?” He found the email, clicked the link and started listening. He’d set the expectation bar quite low and wasn’t prepared for what he saw and heard.

After about four minutes, out loud to no one besides the cat, he said, “Oh my goodness… this ain’t the kind of preaching I was raised on.”

It was actually two hours before Mrs. Reynolds came home, and by then Pastor Reynolds had heard three sermons by three different next generation preachers, and had scrawled two pages of handwritten notes…


…Every healthy church has people of different ages who are being influenced by speakers and teachers online from their generation.  Someone who loves Charles Stanley is unlikely to develop an affection for John Mark Comer and vice versa. A fan of David Jeremiah is unlikely to convert to a steady diet of Judah Smith. A daily listener to Chuck Swindoll is unlikely to abandon him for Levi Lusko.

The point of today’s story however is that pastors would do well to invest some time listening to those teachers who are influencing the people in their congregation. People like Olivia can’t get to John Mark’s or Judah’s or Levi’s church. If they live more than an hour from a major city, they might not even be able to get to one like it. Pastor, they worship at your church and they’re part of your congregation.

But they have these other influences, just as certainly as the older people take in In Touch, Turning Point and Insight for Living. Furthermore, the older members of the church often listen to these radio and television preachers on a daily basis, whereas they only come to church once a week. Media preaching has a greater impact on many churchgoers than what takes place at weekend services.

Shouldn’t pastors take some time every once in awhile to check out what it is people are hearing? In the story, Pastor Reynolds announces to an empty house not that the message is ‘Heresy!’ but rather that the communication style is exceptionally different; greatly engaging. The pacing is different; there’s less shouting; the messages are longer but the times seems to fly by. He makes notes.

I think the practice of listening to the group of rising pastors and authors should be part of a pastor’s occasional routine. I know people in vocational ministry are busy and groan under the weight of all the books people in the church tell them they should read, and podcasts they should watch or listen to, but if someone in your congregation is overflowing with excitement about a spiritual influence in their lives, wouldn’t one would want to know what it is?


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January 17, 2019

Our Summer Church-Visit Holidays: The Pattern

We wanted to hear Rob Bell in person. The first time we travelled to Grand Rapids he was away, but we went back again to have the complete experience. Not long after, Rob was gone from Mars Hill Bible Church over his view of hell, among other things.

I had some history visiting Willow Creek to hear Bill Hybels, but my wife had not. We went several times to South Barrington to hear him. Last year, in the wake of #MeToo, Hybels was no longer at Willow nor were the people he had chosen as successors.

I had been captivated listening to James MacDonald’s preaching on radio while driving to work every morning. The first time we drove there we didn’t know that Elgin was just a new Harvest Bible Chapel campus so James wasn’t there. The second time we drove to Rolling Meadows and he was at Elgin. So technically, I’ve never heard him in person. This week he took — or was placed on — an indefinite leave of absence over issues involving money and control.

The moral of the story is we need to stop visiting churches…

…Actually, the moral of the story is something my father taught me several decades ago: Don’t invest your confidence or admiration in an individual preacher; they will invariably let you down at some point. The megachurches are always the biggest blips on our radar and many of them got there due to the charisma of a key personality.

Many of these Bible teachers are great communicators with a style that local church pastors may try to emulate though not always successfully. Often however, the character strength by which they are able to get up and speak to thousands of people each weekend also masks a character weakness in terms of how they handle that power and responsibility…

…There are a couple of churches I would still like to visit to hear the lead pastors speak in person, instead of on a small window of my computer screen. In the wake of all that’s transpired, I’m thinking it might be best not to. 


Sidebar: Both Hybels and MacDonald ministered in the area of greater Chicagoland called the ‘Northwest Suburbs.’ I wonder what the impact is there on both Christians and non-Christians alike in the wake of watching the fallout from leadership crises at two of the largest churches in the area. I can imagine doubters and skeptics saying, ‘See; I told you it was all a sham.’

While these two churches will continue to serve their congregations, no doubt some disillusioned people will take a step away from church, at least for a season. It may also be the case the smaller, local churches are left to pick up former members at Harvest and Willow who want to escape the megachurch environment.

The people — and pastors — in this part of Chicago really need our prayers.

January 8, 2019

Melding the Church Categories

Last year the academic books division of InterVarsity Press (IVP) released a title which intrigued me.  Gordon T. Smith is the President of Ambrose University in Calgary. Evangelical, Sacramental, Pentecostal: Why the Church Should Be All Three struck me as an ecclesiastic and doctrinal equivalent to what the late Robert Webber was trying to move us toward; the idea of blended worship. The idea is to move from a polarized, either/or approach to incorporating the best from different traditions.

At least I think that’s what it’s about. I don’t, after many attempts, get review books from IVP, be they academic or otherwise. (I’ll admit a lack of full qualification to review scholarly titles, but at 160 pages, I’d be willing to look up the big words!) For that reason, I’ll default to the publisher’s summary:

Evangelical. Sacramental. Pentecostal. Christian communities tend to identify with one of these labels over the other two. Evangelical churches emphasize the importance of Scripture and preaching. Sacramental churches emphasize the importance of the eucharistic table. And pentecostal churches emphasize the immediate presence and power of the Holy Spirit. But must we choose between them? Could the church be all three?

Drawing on his reading of the New Testament, the witness of Christian history, and years of experience in Christian ministry and leadership, Gordon T. Smith argues that the church not only can be all three, but in fact must be all three in order to truly be the church. As the church navigates the unique global challenges of pluralism, secularism, and fundamentalism, the need for an integrated vision of the community as evangelical, sacramental, and pentecostal becomes ever more pressing. If Jesus and the apostles saw no tension between these characteristics, why should we?

I mention the book now only because today is the release day for another book that I think offers a similar challenge and has a similar title.

Andrew Wilson is teaching pastor of King’s Church in London, part of the Newfrontiers network of churches. His book is titled: Spirit and Sacrament: An Invitation to Eucharismatic Worship (Zondervan). Full marks for the adjective — eucharismatic — which I’d never heard before. (Google produced 5,700 results, but the first page results were all for this book.)

Even though it’s only 140 pages, because the book just arrived late yesterday afternoon, I’ll again refer to the publisher summary:

Spirit and Sacrament by pastor and author Andrew Wilson is an impassioned call to join together two traditions that are frequently and unnecessarily kept separate. It is an invitation to pursue the best of both worlds in worship, the Eucharistic and the charismatic, with the grace of God at the center.

Wilson envisions church services in which healing testimonies and prayers of confession coexist, the congregation sings When I Survey the Wondrous Cross followed by Happy Day, and creeds move the soul while singing moves the body. He imagines a worship service that could come out of the book of Acts: Young men see visions, old men dream dreams, sons and daughters prophesy, and they all come together to the same Table and go on their way rejoicing.

Two sentences from the précis of both books:

  • “..the church not only can be all three, but in fact must be all three in order to truly be the church.” 
  • “…an impassioned call to join together two traditions that are frequently and unnecessarily kept separate. It is an invitation to pursue the best of both worlds in worship.”

Hopefully people are listening.


Read an excerpt from Andrew Wilson’s book at this link.

 

 

January 6, 2019

The Church Today Viewed Through the Lens of Tomorrow

I have strongly come to believe that if Jesus Christ’s second coming does not otherwise interrupt the trajectory of Evangelicalism in North America, Australia/New Zealand and Western Europe, that something like the following will be written about us in the not-so-distant future:

They allowed music to be an all-important feature of their gatherings to the point where it became a dominant factor in shaping their view of God and His ways and attracting people to their churches. They did so at the expense of songs of testimony, songs of proclamation, songs of commitment, songs of assurance, songs narrating the history of God’s people, and songs after the pattern of the Psalter which reiterate passages from the scriptures.

They created a generation with an incomplete picture of the work of the Church and the purposes of God; trading this to sing platitudes often distant from their hearts.

…At least that’s my opinion.

November 19, 2018

The Future of Reverence at Church

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:13 am

I arrived, admittedly, two minutes late.

I started to open the double door leading into the sanctuary/auditorium/big-room, and immediately realized the pastor was in the middle of the opening prayer. I quickly closed the door.

I started quietly talking to the woman at the door handing out bulletins in the lobby.

I was effectively blocking the door.

A young woman, who I know, walked up to the door.

“They’re praying;” I told her.

And then, the unthinkable.

She replied, “I don’t care about that.”

She opened the door which sent some noise from the lobby into the auditorium. Some people in the back two rows turned toward the door to see what was causing the distraction.

I looked at the woman I had been talking to.

“I don’t care about that?” I whispered.

…Telling my wife the story later I realized what she meant was basically, ‘The fact he’s praying does not affect me. I don’t mind walking in and heading to my seat in the third row. His praying will not inconvenience me, because I don’t plan to wait for him to finish.’

But this is church.

Waiting is exactly what we once did in these situations.

Not any more, I guess.

At least for her.

November 8, 2018

Preempting the Sunday Morning Service

Filed under: Christianity, Church — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:03 am

Yesterday I heard about a third church in my area which is replacing the normal worship time and sermon with a concert. That’s right, a concert.

While this is nothing new, it certainly is becoming more prevalent. In the case of the one I just heard about, I know the band in question and have no doubt that some good ministry will take place that Sunday morning; and I recognize that the Sunday Evening service has become extinct, so realistically, only one opportunity is available to do this sort of thing on a day when the church family is guaranteed to be present.

Still, I wonder about this.

I’m trying to picture a Roman Catholic, or an Episcopalian showing up for church and instead of the familiar liturgical call to worship, a band starts playing a song. And then one more. And then another. They would probably feel their worship service had been hijacked. While one or two might like the creative change, I suspect that most simply value their order-of-service too much to see it removed; even for a single week. Those forms simply offer too much spiritual benefit to be sacrificed, even for a single week.

But Evangelicals don’t approach church that way. In the modern, megachurch-mimmicking church service there are three elements:

  1. Worship
  2. Announcements/Offering
  3. Teaching

Apparently, it’s okay to take a week off from the formal teaching time or the teaching plus the worship time. Hopefully the concert serves as a drawing card that is part of a coordinated evangelism effort to which people are inviting their friends and the pastor will indeed deliver a short challenge.

Often the concert is actually a set-up for a pitch from a relief and development organization.

My wife finds this a rather consumerist mentality. People will come to be entertained. She also wonders why the people in the band want to miss participating in their own church’s worship service that morning. Many of these same people, if asked to work at their job on Sunday morning, would tell their boss they cannot because they attend church.

It’s also worth noting that this year with November 11th falling on a Sunday, many churches in our area are rearranging their worship service time to accommodate attending the service at the local war memorial or cenotaph. In Canada, we don’t have both Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, so our Remembrance Day takes on greater importance.

One church, which normally has two services is only doing the early one. Another church has shifted their worship to a 12 noon “Café Service.”

I don’t recall any Evangelical church rearranging their schedule when this day was also a Sunday, but admittedly it takes anywhere between 5 and 13 years (because of Leap Years) for this type of thing to repeat, and by then the memory isn’t as accurate.

And don’t get me started about what happens when Christmas Day is a Sunday. (Relax, it’s a Tuesday this year.)

August 31, 2018

Christian Celebrity is Fleeting

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:58 am

by Drew Dyck

A few years back I interviewed Tim Keller and mentioned it to my parents. I thought they’d be impressed since they were in ministry for 40 years, but they were like “Tim who?”

Then they asked me about some of the big leaders in their generation, and I only faintly recognized a few of the names. It was a good reminder that this silly thing we call Christian celebrity rarely extends beyond a generation.

Also, your great grandchildren probably won’t even know your name. So chill about your “legacy.”

from Twitter

 

Drew is a Canadian living in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and works for both Moody Press and Christianity Today. He is the author of Yawning at Tigers (Thomas Nelson). I got to know him online when he was tasked for a time with editing my weekly column for CT.

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