Categotry Archives: church

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Church as Business (part 1–A Rose By Any Other Name)

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Categories: church, food for thought

Looking back at the deconstruction I’ve gone through over the past 10 years or so, I smile just a little at how progressive I used to think I was early on. 🙂

If you’ve known anything of my story, you know that we began the church in Tulsa after the institutional pattern, which was all we knew–and it morphed into a house church. That entire process was such a learning experience, and it showed me so many inconsistencies as we continually struggled with the tension between what we wanted the church to be, and what we had to do to keep it afloat.

It was years into it before I was able to verbalize what I’m about to say now…but I can see that so much of my struggle in this process was that church as we know it is a business–and it was never meant to fit that mold. When church is structured as a business, then the very survival of the church depends on good business decisions being made–and sometimes those decisions must be made at people’s expense, because the interests of business often come before the interests of people. And so there was this constant tug-of-war in my soul, spurred on by this conflict of interest. I was put in the awful situation of having to make choices that hurt people in order to keep afloat the very thing that was supposed to help them.

But what makes me sort of chuckle is the part of the process where I became aware that something wasn’t fitting right, but I wasn’t quite ready to change the suit. So instead, I started calling things by different names to sort of make myself feel better about it. And don’t we see this all the time in churches?
  • When someone joins the staff of a church, he/she is “joining the ministry team”; we like to avoid calling him/her an “employee” or “hireling”–even though that person has a set salary, a job description, and can be fired for not fulfilling the expectations placed upon him/her.
  • When it snows or ices, certain churches refuse to cancel services, saying that “we will be available for people no matter the weather”–when in reality, church meetings equal income, and (for some, not all), this is a subtle way to guilt people to come to church in the snow and ice, because the church needs the offering.
  • When someone creates a stir by asking honest questions, the leaders may label that person “divisive” and take steps to marginalize or even disfellowship that person–not because they are actually being divisive or committing a sin, but because of fear that this person’s influence might cause other people (and their wallets) to leave the church. We call it “discipline”, when actually it’s damage control.
  • We plan special events and call them “outreaches” intended to win people to Christ (and there might be a sincere motive there); but we measure the success of the event by how many new faces (and wallets) join our church as a result. Organizational growth renamed “evangelism.”

Not every leader does it just this way, and my own “renamings” took a slightly different form (I had no other paid staff, for example). But how did Shakespeare put it? “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

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Thirteen Guys Walking the Countryside

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Categories: church, food for thought

It seems these days, in one way or another, many Christ-followers are making an honest effort to return to the roots of their faith. They are seeing the inconsistencies, shallowness, and even corruption that seems to have infected modern-day versions of Christianity. This prompts some to walk away from their faith completely; but for many others, they believe there is something real and authentic to this journey underneath this veneer, and that if they can dig beneath that, they will rediscover a vibrant faith, and reconnect with the faithful and true God they still know exists.

It’s interesting to me, though, how the same basic quest to return to our roots takes people in such different directions. I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing–just interesting. The church’s history is rich and diverse in expression, and I think God uses those things we connect with in order to meet us where we are. Where perhaps it can get a little off-center for us is when we decide that our journey is THE journey–that we’re the ones who have found it, and others need to catch up. That attitude is ultimately no different than what we’re trying to leave behind, and leads to the same religious pride that clouds our vision.

That said…the roots of our faith may run deep and wide, but ultimately end up at one Source. So why is it that a search for the roots leads us in so many different directions? I’ve been thinking this over, and I think that possibly the answer lies in how far along the root structure we go, and how far along the timeline.

Lemme ‘splain. 🙂 And lemme do it by identifying three general groups. (By the way, these are just fun names I came up with for them…)

GROUP ONE: Returning Prodigals

There are a large number of what we’ll call “recovering evangelicals” who have come to the realization that while good things have come from the evangelical and Pentecostal movements of the past century or two…ultimately these have detached from the previous 1800 years of our history, and tend to keep their own counsel. Theological issues and recent slick marketing stuff have disillusioned them. For many of these, they look back on the timeline and find a rich history that was going on before the church looked like this, and in connecting with it, they feel more a part of the eternal church, rather than the modern version. So their journey leads them out of evangelical forms into more liturgical, “high church” forms like the Roman Catholic church or the Greek Orthodox church.

I’m not knocking this, but I question: are these really our roots? The historical significance of high church doesn’t change the reality that said history is as “colorful” at times as evangelicalism, if not more so. (The Crusades and the Inquisition come to mind.) Also, it doesn’t change the fact that the church in general has since the first century adopted many things from pagan Greco-Roman traditions that aren’t even found in the Bible. So while there may be redemptive things to be found here…in my view, while it’s certainly part of our root structure, it isn’t the end of the journey. I don’t think this goes back far enough in the timeline.

GROUP TWO–Adopted Jews

There is a huge and still-growing trend today for believers to return to the Jewish Roots (or Hebraic Roots) of the Christian faith. This group of people rightly recognizes that what we know as Christianity was born out of Judaism–that the very first believers were practicing Jews, and that Jesus Himself was a Jew, and functioned as a Jewish rabbi. They see the disconnect that has happened when the church become mostly Gentiles, and how much meaning is recovered when we place the Scriptures back into the context in which they were written. This trend has also affected the wider church (consider how many churches now hold Passover seders).

I don’t knock this, either; in fact, I have gained a great deal of insight by what I’ve learned about Hebraic Roots. But I also think some folks take it much further than it should probably go, because they start acting more like Jews, talking in Hebrew, insisting that the church meet on Saturdays and observe Passover, basically getting all religious about it. I think Acts 16 and the book of Galatians make it quite clear that non-Jews who embrace Jesus do not need to become Jews. So while there is something important to discover here, IMHO, I think this can go too far back in the timeline, beyond the actual roots of our faith.

GROUP THREE: The First-Centurians

Then there are those who look back at the Book of Acts and the epistles, recounting the earliest days of the church and how things were. They correctly see that the modern church looks little or nothing like that group of folks who “turned the world upside down.” They see the church meeting in homes, not in church buildings; they see the sense of fellowship and community they had; they see the open participation of believers rather than a program of events from a stage or pulpit. They see that the first-century church was an organism, and they seek to return to this organic way of being church. The trend toward house churches is largely fueled by this.

I’m obviously not knocking this one; I’ve had a house church meeting in my home for nearly 10 years. And yet…taken too far, people start acting like house church is a mandate of Scripture. I’ve never been part of the “house church movement” for this very reason; house church for us was always something that worked, not something that was mandated. Plus…it should be obvious that we’re no longer living in the first century; so why should we want to be first-century Christians? Certainly there’s great value in recovering the heart of the early church; but again I must ask: is this really the root of our faith? Is this as far back on the timeline as we can go?

So…which of these groups has tapped into the roots of our faith? I’d say all of them, and none of them. All of these expressions have recovered something valuable from the past–part of our root structure–but there’s something much simpler, I think, about the actual root, the place where the church was conceived.

Wanna know where I think the root is?

I think the root of our faith is thirteen guys walking the countryside.

Before the Day of Pentecost, before the five-fold ministry, before any of that existed–even before the death and resurrection had taken place–Jesus spent several years traveling around in a mobile community with twelve other men that He was discipling. They lived together, laughed together, ate together, and walked together…and Jesus taught them as they went. The whole group gathered under a simple, two-word call: FOLLOW ME.

In my search for the roots of my faith…this is where my own journey has taken me. To thirteen guys walking the countryside. This primitive sense of community, this basic sense of following Jesus. And I’m interpreting all other aspects of my faith from this place.

Yes, yes, for anyone who wants to get theological with me about it…I know it wasn’t just the thirteen guys. And I know there were women in the caravan–women of substance, mind you, who cared for Jesus’ needs. And don’t get gender-conscious and sexist about this, either; it would have been inappropriate for Jesus, a single man and a Jew, to live in this kind of intimacy with the opposite sex, and that’s why I believe the Twelve were all male. It isn’t about whether the Twelve were men or women; what matters is that they were following Him.

And when you think about it, it also doesn’t matter so much (at least in theory) how the church ends up being shaped from season to season, or whether they observe the Passover, or whether they do a liturgy. The root of our faith is so simple that it can be expressed in a multitude of ways, depending on culture and circumstance; and I think that may be why the search for our roots can take so many directions. At the same time…I think the unnecessary things we have tacked on to the faith over the centuries happened when we stopped following Him and started building our own thing. And sometimes, those things actually started out as legitimate expressions…but Jesus moved on while we stayed behind and built a tabernacle. These are the things that need to be deconstructed, and that’s why I think a return to the root is so important. It helps us gain perspective on what is necessary, and what is not. It helps us prioritize, to sort things out.

To get back to the heart of why we were drawn to Jesus in the first place.

And not just for our own sakes…but also for a generation of people who have been turned off by all the extra stuff that’s been tacked onto the church. Returning to this root helps us live our faith authentically, in a way that others who watch us can take more seriously, because it’s real, and it’s simple. Real simple. 🙂

So if you ask me what the root of the Christian faith is…it’s following Jesus. The whole thing starts by being a disciple.

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Practicology (excerpt)

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Categories: changing mindsets, church, food for thought

Here’s an excerpt from my latest post over at Communitas Collective

Is it just me, or are there just too many “–ologies” out there? Theology, ecclesiology, eschatology—oh, and there are other multi-syllabic terminologies, too, like orthodoxy, orthopraxy, hermeneutics, rhamazeutics, and salmonellics. (If you can’t tell where I stopped using actual words and started poking fun—I just proved my point.)

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Destiny Reinterpreted (excerpt)

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Categories: church, food for thought

Here’s a snippet from my bi-weekly post for the Survivor Blog on Communitas Collective

I’m observing that former institutional leaders like me seem to be in various stages of processing. Some are just burnt out from all the crap, and left completely disillusioned, even possibly questioning their relationship with God. Some have just walked away because they believed there must be a better way, and have found their way into more organic expressions of faith.

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Rockstars, Church, Performers and Authenticity

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Categories: church, creativity, food for thought, music

I was meaning to bring this up on its own, but since it works as a point of introduction for this post…I have been asked to be a regular contributor to the site I told you about the other day, Communitas Collective. I will be posting every other week to the “Survivor” blog, the “recovering church leaders” part of the site. My first post is already in the cue for Friday, although by coming into the mix at the last minute, I don’t feel like I’m quite in sync yet with the cool blogger vibe over there (be patient, guys, I’ll find the beat!). But anywhoo…I count it a great privilege to be participating with CC, and look forward to what is happening over there.

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An Online Community for Disenfranchised Believers

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Categories: church, community, link love

This morning, my blogger friend Glenn, a former institutional church pastor, just launched a new site you should check out.

Communitas Collective describes itself as “a place for the rest of us.” It’s a social online community site specifically designed for people who are leaving (or have left) institutional forms of church and are trying to navigate their relationship with Christ without that map. Since that idea comprises quite a lot of what I talk about here…I guess it makes sense that I would be excited about this.

In looking around the site, while it’s just up and running, a couple of things in particular stood out to me and particularly impressed me:
  1. It pretty much avoids labels like “emergent” and “missional”, which already come with a bit of baggage attached. (I personally draw from the emergent/missional stream and have friendships there, but have never felt the badge or culture there quite fits where I’m at.) This lack of labeling is a plus in itself, because it welcomes people who aren’t in any category. (In fact–that’s exactly what it’s for.)
  2. It doesn’t seem to promote any agenda other than connection and support. It’s not selling an idea. The vibe seems to genuinely be to help people on their journey, not gather them for a cause. I felt the invitation to connect, not a pitch to join a club.
  3. It sports a healthy balance between interactive social community, articles and resources without being preachy. Glenn has, in fact, recruited several other of my blogger friends to contribute content to the site.
In short…I like it. 🙂 Go over there and see what you think.

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"ReJesus" Review Part 1: A Conversation with Michael Frost

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Categories: books, changing mindsets, church, Jesus

As mentioned previously, in conjunction with reviewing the book ReJesus: A Wild Messiah for a Missional Church…I had the opportunity to chat with one of the book’s authors, Michael Frost. Michael serves as Vice-Principal of Morling College in Sydney, Australia, and is the director of the Tinsley Institute at the college. Besides co-authoring two books with Alan Hirsch (ReJesus is their second collaboration), Michael has written numerous books on his own, Exiles probably being the most well-known. He is also the founder of the missional community “smallboatbigsea”, and travels and speaks internationally.

Distance being an issue, we opted to converse by online chat. Below is the transcript of our conversation. Due to the length of the conversation, I’ve chosen to break the review into two posts. My actual review of the book will be posted tomorrow.
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me: Thanks again for agreeing to chat with me. I count it a real privilege.

Michael: Not at all. I appreciate the opportunity very much.

me: This first question is sort of in two parts. You have now co-written two books with Alan Hirsch—The Shaping of Things to Come and now ReJesus. First—how did you and Alan come to collaborate on the first one; and second—what prompted you to collaborate again on this one?

Michael: Alan and I have been dear friends for about 15 years. We launched a missional church planting training program about a decade ago and Shaping was basically our write-up of the curriculum we used in that course. Quite frankly, we simply expected to sell a few hundred copies every year to the participants in the program. To find that it has become an international best seller was a huge surprise to us. Somehow, from way down here in Australia, and unbeknown to us, we were tapping into a global conversation. In fact we feel quite privileged to have been able to contribute to that conversation through that book. As for ReJesus, well we thought it was the logical next step. If Shaping was exploring a missional ecclesiology we thought it natural to then explore a missional Christology, since we had posited the formula that Christology must lead to missiology and then to ecclesiology. We are currently writing our third book.

me: That’s pretty amazing, watching it take off like that…I read Shaping at just the right time in my journey, and it verbalized a lot of stuff I was already feeling.

Michael: Amazing how many people say that! The most common compliment I get about that book is that it resonated with what people were thinking/feeling but hadn’t yet verbalized. It’s a great blessing to give words and concepts to others peoples’ intuitions.

me: And considering how revolutionary it must sound in some circles (“Christendom is dead?”) 🙂 …that positive response must have been pretty encouraging as well…

Michael: Well, I don’t want to overstate how positive the response was. There were plenty of people who hated it. My favorite negative response I got was that Alan and I were “ecclesiastical terrorists”!! What did excite me though was that it was church planters, missionaries, youth pastors, welfare workers etc who really picked up on the book. In other words, the real missionaries in our midst knew what we were talking about. It seemed that the denominational leaders of church bureaucrats and large-church pastors who were incensed by it. Interestingly, it seems even those guys are coming around somewhat these days.

me: Let’s talk a moment about the word “reJesus”, because I’ve noticed a few people have had some mixed reactions to the title of the book when I mention it to them. For the benefit of those who haven’t yet read the book—what does “reJesus” mean?

Michael: Yeah, some people have thought it means “regarding Jesus” as in re:Jesus. But we used the term to refer to reJesusing the church, that is, refocusing the church around its Founder and less around instititionalism, bureaucracy and the latest marketing strategies. It’s an idealistic book in many respects. It urges readers to explore what Jesus actually had in mind when calling people to follow him. Did he have in mind the enormous global corporation we have now? Or was his radical plan to unleash an organic movement of “little Jesuses” into the world to infect that world with the values and message of his new kingdom?

me: So…reJesus means more of a re-turning to Jesus, rather than “re-imagining” Him or “re-inventing” Him? (That’s some of the misunderstanding I’m getting from folks here.)

Michael: Interesting! I hadn’t had that reaction. No, it’s not about reinventing Jesus. It’s about allowing the person and message of Jesus to re-infect our churches: to assess everything we do on the basis of his original vision and example. In other words, would Jesus be comfortable as a member of many of our churches? What would need to change? What needs to be abandoned and what needs to be taken up if we took seriously our role as followers of the radical messiah, Jesus? Alan and I begin the book talking about a day we spent visiting St Peters in the Vatican and asking ourselves, where is the wild, radical Nazarene to be found among all this wealth and religious paraphernalia?

me: In the book, you and Alan talk about the tendencies we humans have to picture Jesus according to the parts of His nature we most gravitate toward—to sort of co-opt Jesus and frame Him according to our image, or our desires. Why do you think we do this?

Michael: I guess we do that with everyone we meet. We have certain categories and boxes into which we seem to need to put people and it’s easier to make sense of a neater, simpler world when we do it. I suppose it’s no wonder that we’d do it with Jesus. The other reason, though, has to do with the radical claims he makes and the uncompromising stance he takes. It can be so confronting that it’s just easier to box him into our preferred category and leave him there: gentle Jesus; charismatic Jesus; theologian Jesus. But every time you think you’ve got Jesus boxed he slips out of our grasp (if we take the Gospels seriously) and escapes our attempts to tame him or domesticate him. But this presupposes we are spending some serious time in the Gospels, something I’m not sure we can assume about many Christians. It’s as if the Gospels are seen as elementary stuff. We learn the stories of Jesus in Sunday School as kids and then we graduate to something deeper or richer. But the fact is the gospels are the deep rich vein of life-giving blood for the church. We can’t “move on” from them and simply allow Jesus to remain a caricature to us. Scott Peck called the Gospels “the best kept secret in Christianity.” We can’t continue to allow that to be the case.

me: I definitely know what you mean about the Sunday school versions of Jesus. Having grown up in church, a lot of my picture of Jesus had already been framed before I was old enough to read the Bible…and then, of course, for many years, I let my own formed picture of Him shape how I read Scripture, instead of the other way around.

Michael: That’s a great way to put it. Neither Alan nor I grew up in the church, so perhaps that freed us to come to the gospels with less preconceptions. Having said that, I grew up in a lapsed Catholic family and Alan’s family is Jewish. How odd that the two of us should end up writing about the wild and uncompromising Jesus who shatters all religious convention and ushers in the end of religious institutionalism. We refer to Jacques Ellul a few times in ReJesus. He reminded us that Jesus never instituted a new religion. He signaled the end of religion. Isn’t it bizarre that we’ve spent two centuries building a new religion in Jesus’ name?

me: You and Alan spend some time debunking some of these inaccurate images we have of Jesus; yet some reviewers of the book have expressed an opinion that you are a bit vague in your descriptions of the true, Biblical Jesus. Like “these are the wrong pictures”, but what is the right one? Was this vagueness intentional, or do you feel perhaps this misses the point you were trying to make?

Michael: I’m dismayed by that criticism. We certainly spend some time early in the book looking at false or unhelpful caricatures of Jesus, but the later part of the book, and the final chapter in particular, explores what kind of faith community Jesus built. In those sections we mine the Gospels for the distinct or unique mission of Jesus as he presented it to his followers. Maybe some reviewers don’t read much past p.50. If readers are looking for our replacement caricature of Jesus then they definitely miss the mark. We’re suggesting you can’t tie Jesus down to a one page description of his character and lifestyle.

me: The third chapter of the book—“ReJesus for the Church and the Organization”—was one of the most impacting chapters for me personally. It talks about how, in order to survive over time, any movement (including Christianity) must continually return to the heart and principles of its founder—in our case, Jesus—and how the very structures set in place to perpetuate a movement eventually dilute it, and so must constantly cycle between dismantling and reforming. This gave me a great amount of context for what we see happening in the church right now, with so many people drifting from institutional forms, getting back to basics, attempting to follow Jesus in a more simple manner. It’s part of a healthy cycle. What I’d like to know is…do you have any specific examples of church communities that are purposely “rebooting” in this way, attempting to “reJesus”, and if so, how is it playing out? How are these communities changing?

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NEWS FLASH: Strange Man with Gotee Ascertains Spiritual Truth From Independent Film Shoot

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Categories: church, food for thought, What the heck was THAT?

by Elmer Sczhlapczkovsky, Asphyxiated Press

(TULSA, OK) During the shooting of an independent film in a dark nightclub in Tulsa’s historic Brookside District this week, a strange man with a salt-and-pepper gotee claimed to have received a revelation of spiritual truth.

The man, who would only identify himself as “Jeff McQ” and outrageously claimed to be the father of The Director of the short film, was frequently observed on the set wearing headphones, blogging on his laptop, and barking orders at the teenager holding the boom mike, all in-between handfuls of dark chocolate M&Ms.

“I simply can’t believe that a guy like THAT could get a revelation from God, let alone during a film shoot,” an unnamed source told reporters on condition of anonymity. “I mean, he was eating M&Ms and yelling at that poor innocent kid holding the mike. And he wasn’t in a church; he was in a nightclub, for crying out loud! Everyone knows God doesn’t go into places like that.”

On Sunday, several days after the alleged epiphany, Jeff McQ spoke with Asphyxiated Press about his experience.

“I didn’t really realize I was getting a revelation until after it was all over,” he said. “Then it was like, DUH. It was like, WHAM! It was really weird, man. Want an M&M?”

When asked to elaborate, Jeff McQ made the following statement to the press:

Well, I’ve done the church thing all my life, you know? I’m a pastor, even. Well, sort of; I do the house church thing now, and lots of people don’t think that’s a for-real kind of church. But anyway.

I’ve gotten lots of revelations before, from reading the Bible and praying and stuff. Lots of it was me just wanting the Bible to say what I wanted it to say, but some of it was for real. But now that I’ve stopped just looking for God in the religious stuff, but looking for Him in everyday life, I’m realizing that He’s showing me stuff through some of the craziest stuff, you know? Movies, U2 songs, conversations here and there…and now this film shoot.

I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about how the church ought to be doing things outside the walls, you know? How the church can show Jesus to people without adding on all the extra religious stuff, how we can form relationships within communities, instead of trying to get people to join our religious type communities, and how God shows up when we least expect it. Crazy stuff like that.

When you go on a film set, or create a film set out of a nightclub or something, there’s a special type of community that forms there. It’s like the everyday world stops for everyone involved, and for those three days, or however long it is, you are all part of something extraordinary–a little world all its own. People working together to accomplish something–people acting, people directing, people moving lights and equipment, and people sitting around on their butts eating M&Ms while wearing headphones while yelling at teenagers–it’s all working together toward the goal of getting that movie made. Stuff goes wrong, and people have to get creative and solve problems and think on their feet. And you form a bond with the others in that room, because you are in a shared experience with a shared sense of purpose. It’s community, and it’s a place where God can show up.

There was this one guy, for example, who claims he’s a Christian, but between some hurtful church experiences and stuff from his past, he’s kind of leery of authority figures. He seemed real intimidated and would barely talk to us at first, maybe because he knew we were pastors. But as things moved along and he saw how people were working together, joking and laughing, and how we pastors weren’t doing all the spooky spiritual stuff, but just being there…he started to warm up to us. There’s some profanity during the intense scenes of the movie, and he was somehow impressed that we weren’t all freaked out over that. And just being present, available, and not judging him, but showing honest acceptance–it won him over. By the end, he was talking up a storm. Completely disarmed.

We never preached at him, you know? We never opened with prayer. We never even talked about God, although this guy knew what we stood for. We just showed love and acceptance on a movie set, and participated in the process. So now we have a relationship we could never have had with him by doing the religious stuff. This is a guy who would never have come into a church building, or even into our house church. Instead, we went to where he was, and whether he realizes it or not just yet…Jesus came to see him, too. And it softened his heart.

And thinking about all this afterward, that’s when it hit me, you know? This is what it looks like when church is outside the walls. There were Christians on the set, and non-Christians, doing something together, forming relationships…and God was there with us, in that nightclub. We didn’t need to preach or get religious to make a difference. We could just be ourselves, and act natural and eat M&Ms, and watch Jesus work. Pretty cool, huh? I want to do more of this kind of stuff.

The Director could not be immediately reached for comment, but his office emailed the following statement: “I will neither confirm nor deny that this strange man is my father. But he did buy me some pretty nice clothes for my birthday.”

When asked what he thought of the incident, the Reverend I. M. Superior of the First Untidy Methodist Church said: “I never heard of this McQ character, and he’s not a real pastor if all he does is a so-called ‘house church’; but this certainly sounds like heresy to me.”

Jeff McQ, still claiming to be The Director’s father, has refused to submit to psychiatric evaluation.

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Fences and Wells

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Categories: changing mindsets, church, food for thought

Of all the studying I’ve done over the past two years, one of the most impacting books I’ve read is The Shaping of Things to Come by Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost. Not a quick read by any means, but full of great information and ideas about how church and ministry can be reshaped to better serve this culture. It gave some cohesion to a lot of thoughts I’d already been processing. So I’d like to give credit here and tell you that I’m borrowing ideas from that book to write this post.

In the last two posts I talked about how we’ve come to use the “sinner’s prayer” as a sort of determining factor in deciding who is “saved.” We questioned whether this is really an accurate litmus test, since conversion really is a matter of the heart, not a prayer formula. And this also begs the question: why do we even feel this need to measure this? Why are we bent on deciding who is “in” and who is “out”?

The answer to this question hinges on how we view the church–or rather, how we have viewed it for many centuries now.

The institutional church functions as a “bounded set.” That is, it has a well-defined set of parameters and boundaries, and a specific set of criteria to determine its membership. Those who have met the criteria are “insiders”, and those who have not are considered “outsiders”. As such, the whole focus of growing the church is to try to get as many outsiders as possible to meet the criteria, at which point they come “in.” Outsiders might be treated well as visitors, but they are still considered outsiders until they meet the criteria–and the differentiation can definitely be felt. This is how it has been for centuries. But it is not necessarily a Biblical model; there are other ways to look at the church. And The Shaping of Things to Come uses a great analogy to describe the difference: the difference between fences and wells.

Here in America, when people keep livestock or do cattle ranching, we use fences to bound our property and keep our animals inside clear boundaries where they are supposed to be. The fences define and contain our property, and the whole purpose is to keep our livestock within the fences, and to keep intruders out. The emphasis is on the boundary between in and out. This is a “bounded set,” similar to the institutional church.

But in Australia, ranching is done differently. The wide-open spaces there are so, well, wide and open, that fences are ludicrous. To keep the animals from wandering off, they don’t use fences; they dig a well. The idea is that the well is life-giving in an arid climate, so although there is no fence to keep the animals contained, they never stray too far from the well because the well means life. In this case, the emphasis is not on the perimeter of the property, but on the well in the center. This is what is known as a “centered set”. And it can teach us a lot about another way to look at church.

What if, instead of focusing on the outer boundaries and perimeters of our faith, we put Jesus at the center and turn the focus on Him? What if we stopped worrying so much about who is “in” and who is “out”, and simply encourage people to draw near to the center? What would be the ramifications of this change?

First, I can see that this approach is far more welcoming to those who have not yet committed to Christ, because everyone is made to feel equally welcome to draw near. Some will be nearer to the center than others, but no one is made to feel excluded because of the level of their faith or their proximity to the center.

Second, there will obviously be a core of committed believers that hover near the center, but because they aren’t contained by a fence, the commitment and involvement level will naturally be high. After all, these people are near the center because they want to be–not because they feel they have to be.

The end result and benefit of this approach? There is a strong community of commited disciples near the center who are strongly bonded with one another and engaged in the mission of Christ; and there is also ongoing relationship with others who at various stages of interest and curiosity, and at various distances from the center. But because there is no “in” or “out”, the more distant ones do not feel excluded from the group nearest the center, and those nearest the center don’t feel their experience is being watered down by the presence of “outsiders.” All can coexist in the same system, because all are welcomed to partake of Jesus, the water of life.

Does this mean there is no call to repentance and conversion, no challenge to yield to Christ and His Lordship? In the words of Paul–God forbid. 🙂 In the course of relationship, as the Holy Spirit draws people toward the center of the circle, certainly there will be the constant invitation, and moments of decision. And decisions for Christ will be celebrated. It’s just that there is no longer a compelling need to measure people by whether they are “in” or “out”, because the focus is on the Center, not the outer edges.

I happen to think this is a great approach, and one that is very timely for a culture in which our current forms of church are having less and less influence. In a time when boundaries are being pushed, moved, and blurred constantly, perhaps it’s time to stop trying to protect our fences, and start digging some wells.

Perhaps it’s time to give people a reason to want to draw near. Just a thought… 🙂

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De-Toxing

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Categories: church, Meanderings (look it up), Rantings

Toward the end of yesterday’s post, I inserted this remark:

“…sometimes our personal woundings complicate our emotions, and sometimes we have to unravel that in order to know whether a confrontation is from love or from wounding. And that part has to wait for another post. :)”

Wait no longer.

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