Category: ministry

A Post-Election Mess and Unchurching Part 2

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A snarky take on the post-election aftermath

Snarky Faith 11/15/16

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A rundown of the post-election mess through the lens of teenagers. I (Stuart) attended a recent denominational youth conference with my daughter and experienced a race-related mess that could have been averted. Will Christians ever learn how to do the right thing instead of covering their own asses? Probably not. We’ve also got the second part of the Unchurching interview with the great Richard Jacobson. Join us for the talk about balancing faith in the face of institutional trappings. There’s always hope, but, that’s usually on the path least taken.

Tune in to find out more…

Belief vs Practice

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A snarky take on belief and practice

Snarky Faith 10/18/16

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A rundown of the line between belief vs practice. Too often we let one override the other. Is there a different way to strike a balance between the two? We’d assert that both are needed for a healthy journey of faith and if you separate the two you end up with something twisted, harmful and inert. production. Can we find a happy marriage between the two and restore the beauty of Christianity? Join us to find out as we as we skewer through life, culture and spirituality.

Tune in to find out more…

Pastor Burnout

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A snarky take on pastor burnout in the church

Snarky Faith 10/11/16

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A rundown of the problem with pastor burnout in the church. On a congregation by congregation basis, this problem can be overlooked. When you begin to look at burnout on a macro level, you begin to see a repeating pattern that goes unnoticed or is too often swept under the rug. Why have churches become burnout factories for clergy? Join us as we look into this epidemic and offer a different way as we skewer through life, culture and spirituality.

Tune in to find out more…

The Line Between Sacred Versus Secular

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Picture by: Georgie Pauwels
Everywhere, wherever you may find yourself, you can set up an altar to God in your mind by means of prayer.
– St. John Chrysostom

A few weeks ago, I was preaching at a church and my friend, Joe Sanchez, was leading worship. One of my passions has been to find ways to work secular songs into the worship portion of a church service. I love the way truth can permeate through an honest song. That rarely happens in modern worship music. Joe reworked Jeff Lynne’s song, Lift Me Up, and it became a beautiful addition to my morning message.

I thought I’d share it with you. Enjoy.

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In contemporary Christianity, we draw all sorts of lines that end up being unhealthy. Those lines warp the lens of how we see culture. They also warp how we live out the ways of Jesus.

Look no further than social media to see how many Christians like to share their love in the form of accusations, finger-pointing and hateful, name-calling. I’d rather they trade the strong talk for a strong drink. The sad fact is that much of Christianity has an issue with seeing things in a metric of sacred versus secular. It’s a division that’s borne out of the pit of hell (if you believe in hell) and something far, far away from the life God calls us to.

When Christ looked at people… he simply saw people. He didn’t see the labels or judgment. How have we so easily lost this in the church?

Once we start seeing people as the other or put value judgments on them, we cease to see their humanity. When we cease to see the humanity in others, we no longer see them as a person created in the image of God. If we can’t see God’s creations anymore we most likely can’t see God at work in the world. At that point, our faith becomes twisted and rigid and then it spirals downward towards bitterness. Then the cycle continues. Wash, rinse and repeat.

To grab hold of Jesus means we must love. It’s not a conditional command. It’s not a commandment with exceptions. Loving others is just that plain and simple. All of life is spiritual. It’s almost as if Jeff Lynne was echoing Jesus when it said, “love is what I want.” There are no boundaries besides the ones we make. To simply push the point further, I’ll refer to Madeline L’Engle who put it so eloquently by saying, “There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation.” This includes every decision we make and every judgment we cast. We are either choosing to embrace that fact that life is spiritual and God is at work or not. So if we’re not living that way, can we really call ourselves followers of Christ?

We can’t be in the business of lifting others up out of their brokenness if we’re in the business of keeping them there. To begin to see the sacred in the secular begins to change the way we engage with the world. It takes the focus off of us and places it in God’s hands where beautiful things await us.

Changing the Church

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A snarky take on changing the church

Snarky Faith 9/27/16

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A rundown of how the church in the west is dying. Is it simply that culture is changing and moving away from organized religion or should the church change? Come with us as we delve into the ways the Christian church should return to its roots. Christianity transformed from a movement into an institution as a direct impact of culture and history. With the institution dying, is there hope in transforming it back to its roots as a social and spiritual movement? Join us to hear what that could look like as we skewer through life, culture and spirituality.

Tune in to find out more…

Honesty, Faith and Doubt

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The beauty of the honesty, faith and doubt of a child

If you want to make something like cookies or pancakes, there are always essential ingredients that you’ll find common between most recipes. Eggs, flour, and oil are among those that you’ll find over and again. When it comes to believing in something greater… I assume we’d get a wild spectrum of answers of the essential elements depending on your religious upbringing or current indoctrination.

I stumbled upon this piece of paper (pictured above) a few weeks ago on the floor at church. I can only assume it’s from a child, but I found it absolutely fascinating, beautiful… and genuine.

There were three key ingredients at play here: honesty, faith and Doubt all mixed together. I believe that these ingredients are absolutely essential for one’s spiritual journey.

I was raised Southern Baptist and in that vein of Christianity, “knowing” was always paramount… but not in the spiritual sense. It was more about intellectualism. You have to know all the right facts and those facts would bring you closer to God. Doubt had no place because the belief was all about possessing information much like you do when preparing for a test. You study hard and hopefully get a good grade.

But in faith there are no grades, right? The Southern Baptists would agree with that statement in theory, but in practice, that’s another story. When it comes to grading, one quick way to lose points is being too honest and/or doubting. Let me exactly qualify what I mean by grading. There’s no overt scale at play, but there is a significant amount of judgment happening by the other church members and clergy. You’re judged on what you say, how you look, what you do and what you think. You need to look and act like the rest of the herd in order to be accepted. It’s more of a social construct than a religious practice.  Over my career, I’ve worked for a spectrum of Christian brands: Baptist, Pentecostal, Methodist and non-denominational. These rules apply to all of them.

Now, let’s return to the picture. I think there’s a reason that Jesus mentioned the faith of a child in Matthew 18, and he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Children are filled with wonder, but they are also filled with questions. Incessant questions. As a father, I’ve experienced this wide-eyed curiosity firsthand. Initially, it annoyed me. They saw me as the answering machine. Over time, it changed. I’ve learned to love their questions. Actually, their questions have changed and stretched me.

To proceed in this conversation, let us add a few clarifying definitions to this conversation. I’ll inject some varied voices into this as they may help to define these terms.

Honesty by Ayn Rand

“As the refusal to fake reality, honesty consists in a deliberate, principled renunciation of any evasion, distortion, misrepresentation, or artifice. In essence, honesty means not pretending.”

Faith by Pete Rollins

“The word “faith” is a much-misunderstood term. In contemporary discourse, it often means the act of believing in something that lacks empirical evidence, something that one affirms through intuition, the interpretation of a particular personal experience or the interpretation of a publicly observable phenomenon.  However the term, in its more theological sense, has much more in common with a particular way of living.”

Doubt by Lesley Hazleton

“Consider that doubt… is the heart of the matter. Abolish all doubt, and what’s left is not faith, but absolute, heartless conviction. You’re certain that you possess the Truth — inevitably offered with an implied uppercase T — and this certainty quickly devolves into dogmatism and righteousness, by which I mean a demonstrative, overweening pride in being so very right, in short, the arrogance of fundamentalism.”

To cultivate any healthy, spiritual community, we have to realize that doubt and honesty are just as essential as faith. If you eliminate one, the rest fall by the wayside. To embrace this idea takes courage and risk, which is why it rarely happens. Belief in anything always brings with it risk and the unknown. Think about love, for instance, there is no guarantee. But the reason we risk things for love is that the rewards, the upside, is worth it. When you love others and take on faith that they love you… it takes courage.

When it comes to the church, risk left through the back door long ago. Then soon after that, courage joined up with it in the parking lot. Christianity without risk and courage isn’t a movement anymore… it becomes an institution. Jesus didn’t come to set up institutions, they were one of the reasons he railed against the establishment. Institutions survive by keeping themselves afloat. Their existence becomes all about themselves and people become secondary. Now, again they may argue that fact in theory, but their practice says otherwise.

Why does this matter? Well, it’s everything. If the foundation from which you operate is fundamentally flawed, then the outcome won’t be what you want. With each passing year, the institution looks and acts less and less like the one who started the movement. The question to ask here is, does the church today look like Jesus?

But all is not lost. It doesn’t take much to right the ship and I’d wager to say that embracing a mixture of honesty, faith, and doubt is the key.

The first step is allowing doubt to breathe. It’s essential in this journey forward. Antionette du Liger de la Garde Deshoulieres once said, “seeking to know is only too often learning to doubt.” The fear is that doubt leads to more doubt, but in truth, if you pair doubt with belief and honesty, beautiful things can happen. Sure it’s a risk, but nothing great is ever accomplished without risk. It also takes courage that God is at work in the lives of others which is one of the basic beliefs of Christianity.

Looking back at that picture I found, I want there to be a place where that child can grow on their spiritual journey while expressing their doubts and questions in a safe environment. For the church to look more like Jesus, we must realize that belief needs to have a mixture of honesty, faith and doubt cultivated with one another in a loving community. That’s how we transition from an institution back to a movement. It’s how we return the beauty and mystery to Christianity.

The Church and Kevin Roberts

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When any of us look at the American church, it’s so easy to see a myriad of problems. It’s similar to a kid’s birthday party with a piñata where everyone knows it’s there, and the entire purpose of a piñata is to smash it to bits.

When looking at the problems of the church, some of the big ones would be lack of diversity, fear-mongering and a political erectile dysfunction. Erectile dysfunction and the church… what? Well, it’s like a dose of Viagra and always pops up in the wrong situations. Think of all of the Christian boners: Franklin Graham, Ted Cruz and basically anyone who visits the creation museum. Those are easy targets because they stick out and are akin to punching a kitten.

That’s not what I want to talk about. I actually want to dialogue about something more sinister; something that lies below the surface. Something evil that happens every Sunday in pulpits and in fellowship halls. I’m talking about how Christians like to classify people.

We assume there are the good ones and the bad ones, right?  There are either the just plain evil ones or backsliding ones (hello people who happen drink or watch Deadpool). It’s judgy and an aphrodisiac of most conservatives. It excites them in a dirty, dirty way. Even the term backsliders sounds like something you find streaked in the rear of your tighty whiteys. No one wants that. Essentially it harkens us back to those old, silent, keystone cop films. There are the good guys and the bad guys. Everyone knows which is which. It’s just that simple, right?

But faith, lived out well, is never that easy.

So that brings me to Saturday Night Live. Take for instance the recent SNLs sketch called FBI Simulation, and it features the elusive Kevin Roberts. Who is Kevin Roberts? That’s a fair question. And the answer is: He’s the coolest bitch in town. 

Take a moment to watch it here:

Viewing this sketch, reminds me of one of the central problems of Western American Christianity… our sin of judging others. We take a cursory view of people, and then presume to know their stories, ambitions and motivations.

The sketch surrounds FBI recruits at a simulated gun range where they have to make spit-second decisions on who’s the good guy and who’s a threat. That’s where Kevin Roberts enters. He’s an animatronic enigma that doesn’t seem to fit into reality. Is he good? Is he bad? Why does he want a donut? No one may ever know.

In the church, we tend to respond to the Kevin Roberts of the world like the cadet in the sketch does… he shoots the guy that doesn’t fit the predisposed mold of good guy or bad guy. Roberts doesn’t make sense in our paradigm, and in return must be taken out like he’s bad.

We all do this in life. We judge others, fitting people into our preconceived notions and killing off anyone that doesn’t fit into our assumptions. It’s black vs. white. It’s good vs. bad. It’s boiling down the world into a simplistic way that makes us feel comfortable. If we know who is outside the tribe, then we know who is the “other” or bad guy.

But Kevin Roberts breaks the convention. The mould doesn’t fit. It presses us to think beyond our simple categories and classifications. He doesn’t fit into an easy type. So what do we do? We kill off the outliers. If they don’t fit, they must be bad.

The problem isn’t with the categories… it’s with us… the Christians. When we look at Jesus, he defied classifications, and always moved to the marginalized in society. He gravitated away from the one percenters and the religiously pious because they assumed that they had already figured out life. Their belief system was already stagnant and set in stone. There was nothing he could do with people that have already assumed that they have figured “it” out.

But the Christian faith isn’t about those people… even though they populate our American churches and sing our hymns. They’re pious posers… like Kylie Jenner on Instagram posting to women the picture of beauty while actually being the epitome of plastic surgery and fallacy. We worship the thing we hate most. But I digress in the snarky jabs of pop culture that verge on becoming the very situation that I’m raging against. My apologies.

Back to SNL. In the sketch, the FBI trainee stuck in the simulation decries, “If being a field agent means dealing with human puzzles like Kevin Roberts, maybe I belong behind a desk.”

If we as Christians assume that our role in God’s Kingdom is to be the guy behind the desk, or the bouncer or door keeper of who says who doesn’t get in… then we’ve missed the entirety of Scripture. Our call as the faithful is be loving, caring and welcoming of those who don’t fit into society’s assumptions and categories. Simply put, we are called to love those that others don’t love. We are called to love everyone who exists outside of our man made boundaries and classifications.

Basically put by Jesus and the Jewish tradition that came before him, we are called to love our neighbors. In the scriptural context, our neighbor is anyone outside of ourselves. With this, there is no room to judge others.

Rethink Church

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Image by: Ryan Smith

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest something you may not like. I think we need to rethink how we do many things regarding church today. Over the next few weeks, I’ll delve into different aspects of what we do when we do church and ways to rethink it. This isn’t meant to be a criticism, but something that hopefully begins to spur thought and critical thinking.

For many years, I’ve devoted my time in ministry to reaching out to those outside of the sphere of Christian culture and influence. To you, you may call them non-believers, unbelievers, pagans or sinners. To me, I’ve learned to call them friend because at our cores we are all just sojourners in this world looking for a place to belong and wanting to know that God loves us. Through these relationships, I began to train myself to look at how we did church differently. I began to look at church through the eyes of an outsider.

In this post, I’m not referring to church as a body of believers or even the building (which is a whole different discussion), I’m talking about the corporate worship gathering. For most of you that’s a Sunday morning service. I grew up immersed in church, so this process of looking at church differently took a bit of time, but I’ll have to say that it really began to change me and my faith.

Think about it for a minute. Be honest with yourself. Church is weird. Just ponder this thought before you dismiss it.

Think about it.  Nothing is ever explained. Everyone just follows this unspoken pattern. There’s standing and there’s sitting. Then, there’s singing when you stand and singing when you sit. There’s a time where people shake hands for 30 seconds. There’s a plate that’s passed that people put money into it. And eventually some guy (or gal) stands up and talks for anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour – then you go home.

I had this friend that when I would bring her to church she would always get creeped out. Anytime there was this display of unspoken herd mentality (i.e. people following the unspoken pattern or flow), she would whisper to me playfully, “Cult!” She was joking (kind of), but she actually had a great point. To the outsider, none of this made any sense. And, frankly, to the insider I’m not sure if it did either – they had just been assimilated into groupthink.

Isn’t it funny to begin to question why we do the things we do?

My purpose for questioning here is not to merely mess with you, but to get you to rethink the things we do routinely without thinking. Is Sunday morning about you? Or is it about God? Or the outsider who is seeking to know more about God? To this, you may reply gleefully, “we, accomplish all of these every Sunday!” I’d challenge you that it doesn’t work that way. All of the above doesn’t work here. It’s like that Southern saying, “A little bit of everything gives you a lot of nothin’.”

I guess what I’m saying here is that intentionality is key. What is our purpose in doing these things and are we actually accomplishing these purposes? I’m not here to advocate one style or another, I’m here to advocate critical thinking. “Because we’ve always done it that way” is not a valid excuse.

Try this next Sunday at your church. Begin to think about how an outsider would perceive everything from the decor to worship music to the order of service. Ask yourself, “Why do we do it this way?”

It will really begin to mess with you – hopefully, in a good way.

Ministry in the Face of the Zombie Apocalypse: part 5

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{continued from part 4 or start at the beginning}

Survival Lesson #5: NO PLACE IS SAFE, ONLY SAFER.
(Learning to be Missional)

“Somnambulists [sleepwalkers] are the greatest threat to humanity, other than humanity itself” – Brooks (xii)

Although each zombie attack is different, one thing always remains constant; there is strength in numbers. The living survivors must band together and work in unison as never before. Social status and standing are gone; the old ways of a world have passed away. In the new economy, we must gather together, working in unison to facing the zombie hordes. Venturing out alone can often mean sudden death.

In the same sense, when it comes to the life of faith, we were created to be in community with others. Life should be lived together. Too long have institutional churches been known for doing church as opposed to being the church. We must become less about programming and more about sharing space. The original genius of Christ can be seen in the fact that he left the earth before he established the church. He knew that if he had stayed behind, the church would have never grown much beyond him. It started in the hands of a simple group of people because Jesus always meant for the church to be about community. That was then, and if we look at the focus of Western Church today, it looks much like this diagram (from McLaren‘s A Generous Orthodoxy p.117):

Here, church has become all about the individual. Once we lose the communal nature of church, it becomes a service driven institution. Only ‘service’ is not the same type of service we mentioned in the last section. Service in this context can be likened to that of a commodity. Church now produces a product for Christian consumers. In this paradigm, church exits to serve the Christian and has little impact on the world around it. Pastors are paid to keep congregants happy and hopefully attract new ones so the church can pay the bills. This may be a crude way to put it, but at its base level, this is the hard truth.

When we look at the Bible, a diagram (from McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy p.118) that closer resembles Christ’s original call (the Great Commission), shifts to look like this:

With this shift, the church exists to reach out to the world and the individual exists to serve the church. This is the paramount shift. “To be chosen, to be elect, therefore does not mean that the elect are the saved and the rest are the lost. To be the elect in Christ Jesus… means to be incorporated into his mission to the world, to be the bearer of God’s saving purpose for the whole world” (Newbigin The Gospel in a Pluralist Society 1336).

Too often, like the living dead, we have become like sleepwalkers, making our way through life without asking questions or challenging the way things are – even if those ways are wrong. For the church to shift from the first diagram to the second, it must take on the mantle of John the Baptist. In knowing Christ, John saw a new reality and stated, “He [Christ] must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30 TNIV). As the Church we are called to be a sign of the kingdom that, like John the Baptist, points towards the present reality of Christ. Either we believe that the Gospel exists for us (believers) or we believe that the Gospel exists for others. Whichever one you follow has great implications upon your walk as a Christian; both having profoundly different trajectories.

In Genesis, God called to Abraham and said, “I will surely bless you… and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed” (Genesis 22:17,18 TNIV). Abraham was promised blessings, and also that his descendants would be a blessing to the world. We are blessed and but also called to be a blessing to the world. As I journey forward, my missional heart will be at the core of who we are as a new church plant. We, as a church community, must overcome the “me” culture that has lead the West into a post-Christian state and focus it back to the “we” culture epitomized by the early church. The number one problem with the church today is not globalization or the shift in Christianity; we are the problem. As Christ followers, we have made the church about our own selfish desires and pursuits. If we are to be a church that is both transformative and missional at heart, we must understand that everything centers on Jesus, not ourselves. “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this” (Bonhoeffer Life Together p.21). When walking towards planting this church, I feel this quote wonderfully focuses on what the heart of any church must be grounded on: Christ.

In the next section, we will outline a roadmap towards freedom. It will involve us rethinking the way we look at church and cultivate leadership. These will be the steps that guide us to being a church that is both missional and transformative…

{continued in part 6}