Why Does Church No Longer Work – A Series

I spent some time this week pondering some of the topics which I will discuss in upcoming blog posts. Some weeks determining what I will write about is more time-consuming than actually writing. As I sat with my thoughts, I stumbled upon a question that has haunted me for a great length of time. The question (which I am using as a series title) is “Why does church no longer work?”

The question assumes that the practices of churches these days are no longer working. I am sure there exist individuals who would disagree with that idea completely. For me, watching the struggles of maintaining a level of involvement in the church over twenty-two years of ordained ministry is evidence enough that something is not working. The way in which we attempt to be the church seems to have lost their effectiveness. Even the large, multi-campus churches are noticing equal numbers of people going out the door as they have coming in the door. All this makes me comfortable in saying that “church” is no longer working for a large majority of people in our communities.

I have decided that this challenge requires more than one blog post, so I will be doing a series of blog posts. I admit that I will not be able to exhaustively cover this topic. I also admit that I cannot come close to identifying all the complex issues which lead to my question. At present, I have identified four issues that I plan to discuss in this series:

  1. The church lacks authenticity.
  2. The church lacks relationships.
  3. The church lacks today’s language.
  4. The church lacks action.

Each of these issues will be explained and addressed in the coming days. I hope that you will join me in exploring these issues. I also would benefit from hearing your responses to my posts and any other issues you may name in response to my initial question.

Doubting Allowed

I really want to believe it is true but where is the proof? What about the contradictions? Why does it seem like nothing changes or gets better? Is it okay to even have questions? Am I allowed to doubt?

These are all the thoughts that go through most people’s minds when it comes to believing in God. We were created to have questions and to explore. For some reason though, some people came to think that it was wrong to have questions about one’s faith. Doubt was not considered to be acceptable among certain Christian groups. If someone has doubt, it must mean that they do not believe enough or pray enough. How absolutely wrong is this way of thinking.

Through my study of Scripture, I find doubt woven throughout every major Biblical story. Doubt was found in the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Moses, David, Ruth, Jonah, Joseph, Mary, every one of the apostles, and Paul to name a few. The chosen people of the ancient world, the Hebrews, had doubt almost all the time. Some doubt was in their individual abilities but most of it was directed toward God. Nowhere in Scripture did I see God strike anyone dead for having doubt.

I think that doubt is natural. When I worked with youth, I actually encouraged doubt. I see the benefit of doubt as being like a refining fire of our faith. Working through our doubts helps us to determine what we truly believe. This work should be done in a combination of time with trusted friends and alone. Having a spiritual guide is very beneficial. Whichever method works best for you, do not be afraid of your doubts. Do not accept anyone telling you that you lack faith if you doubt. Even some of the best known theologians throughout the ages have had doubt.

I encourage you to embrace your doubt when it comes to what you believe. I have found in my own life that when I wrestle with my doubts, I usually come out with a much stronger faith.

Personal Value

We live in a time when the value of a human life is often considered very low. Most individuals have been reduced to statistics, stereotypes, and unproven opinions. In fact, often the individual is overlooked and seen only with labels. Often there is little effort made to even get to know a person. All this combines to make an individual feel as if he/she has little or no value.

However, this assuredly is not the opinion of the Creator. Actually, the opposite would be true. We learn the view of the Creator from passages found in Scripture. Here are two such passages:

What is mankind that you are mindful of them,

    human beings that you care for them?[a]

You have made them a little lower than the angels[c]

    and crowned them with glory and honor.

You made them rulers over the works of your hands;

    you put everything under their feet

Psalm 8:4-6 (NIV)

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship.[a] And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ

Romans 8:14-17a (NIV)

It is clear that God, who created us and sustains us, values us highly. Being a child of God gives each person value beyond comparison. Jesus tells parables which show us how God views us as important and thinks highly of us.

“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

Luke 15:4-7 (NIV)

Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

Luke 15:11-27 (NIV)

The truth is this…no matter what the world says about us, we are children of God. As children of God, we have been searched for while we wandered on our own. We have been crowned with the glory of God and placed as stewards of all God’s creation. We have been made heirs in the Kingdom of God.

A person’s value is not found in her or his successes. A person’s value is not found in having the “right” labels or doing the “right” things. The value of each and every person is found in the reality that he or she is a child of God. Nothing nor no one can ever diminish or take that value away.

I Need It

Two highly misunderstood words in the English language are… need and want. Many individuals tend to treat them as if they are synonyms, which they are not. They may be closely related, but they represent different ideas.

need – a requirement, necessary duty, or obligation (dictionary.com)

want – something desired, demanded (dictionary.com)

This difference may appear subtle at first but is an important difference when we are considering promises which have been made.

When looking at life, a need is something which is required for a person to support a healthy life. Items which should be considered needs are healthy food, safe water, adequate shelter, clothing which protects from weather conditions, and access to life-sustaining health care. Each of these are required for a person to live life.

A want is something which enhances a person’s life. Wants are very personal in nature. Included in the list might be a specific type of car, electronic equipment, enhanced communication devices, memberships to venues, tickets to sporting events, elaborate food choices, high fashioned clothing, and multi-roomed dwellings. This list could go on endlessly based on the desires of a person.

Jesus tells us that the Father knows what we need and will provide for those needs.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Matthew 6:25-35, NIV

Jesus also told us to ask for whatever we need.

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

Matthew 7:7-11, NIV

Here is the reason that it is so vital for us to differentiate between wants and needs. People are prone to interpret these passages in a way which gives them an understanding that God is like Santa Clause. All we have to do is give God our list and God will provide everything which is on the list. When this does not happen, then they cry foul. They doubt God, they doubt Jesus’ words, and they doubt the promises they have been told.

The true issue is wants versus needs. Jesus meant for us to understand that God will provide for our needs. Items found in the list above. Sometimes God chooses other humans to deliver those needs to us. The promise has never been that God will provide all of our wants. One reason God chooses not to provide all our wants is because some of those can be harmful to ourselves and/or others.

God clearly knows the difference between wants and needs. We need to take some time learning the difference ourselves. When we do, it will clear up a lot of confusion and frustration on our part.

Going To Hell

One of the most important realizations which I came to after spending some years studying the Bible is that the Bible is written with a lot of imagery. This is understandable for various reasons. First, the accounts which we find in the Bible today came to us from an oral tradition. Second, the telling of these experiences and stories happened when there was no such thing as a printing press, motion pictures, televisions, or computers. Third, as humans, we try to relate events, experiences, and complex thoughts to something which helps us to make sense of whatever we are discussing. Together, these lend themselves to the use of imagery. The speakers and eventually, the authors of the Bible relied heavily on imagery. This is an important fact when people of the 21st century attempt to interpret Scripture. (For more thoughts about interpreting Scripture, see my post Word by Word.) It is also important when dealing with this post’s subject matter.

Last week I wrote a post regarding my understanding of heaven. (See Is This Heaven.) I thought that it made sense to follow up that post with one on my understanding of hell. Much of what I communicated in last week’s post applies to hell as well. I do not believe hell is a physical location. Hell is not the place of eternal punishment. There is no being in a red suit with a forked tail holding a trident or pitchfork. There are no boiling pots of hot lava with stone walkways running through them. There are no endless torments designed specifically for the person who is supposed to be sent to hell. All these are images which have been created over time based on someone’s interpretation of Scripture (often the book of Revelation) or through horror stories passed down through generations.

My understanding of hell and any Scripture which may lend itself to the concept of hell is that this is truly a human construct. The details of hell and evil lie within the human spiritual and psychological components. Let me try to unpack that a little for you. For me, hell is living without God. The only way that this reality could ever be (if it truly could ever be) is because a person has totally rejected the existence of a supreme spiritual being. God is the English name given to the supreme spiritual being which Christians, Jews, and Muslims acknowledge but is not the sole name humans give to this being. Therefore, I am not saying that using a different name for the supreme spiritual being other than God is the qualifier here but instead that a person rejects that there even is such a being.

It is also important to note here that I do not believe that God (which is the name I will use throughout this post since I am a Christian) EVER rejects ANY human. Why this is important is because it means the action is taken by a human and not God. This also means that God never leaves the person but that the person lives as if God does not exist. For me, living as if God never exists would be hell.

I think it is also important to deal with the misconception that God created a location labeled hell as a place for eternal punishment. Again, imagery used in the Bible has led to this interpretation. But when you truly study the passages containing such imagery (example: Matthew 13), you see that the issue being addressed is a person or persons who have chosen to reject God. The imagery is to help people understand what the life experience would be like if a person chooses to deny God’s existence and design for life.

In summary, my understanding of hell is that it is not a place but more a description of a person’s possible spiritual and psychological state. A state which we have been fully released from by the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection if we will accept the new status which God has given freely to each of us.

Don’t Worry

In the late 1980s, Bobby McFerrin released a song entitled, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Here are the opening stanzas of that song:

Here’s a little song I wrote

You might want to sing it note for note

Don’t worry, be happy

In every life we have some trouble

But when you worry you make it double

Don’t worry, be happy

Don’t worry, be happy now

Bobby McFerrin

McFerrin reminds us that when we worry, our troubles double. Easier said than done, right?

This concept of being worry free is not a new one. Jesus introduced this same thought as we find recorded in the Gospel according to Matthew. (See Matthew 6:25-34) Jesus points out here that worrying cannot add a single hour to our lives. In fact, scientists tell us that excessive worrying has a very negative impact upon us physically. (See this article from WebMD) So what do we do about our worrying?

I think that we worry when we do not feel we are in control of a situation. We cannot decide the outcome. In these moments, the feeling of helplessness can be overwhelming. Since it appears that control is not in our hands, we do the only thing which seems within our control—we worry.

Once again, the words of Jesus found in Matthew can be helpful. Jesus tells us to seek out the Father in such times. He says, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33) Something in our control is presented to us here. We can seek God, an action within our control. We are not helpless. God gives us a promise that if we seek God, all which we NEED will be given to us.

Bobby McFerrin had it right — Don’t worry, be happy. Instead of worrying, we can be happy in the knowledge that the Father knows what we need and will supply those needs for us.

Is This Heaven?

Thirty years ago, a movie was released which starred Kevin Costner and told the story of a man who built a baseball field in the middle of his Iowa farmland because a voice had told him that if he built it, all the great baseball stars would come and play there. One small piece of dialogue from the movie Field of Dreams became famous, especially in Iowa:

“Is this heaven?”

“No, this is Iowa.”

One of the “ghost players” arrived at the newly constructed baseball diamond and asks the question. Costner’s character provides the response.

I am prompted by this movie scene to consider the question, “What is heaven?” In the movie, the baseball diamond seemed to the ghost baseball player like it might be heaven. A lot of people refer to a certain setting as being like heaven. Images of golden streets and angels with harps are presented as ways heaven may look. While these images and settings my bring comfort and give us a sense of something grand, I am not certain that they truly are heaven.

At the start, I have to be honest and state there is no concrete proof of what heaven is or is not. Jesus tells stories that give us more a concept of the nature of heaven and not a physical description. People recorded in the Bible speak of visions which are often associated with heaven but are not intended to give us a physical description. I think there is a significant reason for this vagueness. In fact, this vagueness is part of what creates an image of heaven for me.

I am convinced that heaven is not an actual location. While we are accustomed to looking toward the sky when referencing heaven, this comes more out of Greek and Roman cultures and their mythology than any theological understanding. Heaven is a spiritual reality which cannot be understood fully in our physical nature. This prompts us to create images in our mind, so we are able to gain some type of grasp on the concept of heaven. Creating physical images to understand spiritual realities is common among humans.

My belief is that heaven should be understood as being present with the fullness of God. While we are physically alive on earth, we get glimpses what heaven is because we receive glimpses of the presence of God. When the fullness of our spiritual being is unbound at the time of our physical death, then we will experience the fullness of God who is spiritual. Becoming aware of the fullness of God which already surrounds us now, though we are incapable of fully experiencing this fullness, is to me experiencing heaven.

As wonderful as Iowa is and a baseball field may be, it is not heaven. Heaven is present in those places but heaven is not a place of itself.

How does this align with your understanding of heaven? How do you disagree with my understanding of heaven?  

Glory

In the United States, and other countries, we tend to place famous people on pedestals. Star athletes, actors, actresses, social activists, and even some religious folk gain our admiration and words of praise. We try to copy their hair styles, dress like them, eat like them, and flock to see them whenever possible. They receive accolades from political leaders and industry giants. All this is true until it comes time to bring them off of their pedestal, either by their own doing or because someone has decided their time is up. Then with unbounded ruthlessness, we tear them down in any way possible, including cruel and unforgiving ways. So much for receiving glory.

Glory — an interesting word which conjures up a variety of responses.

According to dictionary.com, the definitions for this word include:

  • very great praise, honor, or distinction bestowed by common consent; renown
  • something that is a source of honor, fame, or admiration; a distinguished ornament or an object of pride
  • adoring praise or worshipful thanksgiving

These definitions all seem to fit our treatment of famous individuals as I described above. The last of which brings me to the focus of today’s post since glory is a word that is used within the church circles.

Recently this word came up in a discussion with my husband regarding a passage from John 13:31-35. In this passage Jesus speaks about glory. The issue which came up in our discussion centered around the definition of glory. I think most people would assume that this word is to be understood in the church using one of the definitions found above. The problem which arises when we use one of these definitions is that it leads the hearer to the conclusion that we are putting God on pedestal. We are then led to the conclusion that either God is arrogant, as the famous people seem to be when placed on a pedestal, or that God is going to one day be torn down from the pedestal. Both of these conclusions would be absolutely wrong.

Instead, let us look at the theological definition of the word glory as first seen in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Hebrew word often translated as “glory” is “kavod” which means glory, respect, honor, or majesty. The Greek word found in the Christian New Testament is “doxa” which means judgment, opinion, good reputation, or honor. As I understand the word glory in reference to God, I understand it to mean that we are giving respect and honor to God. This to me is much different from placing God on a pedestal.

How do we then show glory to God?

What I am asking here is, how do we show respect and honor to God?

First, I need to ask myself why I should give respect and honor to God. Yes, in Scripture we are admonished to give glory to God but there are many commands and guidance in Scripture which I do not follow closely. (as in, “Then the Lord said to Moses: ‘Take the blasphemer outside the camp. All those who heard him are to lay their hands on his head, and the entire assembly is to stone him. Say to the Israelites: ‘Anyone who curses their God will be held responsible; anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord is to be put to death. The entire assembly must stone them. Whether foreigner or native-born, when they blaspheme the Name they are to be put to death.'” [Leviticus 24:13-16].) The answer for me is I give respect and honor to God because of the great love which God has given to me daily and in the work of Jesus, the Christ.

Now that I have a reason for giving God respect and honor, how do I go about it. The obvious answer is by attending a worship service with fellow believers where I thank and praise God. Unfortunately, this is often where people stop. Somehow we have become content with attending a worship service, giving an hour of our time, and calling that sufficient in respecting and honoring God. I believe that I fall short if this is my only show of respect and honor.

Here is my possible list for respecting and honoring God:

  • Respecting and honoring all who God has created
  • Taking care of the land and animals which God has entrusted to my care
  • Showing love through not just words but also action to those whom God has placed in my life
  • Setting aside time throughout my day to reflect upon God
  • Striving to understand Jesus’ teachings as given to us through the recording of his words and actions in Scripture
  • Making the attempt to apply the teachings of Jesus in my own actions, words, and decisions
  • Acknowledging that everything which I have and who I am are gifts from God

These are ways in which I strive to honor and respect God, to give God glory. How are you showing glory to God? What additional ways do you show God respect and glory?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Not Just For Easter

Christ has risen! Christ has risen indeed!!!!

For centuries, this has been a greeting often used during the Easter season, especially on Easter morning, in the church. Not a lot of words but words with a profound meaning. Yet what do these words mean? Why do we say them? Do we believe them?

At first glance, these words easily appear absolute absurdity. One of my friends who is not a strong believer struggles with these words. He reminds me that no physical proof exists for these words. He reminds me that all we know about the human body and the rules of nature indicate that this is not a possibility. So how can one respond to a set of logical facts like these? Well, my response is grounded in faith. At first, I agree with my friend because according to logic and our understanding of the world, my declaration of Jesus’ resurrection is not supported. But since I believe in the God who created all logic and all that is in the world, I believe that was is impossible according to human standards is not impossible for God. So if God chooses to resurrect Jesus, then it can (and did) happen.

Another notable aspect of these words are that they are said with enthusiasm, hence the exclamation points above. Why should such words cause this type of response? Well, the reality of what those words proclaim is something that causes tremendous joy in those who believe them. For we know that since Jesus was resurrected, death no longer has any power. We also know that we share in that resurrection which means that life here on earth is not the only life. Our life here is a portion of our complete life. We will share in a never-ending life with our Lord. The joy that comes from this truth is one that cannot, and should not, be contained. Christians should be shouting from the rooftops. Our lives should show this great joy.

However, this prompts two important questions for me. Do I live my life in a manner which demonstrates my belief in these words? Second, do I limit my expressing of this belief to one Sunday a year?

The Church made a decision hundreds of years ago to refer to Sunday as the Lord’s Day. People began to think of the Lord’s Day as their sabbath. In fact, not that long ago in the history of the United States businesses were closed on Sunday, it was unacceptable to mow your lawn or hang out laundry on a Sunday, and only essential human/animal care need providers were allowed to work on Sunday. The Christian Church had adopted many of the rules of the sabbath from their spiritual ancestors, the Hebrew people. All this because Sunday was intended to be a day to celebrate the resurrection of Christ. Not one Sunday a year, but every Sunday. This leads me to wonder why in worship services we do not declare the same statement which we tend to use on Easter morning.

Taking the above thought a step farther, why do we limit the greeting to Sundays alone. If I truly believe that Jesus was resurrected from the dead on Easter morning, and if this belief is something which brings me great joy and benefit, why would I not live every day in a way which demonstrates my belief. I will be honest, I am not truly sure how that might look since I have never tried to live this way before. I suffer from a behavior pattern which other believers seem to suffer from as well. I tend to compartmentalize my life so much that I have certain times for faith matters.

What would it look like if I lived my life in a manner which demonstrates my belief in Jesus’ resurrection?

This is a question to which I would enjoy hearing your responses. I will ponder this some and it will be the topic of a future blog. Please give me your ideas as catalyst to my future post.

Listen

“Can you hear me now?”

For nine years, starting in 2002, this was a question we heard on our televisions multiple times a day. The question was part of a commercial for one of the nation’s larger cellular service providers. A man would be on his phone in a variety of locations and would ask this question to whoever was on the other end. The point of the commercial was to state how wonderful the signal reception which this company provided was, even at the most remote locations.

Imagine if this question was not being asked as part of a television commercial but instead was a question which Jesus may be asking of you.

Last week, my husband and I were engaged in a discussion about words found in John 10:27. Here Jesus is talking with a group of Jews who are demanding a straightforward answer to their question of his status as Messiah. He is indicating to them that he has already answered that question for them, but they failed to listen and believe. The question of which arises for readers today is, “Am I listening for his voice?”

It is one thing when someone is physically present, or connected via technology. There may still be some challenges in listening for a person’s voice such as external noises or a signal problem, but barring these and similar challenges the ability to hear someone is a simple task. However, Jesus is now not physically alive on the earth as he was when these words were shared with the Jews. We may have a good argument in regard to the struggle with listening for his voice. Or do we?

One of the problems which seemed to be present during the dialogue with the Jews is the ability to hear versus the willingness to listen. The Jews did not state that they were not hearing what Jesus was sharing. Jesus did not say that he thought the Jews were not hearing. Yet, having the ability to hear does not mean that a person has chosen to listen. Listening requires the person to go beyond the sounds and make an effort toward understanding. It requires us to put effort into taking the sounds we hear and making sense of them. First, by shaping sounds into words and then by finding meaning in those words. Next, we have to take into account a whole list of elements such as context, nonverbal cues, and purpose. Our own assumptions and expectations also impact our listening. We tend to reject anything that causes conflict in our own understandings.

What about us then?

As mentioned above, we do not have the physical presence of Jesus which can create challenges in our listening. We hear what Jesus said as recorded by writers of Scripture. We hear the interpretations which Bible scholars, pastors, Sunday School teachers, and others have given concerning Jesus’ words. But are we listening?

Listening requires us first to put down our own assumptions and expectations. The Jews were getting hung up on the fact that Jesus was not fitting their assumptions and expectations of what the Messiah would be. Each of us have formed our opinions of the nature of Jesus (and God) so when we hear what Jesus may be saying, we want those ideas, thoughts, and words to fit into our already formed view of Jesus.

Listening requires taking the time and making the effort to locate Jesus’ voice. Each of us will do this differently. For some, this will require us to find a quiet space in our lives to listen for Jesus. For others, the need to surround ourselves with trusted spiritual advisers will open us to Jesus’ voice. Developing a trust will be necessary for others, trust that Jesus is still speaking in ways that do not require physical sounds or presence. This trust is closely linked to faith.

If Jesus were to ask you the question, “Can you hear me now?” Would he find you listening?