A New Era

A reality which is not easy for most churches to accept is that we now live in a time referred to as post-Christendom. What this means is that the elevated status which the Christian church experienced previously is no longer true today. Anyone who is actively involved in a church realizes that there are fewer people who attend worship services, even fewer people who attend activities sponsored by the church, and extremely fewer people who participate in any form of Christian education classes than in the 1950s in the United States. There are many factors which has led to the movement past Christendom but this is a reality which needs to be accepted.

If this is the reality which we now face in the Western Christian church, what are we to do about it? My first response is to realize that well planned programming and an outstanding marketing campaign are no longer the answers. The general approach of the church when it was on top of the societal spectrum was all we have to do is get them in the door then we will be able to add them as members. This could not be any farther from the truth these days. I have watched churches (and attempted myself) to provide the best programming options for people. I have seen very hard work put into getting the name of a church before as many people as possible. Yet, over and over this produced limited, if any, measurable results.

What the church needs to realize is that the priority of getting people in the pews is a futile goal. Instead, the church needs to move out of the building and to the locations where the people are located. This will require the church to operate in a completely different manner than the way we have conducted ourselves in the past. The training that our church leaders have received, and in many cases still are receiving, will provide limited assistance as we move into this new era. There remains value in our church leaders learning the academic information so they can assist people when they are searching for their own answers. However, there now needs to be a component regarding how to seek out people where they live, work, and play. Training must be done to teach our leaders ways to minister outside the building and to lead other members of the fellowship to do the same.

My perception is that we are being required to the model of ministry which was common during Jesus’ time and a model which the church has adopted at various times throughout history. Jesus clearly went where the people were to minister to them and to share the message from God. He would be found in pastures, on hillsides, along lakes, in market places, and in the temples and synagogues. He would spend his time taking care of the physical and spiritual needs of the people. Then he would share the message of God using images which the people in the particular location understood. There was not a specific location which was set aside for worship, practical ministry, or education. A specific day or time was not set up for any of this to take place.

Another reality of the post-Christendom society in which we live is that what people are seeking in their faith journeys is different today than in the era before. While there is still a place for ritual and learning, people today want to focus on practically applying their faith to life. There exists a strong desire to make an impact on the world in a positive manner. Instead of an inward focus, there is an outward focus. The church has an awesome opportunity here and can emerge as a great leader in this area. First, we demonstrate it by leaving the walls of a building and immersing ourselves where people are gathering. Second, we share our love in words and actions which allows us to point to God, the source and very nature of love. Third, we make ourselves available for people to ask questions. Fourth, we show people how to apply the love of God in their daily lives and as a body of individuals who go into the world instead of a building.

The church is no longer on top. We can choose to sit in our buildings, spend hours trying to figure out how to get others to come sit in our buildings, and bemoan the fact that our buildings become emptier every year, or…. We can re-imagine how we can be the church outside of the walls. We can learn to worship, teach, care for, and fellowship with people in a variety of settings. We can learn from the model of Jesus and the itinerant leaders of our past. We can continue to be the church with a new list of priorities.

Not Here, Well Maybe

The church is filled with perfect people.

Some churches are full of sin but not mine.

At my church we make sure that we protect against those type of people.

Our pastor is an example of a very righteous person.

We are a group of people who have done away with our sinful behaviors and follow the Lord.

Everybody is friendly in my church, takes care of one another and accepts everyone.

Which of these statements do you believe? Amazingly, these are actual statements which I have heard people make regarding their congregation. Add to these statements the perceptions that some people have from the outside. An observer would come to the conclusion that the church is a place where sin does not exist. This conclusion could not be any farther from the truth. The church is as full of sin as any other group in the world.

Since the church consists of humans, the church is going to have sin. We are reminded in the letter to the Romans, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23, NIV). When a person becomes a member of a congregation, either formally or informally, this reality stated in Scripture does not change. This being the case, there is going to be sin in the church. In fact, one of the many sins is lying about this truth.

Honestly, I do not think that anyone truly believes that the church is without sin. Yet a lot of people in congregations everywhere want to downplay or deny this truth in an attempt to present a better image to those outside the walls. I am not sure if they feel that this will cause others to desire to join the congregation or if it is a case of them wanting to show they are better than what is in the world. Either way, this image of a sin-free church does more damage for the ministries of the Lord than it could ever benefit.

Instead of trying to state that the church is a place where sin does not exist, we should actually be sharing a more important message. The message of the church should be that it is a place where forgiveness is given unconditionally. After all, this is the message that Jesus Christ gave over and over again in his actions and teachings. This is the message which the apostle Paul declared as he and others fulfilled Christ’s commandment to go into the world.

Within the church there are lies, hatred, bigotry, hypocrisy, theft, divisions, sexual misconduct, and all other sinful behaviors witnessed in everyday life in a multitude of places. Sinners exist within the church. More importantly though, within the church there is forgiveness, love, grace, restoration, healing, support, encouragement and acceptance. These are the traits which the church should show as it strives to demonstrate to the world an alternative to sin.

Sin exists in the church at the same level it does anywhere else but here it is always forgiven and reconciliation is possible.

Making Plans

Personally, I am a planner. I have calendars and to-do lists. Daily routines are important in my life. I feel more secure when I have a plan and then a backup plan to handle situations if my first plan gets disrupted. There have been many conversations between God and myself about plans. I often request that God helps me to follow through on my plans. The man who I married is also a planner who used to plan activities out months in advance and in great detail. Planning is a key part of my life.

I had a close friend who used to remind people that they can go ahead and put together a timeline but not to be surprised if God decides to chuckle and rearrange those plans. He was specifically talking about a process which was used to find a new pastor for a congregation. However, I think his words of wisdom apply to much more than that specific life event.

Over the years I have been placed in positions where planning was important but more important was being able to adapt at a moments notice. Having spent time working with youth required me to plan but know that at any time the Holy Spirit (or sometimes human intervention) could show up and quickly alter the plans. I have learned that making room for the Holy Spirit is more important than having a well-thought-out plan and sticking to it no more what.

God has told us in the words of Jeremiah:

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord

Jeremiah 29:11-14a

An important observation to make here is that the plans are not spelled out or in detail. We are just given the assurance that God has a plan which will benefit us in the most important ways.

I strongly believe that God desires us to plan. We are reminded of the importance of planning and being prepared in the story which Jesus told of the ten virgins:

“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.

“At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’

“Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’

“‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’

“But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.

“Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’

“But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’

“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”

Matthew 25:1-13

For me, the key regarding planning is to realize that while planning is important and must be done, the Holy Spirit may lead us in a much different direction. Every time that I have allowed my plans to be altered by the guidance of the Spirit, I have discovered that the end result is much better than anything I could have imagined in my planning.

Go ahead and plan. Then listen for God’s chuckle and the feel of the Spirit showing you a change or a whole new plan.

Punishment Free

One of the misconceptions that I encounter when in conversation with people about God is that God is all about punishing humans. This is an idea which has stemmed from interpretations of Scripture passages and been perpetuated by some churches. Various passages from the Bible, especially from the Old Testament, are lifted up as proof that God desires to punish those who do not follow God’s instructions or even those who God does not like for some reason. I would argue that these passages are often misunderstood and usually taken out of context. I find much more language regarding God’s love for all humanity in the Bible than I do any words which may support the image of a punishing God.

First, let me talk a bit about what I view as misinterpretation of Scripture. One problematic trait which I see too often when someone is trying to claim that the Bible is presenting some negative image of God is that the individual is often attempting to use the words literally. Why this is a problem is something which I have blogged about previously in Word by Word on April 19, 2019. Let me lift up a few key points from that post. One must remember that the Bible which we hold in our hands in the United States today is part of a line of translations which date back to the original writings in Hebrew, Greek, and Arabic. We actually have none of those original writings today. Translation requires a level of interpretation since words from ancient languages many times have no modern day equal. Next, we have the fact that the whole of the Bible was originally communicated in an oral, not a written manner. This required the listener to hear what was being said and communicate that to others effectively which opens these stories up to minor alterations. Also, the fact that cultural understandings are not at all the same today as they were then so is important to place whatever we read/hear into the cultural context of the original speakers and listeners. All these realities cause us to use caution when interpreting and applying stories from the Bible into our everyday life. I would argue that the only way we are able to effectively do so is to seek the main point of what we read and avoid any attempt at literal interpretation.

In a similar vein, it is important to remember what was occurring at the time a story was created and/or interpreted into writing. This historical context influences how a concept is communicated. In the Old Testament, especially the Psalms, there are often times a passage is stated during times of war, destruction, and disease. These human factors will influence how a message is communicated and what types of imagery are used.

The next issue which arises is one which I mentioned in the opening paragraph. Scripture must be taken as a whole. What I mean is that we need to identify the major theme of all Scripture before we attempt to interpret a specific portion of Scripture. Earlier I mentioned that I have discovered more passages about God’s love for all creation and humanity than I find passages which talk about God’s wrath and punishments. The major theme of Scripture is that God loves us even when we cannot find a reason to love ourselves. This love is manifested in what God does to and for each one of us. Jesus provides the greatest demonstration of this love which is why he is referred to as the greatest revelation of God. Any passages written about God’s wrath and punishment should be understood in this light. There clearly are times that punishment is used in human life to redirect individuals. These should be moments where the redirection is provided out of love and a desire for the well-being of a person. Unfortunately, humans do not always have this as the motivation but God always does.

By combining all these factors, a person can see the pitfalls of coming to conclusions about God and the behaviors of God. We receive only a minuscule glimpse into the full nature of God. I believe that this is one of the truths Paul tries to communicate in 1 Corinthians 13:12, ” For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” I caution people that making the assumption that we can predict the actions of God, the motives of God, or the thoughts of God based on words in the Bible is a dangerous assumption that can lead to error in thought.

I share these words to support my conclusion that God is NOT a God of punishments. I experience God as a God of complete love. God avoids punishments in all ways possible. God does redirect. I also claim that humans are actually much more inclined to punish ourselves or one another than God ever does. In fact, we may even think that we deserve to be punished for failing God in some way.  Though even if we are inclined to think in such a way, God shows up and gives us grace and full forgiveness. God tells us that we are not deserving of punishment but instead of the greatest love possible.

Trust is Tricky

Trust is one of those qualities which is difficult to obtain and easy to lose. When we are younger, we learn to trust almost any adult. We come to trust our parents because they are the ones who provide for all our needs. They shelter us and make sure we have the food and clothing which sustains and protects us. Our parents teach us how to avoid danger and to keep ourselves safe. This transfers to other adults in our lives such as teachers, police officers, and pastors. During these younger years, trust is easier to give.

As time progresses though, the ease of trusting another reduces. The main reason for this is the number of times our trust is broken. Our experiences cause us to realize that everyone is not trustworthy. Once we begin to lose trust in others, we require more and more proof from a person that the person deserves our trust. In addition to it being more difficult for us to trust, when someone has done something which hurts us or places us in a bad situation, we are very quick to lose feelings of trust in that individual and others.

In Scripture we see phrases such as “trust in the Lord” (Psalm 4:5, Psalm 37:3, Psalm 115:11, Proverbs 3:5, Isaiah 26:4). A large number of us approach those words with some level of skepticism. After all, if trusting in individuals who are visibly present in our lives is difficult, how can we ever trust in a spirit who we cannot see or touch? We are called to place our lives in the control of someone whose voice we have not heard audibly. When life becomes difficult, we are told to rely upon this God whose face we have never seen. As we make plans for our future, guidance from God is supposed to lead us.

There have been numerous people who have talked with me about the difficulty of trusting in God. I remind them that trust is tricky. Our experiences have led us to be very limited when it comes to trust. As I mentioned before, the pain from broken trust causes us to be very hesitant to extend trust. We decide that if we are going to make it through life, we can only trust in ourselves. All this brings us to the natural place of struggling with the concept of trusting God.

Yet, the other bit of advice which I share with these people is that from my experience, and the recorded experiences found in the Bible, God is not like our fellow humans when it comes to trust. God has never broken God’s promises to humanity. God has never committed to do something but been unable to do it. God has never led anyone down a destructive path. God has never caused pain in someone’s life. God has never broken trust with anyone. The evidence of experiences which causes us to distrust humans is not present in our relationship with God.

Let me be clear, this does not make trusting God any easier. Often I have to be reminded by others that I can place my trust in God. Truly the only way in which I can even begin to trust God is by having faith. I have to first believe in what I cannot see. This belief becomes the bridge which allows me to trust God. When life does not go the direction which I would like, I easily struggle with trusting God, especially if I had communicated with God why I wanted something to happen in a specific way. But I am reminded that trusting God means accepting that God may know a better path for me to walk then the one I had chosen.

Trust is tricky. Trusting humans is even trickier. Having trust in God requires faith. Yet, God has never let me down, so I will trust in the Lord.

Second Verse Same as the First

It can be very easy in life to get into a routine and to repeat it over and over again. Since many aspects of life need to be maintained each day, a person can experience repetitive behaviors and patterns. The same can be said of organizations and institutions. Certain parts of maintaining an organization or institution needs to be addressed on a daily or weekly basis. Because of this it is easy to get into ruts on an individual or corporate level. The church is definitely not immune to this experience.

I have often heard church leaders complain because they seem unable to move a specific congregation or body of the church forward. They indicate that attempts to take a new direction or to achieve a new goal often falter. Frustration quickly becomes an attitude and many give up the effort which had given them so much enthusiasm. Often this begins a pattern of assigning blame and bitterness can set into place.

When an outside person examines the situation, it becomes very clear that the group has become stuck in a rut. The individuals involved, including the leader most of the time, repeat the patterns of behavior and the series of activities over and over using the same methods and approaches. They state that they wish to see change but the words do not translate into significant actions. This leads to experiencing the same outcomes time after time. Yet for some reason no one appears able to understand why change does not occur.

If a different outcome is truly desired, then the cycle must be broken. Breaking the cycle requires a substantive altering of behaviors, actions, and attitudes. A new path and/or approach must be adopted. Just rearranging the pattern a little bit will not result in any redirection. Often the most important alteration is a change in attitude. In order to achieve this, shifts in leadership team members may be necessary. Other times elimination of cherished activities may be required. Adoption of a new set of standards may be necessary. Above all, communication and re-education are mandatory.

A good starting point in redirection is asking a question, “Why do we do this?” This question is quickly followed by another, “What would happen if we no longer did this?” These questions should be applied to every aspect of the entity which is seeking change. Honestly doing some self-examination and being willing to discontinue anything which no longer meets the needs of the group will assist the body to get out of a rut and move forward in a positive direction.

So if you are feeling like you are singing the same words of a song over and over again, I encourage you to make an effort to break the cycle and start a new song. The church would greatly benefit from this if the cycle is broken. If your leadership team does not choose to do so, then expect that your outcomes will never change.

A New Role

A fabulous author, leader, and visionary, the late Phyllis Tickle, talked about a trend in the Church. She presented the idea that every approximate five hundred years, the Church would do a garage sale. What she was referring to is the idea that due to a variety of forces, the Church was made to look at itself and determine what aspects of being the Church it was going to keep and what aspects would be discarded as the Church moved forward into the future. Her viewpoint was that the Church is currently in one of those periods which started in the early 2000s or a little earlier. (To read about this more in depth read her book, The Great Emergence: How the Church is Changing and Why [2008].)

I think that her theory is very accurate. I also think that we are still in the midst of one of the Church’s “garage sales.” There is a lot of turmoil within the institutional church. We are trying to figure out what will take us into the next five hundred years in a way which will serve the people of God both within and outside of the Church. This inventory and choosing is being done by individuals and by the corporate body. I have addressed this in previous posts without referencing Tickle’s theory but definitely in the same vein as her theory.

In this post, I want to lift up the idea that there is a growing need for nontraditional ministry models. Specifically, I am thinking about the role of leaders, usually referred to as clergy, in nontraditional ministry. The traditional clergy role is one which is connected to a specific congregation, in a specific location, under a denominational title. I do not support the elimination of the traditional role as I have just described but I think it is time that the Church is open to other ways for clergy to live out a ministry role. A vital one which is overlooked as of now is one that utilizes technology.

With the increase in technology and the manner in which it connects us in new ways, I believe it is time for the Church to acknowledge a ministry role for clergy which focuses on technological connections. To date, the Church has just added to the list of duties for traditional clergy, a component which points toward involvement in social media and the internet. I have personally been one of these traditional clergy who has attempted to actively use technology in my ministry. The problem with this is that there is not enough time to adequately serve in this capacity. The amount of time and energy necessary to fulfill the traditional role of clergy as I outlined above, leaves a fair inadequate amount of time and energy to do any sort of justice to a social media ministry. In order to honestly provide ministry in this area, the Church must acknowledge it as a validated ministry with the same status as a clergy person serving in a local congregation.

One aspect of ministry which Jesus demonstrated and the Church has at times striven to live out is the idea that ministry occurs where people are at a given time. Jesus did this by walking from village to village and sitting on hillsides or by lakes. The Church has done this by sending people to new lands. I believe this is what Jesus meant when Matthew records him saying, “Go and make disciples of all nations…” The key word here is GO. Jesus intended the Church to go where the people are. Today, the people are in the cyberworld. For me, this legitimized the importance of an affirmed ministry role for clergy in this aspect of life.

Do you agree that this is a need? How might this need be part of the change happening in the Church? What other nontraditional ministry roles need to be considered?

A Savior

One of the challenges which I see in the church, especially among leaders, is confusion over who is the savior. The problem is not that these leaders, and some members, struggle to come up with a description of Jesus Christ. Many of them do a great job of telling the life story of Jesus, talking about his earthly ministry, and giving a theological explanation regarding his death and resurrection. The issue is that in their zeal for fulfilling the Great Commandment, they begin to think that they are responsible for ensuring the salvation of others. This could not be farther from the truth.

Jesus came with a purpose, some may even say a call. Jesus’ purpose was to destroy all the barriers between humanity and God. God’s desire is that all may experience the fullness of God’s love in a lasting relationship with God. The difficulty in the achievement of this is humans have chosen often to take paths which lead them away from God. These paths make us vulnerable to committing unloving actions and to experience the impact of those actions taken by others. They also can give us a distorted understanding of love. Jesus’ ministry was focused on correcting this distortion and showing how these paths lead us away from God.

Jesus broke down social barriers which humanity created amongst themselves. Jesus presented a definition of love that was unconditional and with a focus toward others and not self. He reminded everyone what it meant to be in relationship with God. Actions which he took supported his words and showed us how we are to demonstrate God’s love to one another. All this culminated in his loving action taken on a cross where he gave his life to remove any remaining barriers we might have between us and God.

That final action by Jesus which led to his death and resurrection is sufficient for all people. Through this action, Jesus saved us from the paths we take which lead us away from the love of God. Jesus does not need us to recreate or to add to this action. Instead, Jesus told us to go out into the world and to tell all the people of his breaking of all barriers. More importantly, Jesus desires us to demonstrate this work in our own actions and words.

There is not one of us who is the Savior. That position has been filled by Jesus Christ. We do not have it within our abilities to break down the ultimate barrier between God and humanity. What we do have is the ability to introduce the Savior to others by our lives. Our expressing of the love of God and attributing that love for the choices we make in life will open doors for individuals to first experience and then begin to understand what God’s love is truly about.

YOU ARE NOT THE SAVIOR! Instead, spend your time introducing the Savior to others through your life and the sharing of God’s love.

The Unexpected

I have become a fan of the reality show Big Brother over the past few years. Not really sure how I began watching it. I may have decided to watch it when my youngest son started and would talk about it. This show is one that most people either love or hate. This is also one of a limited number of reality television shows that I ever care to watch. I share this information because the motto on Big Brother is, “expect the unexpected.” A variety of twists and turns take place throughout the show and little changes to the rules as the show progresses seem to happen each season.

The motto from Big Brother seems to be very appropriate to me when I think about the Lord. Over the years, I have come to realize that God operates more often in the realm of the unexpected than in the predictable. Pleasant surprises are frequent in the life the Lord creates. Occasionally I am alert enough to fully experience these unexpected blessings as they happen. As a rule, I become aware of them only when I look back upon my life.

My life has been filled with God’s unexpected blessings. Sometimes these blessings are brought when a new person enters my life. At times these blessings occur when I choose to get out of my comfort zone. Still, other times they arrive through reading another person’s writing, or hearing a new song, or watching a movie. As unexpected as the Lord can be, the mode in which God gives blessings can vary in multiple degrees.

I like that God chooses to do the unexpected. This has taken me places in life that I would not have ventured on my own. Moving at the end of last year was one of those exact situations. After living most of my life in the same geographical area, I really never thought I would live anywhere else. However, my husband received an exciting job offer to start a brand-new program at a university, and so we were off on a brand-new adventure. Since moving, I have had one unexpected surprise after another. My life has been filled with new experiences. I discovered a love for writing which I had never explored. Some amazing people have entered into my life. A whole new perspective has unfolded before me.

Let me issue a warning to all of you. When you think you have the Lord figured out and you are sure you know what blessings the Lord has planned for you… expect the unexpected.

Answer Unavailable

For me, one of the most difficult realities in life is that times exist when answers do not. As a leader in the Christian church, I have often been present with people when they experience tragedy and/or loss. I have sat beside a person when they have been given extremely bad news. I have accompanied police officers as they have had to deliver news of a death to a family. It has been my responsibility to speak to a community when horror such as what occurred on 9/11/01 happens in our nation. In each of these situations, people have looked for answers that are beyond any human’s ability to provide.

This week, news of a senseless tragedy filled the airwaves and newspapers due to an event in my state. Less than twenty-four hours after this tragedy, another horrible act was committed in Ohio. Over thirty individuals lost their lives within a 24-hour time span because of the actions taken by two individuals. Right away people started seeking answers. The news media asked questions of law enforcement about motives and how these events took place. The politicians started discussing their theories and placing blame on others. The families of the victims, the ones who deserve answers more than anyone else, asked the question that always arises, “Why?

Over the years and my experience in seeking answers to questions like this, I have come to realize that some questions must be left unanswered. Sure, we can theorize, and we can rationalize but the reality is that the answer to Why? is not available. We can search the Bible, ancient manuscripts, history books, psychology books, and all types of writings, but the answer is not there. We can listen to civic leaders, faith leaders, law enforcement, professors, and anyone we believe to have wisdom and still there is no answer.

This lack of an answer frustrates us immensely. We are at the point of human development where we are used to taking on tough questions and with much effort finding the answers. In an age of technology and endless available information, we have convinced ourselves that no question exists which we cannot answer with Google and a little work. When we get frustrated, then we turn to blaming. We blame the cause of the tragedy, we blame our leaders, we blame ethnic backgrounds, we blame the internet, and at times we even blame the victims.

Here is a reality that may be difficult to swallow…there is no answer. No matter how much blame we throw around. No matter how much wisdom we seem to obtain. The answer to this Why? is not within our grasp.

Yet, there is still hope. The hope does not lie within our powers or abilities. The hope does not lie in the ability to “fix it.” Hope comes from only one source. This source has been known to people since ancient times. The name of the source may have changed over the years and throughout civilizations but it is the same source of hope. Some may call it Yahweh, some call it the Great Spirit, some call it Allah, and still others call it God as I do in my Christian faith. Our hope is found in God even when the answer to Why? is not obtainable.