Thinking Out Loud

January 26, 2016

“If You’re Visiting, Let the Offering Plate Pass By”

Offering PlateOne of the elements of the seeker sensitive movement which caught on within the wider circle of Evangelicals is the idea of not presenting ourselves as just wanting money. When Bill Hybels founded Willow Creek, it was one of two things that turned up in his community survey: ‘We don’t want to be asked to give money.’ (The other was anonymity: ‘We don’t want to be asked to stand up and give our names or be identified as visitors.’)

The line, “If you’re a visitor with us today, don’t feel any obligation to give;” or “This is an opportunity for our own people to worship through giving; if you’re visiting, just let the offering plate pass by;” has become a mantra in many of our churches. They say this in my church, and if I were asked to do the announcements — something for 20 years I’ve been deemed incapable of — I would certainly echo the same sentiment.

But I’m not sure it applies anymore.

For the four reasons below, I want to suggest doing away with it, or at least amending it somewhat.

First, we had the Willow Creek study, which showed that the spiritual characteristics of seekers had changed over the (then) 25-or-so years the church had been operating. Seekers wanted to go deep, they wanted to sit with their Bible in one hand and a pen in the other. They certainly didn’t see themselves as visitors or observers, they wanted to engage with the service the same as everybody else.

Second, there was the study North Point did which focused on people who had been attending for five weeks or less. This survey showed that what we would call visitors were already wanting to “discern next steps.” They wanted to fully plunge in, including volunteering to help. They saw themselves as potential participants, not outsiders. This echoes the saying that, “You’re only a visitor once.” Both of these studies were conducted by professional researchers.

Third, there is my own observation of what happens at Christmas services where an offering is received; a practice we can debate at another time. It’s assumed that many are visiting these services, so sometimes the line is simply skipped, and on those occasions, I’ve seen people who I know to be visiting reach into their wallets and pull out twenty dollar bills, or more. Perhaps they have a spirit of giving because of the season and want to be generous. Maybe it’s guilt for not having been more philanthropic throughout the year. For whatever reason, they seem to want to give.

Finally, there is simply my own hunch that people want to join in because they see the community value in what is taking place because the church is there. The church I attend is making a difference our town, and is in fact in the middle of a project involving refugee placement that has attracted interest from the broader community and has created some partnerships with local charities. (Matthew 5:16b “…that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.“) I think we’re doing things that people want to encourage.

Having said all that, I do understand the spirit of the original Willow Creek goal of not being seen as simply wanting money. I don’t think we should abandon that altogether. But there are other ways of phrasing it that might stay in step with the spirit of the statements we’re using and at the same time invite visitors to join in if they choose, and hopefully eventually come to a place of entering in with their hearts as well as their wallets.


1 Peter 2:12
Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

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September 28, 2012

Giving Your Church What They Prefer Over What They Need

Matt Marino is an Episcopal Priest who spent 17 years with Young Life.  He dares to pose a question that’s being heard more and more recently,

What’s so uncool about cool churches?

[This is a teaser, you are strongly advised to click the link above and read the whole article, which has so far attracted over 100 comments.]

They ask for more and more, and we give it to them. And more and more the power of God is substituted for market-driven experience. In an effort to give people something “attractive” and “relevant” we embraced novel new methods in youth ministry, that 20 years later are having a powerful shaping effect on the entire church. Here are the marks of being market-driven; Which are hallmarks of your ministry?

  1. Segregation. We bought into the idea that youth should be segregated from the family and the rest of the church. It started with youth rooms, and then we moved to “youth services.” We ghettoized our children! (After all, we are cooler than the older people in “big church”. And parents? Who wants their parents in their youth group?)
  2. Big = effective. Big is (by definition) program driven: Less personal, lower commitment; a cultural and social thing as much as a spiritual thing...
  3. More programs attended = stronger disciples. The inventors of this idea, Willow Creek, in suburban Chicago, publicly repudiated this several years ago. They discovered that there was no correlation between the number of meetings attended and people’s spiritual maturity...
  4. Christian replacementism. We developed a Christian version of everything the world offers: Christian bands, novels, schools, soccer leagues, t-shirts. We created the perfect Christian bubble.
  5. Cultural “relevance” over transformation.We imitated our culture’s most successful gathering places in an effort to be “relevant.” Reflect on the Sunday “experience” at most Big-box churches:ure.
    • Concert hall (worship)
    • Comedy club (sermon)
    • Coffee house (foyer)
  6. Professionalization. If we do know an unbeliever, we don’t need to share Christ with them, we have pastors to do that. We invite them to something… to an “inviter” event… we invite them to our “Christian” subcult
  7. “McDonald’s-ization” vs. Contextualization:  It is no longer our own vision and passion. We purchase it as a package from today’s biggest going mega-church. It is almost like a “franchise fee” from Saddleback or The Resurgence.
  8. Attractional over missional. When our greatest value is butts in pews we embrace attractional models. Rather than embrace Paul’s Ephesians 4 model in which ministry gifts are given by God to “equip the saints” we have developed a top-down hierarchy aimed at filling buildings. This leaves us with Sunday “church” an experience for the unchurched, with God-centered worship of the Almighty relegated to the periphery and leading of the body of Christ to greater spiritual power and sanctification to untrained small group leaders.

continue reading the whole article here.

As I prepared this, I thought of point number eight in light of my ‘online’ church home, North Point. There are only two worship songs, and further worship is relegated to Thursday nights every other month. But even those nights simply mirror what happens on Sunday morning, which is itself an extension of the youth ministry model.

Some youth are not happen with the state of the church, and are seeking an entirely different model, as we wrote last week.  Other teens and twenty-somethings are simply leaving, as we noted two weeks ago. So there are issues that need to be addressed as to the sustainability of the present models within student ministry; but also larger implications for an entire assembly or congregation.

Among the comments at Matt’s article:

  • Being hip isn’t the problem you’re addressing, its the lack of content which plagues both cool (too much focus on preference for entertainment) and uncool (to much focus on preference for tradition)
  • What matters isn’t what the preacher wears, whether there is coffee, whether there is a rock band or an orchestra or just a piano, is the FRUIT.
  • “Guitar Praise — Just Like Guitar Hero, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!”
    “Praise Ponies — Just Like My Little Pony, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!”
    “Testamints — Just like Altoids, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!”
    “Christian Chirp — Just like Twitter, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!”
    “GodTube — Just like YouTube, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!”
    “Seek & Find” — Just like Google Search, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!”
    “Johnny Hammer — Just like Justin Beiber, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!”
  • Your biggest draw, which is providing a loving community where all kids can belong, is completely lost when your church preaches a bigoted message on homosexuality.
  • We assemble to worship, serve, please and praise God. It’s all about HIM! Not us. Smoke machines, guitars, pianos, lasers, and flashing lights? Why? Does this please God? Is it what he’s asked for? Or is it a ploy to bring more bodies in? Hey, I am all for trying to get more souls in the pews, but let’s do it in a way that doesn’t put make-up on God.
  • A good church cannot be determined by its “style” of worship. What is important? Shouldn’t a church be judged by things like its theology, its teaching, its mission, the fellowship and growth of its people, whether people come to God and become closer to God?

April 10, 2012

Fine Tuning Creativity and Relevance

Filed under: Church — Tags: , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:12 am

Okay, so now we’re into day six of my being without my own PC, and I have a deeper understanding of why they call them personal computers.  I miss my bookmarks.  I miss my files.  I miss the annoying noise the fan makes.  Hopefully today it returns from sick bay, virus free.  So today we steal feature the writing of Australian Mark Sayers, author of The Trouble with Paris, and The Vertical Self who blogged this a few weeks back under the title The Art of Irrelevance


There are very few people who would disagree with the notion that the Church needs to embrace creativity. One of the great moves over the last ten to fifteen years in Christian culture has been an attempt to close the creativity gap between the Church and the wider culture. Thus a great deal of Church websites are now more pleasing on the eye, our brochures look slicker, Christian bands look cooler, our worship is more experiential, and there are conferences aplenty to serve those wishing to learn more about creative ministries.

Yet are these moves really about creativity? I am not so sure. So much of this movement to make Christians more creative is wrapped up in the quest to make Church more relevant. Which is a kind of short hand way of trying to say that we need to close the cultural gap between the Church and the wider society. That for the Christian faith in the West to remain relevant (note that word) we must be running at the same pace as secular culture when it comes trends and fashion. If we can achieve this, if our music, our images, our worship services look and sound like the wider culture, the doors of the Church will be broken down by the spiritually hungry.

This view assumes that secularism is not the main reason that the Church is marginalised in the West, rather we have gotten our aesthetic wrong. A problem easily remedied by simply mimicking the style and fashions of the wider culture. So our services begin to look like Australian Idol, our Christian indie bands look like secular indie bands, youth ministry websites look like secular websites trying to reach the youth market. In the midst of all of this Christians do get a chance exercise their creativity, through their musical or design based gifting, but is this the kind of creative endeavor that we as believers are really called to? Is this genuine creativity or mimicry?

When we see creativity as simply a tool to aid us in our quest to become relevant, we hungrily seek out those who have crossed over the cultural divide and who straddle the mysterious line between Christian and secular artists. For the last twenty-five years Christians have inquired about the faith status of Bono, now young believes ask similar ‘are they or aren’t they’ questions about The Temper Trap, Mumford and Sons, and Sufjan Stevens. These questions are rooted in the belief that by association with the social currency of celebrity the cultural gap can be further closed.

When we simply mimic the art of wider culture, we become something like gift shops at the art gallery, the real works are inside, and all we offer are mass produced prints and imitations.

I believe that we have to start again. I believe that the mission of the Church to the West will not be achieved by simply becoming cooler, or by mimicking the styles and tastes of the wider culture. Instead the church must understand what it truly means to create rather than to mimic. We only have to look to the past to see that this is possible, there is a whole cavalcade of creatives whose faith inspired them to be at the forefront of cultural creativity. We only have to listen to Handel, to look at a painting by Carrivagio, to walk through a building by Gaudi, or read Dostoyevsky to understand that for these great artists creativity was not about bridging a gap between the wider culture and the Church. Rather faith for these people was the foundation that enabled them to create sublime, incredible works of creativity which speak to us still today.

I believe that we need to return to a biblical understanding of our God given mandate as humans to create. We are created in God’s image, God is the creator of the world, the architect of the Himalayas, the Bird of Paradise and the Andromeda system. God speaks the world into being. We are called to be his ambassadors on earth, to act as he acts; so the ability to create, to imagine things and then to bring them into being is an essential part of our humanity. We are not called to simply mimic, God gives us the ability to create.

When God created humans in the garden he gave us the role of guardians or stewards of creation. When I hear steward I think of someone in a fluorescent vest ensuring that people do not run onto the pitch at sporting events. The Hebrew word used is Shomer, the english translation struggles to capture the true breadth of this word. A Shomer in Jewish thinking is someone who is chosen to look after and guard something of worth, and who is held accountable for their stewardship by a Rabbinical court. The role of the Shomer is not simply to be a passive guard but to cultivate the item in their care.

Thus as stewards we are called to partner with God in his great creative project, the redemption of a broken cosmos. God calls us to be a part of the creative process. Creativity is not a choice it is part of our mandate.

On the Cross we discover a vital element of God’s creative nature. One of the struggles of the artist is to hold together the awe inspiring and the transcendent elements of life, those moments which remind us of God’s glory, with the painful and broken elements of life. Christians tend to do okay at the first part, Christian bookstores are filled with prints of glorious mountain ranges, we love the transcendent apex of the worship song. But we tend to struggle with the broken elements of life, with integrating suffering, lament and loss into our creativity. On the Cross, God intervenes in history with such staggering alacrity and originality we can only marvel at his creativity. In one moment, God’s glory is revealed, Jesus takes sin upon his shoulders and defeats death and evil, yet at the same time, we are confronted with the image of a dying God, a man whose painful screams speak of his isolation from God. The crucifixion is one of those rare moments, where the transcendent and the immanent, the glorious and the earthly, the human and the divine are held together. It is the ultimate template for Christian creatives. Hold those extremes together and you will produce work that no longer is mimicry but which is truly creative.

~Mark Sayers

This article was originally published in Youth Vision Quarterly Magazine

Photo: Woodman Valley Chapel, Colorado Springs

December 9, 2011

Preaching in Your Pajamas*

No, this isn’t about a recurring nightmare that your pastor has, although, as a regular in a church orchestra, I can honestly say I had the dream where I was sitting among my fellow church musicians in sleepwear. 

Nor is this a rant about the trend in the last 20-30 years of preachers losing the three piece suit, or at least the jacket and tie.  That shipped sailed long ago.  While I agree with the maintaining respect or decorum for the ‘spiritual office’ of pastor, I also appreciate that the slightly more casual look is (a) more welcoming to visitors and (b) more affirming of the principle that the pastor is a human like the rest of us.

Years ago, in order to catch a piece of history, I visited The Vineyard church in Yorba Linda, California while the late John Wimber was the pastor.  (If the trend in my Charles Shultz and Bil Keane pieces holds up, someone will now turn up in the comments section to speak ill of Wimber.  Trashing the deceased is apparently acceptable now, to some anyway.)  Wimber was also a musician, so he was playing in the worship band and was probably the last person you would pick out as being the one who was about to deliver the sermon.  Dressed in a sky blue jogging outfit or track suit, he then got up and gave a passionate message for the better part of an hour, and if you walked away only remembering the way he was dressed, you probably needn’t have bothered to go at all.

I say all this because, as part and parcel of the ongoing Rick Warren bashing, I’ve noticed a few people talking about his Hawaiian shirts.  I’m not sure if he still wears them on a regular basis, or if it’s just a stereotype, but it appears to some these shirts represent less than the minimum standard for a respectable pastor.

I’m not so sure, however.  I keep thinking back to Wimber and wondering if maybe it’s just a Southern California thing, something reflective of west coast culture. Of a pastor who is trying to connect with the local culture in order to, as the Apostle Paul put it, “win some.”

It also occurs to me that some of the Warren bashers have run out of things to say, and in the process have noticed that despite their ravings, Warren and Saddleback haven’t gone away, so they fire a cheap shot across the bow that’s in the spirit of, “Your maternal parent wears military footwear.”  Or the virus that got into my computer years ago and sent people a note that simply said, “You are fat;” hoping to strike injury at some deepest level. By their clothing ye shall know them.

Makes you wonder who is really showing up for church in their p.j.’s… and perhaps their recurring nightmare should be the one where they are keying in their latest hate rant on their blog and suddenly realize they have absolutely nothing to say.

*For the record, I originally titled this “Preaching in Pyjamas” using the spelling I grew up with in Canada, and the one known to my UK readers; but again my spellchecker would have none of it; so in concession to the sheer numbers of my U.S. readers, I caved, but only for numeric reasons; the Brits did (literally) invent the language after all.

June 29, 2011

Wednesday Link List

Wednesday list lynx

Christianity Today magazine has found that recent articles on worship resonate with people, and that’s reflected in the first two links this week:

  • People want services to be accessible, but D. H. Williams asks the question, ‘Are there limits to this strategy?’
  • Why did the church embrace the pop/rock style found in today’s modern worship, but not utilize jazz or big band in its day?  Lawrence Mumford looks at the diversity of worship styles.
  • And over at Relevant Magazine — which we’ll return to later here — Adam Wood reminds us that worship involves the participation of both leader and congregant.
  • Ever been stuck in a checkout line where the person in front of you seems to be buying out the whole store?  Pete Wilson was, and he was anxious to get on his way, until he suddenly saw the person ahead of him in a different perspective.
  • I understand a little of where John Shore is coming from.  He’s certainly sympathetic to people who are both gay and professing Christians. [Example]  But does he go too far in one direction?  The blogger known as The Son He Loves thinks so and calls him on it.
  • Castanea, a word meaning ‘Chestnut tree,’ is also the name of a tribal community living together in Chestnut Hill, Tenn, which serves in this USAToday story as an example of what is called The New Monasticism.
  • Dan Kimball writes about Francis Chan‘s Erasing Hell with words like these: “It comes from a heart that is broken about hell. The pages themselves almost weep it is so heartfelt written. I know that sounds kind of corny, but it is true. This is written from a broken heart on the topic and that makes all the difference.”
  • If you’ve got Adobe, here’s the link to the .pdf with the Committee on Bible Translation’s response to the Southern Baptist resolution regarding the updated NIV Bible translation.
  • Also lining up to take a shot at the new NIV — with the accompanying fifteen minutes of fame — is the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.  You can read the .pdf containing the CBT’s response to the CBMW. This best addresses the so-called ‘gender issues’ in the new translation, though it won’t satisfy people who already have their minds made up.
  • Discovered a new blog this week for our “If You Want Deep, We’ll Give You Deep” department.  Check out this treatment of the subject of atonement.  (Full title: …Without the Theoretical Nonsense.)
  • With two potential Mormon Republican presidential candidates, not to mention a Broadway play, here’s ten things you may or may not know about the faith of your LDS friends.
  • And speaking of cults, Darrell at Stuff Fundies Like thinks that the proponents of the kind of faith he blogs about are actually a bit of a contradiction.
  • There’s a Christian Game Development Conference.  Who knew?  But never underestimate the popularity of computer gaming.  By the way, for bonus points, visit their site and try to find clues as to where the conference is taking place.
  • Yet another CT piece; this one on how in their zeal to expand, multi-site churches with satellite campuses are now crossing state lines
  • A Pew Forum survey shows that Evangelical leaders are less concerned about Islam and more concerned about creeping secularism.
  • Jon Acuff has four reasons why people ditch church in the summer.  (Reasons not really good enough.)
  • Finally one more from Jon Acuff and his article on Christian satire for Relevant magazine, where we find today’s closing image:

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