Things to Do Today

May 29, 2009

Inspired by this lady who recently passed away from leukemia, here is your to-do list.  Good luck.

  1. Appreciate something.
  2. Be a force for good.
  3. Believe in something bigger than yourself.
  4. Hug a kid.
  5. Treat your body at least as well as you treat you car.
  6. Listen to a new idea, whether it turns out to be right or not.
  7. Give someone something they need before they ask for it.
  8. Bring joy to somebody.
  9. Ask for help.
  10. Add something to this list.

Got all that? Good.

Now off you go.


It Is What It Is?

May 14, 2009

Thank you to Mike Cope for planting the seed of this post:

In Illusions of Innocence, restorationist theo-historians Leonard Allen and Richard Hughes write:

“The restoration perspective has worked in American life in two important ways. Some Americans have enshrined first times as an ideal to be approximated and even as a kind of transcendent norm that stands in judgment on the ambiguities of the present age. In this case, the myth of first times has been a beacon summoning Americans to perfection. On the other hand, some Americans have fully identified their religious denomination or even their nation itself with the purity of first times. The illusion thereby fostered in the minds of these Americans is that they are an innocent and fundamentally natural people who, in effect, have stepped outside of history, thereby escaping the powerful influences of history, culture, and tradition. These Americans therefore have often confused the historic particularities of their limited experience with universal norms that should be embraced, they have thought, by all people in all cultures and all times.”

The point they make is valid, if self-condemning.  In essence, they find a strong correlation between how Americans view the Constitution with how they view Scripture.  Is the Constitution a normative, rigid framework for government to be interpreted strictly and literally, right down to the punctuation marks?  Or is the Constitution a living document, a product of its time and place to be interpreted based on what America needs it to be now?  Is government free to act in unconstitutional ways when they decide they “need to,” or does doing so threaten the legitimacy or even the very existence of that government?  Is the Constitution sufficient to govern America in any time under any circumstances, or do we live in a “post-Constitutional” culture that demands a new way of thinking and doing government?  Ultimately, how a person answers these questions determines whether the person is conservative or liberal politically.

That same “strict constructionist” vs. “living document” debate has been raging in hermeneutical circles in churches of Christ for most of the last three decades, fueled in no small measure by Hughes and Allen among others.  The issue at hand is about the nature of Scripture itself.  What is the Bible, why is it here, and what do we do with it?  Allen and Hughes argue that, like with the Constitution, those who advocate a “strict constructionist” view of Scripture are laboring under an illusion of innocence — that is, the rules of history and cultural change simply do not apply. Further, they argue that the norms of the “first times” cannot be replicated or even approximated. Too much time has gone by, and those who believe otherwise are ignorant, willfully or otherwise.

Now to be sure, the “strict constructionist” view of Scripture has its flaws, particularly when the Bible is seen as a sort of “Constitution of the Christian faith” as one of my college professors described it.  Times have changed. Society’s needs are different in 21st century Kentucky than they were in 1st century Corinth.  What we do as Christians is, like it or not, an expression of who we are.  To pretend otherwise is to be dishonest with God.

But the “living document hermeneutic” is likewise rife with problems.  For one, it completely misses the nature of divine revelation, particularly in the Old Testament.  The Law of Moses lasted for 1500 years.  During that time, Israel went from being a nomadic people wandering the desert to being a confederation of tribes, then a kingdom, then two kingdoms, then an oppressed minority within any number of world empires.  Times changed.  But for all their changing circumstances, God only gave Israel one Moses.  Instead of sending prophets to give new laws for new circumstances, God sent Isaiah and company to show how the Law of Moses still applied.  The prophets were the original Restoration Movement.

Likewise, in the New Testament, Jesus sent His apostles to “preach the gospel to every creature.”  How that gospel inpacted a person’s life was different from individual to individual, from city to city, and from time to time.  But the gospel itself is timeless.  The principles that Jesus taught — that the apostles explained to Corinthians, Romans, and Colossians, that carry down to us today in Scripture — never change.

The “living document hermeneutic,” then, asks the wrong question.  It wants to know “Does the principle in Scripture still apply today?”  The answer is yes.  Always.  Without exception.  “How does the principle apply” might vary from time to time and place to place, but the principle itself stands — always and forever.

The Constitution itself gives us a hint as to why that might be.  Article V, section 1, says that whenever Cnogress deems necessary, it (or the states) can propose amendments to the Constitution.  Those amendments, if ratified, become just as much a part of the Constitution as the rest of it.  This process has been carried to completion 27 times in American history.

That’s the difference.  The Constitution recognizes its own fallibility, while the Bible does not.  The Bible does not have, nor has it ever had, an amendment process. We the people have no right to decide whether God’s decision should stand, or to change it once it is made.  God asks us to trust that His Word is all we need no matter where we live, or when.

This calls from great hermeneutical care.  We must never elevate the traditions of men to the level of principles of God.  Likewise, we must never dismiss one of God’s principles based on which men stand in apporval of them.

Love — Not Who, But Why?

May 13, 2009

According to 12th century monk Bernard of Clairvaux, the love that God commands is nothing new to human beings. In fact, it is one of the “four natural affections.”  Nature itself dictates that we have a degree of love, if only love of oneself.  We are all capable of acting in what we believe to be our own best interests, or as Paul puts it, “No one hates his own body.” Bernard argues that narcissism — “first-degree love” — is in essence the schoolmaster which brings us into fellowship with God.

Sometimes, that enlightened self-interest even extends to the benefit of those around us.  As such, our love grows by degrees to include our neighbor, or even God.  Even the narcissist sees the wisdom in the love of the Survivor contestant, acting in concert and in ways that are mutually beneficial, until such time as circumstances dictate severing the alliance. The Survivor loves, so long as that loves serves his other goals.

Exposure to the God of the Bible often creates this kind of love for God. Reading of God’s justice, His lavish vengence on His enemies, and His equally lavish rewards for His children can motivate a person to enter into a relationship with God. This “Social Gospel” love, however, is still not much different than narcissism, as it is motivated not by what is good for God, but by what is good for me. I love God, I serve God, I even love and serve my fellow man because in the end I stand to gain from the transaction. If loving you or God is good for me, then I will. But when it ceases to be such, my love for you or God ends. This is “second-degree love.”

Bernard argues that for Christian maturity to advance beyond mere enlightened narcissism, what has to change in the perosn is not who or what they love, but for whose sake the love is given.  “Third-degree love” is loving God not for my own sake, but for His.  This love recognizes God for who He is and seeks to return to Him the love He has shown to us. “Whoever praises God for His essential goodness, and not merely becasue of the gifts He has given, loves God for God’s sake and not selfishly.”

But even “third-degree love” rings a bit hollow. After all, part of what makes God God is His work as Creator. To love God for His own sake, but to insist that His creation is only worthy of such love as it can earn by being useful strikes quite a hypocritical note. To demand that something to which God has given His love unconditionally must somehow prove iteself to us places us in judgment over God Himself. This demand also gives rise to the belief that God’s love for us is similarly earned, creating in the Christian the mind of the Pharisee rather than the mind of Christ.

So even as we learn to love God for who He is, “love God for His own sake” in the words of Bernard, we must also take the next step to what Bernard calls “fourth-degree love.” We must learn to love ourselves again, but this time for God’s sake.  Bernard compares this love to becoming “like a red-hot iron, forgetting its own nature and becoming like the fire itself.” When we love “for God’s sake,” our love is motivated not by what is good for us, but by what is good for Him. Then we learn to love what God loves — and not just when doing so suits us.

When the “why” of love informs the “what,” narcissism is replaced with fellowship.

Proactive Benevolence

May 6, 2009

The current Christian Chronicle poses the question of how churches should respond to benevolence requests, especially during hard economic times. Ironically, as need increases, available resources dwindle. So churches have to be compassionate, but careful. We have to be good stewards of what God has given us, but we also have to take advantage of what God gives us in terms of opportunities to do good.

The catch is that in my experience — both as full-time Benevolence Minister for a congregation in downtown Nashville and later in eleven years of full-time pulpit ministry — people who ask for help are the ones who are least likely to benefit from what churches typically provide.

Part of the problem is in the recipients themselves. Some are, to put it bluntly, scammers. They find their mark and strike. Others have been dependent on others for so long they don’t have any ability to care for themselves. In many cases, they have even lost the interest in doing so. One client in particular I remember once said she needed the church to pay her light bill so she could pay for her cable TV. This isn’t dishonest or sinful; it’s just stupid. And as long as these folks know someone will take care of them, they have no reason to change.

The real tragedy is, the people who could most benefit from a “hand up” from a church are those least likely to get it. Either they don’t know to ask for help, or they assume that if they do ask for help the church will assume they are either a dependent or a scammer. Sometimes pride gets in the way of asking for help — financial or otherwise.

But a significant part of the problem lies in how churches go about their benevolence work.  Typically, the process of a church addressing a benevolence need begins when the person asks for help.  Herein lies the rub.  In my experience, beneviolence cases are much like calls for pastoral counseling.  By the time you get to my office, you need more help than I an equipped to provide.

Acts 3:6 is instructive on this topic.  There, Peter tells the beggar at the temple, “Silver and gold I do not have, but what I have I give you — in the name of Jesus, rise up and walk.”  Too much of church benevolence is aimed at making us feel better about ourselves by how “helpful” we are.  But the reality is that much of what we call “help” actually does more harm than good.  Either we perpetuate dependence or we pay a “scammer” to go away, all the while believeing that being lighter on the pocket makes us “good people.”  In all my time in ministry, I have never known of a person to ask for money, get it, and be better off because they did.  Our objective is not to feel good about ourselves, but to actually help people.

If churches want to make a significant dent in the needs of their neighbors, instead of sitting back and waiting for the requests to come to us, we should instead go looking for opportunities to be helpful.  Benevolence should be proactive instead of reactive.  If we know of a neighbor who has fallen on hard times, going to them before they are forced to come to us maintains their dignity — allowing them to stand on their own two feet.

It also opens a door for a long-term, and perhaps eternal, relationship.

Am I Worth Saving?

April 2, 2009

Recently I watched — for the first time in almost two decades — the official video of the Fallbrook High School Class of 1991.

As they say in Minnesota, oof da.

But it got me to thinking.

One of the reasons I didn’t end up a teacher is that I never really liked high school in the first place. Being younger than everybody else probably didn’t help, but for the most part I was the outsider. The oddball. I was the guy you always saw in class but never saw at parties.

True story: Every year after AP tests, if you took a test that morning you were “unofficially” excused from the rest of your classes that day. Senior year, after the (I think) AP European History exam, a number of my classmates went to a party. There was a conspicuous amount of alcohol, and the rumor was that the police had to intervene in at least one case. Now, not everybody went to the party, but almost everybody knew about it. That afternoon, I went by myself to the barbecue place owned by the President of the local chess club where he and I chatted over a chess board and a bowl of teriyaki chicken and rice. I went home.

A few days later, I found out about the party — from my mom. She knew more about my classmates social life than I did, and I saw them every day.

It’s not that I was unfriendly, or that I would have ratted people out if I had known what was going on. I simply didn’t have much to offer. I was young, awkward, not poor but certainly not rich by Fallbrook standards, and known for being “out of the loop.” I didn’t get a drivers license until May of my junior year. I only bought clothes once a year (less often now). I was useful in the band, on the Academic Team, and if somebody needed help with their chemistry homework. But beyond that, there wasn’t much reason for anybody to go out of their way to make sure I was included in what they were doing.

As such, my perspective on the “normal” high school experience was that it was for “other people.” “Other people” play on sports teams. “Other people” hang out with friends on weekends, play in garage bands. “Other people” go to movies, school dances (I was 0-for Homecoming, Christmas, and Prom), and parties. “Other people” have girlfriends.

Not me. I was different. I was the oddball.

And when it comes to “social networking,” not much has changed in the 18 years since high school. “Other people” get blog comments. “Other people” have Twitter followers and Facebook friends. “Other people” have Super Bowl parties, Memorial Day lake trips, 4th of July barbecues. “Other people” get invited to other “other people’s” dinner parties.

Me? I play Boggle. In Klingon. Solitaire (of course).

Thus, for the outsider John 3:16 creates quite the theological quandary. “For God so loved the world that He gave His Only Begotten Son.” God loved the world. The “normal” thing is for God to love you. God’s gift of grace is for “the world.”

That is, it’s for “other people.”

The “one another” passages only made it worse. “Love one another.” “Bear one another’s burdens.” Be the sort of person that “other” people want to have around. Clearly, I was not that. Worse, I had no idea how to be that, or even where to begin.

If Christianity is the religion of “one another,” then clearly it’s the religion of “other people.” Right?

But where does that leave the oddball? Am I — the outsider, the freak, the mostly-useless, socially inept loner — really worth saving? If “other people” don’t want me around (and, for the record, in large measure they still don’t — imagine being the only guy at the church social function who doesn’t take a pinch when the snuff tin is passed around), isn’t God better off with me elsewhere? Isn’t God’s purpose better served by not having to claim me as one of His Own?

Am I really worth saving? Or is salvation just for “other people?”

As I fell into a depressive funk, John 14:11-13 snapped me back — and hard. Jesus tells His disciples just after the Last Supper, “Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me; otherwise believe because of the works themselves. Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father. Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”

Now for me, believing came easily. I had long since settled in my mind that the historical facts of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection were as the Bible portrayed them. To me, they are beyond doubt. As such, I believe in Jesus, without hesitation. (He and I have exchanged some cross words over the years, but that’s another story for another day.)

But look at what that verse says about people who believe in Jesus. “The works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father.” In God’s mind, there is more to my salvation that just having another wallflower at the heavenly party. God wants to do more with me than just keep me out of hell and score a point against Satan.

God actually wants to have me around.

I am an important part of God’s plan. There are works that God has in store for me that are even greater than some of the things Jesus Himself did. My worth to God is greater than I could possibly imagine. God actually went out of His way to make sure that I was included in what He is up to. And what’s more, He trusts me not to make Him look bad in the process. Jesus Himself has my back. He vouches for me; it is on His word that I am welcomed to the team and freely given what I need to glorify the Father.

In Christ, even the outsider has a way in.

Why Good Ministers Make Bad Preachers (and Vice Versa)

February 11, 2009

Writing is hard.

Some people have the glibness, the freedom of personality, the unencumbered stream of consciousness that allows them to pour out paragraph on top of paragraph of insight — theological or otherwise — quickly, effortlessly, and voluminously.

But for me, writing is hard. The sentence above took almost 30 minutes to write, edit, rewrite, and finally settle on.

And even then, look at what you have.

For me, writing is hard. It’s work. Hard, time-consuming, physically and emotionally and spiritually draining labor. Granted, it’s not ditch-digging, but still.

And for many ministers, it’s just not worth the effort. For a lot of the guys occupying pulpits today, the more “important” work of ministry happens on Tuesday morning in the home of the widow, during the Thursday afternoon funeral planning meeting with the grieving family, or at the youth group member’s basketball game on Friday night. There are civic club meetings, and personal evangelism sales calls outside the office, and all manner of meetings and administrative duties inside the office. Never mind the social networking that for so many happens almost instinctively.

And therein lies the rub. Ministry is a people business. But preaching is, essentially, a writing job. And for the small-church, solo-practitioner, it’s two to four writing jobs a week.

At thirty minutes per sentence, that’s quite the time requirement.

Only the rarest of five-talent preacher/ministers can do both well. Most, though, have to make tough choices about where they will devote their energies.

When it comes to ministry talent, I barely have one. And since I’m determined not to bury it in the sand, I choose to spend my days reading and writing. You see, I have never been the social butterfly, nor even someone people generally went out of their way to spend time with. Writing is hard work, but social relationships are mystifying.

For me, the choice is stark — either try to engage people socially until they tire of me and send me away all the while producing bad-to-mediocre sermons and articles, or devote my energy to producing useful material that people might like even if they don’t care too much for its producer.

If I can only do one thing, I want to do it well. How successful I am at that is for someone else to judge.

12 Stages of Congregational Committment

February 7, 2009

As I started to blog about last fall before I got busy with other, non-bloggy work, I am developing a tool for understanding church attendance numbers, particularly how they change over time. I call the project ERICA (Evaluating the Ratio of Investors to Consumers through Attendance). This idea has been aging in my brain for the better part of ten years now, and it’s almost ready to bottle.

In researching the principles behind ERICA, I came across a behavioral scientist named Desmond Morris. His book Intimate Behavior chronicles the twelve stages a couple passes through as their relationship becomes more intimate. He also notes that couples who skip steps and rush ahead often find themselves heartbroken as the relationships disintegrate.

Here is my version f the twelve steps, as they might apply to a persons relationship with his or her local congregation:

1. Awareness – A person in the community knows the church exists.
2. Recognition – A prospective member associates the existence of the church with something or someone they know in a different context.
3. Conversation – A prospect becomes aware of some basic message.
4. Consideration – A prospect forms a positive perception of the congregation and considers visiting.
5. Invitation – A member of the congregation makes personal contact with the prospect, either face-to-face or by phone, on behalf of the congregation.
6. Visitation – A prospective member walks in the door for the first time.
7. Consumption – The person begins to attend Sunday morning services regularly. If there are children in the house, they might come to Sunday School. Offering a meal also sparks attendance.
8. Contribution – The person begins to place money in the collection plate on a regular basis. The family might also bring a dish to a church potluck.
9. Conversion – The person is baptized and accepts the basic tenets of the church.
10. Commission – The person speaks favorably about the church to other prospective members, becoming the contact person mentioned in Step 5.
11. Participation – The person attends more than once a week (two or three times or more if a special event is scheduled), publicly participates in the worship service, and/or teaches Bible class.
12. Investment – The person feels an ownership stake, actively seeking opportunities to serve the congregation, even on days and at times when there is no regular meeting.

First, a few comments:

A. A person rarely skips more than one step at a time. For instance, a person might visit once without an invitation, but usually won’t be back unless someone asks them to be.

B. Informal surveys I have conducted indicate that roughly 10% of a healthy congregation’s average Sunday morning attendance will be at Stage 12. Put another way, for every person at the Investment stage, there will be 10 people somewhere between Consumption and Participation.

C. The healthiest congregations I have seen have been where 50% of the Sunday morning audience was adults at Stage 11 plus their kids.

D. People who skip steps tend to regress. That is, a person who is a regular Participant but who does not speak favorably about the congregation to his friends (Commission) is less likely to remain at Stage 11 long-term. Likewise, a person who experiences Conversion without first — and this is important — seeing themselves as a “contributing consumer” (Stages 7 & 8) are more susceptible to being drawn away than those who make some pre-conversion contribution to the church. That is, a person is more likely to “stay converted” if he sees himself as a contributing member of the congregation than if he is simply won over by doctrine.

The upshot of this is that church leaders need to get beyond nose counts and watch what people actually do. How committed are your members? Do you have too many Investors? Have your people become so committed to each other and the congregation that they have lost sight of the outside world? Or do you have too many Consumers? Has your congregation become so dependent on a select few that the rest are content to soak up whatever is offered without any sense of obligation, discipleship, or commitment?

Ask ERICA. She can tell you.