Church Trends Often Induce Vomiting (and other unproven theories) .

Deep down, I must hate myself a little. You’re probably wondering why I might say such a thing. Well, it’s because I continually read articles on church trends. In doing so, I find myself sarcastically proclaiming, “Oh, this is just what the sweet baby Jesus needs! Finally, something that will fix every problem in every church. This author has done it! He/She has found the ‘Holy Grail’ of church growth! I can’t believe we haven’t been doing this for years.” Then, I throw up!

You see, every-single-freaking-day I receive an email, a mailer (seriously, who still sends things in the mail?), or see something on Facebook or twitter or whatever that proudly proclaims “THIS is how your church can reach THIS particular group of people.”

Too often, these articles are based on little, if any, research. The author will have visited one (or, at most, two) churches that embrace a particular “style” or “structure” and they decide that this “style” or “structure” is THE answer.

If you dig traditional worship, you can find numerous articles that say,  “high church liturgy will solve all of your problems.”

If you dig modern worship, you can find numerous articles that say, “Is that freedom rock? Well, turn it up!”

If you dig the more contemplative approach, you can find articles that say, “Use lectio divina or Taize-style worship to reach more people.”

If you are a trendy hipster, you can find articles that say, “Wear even skinnier jeans. Use more product to make your hair even taller. Buy weird eyeglass frames (whether you need glasses or not).”

You’ll find articles that proudly proclaim, “Want more families? Do this”. Or “Want to reach millennials? Put these 6 things into practice.” And, on and on and on and on it goes.

And, to be honest, too often we are fooled. We want to catch the wave of the next big thing. We want to be ahead of the curve. Of course, if we embrace something after Carey Nieuwhof or Thom Rainer (both great, very insightful guys) or Nadia Bolz-Weber or Rachel Held-Evans (both, great, very insightful women)  have blogged about it…we’ve probably already missed the wave.

What clergy and church leaders need to do is find an appropriate balance. Yes, it is important to be well-informed of church trends (even the ridiculously stupid ones- I’m looking at you skinny jean wearing, Starbucks drinking sinners!). However, it’s more important to be in-tune with God and your environment.

Rather than spending an appropriate amount of time in prayer, study, and out in the community, pastors are prone to turn to the latest book or blog and say, “Well, it worked there. I’m sure it will go over like gang busters here!” Sure, we can and should learn from others and pay attention to what’s working somewhere else. But, we need to be in tune with who God is calling us to be in our place and time.

To me, the overall key is being open, honest, authentic, and true to ourselves. If we are attempting to be someone we are not, it will show. If we are not fully sold out to a “style” or “structure”, we shouldn’t be surprised when it crashes.

But, if we are open and honest, if we are authentic and true, if we operate with a great sense of integrity, if we are following what God lays on our hearts, that will show. So, just be yourself!

And, for the love of God, if you are a pastor or worship leader who has embraced the skinny jean trend…just stop it! If you feel called to the skinny jeans, this is the one area where you should not be true to yourself. Seriously, God is not calling anyone to wear skinny jeans. They (skinny jeans), like Starbucks, are of the devil and should be completely avoided!

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Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes…

Change can be difficult. Change can be overwhelming. Change can be confusing. Change can be intimidating. Change can be scary. Change can be strange!

And, yet, there are times when we have to, as David Bowie sang, “turn and face the strange.” In life, change is often necessary.

Yet, too often, the Church is resistant to change. Because we embrace, honor, and celebrate our tradition, our history, our past (and, rightly so, I might add), we often resist anything “new” or “different”. There are times when we spend so much time in the past that we fail to address the present and the future. So, we use ministry models, programs, and structures that may have been effective 30, 40, or 50 years ago and expect them to produce the same results in a rapidly changing world.

Often, we find that we prefer the comfort of what we know. Therefore, our willingness to take risks and step out in faith is often non-existent. “New”, “different”, “change”, and “modern” can appear to be curse words within certain church circles.

In a time when 80% or more of churches are plateaued or declining, change is necessary. We can’t continue to “do things they way we’ve always done them” and expect different results. And, yet, that is what many churches do!

We want change, but we don’t want to change! change

We desire results without any effort.

We want transformation without transforming.

We want growth without growing pains.

We believe that the answer will be a new pastor. We say, “If we just get a new (or younger…or male…or white…or whatever) pastor (or youth/children’s/family/women’s/choir/worship director), all our problems will be solved.” We fool ourselves into believing that small tweaks to our staffing will be the solution. A newer, warmer body will fix everything! We won’t have to change our structure. We won’t have to conduct an honest audit on our ministries, programs, or traditions. We won’t need a new (or renewed) vision. We can continue to be comfortable.

Too often, churches are looking for hospice chaplains rather than visionary leaders. We aren’t looking for shepherds to lead us. We are looking for people to hold our hands and tell us how great we are as we slowly fade away.

We aren’t willing to step out of the safety of our boats. We aren’t willing to even dip our toes in the water to check the temperature.

However, the reality is, we are always changing. We are either growing or we’re dying! Choosing not to change is often a simple choice to die. And, in choosing to die, we are still changing. Our churches, whether they are growing or dying, look different today than they did 5, 10, 20, 30, 50 years ago. We are changing whether we like it or not!IMG_0745

Our churches need to learn how to say “yes” and embrace change. We need to say “yes” to new ideas. We need to say “yes” to stepping out in faith. We need to say “yes” in granting people permission to try, to fail, and even to succeed (some don’t embrace change simply because if the change works, well, it worked).

When we resist change, we are often just being proud. When change/new ideas are presented, the proud respond by saying:

  • We’ve never done it that way.
  • We’ve always done it this way.
  • I don’t care about the new vision.
  • I’m going to keep on doing what I’ve always done.
  • We tried that before and it didn’t work.
  • It’s my ball. It’s my rules. So, play by my rules or I’m going home.
  • If you don’t go back to the old ways, I’m leaving.
  • If you don’t go back to the way I like things, I’ll stop giving.

When Jesus said, “Go and make disciples”, he didn’t add in, “Oh, and never change because you’re perfect just the way you are!” He also didn’t say, “Wall yourselves up in the church building and just keep doing what you’ve always been doing.”

And, yet, from the outside looking it, it might appear as if that’s what we believe Jesus said.

So, our churches are confronted with some decisions:

  • to grow or to die
  • to say “yes” or “no”
  • to “turn and face the strange” or stay the same

The Bible Says…

In my line of work, I’m often in circles where I hear phrases like:

  • “The Bible says…”
  • “Jesus said…”
  • “The Word of God says…”

The problem is, generally what follows these statements is not really what “the Bible says”, “Jesus said”, or “the Word of God says.”

While whatever follows those statements sounds holy, righteous, and Biblical, if we’re going to be honest, it’s not really what the Bible, Jesus, or the Word of God (which, by the way, is Jesus) .

Generally, what follows those statements are really just our interpretations of what we believe or have been taught to believe the Bible or Jesus or the Word of God says.

For example, you get the theological conservative and the theological progressive in a room together. You give them the same passage of Scripture to read and study.  Let’s say the passage happens to be Romans 1:18-32.

After reading the passage, the theological conservative will say, “Well, the Bible says here that homosexuality is an abomination, a horrible, wretched sin. ”

After reading the exact same passage, the theological progressive will say, “Well, if we are to interpret Scripture honestly, we would understand that this particular passage is not talking about homosexuality. It’s really dealing with temple prostitution and the worship rituals involving various idols. Paul isn’t addressing homosexuals. He’s addressing the dirty old men who come to the shrines and have adulterous relationships with shrine prostitutes. And, some scholars would argue that this isn’t even Paul’s writing. Rather, Paul is simply quoting what someone else wrote and then responds to it in the following verses.”

Same passage. Different interpretations. Both fully convinced through prayerful reflection, the study of Scripture, culture, and tradition that they are “right.”

Both stand before their congregations and say, “The Bible says.” Both clearly have different interpretations that follow the phrase “the Bible says.”

Then, for years, the theological conservative and the theological progressive will focus on their differences. They will go back and forth, arguing about one or two verses that they are totally convinced support their ideology. They will most likely do more damage than good in regards to promoting the way of Jesus.

They will struggle to “agree to disagree”. They will struggle to focus on the One Thing (Jesus) that truly unites them. They will give themselves over to majoring on the minors.

And, they will probably continue to proclaim, “The Bible says…”

Life in the Small Town: Confederate Flags, Swastika’s, the KKK, & Mobile Meth-Labs

Within 6-weeks of moving to a small town, the local paper ran an article where a national leader of Ku Klux Klan was quoted as saying, “We have a strong and active group in Centerville, IN.”

Prior to moving, we had heard over and over that our town is a “small, safe, quiet, Christian, conservative town.”

What we had not heard is that the town is “above average” when it comes to racism. And, that’s just not a good thing.

If we truly are a “Christian” community, we would understand that there is no room for racism. And, yet, the signs of racism abound.

The number of Confederate flags in this small town is overwhelming. Folks have their flags proudly flying in their front yards and the back of their trucks. Confederate flag hats, t-shirts, license plates, and bumper stickers are seen on an all-too-regular basis. Several friends visiting for the first time have commented, “We drove through town a bit. We saw a lot of Confederate flags.”

I’m convinced that all the flags that have been taken down in the south have made their way to Wayne County, IN.

Of course, some will say, “It’s not a racist symbol. It’s about southern pride!”

Just because it’s not racist to you does not mean it’s not racist. And, listen, you live in Indiana…so, the whole southern pride thing is lost!

Yesterday, I was out for a walk and it appears that some of our racist, neo-Nazi teenagers (yes, this is an assumption) received some spray paint for Christmas. The nice walking trail by the local park has several swastika’s painted on it. So, on Monday, I’ll call the town office and encourage them to deal with the swastika’s.

In addition to the racism, there has been an increase in the amount of drug use and drug related crimes. This month, a mobile meth lab was discovered right across the street from the church. Some of said, “Well, the paper listed all the folks arrested as being from out of town. They were all from Muncie and Richmond.” My response is, “Yes, but they were at a house in Centerville, which indicates that maybe there is some meth-related business happening right here.”

But, we’re a “small, safe, quiet, Christian, conservative community”, right?

To be honest, I don’t often speak out about the blatant signs of racism in our community out of fear. I don’t really want to wake up to a cross burning on the lawn or vandalism to my vehicle or feel threatened when I walk into the local watering hole.

But, it’s time to overcome the fear and speak out against what is wrong and speak up for what is right. There is this righteous indignation that wells up within me whenever I see these symbols of racism canvasing our community. The time for silence is over.

There is no room for racism in the Church. If we truly are a Christian community, we need to find our voice to speak out against those actions and groups that are perpetuating racism in our community.

The rise in drug use and drug-related crimes in our area indicate that people are looking for a “quick fix”. Folks are struggling and turn to something that can, at least for a moment, relieve some of the pain. People are struggling with addiction and the Church needs to rise up and respond. We shouldn’t be leading efforts to get these folks out of our community. We should be leading efforts to offer hope, to offer rehabilitation, to offer support, to demonstrate the love, grace, mercy, and redemption found in Jesus.

In some ways, our town has been a “small, safe, quiet, Christian, conservative” town. However, that is rapidly changing. We need to open our eyes to the changes. We need to be more proactive than reactive. We need to be a light shining in the darkness. We need to be a source of hope to the hopeless. We need to be a voice for the voiceless.

 

Is That What You’re Wearing?

Have you ever worried about what to wear to church?

Now, many of my friends who are not part of the church-going crowd will answer with a resounding “No!” And, they will probably wonder why anyone would ever worry about what to wear to a church gathering.

However, I’m pretty sure others will answer with a “Yes!”

Too often, we put a great deal of time and energy into selecting the perfect outfit. We desire our clothes to “honor God” (whatever that means?). We want to be modest, yet comfortable. We want to be clean and presentable. But, maybe all of that is just hogwash?

John Wesley,  in “Advice to the People Called Methodists” shared some thoughts on how we should dress. Wesley suggested that our dress be  “cheap, not expensive; far cheaper than others in your circumstances wear, or than you would wear if you knew not God.”

He also encourages modesty and suggests that our clothing should be “grave, not gay, airy, showy; not in the point of the fashion.”

He also had something to say about our accessories:  “Wear no gold . . . no pearls or precious stones; use no curling of hair, or costly apparel, how grave soever. I advise those who are able to receive this saying, buy no velvets, no silks, no fine linen, no superfluities, no mere ornaments, though ever so much in fashion. Wear nothing, though you have it already, which is of a glaring colour, or which is any kind gay, glistening, or showy; nothing made in the very height of fashion, nothing apt to attract the eyes of by-standers.”

He also discouraged the wearing of necklaces, ear-rings, finger rings, and extravagant lace and advises men against “coloured waist-coats, shining stockings, glittering or costly buckles or buttons” and any other “expensive perukes.”

John Wesley wraps up his thoughts on attire with this: “Let our seriousness ‘shine before men,’ not our dress. Let all who see us know that we are not of this world. Let our adorning be that which fadeth not away; even righteousness and true holiness.” 

Within our church culture, we have somehow gotten to the point where we equate the way someone dresses with their spiritual maturity. It’s pretty ridiculous, if you truly think about it. Or we suggest that the way we dress either “honors” or “dishonors God”.

Now, I believe that we should pay attention to the idea of modesty when it comes to dressing on a daily basis (not just for church).

I believe the church should be a place where people feel comfortable to “come as you are”. For some, that means we wear suits or dresses. For others, it might mean dirty jeans and a t-shirt. The important thing is, are we wearing clothes?

Could it be that our cultural standards on church attire actually exclude or discourage others from participating? I meet people on a regular basis whose “Sunday best” would not meet our unwritten expectations for church attire. Could our unwritten dress codes create a roadblock for others?

“God doesn’t look at things like humans do. Humans see only what is visible to the eyes, but the Lord sees into the heart.” ~1 Samuel 16:7

“I Like to Picture Jesus in a Tuxedo T-Shirt”

A friend shared this article on Facebook this morning. As I read it, several thoughts began to stir in my mind.

All of the points are important to consider. However, the third point is especially important because of the assumptions that some are prone to make.

Too often, those in more traditional/formal churches translate “less formal” into “void of substance”. We convince ourselves that “less formal” means that worship would not be based on Scripture and the music would be weak theologically. Too often, well-intentioned church folk equate the style of dress with the seriousness of the content. We have to realize that blue jeans and un-tucked shirts have little, if nothing, to do with the content and biblical/theological substance of a worship service. When the leadership team discusses the idea of a “contemporary service”, people get nervous and are afraid that the pastor is going to get “all new-agey”!

It is possible to do high church liturgy and be “less formal”. “Less formal” has very little to do with worship style. Much of it comes down to attitude, a comfortable environment, and the assumed dress code.  We should also remember that some of our high church liturgy and favorite hymns are theologically weaker than songs by Crowder, Gungor, and the like.

I’ll be honest, I would be a lot more comfortable, relaxed, and feel like myself if I didn’t feel like I needed to consider others expectations when it comes to a Sunday morning dress code. I try to find a middle ground…not too formal, not too casual. And yet, the fact that I have to spend any time thinking about what I’ll wear on a Sunday morning indicates that we might take ourselves a bit too seriously.

In some of my clergy friend circles, we often laugh about the things that seem to upset folks. One friend talked about getting a phone call and a nasty letter in regards to not tucking in his shirt. One friend was told it was inappropriate for a “woman preacher to wear slacks on a Sunday”. Another friend talked about getting an anonymous letter indicating that she should not wear open-toed shoes. I had someone ask why I didn’t feel like honoring God by wearing a tie when I preach. I could go on and on. None of these things have to do with theology, doctrine or mission. Yet, folks felt the need to address these minor differences of opinion.

As you can see, too often, we get caught up focusing on the wrong things. Formal vs. informal (along with the so-called “worship wars”) might be one of the biggest “majoring in the minors” obstacles of the modern church.

Plus, think about how “less formal” could be more comfortable and inviting to those in our community. There may be some in our communities who avoid church because they are embarrassed by their “Sunday best.” There may be some who have sat in an office all week in their business attire and the last thing they want to do is get dressed up and go sit in an uncomfortable chair for an hour (or more). There may be some who have been in a classroom all week having to follow all the rules so they don’t get a card pulled and the last thing they want to do is go sit in an environment where they are expected to behave like adults rather than children and youth.  There may be some who are so exhausted from a week of getting the kids ready for school, making breakfast/lunch/dinner, cleaning the house, transporting the kids all over town for this and that and Sunday is the only day they feel like they can simply relax and not care if the kids look halfway decent.

Maybe we could all learn something from Cal Naughton, Jr, of Talladega Nights fame, who said, “I like to picture Jesus in a tuxedo T-Shirt because it says I want to be formal, but I’m here to party.” So, maybe the assumed dress code for church should be tuxedo t-shirts!

“A Christmas Story”: Joy!

During our Journey through Advent, we’ve been using the film, “A Christmas Story” to launch messages of hope, peace, and today we’ll focus on joy.

“A Christmas Story”, follows 9-year-old Ralphie Parker and his quest to get a Red Ryder 200-shot carbine action air rifle for Christmas. When he expresses this desire he is continually met with the mantra, “you’ll shoot your eye out”.

In today’s clip, we’ll see what happens on Christmas morning, just after the mass chaos of opening the huge pile of presents.

Ralphie receives his Red Ryder! In the clip, I’m not sure who is more excited and joy-filled, Ralphie or his father?

Many of us have experienced the magic of Christmas joy. What was your equivalent of the Red Ryder?

What brings you joy?
Where do you experience joy?
Who brings you joy?

God’s desire is that we would experience joy. When God speaks of joy, it’s not about the giving and receiving of material goods. God’s joy is an indescribable joy that exceeds the momentary joys that come with Red Ryder’s, basketballs, and drum sets. God’s joy reminds us that, no matter how hard things might get in our lives, this is not the end of the story. As the psalmist writes in Psalm 30:5, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” (NRSV) Even in the midst of our biggest trials, we can experience moments of joy…especially when we look to Christ.

God’s desire is that we would embrace joy, experience joy, dwell in joy and then spread joy!

Therefore, we should invest our time and energy in those things, places, and people that bring us joy. If writing, hiking, painting, gardening, fishing, or playing cards brings you joy, do those things! If being in nature or at home or at a coffee shop or church or wherever brings you joy, spend time in those places. If your spouse, family, friends, fellow church folks bring you joy, by all means, spend time with those people. Making time to experience joy doing those things we love, in the places we love, with the people we love is a good and noble thing! We shouldn’t feel guilty for pursuing and experiencing joy!

God’s desire is that we would find joy in our relationships! God wants us to experience joy in our marriages, in our families, in our friendships. If you are not experiencing joy in your relationships, it’s time to start doing some serious work of reconciling those relationships in order that they might bring you joy. Let’s be honest, some relationships have been so intensely damaged that while forgiveness is necessary and possible, reconciliation and moving forward in the relationship may not be healthy. Sometimes, there are relationships that need to end in order for us to experience God’s joy! So, if you have relationships that do not produce joy, do the work of either figuring out how to bring joy into the relationship or move on!

In life we experience joy stealers. You know what I mean? There are people we encounter who seem to have the gift of sucking the joy right out of the room. Joy stealers have an amazing capacity to radically transform the atmosphere and energy of any gathering. Who are your joy stealers? And, if we’re going to be honest, we need to ask ourselves if we have been guilty of being joy stealers? Are we sharing or stealing joy?

Now, if you find joy in things that would go against the word of God, well, you might think twice. For example, if you find joy going to the gentlemen’s club, you should find a new way to experience joy. If you find joy getting together with your girlfriends to gossip, you need to find a new way to experience joy. If you find joy overindulging in food, beverages, or legal or not-so-legal stimulants, you need to find a new way to experience joy. If you find joy being a negative Nancy or a grumpy Gus, you need to find a new way to experience joy. If you find joy in stealing others joy, you need to find a new way to experience joy.

We should experience joy and then we should spread joy! None of this ho-hum, taking ourselves too seriously all the time stuff! That’s worn out, tired, old and void of joy! Let’s demonstrate our gratitude for God through our joy!

Too often, our joy is hijacked by our own negativity. We focus on what we don’t have, what we’ve lost, and what we can’t do. Listen folks, let’s focus on what we have and what we can do! Let’s choose joy!
God brings us joy, peace and hope in order that we might share and spread joy, peace and hope.

John 10:10 reminds us that Jesus came that we might have the full, abundant life. If we are experiencing the abundant life Jesus desires, the result will be joy!

C.S. Lewis wrote, “Joy is the serious business of heaven.” In other words, when we experience joy, we are experiencing a taste of heaven here on earth! When we spread joy, we are demonstrating a glimpse of heaven on earth. Joy is the Lord’s Prayer fleshed out! We pray “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Moments of joy are moments of the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

Karl Barth wrote, “Joy is the simplest form of gratitude.” In other words, if we are truly grateful, we should be able to find, express, and experience joy! If we aren’t thankful, if we aren’t grateful, we might not fully understand joy.

When we come to church, it should be a joy-filled experience. When we leave the church, we should be filled with joy…and not just because we’re glad the pastor is finally finished preaching or because we are particularly pleased with today’s lunch options. We should be filled with joy because we have gathered together with the family of God to lift our hearts together in praise! When we gather together for worship, it’s practice for the coming kingdom…it should be a joy-filled time of glorifying and praising God!

As a result, we should be leaving this place as bearers of joy…as agents of joy! Our community should be a more joy-filled place because of our witness. People should be able to know that we are with Team Jesus because of our joy. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the people of Centerville knew the people of the United Methodist church as those folks who are overflowing with joy?

How will you experience, dwell in, and share joy today and in the days to come?