Archive for the ‘Missional Church’ Category

I’m growing evermore concerned about the debased preaching in many American churches. Here’s how it goes, preachers are talking about how sin “pisses off” God or that some people think Jesus “dressed like a fairy,” or that Jesus “wasn’t a wuss.” I’ve even heard one well-known pastor tell a story about dismissing a young man’s theological questions because he was “a loser that lived at home with his mom.” In addition, more and more preachers/church planters/lead pastors – whatever you want to call us – are spending a good percentage of sermon time yelling at their congregations. Trust me, I understand the desire to shake the church from it’s missional malaise, but I don’t think raising the volume is going to work. Churches are dying, not deaf. I suppose all the yelling is designed to communicate passion, but it so often comes across as anger.

I know what these guys (and they are mostly guys) are attempting to get at. They simultaneously want to wake a sleeping church, make her seem cool, and ostensibly help men see a Jesus they can relate to. But I have to question whether or not they need to be Sam Kinison to do it. I find it odd that some feel the need to make Jesus seem cooler or manlier than the versions they grew up with. Not because Jesus is not cool or manly, but rather because in their effort to shape Jesus into their own image, they make the same mistake their forerunners did by simply not allowing Jesus to be Jesus.

Why are we so afraid of dealing with Jesus on his own terms?

What’s more, in shouting at the congregation and using an 8th graders vocabulary, we undo much of what Jesus taught about speech and speech acts and ethics. Our Lord taught that the mouth speaks out of the overflow of the heart. I would hate the idea that my heart would conceive of making sure people knew that Jesus wasn’t a “fairy,” or that anyone else was. It just wouldn’t occur to me as a theological category. Homo-ology, I guess.

In all our consternation to ensure the world knows Jesus wasn’t effeminate, what do we say about boys and men who are or the women who date and marry them? I love sports, wear a goatee, enjoy the occasional cigar, love explosions in movies and other typical “guy” things, but I think someone can be like Jesus even if they don’t. I’m deeply concerned about the passivity of men and the lack of courage we generally display as a gender, but a faux, painted-chest version isn’t going to help us break out of it.

What bothers me, perhaps, is that it’s all so childish. All the yelling and name-calling seems like something we all should have learned to quit doing when we stopped pulling girl’s hair. But maybe some of us haven’t learned to stop pulling? Jesus can be Lord, King and Conqueror, without me having to preach that, “One day Jesus is coming back to kick-ass and take names.” Doesn’t he already know our names? Shouldn’t our words about God be the very best words we know rather than us playing preacher-shock-jock or going for the quick and easy laugh?  If preaching – this noble, difficult and life-altering task that I’ve devoted my life to – is going to turn into Saturday Night Live, I’d just rather stay up late Saturday than arise early on Sunday.

Criticism

Posted: June 10, 2009 in change, leadership, Missional Church

There are at least two wonderful things I’ve learned from people who’ve been fired. The first is this: Your identity cannot be wrapped up in what you do, and secondly, you begin to see criticism differently. It’s this second learning that I want to explore.

Most of us are terribly fearful of criticism. I am. I hate it when someone has something negative to say about the way I… well, about the way I do anything. It hurts, quite frankly. Criticism surfaces all the negative thoughts and feelings I often think and carry about myself, even though I know many of them to be false. When we hear criticism we magnify it and frequently respond to criticism in all kinds of negative ways. Perhaps, however, we ought to begin to think about criticism in different ways. There is, I think, a way to understand and receive criticism wherein our critics become a blessing to us and a necessary component of becoming the leaders and Christians we are intended to be.

First, criticism doesn’t tell us we’re bad people, it tells us our work product could have been better. After my first year leading and planning a youth conference in Houston for several thousand teenagers, our team received some negative feedback. Some of the criticism was silly, but there were some pieces that were valid. These were the criticisms that hurt the most! My friend, Jason Noble, simply mentioned that the criticism wasn’t personal, the critics weren’t telling us the event was bad, but that one or two parts could have been better. That’s an important lesson.  Everything we do could be done better. Is that news? Do any of us think that our work product is perfect, of course not. When our critics bring these missed opportunities to light, they are aiding us in producing a better product the next time around.

Second, criticism keeps us fresh. Because we made mistakes – big or small – last time, we are forced to generate fresh ideas and insights the next time. A consistent criticism of my sermons is that I talk too fast. OK, I get it. Therefore my wife, Rochelle, constantly reminds me to slow down. In fact, oftentimes during sermons and speaking engagements I will look at her and see her motioning downward with her hands reminding me to slow down. I find that when I can slow down, not only does my excellent delivery style become even better J, but also I’m able to connect on a personal level. An added benefit of slowing down is that often fresh, new insights come to mind and I ditch what I was going to say in favor of something better. This kind of “fresh-making” can happen because past criticism has been interpreted and appropriated.

Third, criticism keeps us Heaven-focused rather than Earth-bound. Critics remind us that earth is a fallen, broken place where mistakes happen. Think about this: If earth were populated only with people who praise you, would you be more or less desiring to stay here? And if earth were populated only with critics, wouldn’t you prefer to move on to your heavenly dwelling with the Lord. Crazy as it sounds, friends keep us earth-bound; critics tell us that we don’t want to stay around here for too terribly.

Fourth, you will always have critics. There’s simply no way to get around it. People are so different that there’s no way to please them all. As a communicator, I’ve heard it all. “You’re too conservative; you’re too liberal. You dress up to much; you need to dress more casual. Your talks are too short; your talks are too long.” Eventually, you have to learn which critics and criticisms to listen to and which to allow in one ear and out the other. As a leader, you have to get to a place where you tell yourself that God has placed you in a specific position for a specific time. This means you oftentimes have to make a call, own it and move forward, regardless of what the critics think. There is no uncriticizable decision or action. If you can’t deal with that, you don’t need to lead.

So, if you’re a leader facing criticism, take heart. There are a lot of us out there with you. In fact, to lead oftentimes mean taking legitimate criticism, as well as some that’s not so legit. At any rate, I encourage you to hold onto the vision God has given you and your organization. If you trust and follow God you will please Him. And after all, He’s the only critic that matters.

Richard and Mildred Loving

Richard and Mildred Loving

We’re in a season of celebrating at my house. The reason? Rochelle and I decided a few weeks ago that life was too short not to live with great joy! Plus, we realized that there is much to celebrate in life (and my mom bought me a sweet grill). One of our upcoming celebrations will be Loving Day!

Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving began dating when Mildred was just 11 years old and Richard was 17. In the early years of their marriage, Mildred and Richard were arrested several times together. The reason? Mildred was black and Richard was white. And in 1958 it was illegal for them to be married in the state of Virginia. Apparently, Virginia has not always been for lovers.

Threatened with years of imprisonment, the Loving’s changed history when they challenged the Constitutionality of Virginia’s marriage laws and in 1967 won the day when the Supreme Court upheld their right to marry. From that day forward, every state, including those in the south, which had laws forbidding it, were required to recognize interracial marriage.

Mildred lived a quiet life after Richard’s death in a car wreck in 1975. Not one for the spotlight, Mildred said of her life, “I never wanted to be a hero, just a bride. It wasn’t my doing, it was God’s work.”

Each June 12th, couples across America celebrate “Loving Day” which celebrates the legalization of interracial marriage.

So for marriages like mine and kids with mocha colored skin and long, curly hair I say to Mildred and Richard, “Thank you for Loving.”

This my review of Will Samson’s newest book, Enough: Contentment in An Age of Excess which I also posted over on Viral Bloggers.

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I’ve been speaking to my friends and anyone else who would listen lately about the lack of exegetical living in the contemporary American church. By it I mean that my lifestyle, and the lifestyles of most of the people I know in the American church does not resemble that which we see in the New Testament. We are rich, white (though I am not), and overly concerned – some might say, “obsessed” – with politics, power and control (at least in my humble opinion). All that to say, Will Samson’s newest book, Enough: Contentment in an Age of Excess is part of a necessary corrective the church needs.

Following in the vein of Justice in the Burbs, Samson, offers forth an argument for people of faith to ask difficult questions regarding excess, the Other and how much “stuff” is “enough stuff.”

It should be said at the outset, as a reader of Justice in the Burbs and as one who is and has friends connected to Christian involvement in social justice and emerging churches, I strongly agreed with Samson’s assessment of American Christianity. I found his diagnosis predominately correct and his suggestions useful. Unfortunately, I suspected I would before the book arrived in the mail for review. Therefore, I attempted to read the text as someone who would be either neutral or suspicious of Samson’s views.

Enough establishes two dominant goals for itself. First, Samson wants to reveal to us how deeply consumed we are with “stuff.” Indeed, “consumed” is the operative word throughout Enough. Secondly, Samson offers to call us to an alternative consumption: A vision of God and God’s work in the world.

The Major Problem:

Enough is divided into two sections. The first six chapters lend themselves to theological concerns, while chapters 7-10 present issues and suggested actions and attitudes to alleviate or relieve the before mentioned issues. As Samson clearly states, if you have a strong theological background or formal theological education you can skip the first section of the book, and I suggest you do.

The major deficit within Enough is that it is simply not convincing – at least in terms of convincing those who need convincing. Reading as a neutral, someone in need of convincing, I continually thought that I didn’t understand what the problem was/is. Samson’s work simply does not lay out the argument in ways wherein someone who did not care would be caused to care. It was not until chapter 7 that Samson states, “…we are consuming ourselves to death.”

As a pastor, I know many good people who are casualties of commerce, one-sided political listening, and American exceptionalism gone mad, that they simply see nothing wrong with our culture of excess. What’s more, when presented with an argument like Samson’s, they respond to it as “radical liberalism” or “radical social justice.” This issue of contentment and consumption is important enough that I wish the theological rationale was as weighty as the issue itself. Oftentimes, I felt Samson voiced a strong conclusion that his argument either could not or did not support.

Part of the unconvincing nature of the work is the overt, left-leaning political messages. Throughout Enough, Samson takes us on his own political journey from a political, social, and cultural conservative to someone who has rejected much of what he once held dear. I fear that many who would benefit from reading Enough, will be off-put by a tome that too often reads as a quasi-treatise on “How Christians Can Be Democrats.” This, ultimately, blunts Samson’s message. It becomes too easy to dismiss. Again, this is not necessarily a repudiation of Samson’s ideas, rather I offer a perspective on how more people may embrace contentment over consumption.

The Major Benefit:

However, there is far more positive than negative to say about Enough. It’s greatest strength is that Enough does not leave the reader in the abyss of ideas. Samson furnishes some real, reasonable, and workable solutions to finding contentment.

First, Samson highlights the importance of the Eucharist as a lens in which we view the Other and what it means to live at table with others. This image alone should reshape much of what happens in the American church. Using the Eucharist as way of life has endless implications. Samson could have massaged and developed that metaphor alone and Enough would be well worth the sticker price.

Second, throughout Enough, Samson drops thought-bombs that prompt the reader to set the book aside and think about the repercussions.  Such lines include the following: “There is a big difference between being pro-life and pro-birth,” and “…without government spending, companies such as Amazon or Google would not exist.” Here Samson puts many of our assumptions under the microscope and reveals our forked-tongued lifestyles and rhetoric.

Third, Enough places lifestyle over think-style as the major conversion from carnality to Christianity. It have an inclination that many of the young people in my faith-community and the larger community where I live would be easily won to the vision of Christianity outlined by Samson. It is both compelling and, at times, inspiring in terms of the what the world would be like if more Christians were drawn into Samson’s portrait of the Kingdom of God.

Fourth, the concluding chapters of Enough are choc-full of realistic, helpful suggestions for moving away from consumption. This is truly what people need. In fact, if someone does not need convincing, the last six chapters will serve as a valuable “how-to” that should be kept near your day-planner in order to check in monthly and ensure you are moving toward goals of repair and sustainability.

Conclusion:

Book reviews should answer one question: Should I buy this book? In the case of Enough, the answer is an adament “maybe.” It’s just hard for me to suggest making a purchase when we’re discussing consumption. I am one of those people who have read and own enough books for any two or three people, and often I purchase books I can’t possible read in a timely fashion. Currently, I have 5 books on my “to-read” list. For me, reading and books are a problem of consumption. I consume ideas and the articles, books and blogs that contain them.

At the same time, I know that books are the best way to disseminate information, and the information Samson sketches needs to get out. So the decision is ultimately yours. I will say this though; the ideas argued in Enough are good and worthy of integration. Shop wisely….

As the Senior Minister for a church, you might find it odd for me to say this: There are times when I HATE preaching. I don’t mean the craft or the art, but rather having to say anything at all.

What I mean is this: There are times when the words of scripture are so powerful and beautiful that saying ANYTHING after you read them only diminishes them.

That’s the case this week.

We’re in the middle of a series about doubt. And we land Sunday on Acts 17 and Paul’s visit to and speech in Athens and the Aereopagus. Beginning is verse 24 Paul lays out one of his most beautiful speeches. Just read it.

Slowly.

And then read it again. I can’t look at it and not be taken with the hope and majesty of it.

“…he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.”

“God did this so that we would seek him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being.”

Just tell me that there is a better life available than that! Could there possible be anything left for me to say?

I just don’t think so.

Some of you may have read Dan Kimball’s “Missional Misgivings” article over at Out of Ur. If not, let me get you up to speed. Kimball argues that missional advocates — at least one he was on a panel with — believe that the mega-churches (sometime called “attractional”) are dying and that younger people in the city are not interested, that missional advocates criticize attractional churches for not seriously engaging discipleship, and that missional churches have an unproven track record. In the end, Kimball suggest that the pressing matters of evangelism in the local church are what motivates him “missionally.” 

First, let me say, that I like Dan Kimball and his book, “The Emerging Church” made a lot of sense for me at a crucial time. Unfortunately, many folks have misused Kimball’s work, brought in candles and sofas to their worship gatherings, called it emerging and complained that it didn’t work. That was a misuse of his work, and he deserves better. That being said, I had some great misgivings about his “Missional Misgivings”.

My first misgiving, is that Kimball, as many others have done, is bilateral in his understanding. Like the critics he critiques, Kimball, falls into the trap of seeing missional and attractional as opposed to one another. What Christian would argue that Jesus is not attractive? This, from my read, is not what people mean when they use the term “attractional.” It is not a question of missional vs. attractional, but rather a question of direction. At the end of the day, is more of your energy and resources used to bring people in or send people out. In a healthy churches both are happening. And to speak to their leaders of those churches as if attracting and sending were opposed to one another would be foreign concept. Therefore, Kimball’s argument — and that of the missional leader he is responding to — is fundamentally flawed.

Second, Kimball places more import on numbers than I, quite frankly, think is appropriate. Don’t get me wrong, evangelism is crucially important, conversions are important. Essential. But Kimball’s review too easily dismisses two communities — a self-described missional church of 35 and a small house church — because they did not “multiply” or “plant”. I understand the complaint, but is Kimball suggesting that a house church that feeds the homeless somehow represents the Kingdom of God less than the mega-church down the street who is “converting” people? Here’s where reading the gospels can be helpful.  Kimball is equating conversion with the totality of kingdom work. However, I kind of remember Jesus saying something to the Pharisees about going to extreme measures to convert people  to a version of religion that didn’t reflect God’s people-priority, would make them twice the children of hell…or something like that. A better way to say this may be this: If you’re converting people to a religion that’s not dealing with the homeless, that may not be a God-focused religion.

There’s more to representing the kingdom than the head count in the pew. Perhaps, crazy as it may sound, the path is actually narrow. It’s easy to make caricatures here, but does Kimball want to say that a church that converts a lot of people but doesn’t do as much for the homeless is more of what God intends? My point is simply this: Different communities represent the Kingdom in different ways, they have different strengths.

Scriptures call is a big one, don’t we have room for all of us to offer our gifts without saying, “Your priorities aren’t my priorities, so I’ll dismiss you?” Kimball says he’s not a numbers person, yet that’s all his article is concerned with. He says missional churches don’t have a proven “track record” with “measurables.”

Third, a natural by-product of Kimball’s numbers focus, is that he misrepresents what missional ecclesiology is about. I don’t want to get into the nuances of missional church here, but there’s much more to missional than growing your church, and there’s more to it than “social justice” or “outreach” too. Sadly, this is how Kimball understands “going missional” (along with too  many others). Rather than go into all that, I would point you and Kimball here to listen to Patrick Keifert describe what we mean by missional. Hint: It’s more than soup for the poor.

Fourth, Kimball ends his assault with these words, “I hope there are examples of fruitful (read: numbers) missional churches that I haven’t encountered yet. I hope my perception based on my interaction with the missional movement is wrong. But for now, I would rather be part of a Christ-centered megachurch full of programs where people are coming to know Jesus as Savior, than part of a church of any size where they are not.” My question for Kimball is this: Who wouldn’t?

We all want to be a part of a church where people are coming to know Jesus. Kimball’s statement is like saying, “I want to be in a marriage where the husband and wife love one another.” That statement has nothing at all to do with the merits of either mega-churches or missional churches. Are there people in both who aren’t concerned with the full witness of the gospel? Yes. Are there people coming to know Jesus? Yes. Kimball here falls prey to a classic misunderstanding of the gospel, that “conversion” is simply a transaction that merely changes one’s status before God (Read Mark Love on the challenges of  Penal Substitutionary Atonement as the primary image of salvation). The assumption is that once someone has made an orthodox confession of faith (plus whatever other rituals their community practices) then they now “know Jesus.” Unless I’m unique, my experience is that most of us trust Jesus and spend the rest of our lives getting to “know” Him. 

I understand what Kimball is saying, “You say you’re missional, but are you reaching people?” and it’s a good challenge to what I call the “coffee-house theologians” who take pride in their smallness and perceived purity. But his negative assertions are misplaced, and likely a reaction to some “holier-than-thou” personalities he’s encountered. He confesses that his perception is based on his interactions with people. Perhaps, Dan should extend his missional education into other avenues.  I would encourage Kimball and others to investigate missional ecclesiology beyond  snippets on the web, what so-and-so said and published interviews with people who know very little about the subject. As with everything, we need to seek out learned scholars and best practitioners before we pronounce the death or inefficiency of something. So here are some good places to get started.

Allelon — For Missional Leader

Gospel and Our Culture Network

Church Innovations

** Note: Please see Dan Kimball’s response to this post in the comments section!

I’ve been blogging about different things lately and have gotten away from finishing my series of reviews concerning The Voice: New Testament. We’ve covered the look and feel of it and the gospels, so today we’ll conclude with the epistles etc…

My friend, Chris Seay, retells the Pauline epistles and I think they are very well done. As folks take a look at The Voice, the first thing they do is look to “troubling” passages — passages dealing with woman and homosexuality mainly. Once you purchase your copy of The Voice, you can check out the text you find most interesting, but I have found that the epistles attempt to be true to the language and intent of the author while realizing that The Voice is geared to an emerging generation. All that to say this: Those looking for accuracy concerning difficult text will find it. Those looking for sensitivity (one of the core values of The Voice) will find that as well.

Outside of difficult texts, I’ve was overjoyed to find personally meaningful text like the Christ hymn in Philippians 2 and heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11 to be fresh while retaining much of the NRSV pacing and rhythm — the poetry! In addition, it is in the epistles that the notes included within The Voice are the most helpful. Without being obtrusive, the notes offer a ton of important background information without feeling like someone is draining the joy out of your reading. Those new to the scriptures will get some advanced training in these notes.

Conclusion:

I have started to use The Voice — not for my personal study — but for teaching. Audiences have found it fresh and accurate. What I like most about The Voice is that it offers something for everyone regardless of familiarity with the Biblical text. Advanced students will be refreshed, newbies will get a beautiful, poetic read of the teachings of Jesus and those in between will be enlivened by a accurate, articulate perspective of things they thought they always knew.