Thursday, August 30, 2012

Community - What the American Church Should Do

          Relationships in our digital age are difficult to navigate. The technology is easy. We can screen friends, callers, and chose followers at a click of a button. It is intimacy that is elusive. Our culture has lost a sense of hospitality, trading it for home theaters and Netflix subscriptions. Reasons to leave home are in decline. Front porches have vanished. If people allowed their dogs to crap in the kitchen, we would never see our neighbors.
And yet, hidden behind our security systems and flat screens is a God-given need to connect with others. We are created for relationship. “Male and female he created them… It is not good for man to be alone… Husband and wife…begat…begat…begat…” So goes the story of Genesis: God created us for community.
Times of gathering must go beyond Sunday morning. We may not meet “daily” for bread-breaking and  the apostles teaching like Acts describes, but there are changes the church can make in the 21st century to reclaim community. The following ideas scratch the surface.
1.      Movie Clubs: People love film. Some prefer a certain genre or director; others like particular actors or eras of film. Regardless of the content and style, movies should be leveraged for shared experience and rich dialogue. On several occasions I’ve participated in movie groups. They never last too long—the guy who picks the foreign film always kills it—but they give believers an opportunity to discuss their Christian worldview, eat popcorn, and share an experience they would otherwise engage in the privacy of their own home.
2.      Pseudo-Sports Outings: Liz and I organized a Bocce Ball tournament when we lived in Phoenix. A significant portion of our church joined. We spent the entire day throwing balls around and mocking one another. I recall several meaningful discussions in between rounds. In a more recent season, Corn Hole became the flavor of the month. We found an old trophy from Goodwill that we awarded at the annual Thanksgiving bout. The pseudo-sport itself doesn’t matter (e.g., ping pong, disc golf, Risk); extended time together is important.
3.      Table Fellowship: Family meals have disappeared. Soccer schedules and band practices have robbed families (who’ve acquiesced). Churches play a part, too, offering programs and holding meetings five nights out of the week. One of the most simple and intimate ways to create community is to invite others to the dinner table. We’ve also had friends join us for Saturday morning pancakes. You cannot help but feel intimate with others when you’re all in your pajamas. Not only does table fellowship require people to open their home, share their refrigerator, and dirty their dishes, it also reflects the heart of Jesus.
4.      Prayer and Accountability Partners: As effective as small groups and shared events can be, there is no replacement for regular accountability. The frequency depends on the relationship. Weekly meetings may feel overwhelming; monthly meetings, too sparse. Most people benefit from guidance—a Bible reading plan and set of standard questions benefit members as long as they do not become a form of legalism. As mentioned before, accountability groups suffer when the members don’t recognize their need or show little commitment to the process.
5.      Create Margins in Weekly Gatherings: For a while I attended a church that offered two services. One Sunday I caught sight of the schedule: Every minute was portioned out. When managing crowds and volunteer crews, efficiency is critical. However, people know when they are cogs in a machine, ushered in and out for maximum seating capacity. Community does not flourish in the sitting position; it happens in aisles and hallways and margins of time when the program ceases and the Spirit flows. The culture we’ve created allows for starting late and going long and mid-service interruptions with roaming microphones and spontaneous prayer. These margins may overcook the casserole left in the oven for Sunday lunch, but they encourage people to interact with one another when they’re sharing space.
6.      Write Letters: Text is too instant. Email is too informal. Social media is too impersonal. Letters are intimate. Every personal, hand-written letter or card is a treasure. Several ladies in our church make their own stationary, giving their correspondence even deeper meaning.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Teaching--What the American Church Should Do?

Bruce was on a roll; he interrupted my sermon two weeks in a row. I've given the invitation several times. His interruption was the first in five years. If these interjections continue, revival is sure to follow.

For the church to thrive in the 21st century, she must rethink her method of teaching. Sermon is one form of instruction, but it has severe limitations. Sermons are passive, too formal, and top-heavy. Congregants walk out of Sunday morning service with weary eyes and overstuffed minds. (This, of course, assumes an exegetical message, not the religious fluff of Joel's pulpit and Joyce' podcast. Those people float out of the service from all the hot air blown up their butts.)

For better or worse, we are living in a day and age where sermon is losing its cultural footing. All monologue is losing its audience. College lectures have moved to online forums. Secondary education has resorted to group projects and presentations, where the blind lead the blind, and passing grades abound. Journalist begin an article; readers finish it. Talk radio, political speech, and podcasts depend on instant feedback (i.e. Twitter), savvy engineering, and controversial callers. If the medium is the message, the message is loud and clear:

Sustained listening is unsustainable in a digital culture. Speak up. Everyone has a voice.

One caveat: Only the comedian can engage an audience for thirty-to-sixty minute slots. It is no coincidence that many "good preachers" study comedians and mimic their trade. Unfortunately, jokes about Jews and Ham sandwiches only go so far in holding one's attention. Moreover, the sermon should be more than a stream of observations and punchlines; it is an exposition of a culture and a Text.

Now, back to the program: We were discussing how the church must change the way it teaches to maintain its audience the 21st century. We cannot pretend to be an oral culture like the Early Church (WWECD? is a bad question), but we can take on her ethos of contextualization. Below are five ideas to teach today's distracted-but-desperate-to-participate audience.

  1. Word Feasts: Get engrossed in study and discussion. Take six hours on a Saturday to journey through God's word: reading, reflecting, and asking questions. I've heard of college student meeting in coffee shops for hours with Paul's epistles and fresh baked muffins. David's Platt's church has made a program of this, called Secret Church, a tribute to persecuted believers who pour into God's word. Deep study is counter-cultural.
  2. Forums: Invite passionate people from within your church to discuss topics and concerns that make their heart race. From abortion to racism to global poverty to hermeneutics, these topics provide a springboard to a multitude of people. Invite a gifted leader to moderate the discussion and ask probing questions. This could take place in a restaurant, sanctuary, or neighbor's backyard. Diversity of opinion deepens understanding.
  3. Video: While media depersonalizes the message, it packages truth in a manner that connects with a culture enamored with entertainment. These can be simple and informative clips on YouTube. When using digital media, always invite responses. Conversation moves content.
  4. Practicum: Move the sermon to the seats and streets. Instead of pontificating about prayer for thirty minutes, provide five minutes of explanation and twenty-five minutes of practice. Instead of talking about "reaching the lost" from the pulpit, send people from the building to start conversations in the neighborhood. We must reconnect learning with practice.
  5. Catechism: As antiquated as this method of learning sounds, its strength lies in the discipline required to make doctrine second nature. Moreover, at its best, catechism is a communal practice, inviting parents and their kids or diverse congregants to recite basic truths from the Bible aloud. (Parent: Who created the heavens and the earth? Children: God created the heavens and the earth.) Ancient is the new future.
What teaching methods will you use in coming weeks to ensure a thriving church in the 21st century?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

WWECD?: A Bad Question

I'm tired of starry-eyed revisionists who speak of the Early Church as modeling the perfect form. She didn't. The Early Church was bigoted, loose, petty, and naive. Its earliest members showed preference to those with sheared foreskins. They gave more charity to pure-blooded Jews than migrant proselytes. They broke laws and upset economies and started turf wars.

And yet the "word of God continued to multiply" (Acts 12:24).

The Early Church grew in spite of herself. She grew because God had a mission and chose the church for its execution. She could not die because God put His resurrection Spirit in her. It fills the church even to this day.

But the church described in the book of Acts was not given as a mold for post-modern America. The Early Church's boldness and prayerful dependence is remarkable, but her ecclesiology is antiquated. We should not expect to gather daily for bread-breaking and apostolic teaching. Too many people are gluten intolerant. Too many miles separate brothers and sisters in Christ. Skype and Facebook cannot bridge the distance.

Jesus launched the Early Church in a foreign land, proclaiming Christ in a foreign tongue. The apostles spoke Jesus in their context: the 1st Century Mediterranean world. Values of honor, kinship, and limited good dominated.

Our context is different. Our native language is individualism, tolerance, consumption, and entitlement.

What Would the Early Church Do? is the wrong question, because their doing (i.e., behavior) grew from divergent beliefs and values. Simply mimicking the form of the Early Church without understanding its culture is as ridiculous as a rural church pretending to be Willow Creek. (Bill Hybels looks bad in overalls.)

Over the next few blog posts, I'll consider What the American Church Should Do? (WWACSD?) to join God's mission. My focus will include teaching, community, worship, discipleship, and service.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Unlikely Pastor: Aloof

"I don't know what Pastor Tim has planned. He's kind of aloof."

My most recent critic was Rachel, a recent graduate from our youth group. She had just returned from Momentum Youth Conference with six other students, re-energized in her relationship with Jesus. Moreover, Rachel expressed a passion to "be the church" not just "go to church."

This distinction came from speaker Francis Chan. Every Sunday their church hits the streets of San Francisco by giving, praying, feeding, and proclaiming Jesus on street corners, coffee shops, and restaurants. Our students wanted to follow suit. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find a Chipotle (or human being) in Leesburg, Indiana.

"What does "being the church" look like in our context?" we asked at our next youth group.

The Town of Leesburg comprises approximately 300 homes. Many residents live on fixed incomes--disability, unemployment, retirement benefits, meth profits. The teens brainstormed, listing the following components of a plan: tithe money, Walmart, and knocking on doors.

We asked more questions; I gave a few suggestions. We refined the plan: Our church would provide door-to-door grocery service, buying any one item for any family with any need (cigarettes and People magazine excluded).

By no means was the plan perfect, but it satisfied the students' longing to move the church beyond its walls. We took their passion and gave it contours. Then we put it on the calendar: two Sundays out. Not only would we have time to gather support from our adults, but the blitz would sync perfectly with my sermon on Paul's first missionary journey (Acts 13-14) scheduled for that week.

Two days later I left for California. The students would give the first plug for their outreach event while I attended a conference of my own. Sunday arrived. Students took front stage at our church. They shared stories of growth and speakers of note. Then Rachel sabotaged me.

"I don't know what Pastor Tim has planned. He's kind of aloof."

Rumors about my inability to plan had been growing over the past five years. Evidence to back up the claims abound. Ideas come easy to me; plans are overdue pregnancies. I need to surround myself with Hebrew midwives who can make my ideas breathe.

Then again, any church that limits its vitality to pastoral initiative is certain to die. In fact, my higher aim as a pastor is not giving birth, but building a nursery. I want to create a context where the ideas of others get feet and flourish. This means giving permission rather terms of service. This means providing guidance rather than giving directives. This means empowering members rather than employing them. This means allowing for failure rather than demanding efficiency.

And, worse case scenario, it means you might appear aloof.

NOTE: The Care Blitz underwent further tweaking. Leesburg Grace divided into three groups for worship. A handful prayed; half listened to the sermon on Paul's first journey; half canvassed the town with care packages. We talked and prayed with many of our neighbors, and gave away 70 care packages on August 12, 2012.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Unlikely Pastor: Skinny, Young, and Thoughtful

"That's my seat," I said, pointing to the empty spot beside the widow. The couple in aisle six stood up and breathed  a sigh of relief. They had feared a four hundred pound seat hog would travel from Salt Lake City to Indianapolis with them. I was a welcomed sight: skinny and young. I even promised not to take both arm rests.

We sat down and buckled in, and then woman turned to me and asked about my travels. "I'm returning from a pastor's conference."

I used to shy away from exposing my vocation. Responses are varied--some people start confessing sin, others curse. This woman's response was humorous. She said, "You don't look like a pastor."

"I don't typically travel in my clergy robes. It's not comfortable." I paused, and then added, "Are you people of the faith?"

"Oh no," they responded in unison.

"Would you mind if I proselytized you the entire trip?" They declined.

For a few minutes, we traded pleasantries. We talked about family and travel. Eventually, the conversation veered back to religion.

"I have a book I have to show you," the woman said. Her husband stood up and retrieved her purse. Buried in the bottom was a new work by Jonathan Haidt entitled, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. The author is a social psychologist from the University of Virginia, who explores the group-think, tribalism, and the shortcomings of our rational minds.

The book served as a segue to discussing political debate in a civil manner. If the recent Chik-fil-A spectacle proved anything, it is the power of our media to amplify opinions. We have the tools for anyone to give unsolicited and unfiltered commentary on issues as diverse as Freedom of Speech and Waffle Fries.

During the flight I took a cue from Haidt's dust-jacket: I listened.  My traveling companion outlined her six big issues for the upcoming election. She argued for reform on campaign finance and education. She wanted restrictions on Wall Street and freedom for ovaries. She dreamed of a smaller carbon footprint and larger federal government.

Occasionally, I chimed in with a question or comment. Once I affirmed my belief in the Sovereign, Creator God, who will reign in spite of Mitt Romney or Barack Obama's best campaigning efforts.

Each time I furthered the conversation, she sang her refrain: "You don't look like a pastor."

Finally, I asked her what a pastor looked like. She didn't know, but apparently we don't look skinny, young, or thoughtful.