Archive for October, 2007

religion & politics

“When you mix religion and politics, you get politics.”

That was Rev. Gene Carlson’s quote in the lengthy yet fascinating feature story on evangelicalism and politics in Sunday’s New York Times. If you haven’t read it, you should. The basic nut of the story was that the Religious Right’s dynasty in the political arena appears to be drifting to a halt. Many factors are contributing to this, and I’d encourage you to read the article for the specifics. Carlson was a conservative pastor at a 7,000-member Wichita evangelical church for 40 years, before stepping down last year. He was one of the foremost voices decrying liberalism and seeking to establish a bedrock of Christian support for the Republican party and “traditional values.” Today, at 70 years old, Carlson has stepped back from partisan politics and has stated publicly that politics and religion make a sour combination. Much of the work done by the Religious Right over the last 30 years, Carlson said, has failed to change society in the ways in which Conservative Christians had hoped. I agree.

But reading about the apparent self-destruction of the Evangelical political machine does not make me happy, to tell you the truth. The self-destruction and changing allegiances of the Evangelical leadership all seem to be rather opportunistic, don’t they? What if the Republicans had seized control of the House and Senate in 2006? What if Americans’ view of the War in Iraq was a tad bit more favorable? What if President Bush had been better about keeping the promises he made to Evangelical leaders in 2004? To me, the fact many Evangelicals will vote for a Democrat in 2008 reflects not a deep-seeded personal conversion of ideology, but a convenient and reactionary choice between the lesser of evils in 2007. Though there does seem to be some evidence of a broadened social agenda, for instance, the swing or replacement of many top Evangelical voices smacks of, well, opportunism.

Fact is, with the 2008 election already in full swing a full year before Nov. 2, Christians are as political as they’ve ever been, and this saddens me. Could there be a time coming when the “Moral Majority” is comprised of the Christian left, leaders lobbying for political legislation in their churches in much the same way that Red State church leaders have for the last 20 years? Gosh, I hope not. As much as I might agree with the theological premises that call for Christians to lift up the poor and oppressed, I firmly believe that the last place on Earth that can effectively occur is in the political arena. The powers and principalities of this world — and the broken, “scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” system in which they run — have absolutely nothing to give the lowliest members of our society, the widow and the orphan. As I posted a while back:

Christ tells us that we are to strive for weakness by the world’s standards, the place of dishonor, to be like children, and only then will we be bestowed with strength, honor and respect. A theme I hear popping up among the politically involved on both sides of the aisle seems to be that the church has a responsibility to transform our culture/government (which is Niebuhr’s old “Christ and Culture” argument). The problem, though, is that to do this, the church must capture people’s attention in the same ways everyone else does — by out-yelling their detractors and rivals, organizing around issues rather than people, and even compromising core beliefs.

Basically, in order to be heard, the church must seek the place of honor and of power, while trying to be as least-childlike as possible.

The other assumption that is made among politically involved Christians is that the church is and should be in a central, publicly influential position in our culture. (Sort of like how the church steeple was the central object in New England towns in the early years of our Republic.) If someone can find me a verse supporting that idea, I’d be interested to hear it. My Bible points to an exilic, marginalized community of Jesus-followers who gladly take the path of suffering over a position of power.

Politics is a game of power, and Christian participation in that game in order to exact social change is, to me, a conflict of interest. Truth is, Rev. Carlson is right: when religion and politics mix, you get politics. Leftist politics, moderate politics, right-wing politics — it doesn’t matter. Politics is politics.


the one day I wish I had a car

(by Chrissy)

It’s really not about the car.

One of our single mom neighbors approached me this week asking if I could find a pumpkin patch to take her and her two preschool aged kids to.

In my spare time this week, I searched for a place that was accessible by public transportation. (Neither of us have cars.)

All she wanted was for her children to experience a hay ride and jump into a pile of leaves. The children had never had these experiences. I’m not sure the mom has had these experiences.

It made me think of all the wonderful memories I have of jumping into leaves, drinking a warm cup of cider, eating a cider donut or caramel apple.

Some of these memories took me back to my childhood, some to a few weeks ago.

Why have I had all of these experiences, so simple, but joyful, while this single mother has never been able to take her children?

I wanted to blame it on the fact that they we don’t have a car – problem would have been solved.

But it’s really not about the car.

How many other barriers exist in this mom’s life that keeps her from living like many others?

Would a husband bring a balance to this family that would keep her son from asking why he doesn’t have his daddy with him?

Would a few extra dollars help fix the flat tire on her stroller so she doesn’t have to strain her back every time she walks to the grocery store?

It’s a struggle for me not to want to fix some things that seem simple – to be their savior. But I can’t fix everything. I can’t even find a car to take them to a pumpkin patch.

I’m glad it’s not all about me. That there’s a God always present with this precious family. Even when she cries out to him, asking him to fix her problems, and nothing seems to change. He’s working it out. I hope.

UPDATE: I wrote this post this morning.  When I saw my neighbor today, I prayed that we could find a car and go to a pumpkin patch today.  My prayer was answered.  We spent the last 3 hours – the five of us – laughing on a hayride, picking up leaves, feeding animals, and sipping cider with cider donuts.  This mother is smiling.  My heart is smiling.  Thank you, Lord, for working in this small way today.

’nuff said

Tonight, it’s on.

a hauntingly beautiful prayer

my very last rant about the American church

I write the following at the risk of alienating my remaining 10 or so readers who could care less about reforming the conventional American church.  I’m right there with them most days, except since Friday, when I randomly linked to a slick video promoting a church’s building campaign. If you’ll take 10 minutes to watch this video and then read and respond to the post below, I promise this will be my last blog rant about the state of the American church.

This post isn’t about The Branch. It really isn’t. I’ve worshiped at The Branch, have dear friends who worship and lead there, and truly believe God has been at work through that community. The Branch is a church that has stepped out in many ways and led in the last few years.So please don’t hear it as me picking on The Branch specifically when I say that I am so sick and tired of seeing videos like the one above, which I saw quite randomly on Friday after linking to it from a friend’s site. Farmer’s Branch Church just outside of Dallas has outgrown its building, so it recently acquired a 20-acre property with a rather large church building already on the property and the leadership has decided to go to a two-site system. Moneys must be raised in order to maintain the facilities and programs of two suburban Dallas mega-churches now, not just one. Here are a few quotes from the campaign video that stood out to me:

“100 years ago … received a call to build a church.”

“That church now has 1,500 members.”

“God is calling the Branch to grow.”

“Our leadership has discerned that God is calling us to take a major step in an effort to help not just hundreds, but thousands come into an intimate relationship with God in the coming years.”

“From its humble beginnings in the early 1900s, to the launch of a second campus in 2007, the Branch continues to grow and thrive as a community of believers actively seeking God’s will. Now, we’ve been presented with the opportunity to do something truly remarkable for the kingdom.”

“He has entrusted to us those who are very gifted. We have an amazing amount of those who have gifts to be used in the expansion of the kingdom. A lot of people want to be put to work; they have gifts and they want to work. Having two campuses is going to make that possible.”

But again, this post isn’t about The Branch. This post is about the Christian church’s refusal to accept that it is no longer accepted by its host culture. Even in suburban Dallas, the saturation of glitzy shopping malls, shiny car dealerships, smut shops, one-size-fits-all housing developments, and multi-national office parks tells the real story of what matters to most folks in the MetroPlex (hint: the church ain’t it).

If you listen closely, a theme emerges in this video from The Branch and other like it: That it takes a church with a large building (or two), bounteous programs, multiple staff, and — you guessed it — loads of money to “do something truly remarkable for the kingdom.” The truth is, however, that the facts simply do not support that hypothesis. For starters, George Barna found that many of the nearly 100 million “unchurched” people in America are “church-avoiders,” having not attended any sort of religious service in the last six months to a year. Even more surprising, however, might be his finding that “included among the [100 million] unchurched is an estimated 13 to 15 million born again adults and children.” Only half of those Barna polled in another research project stated that they were “completely satisfied” with several areas of their conventional church, compared to two-thirds giving positive responses in house churches.

Interestingly enough, one of America’s most influential evangelical churches — Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago — recently begun waking up to many of these realities the hard way. What began as a small ministry under the leadership of Pastor Bill Hybels in the 1970s has become a multi-campus, multi-national, 25,000+ member institution (I’m confident Bill and his team would agree with my wording here). When one of the senior staff began wondering if the programs the church was spending millions of dollars on each year were actually resulting in more passionate disciples of Jesus, he decided to “poll the audience.” After months of research involving thousands of Willow’s members, the church’s leadership received back some startling data.

Chart1In what Bill Hybels called the “wake-up call of my adult life,” Willow Creek discovered that the premise on which nearly every programmatic decision for the last 30 years had been made — that increased involvement in the classes, meetings, service opportunities, and other activities of the church yielded increased spiritual growth and closeness to God — was simply not true. Furthermore, those who are most unsatisfied with Willow were those for whom God is the center of their lives — the more spiritually mature. (Willow produced the chart above to illustrate how spiritual growth did not correlate with increased church activity)

This leads me to my second beef with the building campaign video above: Its driving assumption is that people’s spiritual gifts will be used, and that most (if not all) of God’s work through that congregation will occur within the confines of a programmatic structure on a piece of church property. An underlying assumption, I’m guessing, is that this increased participation among members will result in more devoted followers of Jesus. Why else would so many congregations spend so much time, effort, and money planning and executing a roughly hour-long worship service each week? The Willow leadership has been discovering, and is currently admitting in churches all over the country, however, that in one of the largest and perhaps most dynamic churches in America, those assumptions are categorically false. (watch two great videos about these “wake-up calls” here) The reaction of the Willow leadership, then, is that they are taking out a fresh piece of paper and using their findings and scripture to change the way they do church. This is certainly a change of tune from perhaps the most influential evangelical congregation of the modern era, and though I am thrilled at the self-reflection the leaders exercised in looking into the church’s practices, I will be curious to see what ends up on the blank sheet of paper in the end.

When will other Christian leaders around the country wake up to some of these realities? We have churches full of the “healthy,” when Christ came to heal the “sick.” So many churches thrive simply on the participation of those long-time members and lifetime believers in their midst and are completely irrelevant to the rest of the world. Think about your church for a minute: How much of its energy and money — including programs, classes, and service opportunities — are expended on those farthest away from God?

My personal observation is that the larger a group of Christians gets, the more insular and maintenance-minded it becomes. What often begins in early days of a budding congregation as a sent, praying people whose lives are spent daily for and among a broken creation, too often becomes an institution that must appeal primarily to its core in order to grow or even survive. This is where some people would say, “Steve, isn’t that one of the functions of the church? To continually nourish its members and provide opportunities for service?” Well, if Bill Hybels was sitting in, he would quickly jump in: “What’s happening to people the older they get [spiritually], the more they are expecting the church to feed them when in fact the more mature a Christian becomes, a Christian should become more of a self-feeder.” In other words, church members have become reliant on the institution for spiritual nourishment (and they are often disappointed), and have never learned how to be and act spiritual away from the church. Basically, it seems we’ve been starting and maintaining enabling churches with dependent members for quite a while now, starting with Willow, the biggest powerhouse of them all.

So, taking all this to heart, here are my questions, folks. First, what would it take to finally admit that the conventional Christian church has lost favor with its host culture, much the same as the early church was not accepted by the Roman Empire? We are not a “Christian nation,” and the marginalized and lost will not come just because we built it. How might this admission inform our congregational identities and identities as individual believers, and then our strategy and mission?

Second, what if Bill Hybels is right: That personal spiritual disciplines and rhythms, not church involvement in programs, will yield greater intimacy with Christ? Might this realization change how we set out to “do things” for God in the kingdom? Given that many leaders’ livelihoods depend on the institutions behind these strategies, would they have the courage and prophetic imagination to admit a mistake and move into a new season of centering in on God and his mission — regardless of the sacrifice?

Or will most of us continue to go on doing the same sorts of things but expecting different results?

End rant.

Rule of St. Fiacre

I haven’t been much into blogs, books, or conversations about missions lately, but this blog post I could almost endorse. It’s a proposed rule for a proposed missional order — proposed by David Fitch as a response to the number of faith communities that have folded because of burnout and internal character weaknesses. I really, really like where Fitch is coming from with most of these proposals, and we’ve been attempting to live out many of them already. From looking at the list in its entirety, however, I feel we could do better. In fact, I believe the absence of a few crucial ones of these might just be why we currently feel a little off in our mission. Anyway, here’s Fitch’s list and the link to the original blog post. I’d love to hear your thoughts, including omissions and/or additions.

The Rule of St Fiacre Missional Order of Pastor-Servants: Sent Out to Cultivate Christian Communities as Gardens Midst the Cities, Neighborhoods, Towns and Villages of N. America

Committed to Plant Christian Communities as Gardens, not Grocery Stores, committing to long periods (at least 5 years) of habitation, gestation in and among a chosen neighborhood, geographical place of living.

Committed to a lifestyle of simplicity, frugality and bi-ministerial/bi-vocationalism to survive financially for the long term, yet be wise and prudent so as not to find oneself in hock or otherwise financially enslaved later on in life.

Committed to put down roots, take up jobs, and live in this neighborhood, to love, live and walk with lost people in the rhythms of everyday life, to cultivate relationships and a way of life that displays a witness to Christ, that incarnates His presence as a Body in and among this neighborhood of people. To be bearers of the gospel of salvation in Word and deed, never with coercion, only as invitation into the life of God thru Christ our Lord.

Committed to ministering the gospel to those in pain, in desperation, depression, darkness and poverty. This can take shape in numerous simple ways.

Committed to foster resistance to a.) consumerist structures which exploit the oppressed, promote unhealthy eating and living, b.) materialist behavior that promotes owning things over relationship, security over generosity and c.,) secular practices which subordinate and/or decenter God in Christ to another self help transaction, another thing we do in an overall consumerist materialist lifestyle, and d.) all other practices which distance ourselves from the relationships with neighbors, the poor, and those whose labor we benefit from everyday.

Committed to, whether commissioned as ordained pastor or minister, take up life together and ministry as an everyday vocation as part of everyday life.

Committed to get to know the community contextually, to know its needs, to minister to its hurts, to fight/resist its social sins, to incarnate Christ amidst the everyday rhythms and life of your community.

Committed to seeing secular vocation, the making a living, the amount of money one makes, and career as secondary to call of God on your life for His Mission.

Committed to regular practices of spiritual formation that center one’s life in Christ and in His Mission. This includes a proposed Rule of St Fiacre, a regular time of meeting in triads (groups of three) for Scripture reading, prayer, corporate silence, mutual submission of one’s emotions to God, mutual confession of sin, repentance and reconciliation, working out one’s struggles, pains and joys as part of God’s work in you for His Mission and finally a mutual benediction being sent into the Mission. And likewise this includes being committed to a regular time of communal worship of God that includes silence, confession, submission to Christ’s Mission, affirmation of Our Story, the reading and hearing of the Word, the Lord’s Table, corporate prayer, thanksgiving and prayer, the benedictory blessing and sending forth into Mission.

Committed to banding together with no less than 8 other St Fiacre Ministers to go where God calls to inhabit space for the presence of Christ in Mission.

Committed to a living a life of hospitality, opening up our homes and lives for those who are hurting, alone, depressed, and without the gospel.

Committed to meeting together once a year every summer at designated place to foster encouragement, mutual support, and prayer. Committed to having a regular practice of connection via the telephone whereby we stay connected to two other St Fiacre members once a week for an hour, whereby we read the Scripture, share stories, encourage and pray together.


religion & nation

James Carroll responds in today’s Globe to John McCain’s recent assertion that America was established as a “Christian nation,” as well as the firestorm it began. Here’s a nice snippet:

But a warning must be sounded in the name of a better Christian religion, too. What’s bad for the state can be worse for the church. Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and all religious minorities are assaulted by even implicit claims of a “Christian nation,” but so are Christians. A government that blesses itself in the name of Jesus Christ, while waging war and advancing empire, must first demolish the meaning of who that man was – three centuries before Constantine.

Scholars know very little about this Galilean rabbi (nothing, for example, about his attitude toward homosexuality), but there are two things that can be said with certainty. Jesus lived and died in resistance to the Roman empire. And Jesus rejected violence. If there are two notes of identity that go to the heart of what America has become, they are violence and empire. A Christianity that makes its peace with those, as has so often happened, is an apostate religion. John McCain, and the objects of his appeal, betray the nation – and the faith.


Came across this quote from Dorothy L. Sayers this week. Tell me what you think:

The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables. Church by all means, and decent forms of amusement, certainly—but what use is all that if in the very center of his life and occupation he is insulting God with bad carpentry? No crooked table legs or ill-fitting drawers ever came out of the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth. Nor, if they did, could anyone believe that they were made by the same hand that made Heaven and earth.