Archive for October 2013

Postmodern vending machine

Recently, I went to a burger joint that used the new Coke Freestyle vending machine to dispense my beverage. Instead of giving my drink order to the guys behind the counter or filling it up my cup at the fountain nozzles, the Freestyle vending machine presented me with a touch screen. After stabbing away few menus, and I had a drink made exactly to my individual tastes. It hit me that Freestyle had a few things to teach the church about our new postmodern world:


1) The machine offered many options – tailoring the experience to each person.  Not only could I choose to add cherry, orange, or lemon to my drink, the machine also gave me control over carbonation and sweetness. Each drink is customized.


Apply this to your church and outreach:

Congregations need to offer more options to their participants for hands-on mission work and individually designed spiritual formation experiences. Churches are no longer free to offer the same religious experience to every member. People are demanding more freedom in designating where the mission part of their offering goes. It may even be time to offer more than one form of membership, that is, providing a way to recognize and affirm the people who participate in more than one congregation (snow birds, college students, mixed marriages, etc) and people who are in different places on their spiritual journey. 


2) The machine calls home every night to tell Coke what people are buying.  Not only is Coke able to keep the machine well stocked, their marketing department is given real-time information on the tastes of their customers. With this information, Coke knows to bottle sweeter  products in one region for its stores or whether a new flavor will be popular. Note that knowledge has become a two way street in the postmodern world. Gone are the days when Coke had a secret recipe that it developed in its labs. Now, people tell Coke what to bottle. 


Apply this to your church and outreach:

Today, knowledge flows uphill. Don’t look to your denominational office to teach you how to be in mission. Use the web. Form personal networks with people who are making a difference in your community. Build your own, local, partnerships. Become agile, fluid, and ready to change to meet new opportunities.  


3) The machine uses its LCD panel to teach the local burger joint employees how to maintain and repair it. 


Apply this to your church and outreach:

The church needs to stop being in the institution building business and renew its commitment to making disciples. Instead putting all of our resources into equipping a few ordained leaders (who are like the specialized vending machine repairmen of old) we need to teach all Christians how to pray, witness, and do the mission work of the church. The postmodern world is decentralized. Knowledge is available to whoever wants it. 


4) The Freestyle Coke Machine comes global ready. Because all of the text on the machine is displayed on the LCD panel, the machine’s software can easily translate its information into any language and currency. 


Apply this to your church and outreach:

Don’t be afraid to be Global. Find ways to overcome boundaries. Don’t be constrained by the language and policy structure of your denomination. Music is a form of language. Instead of arguing about whether you like country western or contemporary or Bach, seek for new ways to translate the gospel into the musical language of those people you wish to reach.

Habakkuk 1 and 2

Habakkuk isn’t an easy person to like. His book is a series of complaints. He complains because the wicked are taking advantage of the good folk. He complains because no good deed goes unpunished. Mostly, he complains at God for not throwing around a few well placed lighting bolts. God replies that he’s going to get around to it. The guilty will, in time, be punished. Habakkul isn't too happy with God's plan to use Babylonian mobsters to bring about his street justice. God says, "I can hit straight licks with crooked sticks." Habakkuk, however, is not the kind of person to let his complaint go at that. He says that he will keep watch. He will be the one who remembers the poor and the oppressed. He will push until justice is done. His 'watchman on the wall' phrase, should be seen as a passionate and persistent commitment to social justice. This all doesn’t make him easy to like.


Prophets are a particular kind of saint. They are unpopular saints. They are complainers. They are the ones who keep pointing out how things are not really fair for everyone. The rest of us are satisfied when the majority are happy. When the economy is good and the stock market goes up, most of us will leave our watchman’s post on the wall. Saints like Habakkuk, however, keep rocking the boat until the minority and the weakest child gets their due. This is a special calling. We can be glad that the Habakkuk type people are rare. But people like Habakkuk have an indispensable role in the Kingdom of God.


We don’t often honor the people who champion unpopular causes. I think of those few in the 1980s who pushed for the rights of the disabled. In the church, we said, “Look we painted one parking space with a handicapped symbol and built a ramp to the first floor. Isn’t that enough?” It was rare to find a saint in the church who pushed for changes that opened our facilities to the full range of disabilities. 


It would be easy to exclude Habakkuk from our Bible and his kind of saints from our leadership. Yet it is in Habakkuk that we first hear the radical desire of God to open up sainthood for all people. Habakkuk 2:4 contains the phrase, “the righteous shall live by faith.” The Apostle Paul, Martin Luther, and John Wesley, each found this verse to be pivotal to their understanding of God’s grace. They heard Habakkuk say that works, sacrificial offerings, and extensive education do not make one a saint. Everyone who comes to depend completely on faith becomes a saint. All Saints is made all possible by the way God’s grace makes even the most sinful of us righteous. It takes a real watchman like Habakkuk to stand by heaven’s door and leave it open long enough for even the most incorrigible of us to enter in.

Disability Awareness is an issue it is easy to stop short on
All Saints Sunday
You only smell it when you come in from outside

Sometimes when I’m away from the house all day, I’ll come through the door and think, “Boy, does that cat stink.” The problem isn’t with the cat. The problem is with me needing to change the litter box. Yet if I’m home all day, I don’t notice it. What is it about going away that makes the cat’s box stink more. No matter how bad something is, we get used to it if we live with it. Things can be pretty bad in a local church, and often are, and the regular attenders won’t notice. 


In the church, people who can look at a familiar situation with new eyes are a God-sent gift.  Any committee that is involved with bringing about change in the church, needs to have a few people put on it just because they are new to the congregation. This rule applies to the church council -- nothing new ever happens in churches that don’t have at least one person on the board who has recently become a member. This also applies to the committee that oversees pastor and staff relationships. Things can stink pretty badly in the church office, but nobody will change the proverbial cat’s litter unless they come in from the outside. This is especially true of the groups that are charged with setting vision or goal-setting for the church.


Twenty percent of any visioning group needs to be composed of people who have just started coming to the church in last eighteen months. If we don’t take intentional steps to listen to those with a different perspective, we will find ourselves reinforcing our misconceptions. 

Good church leadership involves stepping back from time to time and asking, “If I was an outsider here, what would I see?” We may assume that what we experienced week after week is normal, when in fact it is dangerously unhealthy. 

When we set goal or strategic plans, our first objective is not to fill a sheet of paper with good ideas. Instead, we should quietly discern God’s grace and purpose. God often uses those whom we have not listened to in the past to provide us with new understandings about our current reality and future objectives.

Joel 2:23-32

Joel chapter 2 means something different for rural folk. People who live out in the sticks are mindful of the weather. They bend their plans around the possibility that the creek might rise or snow might close a road or that the Fall Apple Butter Festival might happen this weekend. In Joel, God takes ownership for a series of disasters, drought, locust, caterpillar, and grub, that ruined crops and brought famine. God says, “I ruined your harvest in the past, now I’m going to make up for it” (Joel 2:23-25). The passage reminds us of our physical dependency upon God, in order to prepare us to be spiritually dependent upon God. For rural folk, this is the central theme of the fall season.


Urban folk need a different interpretation. For them, failing social services and crumbling infrastructure are the drought, locust, and grub, that God has to answer for. Today, Joel might hear God say, “In the past I gave you corrupt politicians, inadequate housing, and racial segregation, but now, I’m going to make up for it.” Like their country cousins, they need to know that their struggles against oppression and inequity, were part of God’s greater plan to bring them shalom and the witness of his Holy Spirit.


For both rural and urban people the experience of the Holy Spirit, is to be viewed within the context of a physical process. It was during a harvest festival that the first Pentecost came. That harvest was at the end of a farming process, in which:

  1st the unyielding ground was broken, think John the Baptist

  2nd the seed was planted, think Jesus teaching on the hillsides

  3rd the seed died to being a seed and was raised as a green plant, think Holy Week

  4th the seed was given time to grow and produce fruit, think the early church


Joel’s joyful words, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions” (v.28), falls within this fourth and current step. 


For both urban and rural folk, the prophet’s message should lead us to renewed social action. Unfortunately, rural people today suffer from many of the ills that were previously associated with the city, such as, pollution, drug addiction, inadequate housing and transportation, and nutrition and health issues, etc. God is already committed to resolving these issues. The church needs to dream the dreams and see the visions that come with a fresh spiritual outpouring.

Rural people fear the locust, urban the slum landlord
Which is the real Gulf Fritillary?

As I write this I am getting ready to change planes in the Atlanta Airport. I am prepared for certain changes; the next plane I get on should be larger, it will head north rather than southwest, and it will be in the air longer (I hope). As major as these changes are, they are not a transition. I think its important in our churches and in our individual lives to distinguish change from transition. Change is a constant part of life. We may initiate changes or they may happen to us, but they do not fundamentally alter our identity, or the way we go about our lives. Transition, however, radically shifts who we are and the procedures we use to accomplish our dreams.


In short:

  • Transition involves a major shift in expectations and values that leads to new operating procedures
  • Transition occurs over a period of time and has a middle ground place (the wilderness) which is not like what is before or what comes after. Having a process helps us travel through this middle ground. 
  • The journey of transition forces us to acknowledge what is lost and affirm our ownership over what will be gained
  • Transitions can be healthy or disastrous. The chances of success are greatly improved when trained experts (Intentional Interims for churches and therapists for individuals) are involved.


Being willing to label a season of transition in the church as a designated special time is the healthy way to respond to leadership failure or misconduct, major conflicts, or fundamental shifts in the congregation’s neighborhood or missional vision. When you are in transition, look for help, and remember the motto:

“The process is always more important than any one result or decision.”

Luke 18:1-8

Prayer can be as serious as a hand grenade. Jesus tells us about a widow who went to town to do a little shopping, renew her driver’s license, and while she was at the courthouse, ask the judge if he had time to think about her case. No. Jesus illustrates the power of prayer by talking about someone who had no other options. She was being denied the pension she needed to live on and without serious, prayer-like, intrusive, buttonholing of the judge, she would starve. So she went to town with one thing on her mind; to plead her case. She was willing to go at sunrise. She was willing to stay all day. She had made plans to keep coming back as often as she had bus fare, and then to camp at the courthouse until either the jailed or given justice.


Now there might be someone in your church this week, who is coming with a need of similar urgency. What will we say about the power of prayer? What will the whole church experience say about how seriously we take the needs of each person present? How will we honor the attitude Jesus expressed when he echoed wise Solomon and said the place we worship has no other options than to be a house of prayer for all in need?

Jesus in Temple
Answering these three questions may be the key to changing your church

Reality Check begins with these three questions, each with an application intended to encourage abstract thought and open conversations among church leaders. The three questions are:

1) What is the real nature of the Church?

2) Where is society taking us?

3) How can we do God’s will?

There are many other questions that could be asked, but I am convinced that these are the right three. They point us towards the fundamentals. They avoid the contextual dead ends which sidetrack so much of our creativity. Questions like; ‘how long should the sermon be,’ and, ‘why don’t we do more contemporary music?’ imply that sermons and music are givens in God’s design for the Church. We need to ask first what the nature of Church is. 


    You may want to ask, ‘how do we bring more people into our church?’ But that question assumes that your form of Church is still appropriate for your neighbors to attend. Understanding your neighbor and how society is shaping both their needs and your own, seems to be a more basic place to begin. Church can only meet our need for community and a right relationship with God if it is remains relevant. Often the comments and questions that church leaders raise reveal a deep distrust of the world outside. Many local churches are like swimmers caught in a tide they haven’t the strength to overcome. But if the Church moves with the currents, it can be a rescue vessel for those who would otherwise perish.

    Many people want to jump right to questions like, ‘how can we increase our giving,’ or ‘what do we have to pay our preacher?’ Yet these questions assume that the money we receive and the clergy that we support are essential for us to do God’s will as a congregation. When was the last time you sensed a deep partnership with God as you went about your church work? Today, as so many congregations struggle to set priorities and divide fairly diminishing resources, there is a need to ask, ‘if we are to do one thing in the coming years, what would it be?’ For some the answer is to leave a legacy, for others the answer involves adaptation to the postmodern religious environment, for still others it is found in sacrificially giving to some mission, and for a few, it involves continuing to develop the bright, shining qualities of this church.

    These three question are based upon the business book, Confronting Reality by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan. They say that long range planning and having effective change in any organization depends upon asking three questions:

  1. What is the nature of the business we are in?
  2. Where are the external factors and market changes that are influencing our business?
  3. How can we continue to make money?


    As you can see, it was easy for me to substitute Church for business, society for external factors, and doing God’s will for making money. Bossidy and Charan’s book, however, is worth reading by church leaders for the startling tales they tell of talented and highly paid executives who drove their companies into ruin because they were afraid to ask these fundamental questions. On the other hand, these business writers provide also provide detailed accounts of how these questions brought understanding and preceded successful change in the midst of an adverse economic environment for companies like Home Depot and 3M

Jeremiah 4:1-7
Psalm 137

Here’s a bottom row Jeopardy clue for you; “EXILED FOR 70 YEARS.”  The answer is “What is Babylonian Captivity?”  Most church goers would miss this basic question. Yet this was one of the pivotal events of the Old Testament. In 586 BC, Jerusalem was sacked, the temple of Solomon destroyed, and the people of God carted off to Babylon. It’s what makes Jeremiah weep the book of Lamentations. At this critical time our faith was nearly defeated. Not destroyed by a military loss to Nebuchadnezzar, but drained by a loss of heart. The people went into Babylon and hung up their harps on the willows, saying we can’t worship or sing the songs of God in foreign land (Psalm 137). If God’s people stop worshiping, the faith dies.


All transitions are painful. In the great changes of life, it is common for us to say, “I’ve lost my faith.” Yet transitions are essential. In Babylon, much of the Old Testament is transferred from oral tradition into written word. New concepts about the universality of God were developed. The Advent passages of Isaiah, that Handel set to music in his Messiah, were written for later generations to sing. 


Transition also presents a choice; one can become inward and bitter, or one can embrace the change and deepen your faith. This is true of life changes, such as, divorce, loss of loved ones, empty nest, retirement, etc. It is also true of changes in the church; leadership transitions, loss of building, worship changes, death of key members, etc. It is also true of national transitions; exile, wars, major shifts in government policy, such as, healthcare, immigration reform, etc. 


Jeremiah hears the Lord command the people to embrace the change. Look outward. Stop hanging up your harp and mopping around. God says, “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce... seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:5-7).


There was a time when the last phrase was a rallying cry for the church in America. From 1930 to 1950, faith was understood as an outward command to seek the welfare of the city.  Today, God may be once again bringing his people into transition so that we renew our commitment to social change. We are called by Jesus to make disciples for the transformation of the world. We cannot do that without allowing change to strengthen our own faith.

Babylonian Captivity
Proper 23
diagram of how the world, church, and God's kingdom intersect

In Reality Check 101, I make a point of stating that churches have souls. By this I mean that each congregation has an intrinsic worth. There is a value to the local church that far exceeds its statistical strength or the value it may have for the denomination that holds the title to its building. Pastors come and go, but a church’s soul remains constant. Like the soul of a human being, the congregation’s soul represents more than the current state of the body.


Where is this soul located? Philosophers speak about the human soul being located at the intersection of the will of the mind and the reality of the flesh. The Bible says that when God breathed the inspiring breath of life into Adam, he became a living soul (Genesis 2:7 KJV). This implies that the soul is a crossroad, where physical context (the mud of the ground) limited by time and mortality intersects spiritual vocation and God’s promise of a continuing existence.


Your church’s soul is located at a similar intersection. It lies where the world of human affairs and aspirations (red circle) intersects with your congregation’s daily life (blue circle). These both intersect with the kingdom of God (green circle). A small triangle represents the common ground of God, Church, and Human Society. No congregation is entirely at one with God’s Kingdom -- I think we do well to overlap the will of God by 30%. The world is never so secular to be without an overlap with God and the church. Where we take the Kingdom of God into the world, there is our soul. Three often used words overlap into this one concept; witness, mission, and vocation.


If a church moves down and away from God, its spiritual passion becomes weakened and its soul impoverished. It is impossible to increase our overlap with God’s kingdom without pushing further out into the world’s territory. Jesus calls us to be in the world, but not of it (John 17). Soul is not in the safe part of the circle with the majority of the church’s programs and concerns. It is out in the dangerous intersection of our holy God and the chaotic world.

Luke 17:5-10

Every week, people gather and say to their pastor, “Increase our faith.” Jesus’ disciples came to him with the same request (Luke 17:5-10). Jesus looked at them kindly and said, “Hear now this inspirational story that I clipped out of the sermon helper magazine this week.” They listened to this sentimental dribble and smiled. Ka-Ching! Their faith tanks were refilled. They heard the benediction and went forth a little more positive about their dysfunctional families and lousy mac-jobs. One teen said to another, “This church thing, you know I could take it or leave it.”


No, Jesus didn’t do what most pastors will do this Sunday. He replied to the increase our faith request with two of his most difficult parables. These are not inspirational stories, but visual images that refuse to be compressed into words. The second of these parables requires us to imagine ourselves as household servants. Many of Jesus’ audience had no trouble picturing a day in the life of a peasant. Imagine going through those menial tasks, without hope of reward. Imagine doing your job well, all through the ten hour day, not looking for to be thanked. You do your job to the best of your ability, because it is your vocation. It is in living out our calling that we find ourselves intimate with this thing called faith. Faith causes us to be patient, loving, and diligent, in our crappy workplaces and dysfunctional families.


I believe that every person has a vocation or missional calling from God. My calling is to write. I write with the same diligence and dependency upon the Holy Spirit if there will be a thousand people reading my words, or if I alone will read them. I don’t write to be thanked or liked on Facebook. I write to bring into reality the thing which God had in mind when he created me.


I believe that every congregation has a unique vocation or missional calling from God. Some are called to the menial role of shepherding a small flock for a few more years until the church dies. Others are doing the gut wrenching work of reforming everything about their church so that they might witness to the next generation. Still others are fully committed to a particular mission and way that they will transform the world. And finally, some have a calling to become a high visibility church in the region. No church should ever choose its path with the hope of becoming popular or appreciated by the world. We each must do our vocation because it is where our faith is made real.


When we understand this difficult second parable (Luke 17:7-10), then the first image, that of faith being able to put a mulberry bush into the sea, become more sensible. Those who work hard out of no other motive than to do what God has called them to do, live within a miracle. They are constantly moving mountains. They are bringing hope to the hopeless. They are growing their congregation from a single mustard seed to a great tree, which shelters and nourishes a flock of people who want Jesus to increase their faith.


This weekend is world communion. As we break the bread, let us be mindful of those who are not content to go to the store and buy Wonder Bread, but do the soul-filled work of baking loafs that nourish their families. As we pour the wine, let us be mindful of the fact that small vineyard owners spend their entire lives learning their craft. Something that has been done by common folk since Noah, can easily be viewed with contempt. “It’s not rocket science,” one might say. But, when done by a person gifted and called by God to do it, wine can be a miracle. Symbolically, each of us bring whole wheat bread and finest wine to those around us by our loving acts. Lord increase our faith, so that we might live out of our holy calling.

The making of nutritious bread can be a spiritual act