Archive for the ‘Church’ Category

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World Vision Revisited – Bad Decisions and hypocrisy

March 31, 2014

I have placed myself in a difficult spot with this essay.

Which is okay. I don’t write, preach and teach in order to address the easy issues or the pleasant situations. I write to bring about change and to prevent good things from being eroded.

But there are times I find an issue where I cannot determine a side I am completely comfortable with. World Vision has forced me into one of those corners and I may end up painting myself even further in.

A synopsis: World Vision announced last week they were going to allow people who were in gay marriages to be hired by their organization. They rationalized this decision based on geography and internal goals. First, geography: Since Washington State has declared gay marriage legal—and they are based in Washington—they felt they should comply with Washington law. This is not valid, since religious institutions aren’t required to hire anyone who cannot comply with their beliefs.

Second: Internal goals. They are attempting through this decision to be more inclusive of both their conservative and liberal Christian supporters. As hard as it is for most evangelicals to accept, at least half of Christianity is more liberal and many of these people accept gay marriage as a legitimate form of marital expression. Many of them also support World Vision.

Being more conservative on this issue, I do not agree. But I recognize that World Vision has supporters who are from both liberal and conservative camps. They want to be inclusive.

That was a big mistake. On polarizing issues like gay marriage, one cannot please all the people. The only way to do that is to be silent and let people assume which side you fall on. But more and more, Christian organizations are being asked by both sides of the gay marriage issue to pick a side. So World Vision thought they could craft a position statement that appealed to both groups. They stated:

“Changing the employee conduct policy to allow someone in a same-sex marriage who is a professed believer in Jesus Christ to work for us makes our policy more consistent with our practice on other divisive issues,” he said. “It also allows us to treat all of our employees the same way: abstinence outside of marriage, and fidelity within marriage.”

“It’s easy to read a lot more into this decision than is really there,” he said. “This is not an endorsement of same-sex marriage. We have decided we are not going to get into that debate. Nor is this a rejection of traditional marriage, which we affirm and support.”

With this statement, World Vision wants both liberals and conservatives to support them. But since this is a reversal of their long-held policy against hiring gay Christians, there is no way for them to claim neutrality on this issue.

They should not have been surprised at the uproar this decision caused. Liberals, of course, were excited that this endorsed the position they already had. But conservatives viewed this as a slap in the face of their stand against gay marriage. It is understandable that conservative evangelicals were upset by this move. Since gay marriage is the most noticeable moral issue that most evangelicals agree upon, this has become the poster-child for the holiness movement. For a professing Evangelical organization to pull away from the “pack” like this, it feels like they have sold out their supporters.

Then, two days later, they reversed their decision. In a letter of apology, World Vision president, Richard Stearn stated:

The last couple of days have been painful,” president Richard Stearns told reporters this evening. “We feel pain and a broken heart for the confusion we caused for many friends who saw this policy change as a strong reversal of World Vision’s commitment to biblical authority, which it was not intended to be.”

“Rather than creating more unity [among Christians], we created more division, and that was not the intent,” said Stearns. “Our board acknowledged that the policy change we made was a mistake … and we believe that [World Vision supporters] helped us to see that with more clarity … and we’re asking you to forgive us for that mistake.”

Wow! Let me count the mistakes they made.

  1. They erroneously thought they could engage the gay marriage issue by taking a middle ground stance. There is very little middle ground on a polarizing issue like this one, and they certainly didn’t find it.
  2. They put the lives of children at risk, callously ignoring a possibility that outraged supporters would withdraw support for children because of their decision. More about this in a moment.
  3. When people began to cancel their support for World Vision’s children, a number of people who support gay marriage offered to “adopt” those children. This number was smaller than the number who pulled away, so World Vision panicked.
  4. In their panic, they reversed their original decision. I suspect they did this to cut their already substantial financial losses.
  5. By reversing their decision, they have now alienated both sides of this issue, and both sides now feel they cannot trust World Vision.

As I reflect on it, I realize that at this point, no one should trust World Vision. They have shown little respect for their own children by putting them in harm’s way.

Suffice to say that I have never been a supporter of World Vision. I don’t like that they refused to participate in a study done to determine the effectiveness of feeding programs around the world. World Vision refused. So did Samaritan’s Purse. Only Compassion International was willing to put their reputation on the line to let their results become an open study. Therefore, that is the organization I support when I sponsor children and their food needs.

So, to sum up the first part of this essay, World Vision blew it big time. Someone ought to lose their job over this. I personally will not support the efforts of World Vision in the future. Are we clear on this point?

Now for the deeper issue. Is it morally defensible to cancel your avowed support of a child because you no longer support the organization? I do not think the Scriptures allow for such action, and I even go as far as to say this type of action is hypocritical.

I will say that not everyone who cancels their sponsorship is a hypocrite. Some people are just ignorant of what they’re doing. But if you read my rationale here and agree that it is not biblical to do so—and then do it anyway—that would be hypocritical behavior. So let me take three biblical principles and show how they apply directly to this situation.

In Mark 7, Jesus and the Pharisees are fighting it out over Jewish ceremonial law. At one point, Jesus begins a rant about their religious hypocrisy. In verses 8-13, he states:

You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ 11 But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— 12 then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. 13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”

Jesus addresses the issue of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe traditions. In this case, the command of God is for children to honor their father and mother. This includes helping them financially. But the Jewish leaders taught that if they would rather give the money to the temple instead of parents, they could declare the gift as Corban. Corban was a designated temple gift that superseded other gifts. In verse 13, Jesus reminds them that this tradition of the Temple actually nullifies what God has commanded.

God saw the child/parent relationship as a covenant. This is also true of a husband/wife relationship. If someone in a covenant relationship promises to act a particular way, and then acts differently, they are violating that covenant. This is a serious sin. The enemy of our souls loves to defeat people who break covenants.

When you agree to sponsor a child, you are agreeing to do that as long as they are a child. This is similar to any agreement between a child and a foster parent. Adopted parents, foster parents, stand-in parents, sponsoring parents–all of these parenting types fit into the covenant role with a child. If you cancel that sponsorship, you are reneging on the agreement you have with that child. Therefore, your actions are little different from the person who took money intended for parents and gave it to the temple instead.

Actually, I can imagine why some people would opt for Corban instead of parents. What if dad is an alcoholic? What if mom uses drugs? What if they both are violent? Does this mean we no longer have to help them out? I don’t think the Bible allows for an “out” clause in the covenant for those circumstances.

I fully understand why people are angry at World Vision. However, your original covenant is not with the organization, but with the child. I would recommend people continue to support their children and then let World Vision know you will not be supporting any other children and certainly won’t be helping with World Vision’s other projects. That would keep intact both your desire to distance yourself from World Vision and your commitment to the child.

Remember, Jesus also told us never to cause a child to stumble. When you support a child in a developing country, your gift allows that child to eat instead of die due to starvation. It also helps that child’s family. In addition, when several children are sponsored in one village, the entire village receives some of the funds. So when you drop support for a child, you are harming the child, its family and the village.

If you break your promise to that child–especially when the child knows you are a Christian–you are doing damage to that child’s view of Christ and Christians.

Jesus had these harsh words in Matthew 18:6 for those who do such things:

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.

Finally, I can see someone who is still unconvinced. They may rationalize “I don’t think my promise to a child is the same as a covenant.” They may also say “I don’t think the teaching on offending children applies in this situation.” Hopefully then, you are a better Bible scholar than I, for I think both principles apply perfectly.

However, if you still aren’t convinced, let me give the final biblical reason why you shouldn’t end your support of these children. If you do, you’re breaking your promise.

The Bible has a word for a promise we make to another person. It is called “a vow”.

Here’s a few things the Bible says about vows:

Numbers 30:2  When a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.

Ecclesiastes 5:5:  It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfill it.

Matthew 5:33:  “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’

You do serious damage to your soul when you break a vow. If you make a vow, you are not let out of the vow because the person involved has problems or does things you don’t like. In this case, just because World Vision is not the organization you thought it was is not a reason to end your sponsorship of a child.

You have made a covenant with that child.

You are to set an example for that child.

And you have made a vow to that child.

If those reasons are not enough, then you should talk to the Holy Spirit about this.

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What Needs to Arise from the Ashes of the Emerging Church

March 4, 2014

RipIn 2006, I wrote six articles on why I was not a part of the Emerging Church. Here is the final one, and all you have to do is read backward to find the rest. At that time, I predicted that the Emerging Church movement would fall apart and cease to exist in the years to come. I didn’t say that out of animosity or a desire to curse them. Unfortunately, the Emerging church movement was decontructionist in nature, and thus subject to the same inertia of all deconstructionist movements: They fall down with their own tendency to self-criticize.

In other words, once you start throwing stones as a group, you inevitably start throwing stones at each other. Decontructionist movements always devolve into bickering.

A few years ago Dan Kimball–who wrote the book “The Emerging Church“– wrote an article where he admitted the movement had splintered and was no longer a viable entity. Others such as Scot McKnight and Andrew Jones (a.k.a The Tall Skinny Kiwi) also have lamented and written about the fragmentation of the movement.

But all three men have one thing in common: They still believe in the principles of the Emerging Church even if they no longer believe the movement is viable. The problem is, every one of them recognizes a significantly different set of principles that embody their view of the Emerging church. Perhaps this is another reason it has come to an end.

But since I was a bellringer for this movement’s demise, perhaps it is time to admit some of the things I learned from reading, meditating and participating with some of the leaders of this movement. This is not an homage to something I didn’t believe in–I’m not Cassius Brutus or his kin–but rather this springs from my desire to acknowledge the good things the Emerging church was trying to do.

1. The Evangelical Church Has Become Shallow: As with any retrospective, my analysis of all things related to churches will be painting with a broad brush. Not all evangelical churches are shallow. But there is a pattern which goes back over twenty years in prominent Evangelical churches of emphasizing style over content. Let me just give a few examples:

  • Dominance of bass boosters, fog machines, expensive lighting systems, electronic keypads etc. in large megachurches.
  • Pastors buying the sermon series of other preachers instead of digging into the Word on their own (thank you Rick Warren for that egregious error).
  • Christian bestsellers are all penned by superstar pastors since these pastors can guarantee that their congregations will buy the first 50,000 copies. Therefore, most Christian books are ghost-written and designed for marketing instead of teaching..
  • Worship services are designed to sound like concerts instead of providing a place for the congregation to have communion with the Holy Spirit.
  • Tendency to mirror conservative political buzz instead of being a prophetic voice.

The Emerging Church desired to have more intimate gatherings of people instead of the consumerist approach we buy into. In this, they are correct. As I wrote in this series on the Walmartization of the church, this trend will not stop as long as people desire little commitment to a local church. I am sorry the Emerging Church was not able to make more of an impact on these practices.

2. Social Justice: If you look back ten years to the messages preached from Evangelical pulpits, you didn’t hear much talk about climate change, recycling, feeding the poor, sex trafficking, backyard gardens, gender equity, GMO proliferation etc. The Emerging Church dedicated themselves to social justice and their voices convinced many in the Evangelical world that this was true and undefiled religion. Now you can hear them being preached everywhere. I am concerned that as the Emerging Church loses its soapbox, we may forget these critical emphases.

3. Narrative Theology has one great result: Narrative preaching seeks to understand where each book of the Bible can be found in the larger  story of God. That is to say, all Scripture was penned as a partnership between God, the writer and the culture to whom he was writing. Evangelical preachers have sought to understand what God was saying in each passage, keeping in mind the human elements of the writers while not really paying much credence to their personality. For instance, we recognize the difference between the Gospel written by Doctor Luke and the one that comes from the mouth of the peasant John. Their language is different as is their focus. But that’s as far as we go. We rarely, if ever, parse the cultures to whom books were written. This is a serious error and I thank the Emerging church and their emphasis on reading the original culture as well as reading the original language. It helps to know that culture’s views on poverty, slavery, sex, women, homosexuality, marriage, divorce, church leadership etc. before we finish up our study. Evangelicals are too inclined to only look what God might be saying and not enough to the ideas of the author and the contextual culture. I suspect that as the Emerging Church disappears, we may go back to only one side of the Scriptural partnership. Hopefully writers like Tom Wright and Roger Olson can help us stay on a good interpretive track.

4. People Are Leaving Church Because We Are too Institutional: This past year, well-known writers such as Rachel Held Evans and Donald Miller have admitted they rarely go to church. CNN ran a series of articles three months ago suggesting that children who grew up in Evangelical churches are leaving those same churches when they hit their twenties. Everyone has proposed a different reason for this, but I think the Emerging Church identified the reason better than all the rest: The Millennial Generation doesn’t perceive real community in their home church and this is what they yearn for more than anything else.

Recently, our church decided we need to buy a building so our current ministries don’t die off. We are meeting in 7 different locations around the city doing the work we are called to do. As I met with various members of the church to discuss a move, I asked them one question: What do you value about our church? The answer was consistent and overwhelming: People join our church because of its sense of genuine community. We actually know each other. We are involved in each other’s lives. The biggest fear that people expressed about owning a building is that we would get too big and lose that sense of belonging to one another. This response has made our leadership team sit up and ask tough questions. Primarily, we want to know if we can do this and stay close to each other. If at any point we decide that is not possible, we will give up trying to have a building.

Today’s Evangelical church  must come to grips with the movement of young people away from the “Show” and the “Celebrity Pastor”. If we are not intimate, genuine, relational and humble, our churches will die just as surely as the Emerging church.

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Things Charismatic/Pentecostal/Renewal Preachers Do

February 25, 2014

This begins with true confession time. Hi; my name is Mike, and I’m a charismatic (“Hi Mike”). That is, I believe in the existence of and proper practice of the supernatural gifts of the Spirit. I speak in tongues occasionally. I have prophesied. I get down with Jesus, I have danced, laughed and laid prostrate in the Spirit, and I know what it is like to be preaching one sermon and have to stop to preach a totally different one.

I say all of that to say this: all of what I will say next applies to my tribe. This is an insider’s view, not a sniper’s shot from on top of the hill.

Unfortunately, I have come to my upper limit on being able to listen to podcasts by Pentecostals, Charismatics, Third Wavers, Renewal speakers and Holy Ghost Here-We-Go Anointed individuals.

It is not the content per se. It is not the ministry time at the end (well, maybe a little bit of that, but we’ll let that slide). It is the gimmicks that the preachers use in our circles that have got to stop. Guys and gals of the Holy Spirit persuasion: don’t you know they’re making fun of us, and not for the good reasons?

For the sake of bringing this whole shabang back to sanity, I propose we call for a permanent moratorium on some of the things charismatic preachers do. I have done three of these and I repent in dust and ashes. And no, I’m not admitting which three I have used. My friends know.

So, here are the most egregious practices of our tribe:

1. Simon Says.  This is where the preacher likes the point they’re making and tells the audience to “Say ____________”. Then the whole group repeats whatever the key phrase is. Let’s say the sermon is on Jesus raising Lazarus and the preacher wants to get across the point that Lazarus smelled bad after three days of putrification. The preacher might order the congregation, “Say, ‘smell bad‘” and then “Say, ‘Lazarus come out‘”.  And then it’s “Say ‘Take those stinky clothes off'” … and on and on. Some teachers do it so much that it is a constant litany of Simon Says repeat-after-me’s that you end up losing the point of the preacher. I suppose that Aimee Semple McPherson probably started this and since she was anointed, it became the acceptable way of hammering home the point. But to me, after 50 of these in a message, I actually get belligerent and say to myself, “I’m not saying that”. And then I have to deal with a spirit of rebellion.

2. FYI Moments.  If you listen to any charismatic preachers lately, you’ve heard this one. It all starts with the preacher saying “How many know…” and then it divulges some charismatic buzz concept that is making the conference rounds. As in “how many know the enemy only has a short time left” or “how many know that these are the Days of Elijah” etc. The problem here is that anyone who doesn’t know this meme feels like an idiot and most people will just agree even if this is a new teaching to them. Who wants to feel left out? In addition, I suspect a lot of teachers do this to let the congregation know that they are part of the latest instruction and listening to the Spirit. Let your congregation off the hook. They don’t need to get hooked on novel theories that will not be spoken of ever again. Fortunately, no one asks any more “How many know there’s a Jezebel spirit around these days?”

3. This Just In From Holy Spirit. You know the big gimmick that Fox News and CNN practice several times an hour. They know that everyone has been watching for a couple of hours and they need to make it interesting. So they pop up the words “Special News Alert“. It isn’t just the news. Preachers are now doing it all the time. They’ll be in a teaching message and they have to stop and tell us that Holy Spirit has just moved them to say something important. What I struggle with is not that Holy Spirit breaks in on their message or that they share it. But do they have to announce what they’re doing? Just do it. I can’t imagine Jesus stopping on his way to heal the Centurion’s son and then looking at the crowd and saying, “Wait, Holy Spirit just showed me someone may have touched me. And oh yeah….power just went out from me. How many know that power goes out from you sometime? Say “power goes out” people.” No, Jesus just turned around and said “Who touched me?” The mechanics behind his ministry in the Spirit stayed with him.

4. Hit Like on My Good Point. This next habit has been around for a long, long time. I can tell you as a conference speaker and preacher that we are some of the most insecure people on the planet. And small wonder: We are constantly putting out ideas for others to critique and comment upon. That would reduce a macho man to jello. The problem comes in when the preacher is fishing for “likes”. It sounds like, “can I have an amen at that point?” and then goes on from there. The preacher who always needs the crowd to agree with them lives in the same camp with the Facebook person who checks every ten minutes to see how many likes his latest observation has scored. Preachers even have their own particular phrases designed to garner these likes. “Can I have a witness?” “Am I alone in here?”, “Is anyone with me?”, “Amen all by myself?” etc. ad nauseum. You know, most of the prophets preached with an expectation that stones could start flying at any moment. The crowd in that day was saying “I’ll give you an amen brother…right between the eyes.” Man up and stop asking every twenty seconds for affirmation. It’s a little weak.

5. Lucky Lexicon. I am all for a teacher doing good background work. Get into the Greek, Hebrew, the lexicon, the bible dictionary and so on. That’s not this problem. I am pained lately at the preponderance of charismatic preachers who are discovering the original languages and when they find an unusual option for the interpretation, grab a hold of it. If your interpretation can’t be found in any of the translations, you are not ‘probably wrong’ you are ‘most definitely wrong’. This mistake is made because there is a mad dash these days to be an original voice in the wilderness. That is just not possible: There are too many teachers around to be the only one saying anything.

6. Where Was I?  Any teacher doing most of the above is going to run into this problem. They’ve taken so many side-excursions to play Simon Says and FYI and “This Just In” that they can’t remember the point they were trying to make. Believe me teachers, if you can’t remember where you are, the congregation got lost a long time ago. There is no virtue in starting in one direction and having no idea where you went only to have you arrive at a strange conclusion. Call it the “leading of the Holy Spirit” all you want, it is just bad teaching. And the only ones who will remember it are the ones who “fake it until they make it”, ashamed they don’t recall all your finer points.

7. Ritalin Aids. Let’s assume in this information age that the average person gets distracted so often we have a national crisis of ADHD. None of us can pay attention for that long. This may explain why so many charismatic leaders are constantly telling us that the good part is coming. “You’re going to love this” they promise. “Listen carefully, this is where it gets good” they predict. “You don’t want to fall asleep and miss this” they warn. Recently, I heard a guy everyone is calling today’s Prophet preach on 1 Corinthians 12. It is a difficult passage and one needs care in going through it. I actually thought he did a decent job of teaching, but then I had to stop listening. I counted 27 times where he told the listener about something coming that was critical. I finally just lost all credible ability to keep focusing. If everything is important, then nothing is.

That’s the danger of all of these. They pollute and dilute the truth of God. Nothing is worth doing if that is the result.

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Five Plus Two (plus one) Equals 15,000

October 24, 2013

worship_kneelingI sat in the front row of my church recently and thought: “Finally, we broke through“. We failed to do this for the few weeks previous. One Sunday, we even felt completely submerged in despair, desperation and grim feelings. Though not everyone felt that way, it was a spiritual attack and we were not handling it well.

One primary reason for this is that people have not understood the power of worship. Worship is not a noun. I heard someone say recently to a friend who was discouraged: “We need to get some worship in you guy“. Another friend recently posted about a pastor who said “Let’s get our worship on.” These comments thrust worship into noun-status, relegating worship into a “thing” that we “receive”.

This is so far from accurate, we should cringe when we hear it.

Worship is a verb. It is an activity we perform with three distinct goals (we don’t always employ each goal, but they are all legitimate):

1. To pull away from the rat race of this world and re-connect with God whom we may have neglected or not taken time to connect with

2. To teach our souls that God is the center of the universe and deserving of praise and adoration, and not we ourselves.

3. To deny the soul-sucking beliefs and emotions that are inspired by selfish people and evil designs in this world. When we worship, we focus on God, his power and Truth and pull away from the negative influences of people and unclean spirits.

When we see worship as a noun, we passively receive some benefit from music, fellowship, church service structure or architecture. Though music can sometimes change our mood, it fails to change or address the deeper issues of the mind, emotions, memories and imagination. Only God can work with us on that level.

So, with those concepts in mind, let me go back to the worship service I reference at the top of this article. The week before, I had challenged the church to come together to do warfare against false beliefs and negative emotions by preparing for worship early and by coming together as a group to honor God whole-heartedly. For weeks, we had not done this and therefore, we were buried in the avalanche of life’s troubles and worries. That morning, instead of being buried, we broke through with a cry of relief and joy. Most people who were privileged to be there, and who shared in the experience, say it was one of the most dramatic times they had spent with God in a long while.

I remember experiencing the opposite on many occasions. I have sat in church services where it appeared to me (and I may have been wrong about this) that very few people were attempting to have a living, breathing relationship with God during their offering of worship. They were going through the motions. This brought to mind a dream I had 25 years ago. Let me share the dream then go on to a short teaching.

In the dream, another man and I were walking into a small country church. There were dozens of people there and the pianist was playing a well-known worship hymn. For some reason, no one could see my friend and I. We just observed what was happening among the people. I noticed that everyone’s mouths were moving, but I could only hear musical words coming from a few of them. That’s when I saw  a man standing beside my friend and I.

“Would you like to know what you’re seeing” he asked me.

“I don’t understand” I said. “Why can’t I hear most of them?”

He explained. “The ones you can hear mean what they are saying. The rest are just singing a well-known song. You are hearing what God is hearing. He can’t hear those who don’t mean what they’re singing.”

That’s when I woke up in a sweat. Through this dream, I came to realize that there is great truth in John 4:24, 25: “God is spirit; those who worship Him must worship in Spirit and in Truth. God is seeking people such as this to worship Him.” God seeks out worshipers. This is not because God is vain, but because He knows that in worship, we connect deeply to him. In our worship, we throw down our self-absorbed ways and acknowledge our creator, bless his goodness, see his beauty and love and receive his power. It is in worship that we fully partner with God so that God is released in us to change us and re-structure all the damaged parts of our minds and hearts.

Let me dwell for a moment on this concept of partnership. Those times I have sat in the service where no one seems to be meaning what they’re singing, where no one is really connecting with God – I often get upset and start praying for them. I have often prayed that God would “break through and pour out His Presence.”

But recently, I realized God cannot just do this unless people are in agreement with it. If few people in a room want the presence of God to be seen, God cannot manifest his presence as He would want. But if enough people in the room (I can’t give  you a percentage, but it doesn’t have to be the majority) desire to have God show up and change our lives, then we experience that organic partnership that brings about miracles.

Remember the time Jesus was teaching the crowds and they all realized they were hungry. It would have taken hours – maybe days – for everyone to go home and have a meal. Jesus’ teaching was important, but they were hungry. So he tells the disciples to find something for the crowds to eat.

Matthew and Luke tell us there were 5,000 men at this meeting. It is reasonable to assume there were as many women and children there, so it is also reasonable to say that the crowd numbered somewhere around 15,000. They wanted more of Jesus and he wanted to feed them. There are a lot of deeper truths here, but I don’t have time to graze through them. Feel free to think more about this yourself.

A young boy came forward with his lunch: Five small barley loaves and two small fish. The word “small” is repeated in the Greek language. We are to see his offering as a small thing by human standards. But in offering his meal, he is offering to God a partnership with huge implications. Here is the deeper truth: It is not the size of the thing we are bringing to the partnership that is important: It is the attitude of wanting God to take what is ours and use it to God’s designs that changes our world.

The heart of worship is an attitude of surrender. It is not wise to come into God’s presence and bring nothing. Surrendering attitudes, decisions, relationships, plans, goals, desires, habits, money, sex, power, indifference, fears, loneliness – whatever we give to God freely with a full heart becomes the basis for a miracle.

Try this today. Get alone and put on some spiritual music that causes you to focus on God. Sing along with it if you like. But focus on inviting God to meet with you. Then, when you begin to experience his presence on the inside, surrender anything that wants to take your focus away from worship. Ask God to partner in this thing with you. Ask God how he wants you to act differently. Like the boy who had to give up the meal and then saw 15,000 people fed to overflowing, God will show you what comes next.

Recently, in worship, I surrendered my anger toward a colleague who had treated me poorly (by my estimation). I feel I am right in this situation, but once I surrendered my right to be angry, God showed me a perspective on his heart. My heart was filled with compassion for him, and God showed me how to bless him. Which I was able to do the next week. We have now renewed our friendship because of this. This is the kind of miracle I embrace. It changes our lives.

Worship is a verb, an action we perform so we can partner with the Living God to change this world.

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Observing Churches for a Summer

July 29, 2013

For thirteen years, my wife and I have essentially attended the same church (Gateway Fellowship of Sacramento). This makes sense, since we were part of the team that started the church. On vacation, over the years, we have occasionally attended other churches; but on the whole, Gateway is our only experience.

Until this summer.

We’ve been on sabbatical for 11 weeks now, and have attended 7 different churches during that time in both Canada and the United States. I have to say I am extremely disappointed by what I’ve found. Almost every Sunday (with one exception) we came away from the time of worship and a sermon looking disappointingly at each other. Now, I have had seasons in my life when I’ve been hypercritical, but I don’t think I’m in one of them now. Kathy is not that way, and we have been pretty consistent in what we’ve seen. Let me share some random thoughts from my 11 week experience.

1. In only one of the 11 weeks did the preacher present the Bible expositorily. Expository preaching means the teacher uses the Bible verses as the basis for what they present. Only one person did this. Many of them made passing references to the Bible. Two of the speakers told their story the whole time and barely even acknowledged the Bible at all.

2. A lot of money is being spent on lighting and sound systems. If you want to know how I feel about these, look at this blog entry from a couple of years ago. I am not impressed.

3. The churches we visited were either extremely friendly or extremely unfriendly – there was nothing in between. In two of the churches, we went out of our way to meet people no one else was talking to. In both cases, the people were also visitors to those churches. One lady was really upset that we were not from that church: She was hoping there were at least two friendly people there. I am worried for the church if newcomers are treated this way.

4. The “Big Show” approach is not as interesting as most churches think it is. The $200,000 sound system and the drummer who looks like he was recently with a heavy metal band gets old after about 30 seconds. So does the entire service devoted to dramatic readings from a great-grandmother’s pioneer journal (Yes, we actually sat through an hour of readings from the diary of an old Norwegian Minnesotan, done by her great-grandson pastor. It would have been more enjoyable sticking a pencil in my eye).

5. Most churches are stuck in one era of music. One church sings all songs from the 80s. Another is a 90s church. Another is a Millennial church and another the 1800s. Blend it up people. There is good music in every era.

6. No pauses. There is no time given in the services to reflect and to talk to God. It is one fast-paced show until the closing bell. In one church, I had to leave to get some business done and then come back in.

7. God was in all those places. There is no doubt I felt God’s presence everywhere I worshiped. Most of the time, it was despite the fact they did everything to ignore God. Sigh.

One last thing. I am wondering why there was so little Expository preaching this summer. I have four theories…see which one you think it is.

a. They have been mentored to preach in other ways. Since less and less people use the Bible in teaching, there are less mentors to show others how to do this.

b. Preachers think people want more gimmicks. They actually believe we’re tired of studying the Bible. They’re wrong.

c. They are trying to be relevant…this is not as wise an approach as one thinks. The Bible is always relevant if one knows how to glean the Universal truths from it and apply them to everyday life. It’s not that hard. But you have to start with the Bible, not the culture. That’s the backwards way of doing it.

d. They think it makes them sound old-fashioned. I don’t think it does. It makes them sound irrelevant to the real issues of the heart. And most pastors now want everyone to “Like” them (see Facebook et al) and don’t want to rant. They don’t want to sound like this guy for instance.

Have you had similar experiences lately?

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Are Relevant Churches Really Relevant?

March 17, 2013

This is the fourth most popular post of the past ten years. It is part of our series where we reprint the top ten blog entries. Enjoy.

be-relevantSome friends have suggested I spend too much time on the Internet. It depends on what you mean by “too much time”. I have a counter on my computer that keeps track of every minute I’m online; it rarely goes over one hour a day. But I get a lot done with that hour. I have a newsreader that collects all my favorite blogs, newspapers and magazines and trims them down to headlines. Therefore, I sometimes read things very quickly without deep reflection. Occasionally, it takes days until I react and respond to what I’ve read. What I’m going to talk about next is a result of one of those situations. I cannot even find the original article this idea came from. (I am sure one of my readers will find it and help me out, so I’m not worried about plagiarism).

I want to talk about the word “Relevant”. In the immortal words of Inigo Montoya (of the Princess Bride): “I do not think that word means what you think it means”. And it is the collective brain trust of contemporary church leaders who may have misunderstood the meaning and direction of this word. This sometimes happens with words; normally it’s not that big a deal. For instance, people often get the words “irrespective” and “regardless” mixed up. People sometimes jumble their definitions and thereby combine them wrongly to make “irregardless”. Irrespective means to know something and then to have no respect for it. Regardless means that you choose not to regard an issue. They are close in meaning, but not exactly the same. For example, I certainly understand what goes into the mind of a man who commits adultery. But I have no respect for his actions. Irrespective of his actions, I take my own actions. But I cannot disregard his actions, especially if they happen to someone close to me. In the case of adultery, I cannot act “regardless”, even though I can act “irrespective”. You see, they don’t mean the same thing.

Relevant is close to another word “relative” and the similar adjective “relational”. Relevant means to stick to the issue at handRelative means to relate to something or someone else. Relevant has to do with issues, controversies, position statements, movements and ideas. Relative has to do with people, choices, culture, tastes and situations. A person who is arguing in a political debate and is asked about their position on war will be relevant if their answer has to do with war. If it has to do with political parties, economics or sports, they are probably not relevant to the issue at hand. A great synonym for “relevant” is “pertinent”. The question a person needs to ask when trying to decide if they’re being relevant is this one: Does my approach pertain to the issue at hand?

If someone wants to be relative or relate to others, they should adopt similar styles, dress, language, approach and attitudes. They must agree with those positions to be relative to the issues at hand. Here then, is the big difference between being Relevant and being Relational: A relevant approach addresses the key issues exactly, irrespective of whether they agree with the position of others. A Relational or Relative person seeks to identify as closely with the position and approach of others. So with these definitions in mind, let’s ask ourselves this question: Those churches who claim to be “relevant” to today’s culture, are they indeed that way or are they more “relative” to the dominant memes of our day?

I will be over-generalizing, but this is the only way to make this essay shorter than an entire book. I hear of churches constantly using the word relevant to refer to their public services. What do they usually mean by that? This video mocks the trend, but it is not really all that misguided. Here then are some ways that churches represent themselves as “relevant”:

  • Casual, weekend style clothing.
  • Modern styles of music, usually reflecting latest trends in style similar to what is played in Christian concerts.
  • Use of video, movies, television shows, commercials and trends to show commonality with audience
  • Expensive lighting, sound systems and printed material, often eclipsing other public non-profit organizations
  • Use of latest software and hardware for multimedia presentations
  • Sermon topics relate to the everyday life of listeners, especially in areas of raising children, marriage, finances and use of leisure time
  • Advertising material, including websites, brochures and radio/television ads are high quality and often produced by professional advertising agencies.

This, then is what most churches mean by Relevant. I contend that this is the absolute wrong use of the word and has reduced the concept to something much more shallow than it was intended to represent. I will share two reasons why I think we are using this word at the end of this article, but let’s see what this approach really is: Relational.

When church leaders model their dress after the manner people usually wear on the weekend, they are trying to help the average person feel more comfortable. There is no “issue” or “agenda” with this. There is no pertinent value a church seeks to communicate other than this: We are like you. We relate to you. You relate to us. We don’t think we’re better than you. (I do have a minor problem with this: We wouldn’t disdain a bank teller for wearing a tie, or a waiter, or people going out on the town…we allow for all of those to dress for the occasion. What we are saying to people in church is ‘this is not really a special occasion’). Sermon topics that relate to where people live every day are relational. They may also be relevant (ie. when they deal with particular issues that spring from daily life), but generally the approach is to have people know the preacher is aware of what issues accrue when his hearers live their daily life. The style of music is designed to relate to what people are listening to. Many churches now actually use songs written by secular music artists and then give the songs contemporary Christian meaning. This is rarely done to address particular issues, but more to show people that the church is not out of touch with what they listen to. The same can be said of the use of video, television and pop cultural references. All of it is packaged to tell this culture: “We’re one of You”.

That is not being Relevant: That is being Relational. And in the words of Jerry Seinfeld “not that there’s anything wrong with that”.  (You see, I can be relational as well).

I have occasionally joked that I have the secret formula for getting 10,000 people in church next Sunday: Just contract with Justin Bieber to be the special musical guest. It’s the church equivalent of “sweeps week” for the television networks. The idea behind these gimmicks is that if people keep coming, they will eventually fold into the congregation and learn more about God. I hesitated even writing this paragraph because someone is now looking up the phone number for Bieber’s agent.

Now let me tell you what “Relevant” looks like. If you always look and sound the same as everyone else, you are entirely unnecessary. That isn’t being relevant, it is being a parrot. Relevant means we look at the issue everyone is speaking of and realize what isn’t being said and then say it. When Martin Luther pounded his 95 Theses on the Wittenberg church door, he was addressing one of the most irritating issues of his day: That some priests were selling indulgences as a way to raise money, promising people a quick doorway into heaven if they purchased a large number of them. No one was standing in the way of this false teaching, except Luther. Everyone was copying what they heard from friends because it was safer that way and others liked them. I have to ask today if churches aren’t stuck in that same emotional rut. Like everyone else, we do want people to like us. We want them to hit “like” on Facebook. We want them to keep coming back to services week after week, even if all we’re doing is repackaging what 1000 others have said, perhaps better than us.

Relevant, on the other hand,  is when Jesus noticed that people were being cheated right in the middle of a prayer room and then, in a prophetic act, he upended the tables of the money-changers. Relevant is Jackie Pullinger pulling drug addicts off the streets of Hong Kong and getting them clean when the dominant society ignores them. Relevant is Erin Gruwell addressing drug wars and the deaths of her students with a radical plan to change their learning style. Relevant is Peggy Drake who worked to comfort AIDS sufferers in West Africa while most Christians were saying it was God’s judgment against homosexuals. Relevant is a preacher resigning from his wealthy church because they would not adopt a lifestyle of caring for the poor. Relevant is almost always counter-cultural, it addresses today’s news with timeless truths, it lives the way it believes and garners respect because it doesn’t try to bribe people into following its viewpoints.

How Relevant is your church?

Without a doubt, by fleshing out these definitions, you will realize that churches will fall into four categories:

  1. Not Relevant, not relational
  2. Relevant, but not relational
  3. Relational, but not relevant
  4. Both Relational and Relevant

Why then would churches choose to be relational and not particularly relevant? I think there are two reasons for this. First, being relational is much easier and does not cost us much. We all learned in elementary school that it went better for us if we adopted the latest trends and fashions and were friends with the most popular kids. Differing even a fraction from the dominant elementary school culture put us in the outcast group and we hated being relegated there. We still do. Pastors and church members don’t want to think their approach to living is all that much different than their neighbors. They want others to know they don’t indulge in the more extreme activities of secularism (like drug use and listening to Insane Clown Posse), but they are proud to be able to make a comment on the American Idol Final 8 or to express a preference for their favorite cocktail. It is easier to blend in.

Second, most of us don’t think counter-cultural living is valid. We wrongly look with suspicion on anyone who swims upstream on issues –  especially Christian issues. Note how decidely Rob Bell was excommunicated by people for his book on Hell even though most people had not read it. I remember when Tony Campolo’s wife came forward to talk about the issues related to her pro-choice stance. Not only was she summarily rejected by evangelicals, so was her husband. Though I disagreed with her on some points, she needed to bring the issue to the forefront. It was a pertinent voice in a sea of “sound-alike” Christian voices.

There are churches today that are both Relevant and Relational. They are seldom large churches, but I suspect fifty years from now they will be the ones we think back on fondly as having the biggest impact on our culture both secular and Christian. So, the question is this: Do you really want to be Relevant or just call yourself that while simpering away in Relational?

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Old Mega-Churches Vs. New Mega-Churches

November 20, 2012

There is a difference between the church that grew slowly over 60 years from a handful of followers of Christ, through various stages of rise and fall, and the group that became a phenomenon overnight.

1. Older Mega-Churches (MC) have diverse age groups. I attended an MC last weekend and noticed this 50 year old church had many people in every demographic. Attending an MC a month ago that is 10 years old, everyone was in the under 40 crowd.

2. Older MCs have more defined outreach programs. Older groups look at more diverse ways to reach their community through feeding and clothing programs, reading and educational outreaches and service-oriented approaches. Newer MCs do not have the visibility to achieve this yet./

3. The preaching in an older MC is usually more exegetical and leans less toward contemporary issues.

4. The worship/singing time in  older MCs combines many different musical and age-related tastes. Last weekend, in the same service, we sang songs as new as today (10,000 reasons) and as old as Christianity (Holy, Holy, Holy) with Refiner’s Fire thrown in for good measure.

5. The staff of an older MC always includes children of the leadership team . Why? Because the older an MC, the more chance that children have grown up in the culture of that church and can articulate the values without having to think about them.. Who would you rather have leading your church than someone with that pedigree. It is like having a professional sports star coaching a team he used to play for.

6. The older MC has weathered many days of crisis and personal conflict and therefore is not easily thrown off path by the vagaries of personal failure. You aren’t going to see an older MC crash and burn easily.

7. The older MC has an influence in local politics, education, media, community arts, homeless programs, law enforcement etc. that the newer church is only at the beginning of trying to create. Because of this, the older MC has resources for those in need and in trouble that the newer MC can only dream of having.

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