Archive for the ‘church’ Category

Spiritual Masturbation

Over coffee this morning, a good friend reminded me that so much of our “insider talk” as Christians basically equates to masturbatory language. We talk and talk, ascending to higher plains of intellectual enlightenment, making ourselves and each other feel satisfied in the short-term — but not too long afterward, we are unsatisfied and actually feel bad. I’ve begun to look at the majority of doctrinal debates, and thus the majority of Christian blogs, in this way. It’s self-congratulatory: “Aren’t we great for knowing these facts or believing these propositions.” The majority of these conversations make painfully little difference to anybody but ourselves, and yet we continue to expend energy on them.

In the end, these masturbatory exercises rarely lead us to communal or individual transformation, let alone action. As our world cries out for redemption and healing, we basically ignore its cries and choose intellectual pursuits and shallow debates instead. God help us. (no, really … Lord, Help Us!)



holidaybrunch11Just got back from Sunday morning brunch at one of our favorite little Eastie spots. It’s a wonderful little breakfast-lunch place that you’d never find by accident, because it’s in the middle of a working boat yard. You give your order to Wendy at a little walk-up window inside, grab a recycled cup for some self-service coffee, and sit down at a long, park bench-style table on stools.  It’s not uncommon to be elbow-to-elbow with two folks you’ve never met, which adds to the creative awesomeness of this place. (the photo shown is of the cafe’s Holiday brunch)

Anyway, today the spot was especially busy.  Tons of young couples, many with babies, poured in one after the other.  A few of them staked out several seats at the end of the long table, and we grabbed two seats near them.  While we read our Sunday Globe and ate our breakfast, more young couples, along with a few middle-aged or older folks, came in, some that we knew. Lots of smiles, food-talk, baby-holding, and picture-taking.

As this was taking place, we began to hear a curious word being thrown around as people filed in:


“We should light this candelabra … now we can start church.”

“Joe’s missing church? Tell him we missed him.”

“This restaurant could have a seating problem … we might have to start a church expansion committee.”

As we read and ate and overheard the conversations around us, we began to see that this group of maybe 15 or so met every (or most) Sunday(s) to eat and catch up and enjoy community — and they call it (perhaps facetiously) “church.”  What an interesting commentary on our culture’s view of “church.”  To me, it demonstrates a couple of things: 1) that for many Americans, weekly attendance at a formal religious institution makes little to no difference in their lives, so they just don’t do it. All the statistics — about church decline, etc — support this. An article I read a few years ago described the “unchurched” culture in Seattle, where many prefer to take the family and dog to a park or go out to eat with friends instead of attending church.  2) that regular table fellowship / check-in time / community is still important to many Americans, just not in the context of formal religious institutions.

To be honest, this describes us.

This phenomenon has untold implications on the future of religious expression and activity in America.  Our culture’s “third places” (coffee shops, cafes, cigar bars, parks, etc) are America’s new “churches”.  We could lament this phenomenon and wish it were different, but I’m not sure it’s a bad thing (in fact, I’m pretty sure it’s a good thing).

What are the implications?  What is the role of Christians in all of this?  Have the terms “churched” and “unchurched” outlived their usefulness?


my political journey

mccain and obama

If you haven’t noticed, 2008 is an election year.

(Some of you just muttered to yourself, “So that’s why they keep showing that toothy guy and old man on the news!”)

A certain excitement surrounds presidential elections.  Much of it is media-induced, as was evident by the earlier-than-ever start to the primary season (summer 2007).  But a lot of it is, I think, a genuine yearning in the hearts of Americans to start fresh, wipe the slate clean, or move in a new direction.  That’s why every candidate in the race is using buzz words like “hope” and “change” and “new direction.”  I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t more than a little caught up in the political fever myself.

But I’ve come to a point where I can no longer attach any of those adjectives — hope, change, etc — in their deepest, truest meanings, to the political process.  Though I am still a deeply political person, I refuse to be political in the way we are told to be political — by voting, by supporting one of two major parties, by pushing for legislation, by seeking to leverage my own power and strength.

It hasn’t always been this way, however.

My parents raised my brother and me to be good Democrats.  We denigrated Reagan economic policy around the house and rooted for Dukakis to defeat George Bush and the Republican machine in 1988.  The 1990s were political glory days around our house … Bubba could do no wrong.  He was a guy to whom my dad, who has spent much of his life in Arkansas’ neighboring Memphis, could relate.  In his smooth, Southern accent, he spoke of compassion and peace and health care for all Americans.  Even Clinton’s legal woes with Watergate and Monica-gate didn’t diminish the big guy’s celebrity around the house.  Heading off to college, I had received more than my fair share of political indoctrination — not in a heavy-handed way, but in the subtle way parents pass along their own ideologies to their kids.  Needless to say, I went off to college in Texas with my mind made up about whom I was going to vote for in the 2000 election.

al gore mask

In fact, when I arrived on campus at my overwhelmingly Republican university, I immediately joined the tiny but faithful College Democrats club.  At the first meeting, I was even selected to serve as the vice president during the 2000-2001 year.  That election year, we would show up for debates against the College Republicans (a veritable machine on campus…), sign folks in town up to vote, attempt to broaden the debate on campus from just two issues dealing with sexuality to issues of justice, the environment, and the economy.  Looking back, this snot-nosed freshman really didn’t know what the heck he thought about much of anything, certainly not enough to deserve the VP position in the college Dems.  I think I was more concerned with being different from my “war-loving, vitriol-spewing, poor people-oppressing, trust fund baby” (my perhaps misguided thoughts at the time) Republican friends.  (you should have seen my Al Gore Halloween costume, though…)

I think we all remember what happened in the 2000 election.

“Projected Winner: Al Gore” … oh, wait.  Hanging chads.  Gore wins the popular vote.  Florida Supreme Court.  Bush wins, weeks later, by a hair.  Gore cries (has he stopped?).

We were all devastated.

Most of our friends were electrified.  A Texas boy had made good and gotten to the White House.  Bush’s supporters at the university that gave him an honorary degree (along with Charlton Heston) could finally say they knew him when…

I developed a much more robust personal political philosophy over the next few years, primarily because I had so much material to work with.  Right out of the gate, George W. Bush’s cowboy attitude just rubbed me the wrong way.  (and as a writer, the Bushisms annoyed the heck out of me!)  Then came 9/11, which I helped cover for the school newspaper of which I was a member, and the political poo hit the fan.  We were staging an all-out retaliation in a country that had little, if anything, to do with what happened to us on that Tuesday morning in New York.  America’s leaders, led by Bush himself, took a page from the Toby Keith school of foreign policy and threatened to “put a boot in the ass” of anyone who crossed us.

Patriotism was also at an all-time high.  One could see flags everywhere, and often they were accompanied by pithy statements like “These Colors Don’t Run” or “Freedom Isn’t Free.”  Even many so-called progressives rallied behind the flag and our president and supported returning the slap that Islamic terrorists had given us.  Through all this flag-waving, though, I kept thinking, “What about the Afghan children?  Are they less precious than our own children?  Is our own ‘homeland security’ more important than Afghanistan’s?”

iraqi child

Then we invaded Iraq.  The rationale never quite squared with me.  Tension had been building for months over supposed WMDs inside Iraq, but to date, none had been found.  Then came Dubya on the TV set during primetime saying we had begun a “shock & awe” attack on Baghdad in an effort to free the Iraqi people from tyrannical Saddam Hussein.  No mention of WMDs.  There was, however, some connection made to what happened to us on 9/11, but I couldn’t (and still can’t) see how any of that rationale adds up.  All I saw was an emboldened empire seeking to expand its reach using military might.  It was way beyond retaliation at this point … this was pre-emptive war.  I saw it then and I see it now. (photo credit: David Leeson, 2003)

The night of the shock & awe campaign, I wrote an editorial for the school newspaper applauding the US for attempting to root out Saddam quickly and without much collateral damage.  A quick in and out procedure.  Five years and 60,000 deaths later…

These events, as well as the ongoing war, kick-started my disillusionment with the tactics of the U.S. Government in foreign policy.  I began to see that the American project doesn’t exactly square with my primary identity as a citizen in God’s kingdom, and that both political parties (not just one, as I’d previously thought) were guilty.  Sure, the parties talk a good game with regard to justice and values, but in the end, the status quo must be maintained.  (which means people around the world and right under our noses are squeezed to the margins or destroyed)  These realizations were further underscored when I began investigating the un-reported intimidation, extortion, dishonesty, and even murder US officials were committing around the world to bolster the wealth and power of the nation. (John Perkins’ memoir, “Confessions of an Economic Hitman,” was especially eye-opening)  This is about when I began referring to America as an Empire.  That’s right, empire — like Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Great Britain. (watch this video if you’re not convinced)

Indeed, the lily-white history of the United States I received in elementary school was, for the first time, in question in my mind. As my eyes were opened to the reality that my fellow countrymen and women were killing my brothers and sisters in Iraq and Afghanistan while the American church stands behind such action — even cheering it on — a new light was shed on how the last 200 years or so have proven to be a slow march toward empire-building for America.  In light of these realities, how could I comply with the political system, as is?  How could I put any hope in a system that, at its very essence, places nation over the Cross?  Furthermore, how could I continue to support candidates and parties that support economic systems that run counter to God’s economics policy of Jubilee?

In the 2004 election, my wife and I placed opposing votes in Texas in order to cancel the other’s out.  This was our first act of political subversion, albeit largely insignificant. It was, however, significant for us personally, setting us on a pathway of deepening our identities as citizens first and foremost in God’s kingdom, not man’s.

For the last four years, my political theory — in light of my theological convictions as a follower of Jesus — has been shaped and formed, and the writings of Yoder, Hauerwas, Wright, Claiborne, and others have impacted me greatly.

Many have traded the political ideologies of the Religious Right (a failed experiment) for more progressive political views, still informed by faith.  Leaders in this movement, which include Jim Wallis, Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo, among others, have correctly called Christians to broaden their view of justice and righteousness from a couple sexual issues to include the environment, poverty, economic disparity, consumerism, and peace.  In many ways, I have these thinkers to thank for sparking the conversation about the problems in the current political system and foci among Christians.  I have come to see, however, that these leaders are still calling for participation in the politics of Empire in order to attain societal justice.  And while the movement claims to be “non-partisan,” anyone with their eyes open can see that it has become the Christian Left.  And because the Left is just as hell-bent as the Right about maintaining and expanding empire, maintaining a consumerist economy, and waging war, I cannot with a clean conscience adhere to this movement. (though I consider many who do my friends)

I just finished Shane Claiborne & Chris Haw’s new book, Jesus For President, which to a great degree spells out where I’ve come politically.  It’s the book I would have liked to have written.

the lamb

JFP maintains that Jesus was in fact political (it is a common misconception that he wasn’t), but not in the conventional way of the time.  He subverted the Roman Empire with his words and deeds and even the names people ascribed to him, which were all dripping with political irony and meaning.  He continually established and underscored his own kingship (not Caesar’s), and promised that true, sustainable change would occur when people fix their eyes on Jesus and join Jesus in the work of reconciling all things. A thorough and open-minded reading of the Gospels sheds light on this convincingly, I think.  So it’s not a question of whether Jesus-followers are to be political, but how this is done.  (more on this in the days to come)

Furthermore, God knew that too much power in the hands of sin-proned humans was a dangerous thing.  (see the Old Testament for example after example)  Yet the cries of the people — “We want a king!” — prevailed, and God gave them over to their wishes.  (with a not-so-subtle warning, of course)  Today, millions of Christians are yelling, “We want a king!”  Their ideal king may have an (R) or a (D) after his name, may make promises that fit their values to a T, and may in their minds hold the last hopes for a just and righteous society, but in the end, the candidate is an imperfect, frail human.  And I’ve said it before, but I’m convinced that the office of President — or state rep, senator, congressman, mayor, or any political office — shapes the person much more than the person shapes the office.  In the end, Barack Obama and John McCain will be just as interested in Empire-building and war-mongering as any other president who has come along.  The machine simply cannot be stopped.

So this is where I’m at politically.  I want to stand with the poor and marginalized now more than ever, but I don’t believe the voting booth is where I should stand.  I want to see God’s “kingdom come on Earth as it is in heaven” now more than ever, but the Empire — with its penchant for war, expansion, wealth-creation, and being first (Jesus told us to be last) — is diametrically opposed to this dream.  God’s peculiar people must continue the work set forth by our brothers and sisters throughout history to affirm that only God can create a new reality, establish justice, and sit on the throne — as King.

Using Jesus For President as a guide, the next few posts will focus on ways the people of God can be more political than ever, while not bowing to the idols of nation or investing in a broken political system.  It can be done, but as Claiborne and Haw (and Brueggemann before them) say repeatedly, it’s going to take an ample dosage of “prophetic imagination.”

a minister lives here

…and the Senate wants to know why.  Read to the very end of this piece in the LA Times.

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.

“you know not how”

John Piper and I don’t agree on everything theologically, but man do I love what he said at a recent conference at his church. He is speaking truth, and those of us in kingdom work had better listen closely.

Let me just give one last counsel or piece of advice. This comes right off of my devotions from this morning. I was reading in Mark 4 (vs. 26-27), where it says, ‘The kingdom of heaven is as if a man should sow seed on the ground. And then he sleeps and wakes, night and day. And the seed grows and sprouts. He knows not how.’

And my closing exhortation negatively is you don’t know how to grow the kingdom of God. Beware of conferences. Beware of books. Beware of seminars that tell you how to plant the church. You don’t know how to plant the church. The bible says you cannot know this. This is God’s doing. It is mysterious, it is deep, it is awesome. You go to bed at night. You get up in the morning. You sow your seed. And it sprouts. You know not how.

Watch the video of his talk in its entirety here.

no surprise here

Check out the most recent USA Today report on post-high school church involvement. Not really anything new here, just another study showing that church attendance is simply not that important to most twentysomething Christians, let alone not-yet-Christians. In fact, we’d be considered among those who have “left the church.” Here’s a snippet:

Seven in 10 Protestants ages 18 to 30 — both evangelical and mainline — who went to church regularly in high school said they quit attending by age 23, according to the survey by LifeWay Research. And 34% of those said they had not returned, even sporadically, by age 30. That means about one in four Protestant young people have left the church.

Who knows what these numbers would be if people people didn’t typically embellish their church attendance frequency in polls like these.