Saying “goodbye” to old friends

So I recently started doing this thing at 9:30 on Sunday mornings.  I’ve called it “Wading into the deep water”. I figured it was about time to address some of the wild javelinas in the room…starting with the fact that we don’t all agree.  Theological opinion circulates in the church more than the smell of expensive hipster coffee in the lobbies of big churches.

There is no doubt I feel the pressure to give black-and-white, authoritative, “right” answers when I am confronted with questions…especially the hot button kind.  I am a spiritual answer man, for crying out loud.  I’m also aware there are “conventional” interpretations…answers I was taught when I was just a theological grasshopper…traditions as church practices that I just assumed as my own for years…that I no longer believe or practice.

Change did not happen overnight.  Nor did it happen flippantly. I didn’t just wake up one day and realize I had fallen off the Bible teaching bandwagon of my past.  I’ve read. I’ve studied…the Bible and the writings of church thinkers throughout the ages. I’ve listened. I’ve compared and contrasted.  I’ve weighed things out. I’ve wrestled with my motives and the possible outcomes.

There are many things I still hold as unshakeable truths.  I cannot remotely imagine ever changing what I believe about certain things.  Yet, there are others that have morphed over time…and still others that are long gone.

Some changes have been relatively easy.  Other changes in my thinking have been painfully difficult.  Some changes have been fully embraced. Others are still a work in progress.  All have been fueled by a desire to be a true disciple and obedient to the word.  At the risk of looking like a crazy man or being labelled a heretic, here’s a look at some things I no longer hold as absolute truth…things I have “changed my mind” on over time:

  • Rock music is of the devil.
  • Women are unfit to lead in society.
  • We can trust the american judicial system to treat everyone with fairness and impartiality.
  • Pastors are to be the theological authority in a church family.
  • The goal of the church is to get bigger.
  • True christians needed to picket abortion hospitals.
  • You can’t be a private gun owner and truly trust jesus.
  • Making condoms available from the health centers on High School campuses is always a bad thing.
  • Getting counseling is a sign of weakness.
  • The premillennial position on end times is the right position.
  • Men are always to be the spiritual leaders of the marriage and family.
  • I will be “raptured out” before the “great tribulation”.
  • Since God apparently knows everything that’s going to happen (and is possibly causing it), prayer can’t change God’s mind.
  • Calvinism and Arminianism are both equally true.  Our finite minds are just incapable of completely understanding it.
  • Any people who speak in tongues are just wacky.
  • Paul wrote the book of Hebrews.
  • You must have an invitation to accept Christ into your heart at the end of a worship service.
  • It is a sin to miss communion on a Sunday.
  • It might even be a sin to miss church on a Sunday.
  • Church services are only to be done on Sundays.
  • Communion has to be unleavened bread and Welch’s grape juice (the sacred grape juice).
  • Guitars should not be used in church.
  • We need to dress up on Sundays for church.
  • The earth is less than 8000 years old.
  • The King James Version is the most reliable translation of the Bible.
  • Christians should not have tattoos.
  • Dancing is sinful.
  • Women should never speak in a church service.
  • If a person repents of sin and professes trust in Christ for salvation on their deathbed…but never makes it to the baptistery…they will go to hell.
  • All catholics will go to hell.  Probably most episcopals, too. My home church even had some serious doubts about Southern Baptists.
  • Real christians don’t drink alcohol of any kind.
  • Missionaries and pastors are superior christians.
  • America is more “christian” than other countries.
  • Jesus was really born on december 25.
  • Homosexuality is always a choice that people make.
  • Hell is endless and eternal pain and torment.
  • Divorced people are prohibited from important ministry in the church.
  • Sundays are the New Testament equivalent to the Old Testament Sabbath.
  • Church meetings need to begin and end with prayer.
  • Only certain people are predestined to be saved.
  • The sermon is the most important part of a church service.
  • God’s greatest attribute is his omnipotence.
  • Christians have to be republicans.
  • Personal wealth is a sign of God’s blessing.
  • Personal poverty is a sign spiritual maturity.
  • Churches are better off being racially segregated.
  • There is a sure-fire formula for marriage success.
  • Natural disasters are a form of God’s punishment.
  • My church and my doctrine are “right”…and everybody else…if they disagree…is wrong.
  • I have an obligation to perpetuate my denominational heritage.
  • My words or my relationship with a person can keep them from sinning or self-destructing.
  • If i am doing something really important for God, he will protect me from harm.
  • When a child dies, we can console ourselves by believing God wants them more in heaven than he wants them on earth.
  • All Muslims are inherently bad people.
  • Mormons and christians basically believe the same thing.
  • It is important to teach people to tithe.
  • The Bill of Rights, the Constitution, the 27 Amendments to the Constitution and the Sermon on the Mount are all to bear equal importance in the life of an American christian.
  • the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.
  • The amount of people believing a particular doctrine, teaching or tradition increases its credibility.
  • Since we’ve always done something that way (or believed that way), it must be right…and we must continue doing it.

Marriage Tuesday

Marriage Tuesday 2I know a lot of people who have gotten divorces. Many of them are fantastic people.  Full of life and goals and love and faith.  They believe in marriage. They see its value and made pledges of lifelong commitment to their spouses they truly intended to keep.  They never believed divorce would be the outcome of their partnerships.  They are not losers.  They are not failures.

But they divorced anyway.

For most of them, their reasons are as personal as they are complex.  There may have been identifiable tipping points, but most would say the death of their marriages happened over a long time, rather than in a moment or a singular event.

Although I have listened to story after story through the years, I am no expert on divorce.  I’m pretty sure there are really no experts on divorce (who would ever want to be one, anyway?)   But I have learned some things that are worth passing on.  Here’s one…

Death and taxes are not the only things we can be certain will happen.  Over time, people change.  You can be certain of that!   The question is, in marriage, how are you going to deal with it?   How are you going to make room for it?

Over the course of our marriage, I have changed.  A lot.  My education has changed.  My theology has changed.  My politics have changed.  My hobbies have changed.  My physique has changed (multiple times).  My hair has changed.  My clothing styles have changed.  My food tastes have changed.  My musical tastes have changed.  My confidence has changed. My job has changed.  My emotional stability has changed.  My health has changed.

The same is true for Wanda.

Most (though not all) marriages I know of that have ended, share a common struggle with change.  “He’s just not the same man I married a few years ago.”   “She’s different now.  It’s like I don’t even know her anymore.”   “I’ve just got different priorities and interests.”   “We’ve grown apart.”

So what’s going to keep changes from getting the best of you and your marriage?  How are you going to combat the potential effects of the inevitable flow of change that will flood your lives over time?

You’ve got to have some unchangeables.

There have to be some shared, immovable, unshakable core beliefs you are both  committed to and ideals that form the foundation of both your personal and shared lives together. These need to be beliefs that are bigger than life goals…and have the capacity to draw you together in unity and affect every single area of life.

These beliefs don’t happen accidentally.  They don’t happen by chance.  They happen because you determine to work on them together.  They are forged out of a common understanding that marriage is designed for something more than our personal pleasure.

We have ours.  Do you have yours?

This road I travel…#5

This Road 2So many things have changed for me.  When I was young, my church life was simple and wholesome and most everything we did went unchallenged.  There was a certain intellectual naiveness to my spiritual upbringing.  We believed certain things.  We did certain things.  We accepted certain things.  It was all important and it played an enormous role in the life I led.

And somewhere along the line, it got complicated.

College brought philosophy professors and my simple faith began to look more and more simplistic.  And I became intellectually defenseless.

My young adult years exposed me to theological conflict, worship wars, church leadership in-fighting, epic moral failures of leaders I admired, and the tragic misuse of moneyall in the name of God.  But somehow, God’s kindness always rescued me from the “mess” of church life and drew me to kingdom priorities anyway.

Through it all, I’ve learned to embrace my doubts, temper my cynicism, see the beauty in brokenness,  and remain fully committed to helping others experience the mercy of God that has surrounded me.   This is no small miracle…

One of the shifts I have witnessed and deal with more and more, is the continual Americanization of Christianitythe redefining of discipleship according to the values we have been raised to cherish as citizens of this country.

The ideals of individualism, success, competition, expansion, achievement, esteem, contentment, leisure, acquisition, ownership, self-realization, funand dozens of othershave been appropriated by the church and found as worthy, and even superior to the core characteristics of Jesus and his first-century followers.

Ten years ago, a study was done by a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary that defined a new version of Christianity called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD).  You can read about it here, if you’re interested in digging deeper. MTD is characterized by five beliefs:

  • A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.
  • God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  • God is not involved in my life except when I need him to resolve a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die..

I’m no Princeton grad, but I’ve known this for years.  It’s epidemic in the church. This is how we present ourself to a watching world. This is what the church has come to hold as its central tenets.  In the article I referenced, the author quotes an unnamed source:

For the typical Protestant church member, middle class commitments to family, career, and standard of living are so strong that church commitment is largely an instrument to them and contingent on whether the church appears to serve them. As a result, many local churches tend to become instruments for achieving middle class interests, whether or not these interests can be defended in New Testament terms.

Welcome to my world.

This road I travel…#4

This Road 2During the 1970’s and 1980’s, the church growth movement was hitting its stride.  For the uninitiated, the CGM was an organized approach of studying the characteristics of churches that were experiencing noticeable numerical growthand developing principles that any church could adopt and experience similar growth.

Components such as vision, mission, goals, objectives, programming, budget, hiring practices, leadership and the like, became the staple subjects of study.  Surveys and statistical analysis and marketing and development were the cornerstones of the movement.  The pastor role was redefined by the corporate model.  He was no longer the minister.  He was the CEO.

I studied church growth as a discipline.  I have a master’s degree in it, for crying out loud.  Church growth became both the goal and the method.

And somewhere along the line, I stopped buying what was being sold.

The science of church growth says if all of these certain components of church life are aligned properly, growth in numbers should, and most likely will, happen.  And when it doesn’t grow, the assumption is the church has violated (knowingly or unknowingly) one or more of the strategic principles of church growth.

Or could it be that God has just designed certain churches to remain smaller for a strategic ministry purpose?

The truth is, the way we (North Point) operate as a church family probably has a certain built-in  lid on growthhow we act, who we connect with, how we operate, how we govern, how we structure and program, how we budget.  It is both intentional and a reflection of the personality and character of our family.

The majority of people who make up our framily are drawn to the lack of structure and the absence of hyper-programmingtwo of the critical principles of church growth.  If we were to adopt a reach as many as possible – as soon as possible mentality of how we do church (and the systems and methods that generally go along with it), we would cease to be who we are.

Many people simply don’t live out their faith that way.   I’m pretty sure our family would undergo a complete change, if we made the shift to the style and structure that demands getting bigger as a first priority.

Our singular focus, as a church family, is not to reach as many as possible as soon as possible.  I believe numerical growth is certainly part of the overall focus or mission of the church, as a whole.   But it is not necessarily the singular calling or design of each local family unit.

I believe it is absolutely essential for some expressions of the Body of Christ to function at a smaller level, in order to reach those who cannot or will not connect to the style or personality generally associated with something larger.  And this seems to be happening more and more often.

I believe that North Point (and the myriad of other smaller, flexible, stealthy, unencumbered local church families around the world), are, in fact, partners in the greater mission of reaching as many as possible, just as much as the church that intentionally programs to get big quickly.  And the numbers bear this out.

Look, there are things you can do on a jet ski that you simply can’t do on a luxury yacht, no matter how hard you try!  HeyI even miss some of the amenities I used to have on the yacht, back in the day.

In spite of what all the “leadership experts” say,  growth is impossible to predict. Sometimes it happens despite our failures.  Sometimes it happens when we aren’t looking and planning for it.  Sometimes it doesn’t happen, even though you’ve followed the playbook, down to every detail.  Maybe it’s just my rebellious attitude or the fact I am a natural skeptic, but I’ll probably always believe church growth is more of a mystery than a science.

If you are interested in being part of a growing network of people who see and appreciate the value of smaller churches in the Kingdom, here is a great blog for you to follow.  Great ideas.  Great encouragement.  Check it out:

New Small Church

MMA of the heart

MMAI’m pretty much convinced that most people simply believe what they want to believe.

Oh, they can talk big about reading the right books and listening to the right authorities and watchdog groups and historians and news services and educators.  But when the dust settles, it looks to me like the average joe just decides what he or she wants to believeand sticks with it.

And the longer they stick with it, the thicker the filter where information is siftedand private, individual truth is formed.

My dad was a “union guy” till the day he died.  The local carpenter’s union kept my dad working, made sure he was paid fairly, and provided support during the lean times.  When people came along and cried of the evils of the mighty union, my dad would hear none of it.  Period.

Many Americans stand firmly on the belief that the United States was formed as a Christian nation and built on the faith and values of the framers of the constitutionin spite of serious evidence to the contrary.   “It’s just revisionist history written by people who want to tear down our country”,  they say.

When my mother had her first stroke, her beloved doctor told her to start drinking a glass of wine every day.  My poor, teetotaling mom labored under the weight of guilt for the rest of her lifeand no matter how many times her would-be, theologian/youth minister son tried to point out that drinking a glass of wine everyday was not a sin, my mother was never convinced.

We all believe what we want to believe.

  • President Obama is a Muslim.
  • Country music is bad.
  • Public education should be eliminated.
  • Mexicans are lazy.
  • We need more trained, private citizens carrying concealed weapons.
  • Women are not fit to lead.
  • Chevy, not Ford.
  • Steak is the perfect food group.
  • All of creation happened during six 24-hour days.
  • Republicans are rich, heartless capitalists.
  • Democrats are evil.
  • Texans are justbetter.

And hundreds more like these.  When faced with the possibility that their cherished position could actually be intelligently and logically challenged, people will simply close off and continue to choose to believe what they have always believed.

“There is no new information that would ever cause me to change my mind.”

“The information sources I submit myself to are totally trustworthy and intellectually superior to anything or anyone new that could come my way.”

“My position (perspective, opinion, belief, judgment, attitude) needs no changes.  It works fine.  It adequately defines and explains the world, as I choose to see it.”

I have changed my mind on a lot of things during my life.  Most of them were smaller, non-essential kinds of things.  Others, though, have been more of the big, rock-your-world variety.  Some were practical.  Some were ideological.  Some have been theological.

All of the changes were based on new evidence.  Sometime by even walking in other people’s shoes.  Study and questioning and listening and wrestling were seldom easy.  It took time and determination.  None of the changes would have taken place without my willingness to admit my understanding would always be imperfect and limited.

Most of those changes have redefined the way I live my life.  I am definitely a better man for all of it.

How about you?  Are ready to do some cage-fighting with what you believein the pursuit of something nobler?

It’s not so bad on the mat.

One more thing…

ThinkingI got up this morning and read what I wrote last night.   Yeah, I can be critical.

But that’s not the whole story.

My criticism is pretty self-containedand it’s full of hope.  I really believe if people who claim to be followers of Christ would choose to act like him, as best they can, amazing things could happen.  First, for the person taking the action and second, for anyone they come in contact with.

It’s really a pretty ridiculous plan:

Think before you act.  Think before you talk.  Think before you respond.  Think before you spend.  Think before you go.  Think… “To the best of my knowledge, would this be something that Jesus would say or do?”   And then do it, or not do it, accordingly.  That’s it. 

I’ve come to the conclusion I can’t change nations.  I can’t change governments.  I can’t change the economy.  I can’t change the moral tide.  I can’t change the inevitability of war, the way people view marriage, or poverty around the globe.

But my daily decision to walk in the footsteps of Jesus could make a difference in the life of another.    My decision to willfully submit myself to the rule, the authority and the wisdom of Jesus is the leastand the mostand the bestI can offer.

I can be responsible for me.  And if you would be responsible for you, we can join together and our part of the world will be better.

It is amazing what God can do with an offering of a little.

Navigating the middle

the-middlethe world we live in is more complicated than it used to be fifty years ago.  no doubt.  for crying out loud, it’s more complicated today than it was last year.

i don’t think the world is more sick and twisted and evil than its ever been.  i don’t think sin is more prevalent or humanity is any darker than it was during the days of noah or the reign of nero or the crusades of the middle ages or the tyranny of hitler.  sin is sin.

but what i do think is different today is access.  information…any and all kinds of information…information with no filter for the voices and opinions and ideas that speak into our minds and hearts…all of it with unlimited access.

for all the good that technological advancement has brought, it has come with a price.  the internet…with instant and unlimited access…and the satellite…with the capability of bringing world events live to our recliners…have changed everything.

no longer are values or information or “truth” given in controlled doses by people we trust.  it is sensory overload and every man…and every “truth” for himself.  and may the loudest or most powerful or most manipulative win.

and it’s just the way it is.

one of the problems i see is christians these days are fighting themselves into a corner.  running scared.  there is a paranoia and fear that we are losing the battle.  especially here in the united states.  they say we are losing the battle for the minds of our young people.  they say we are losing the battle  for the morality of a nation.  they say we are losing the battle for orthodox doctrine.  they say we are losing the battle for right against wrong.

many followers of christ are drawing lines between “us” and “them”.   as some try to bridge the gap with love and generosity, the body of christ has begun to turn on itself.  and because powerful and influential voices are heard loud and clear and instanteneously…and without filters…people are forced, or even coerced, into choosing sides.

and that’s inside the doors of the church.

my fear?  as the church becomes more militant and combative in our fight for truth, justice and the american way, the more our commitment to expanding the kingdom will be compromised.

come on.  is our highest calling to preach the gospel to all nations and reach the lost with the message of hope and grace and healing revealed in the life and words of jesus or not?  are we called to follow in the footsteps of jesus or not?  are we to do what he did…say the things he said…treat people the way he did…and live by giving value to the things he valued or not?

you may say that jesus was an extremist.  some say he polarized people and drew lines and caused his followers to choose sides.  and in a way he did.  but he also did something else.

he navigated the middle.

he rubbed elbows with everyone.  he was as comfortable with the prostitute as he was with the aristocrat.  he saw the good, or at least the potential for good, in all.  he partied at the wedding feast and he taught in the temple.  he loved the saint and the sinner.

he was a living bridge and not a wall.  he was a window and not a barricade.  he was always the safe middle ground where all were accepted.  all were welcome.  all were loved.   such a far cry from his followers today.

can i offer a suggestion?  the more people are defined by right and left…liberal and conservative…pro this and con that…the greater the need for people who can navigate from the middle.  followers of christ who can understand and articulate and sympathize with both sides of the fence.   any fence.

we desperately need a new generation of believers who will not be bullied by anybody.  who will not be intimidated by new ideas or run scared by change.   who will not be frightened by people who are different…philosophies that are different…and even ideas that challenge our orthodox understandings of the church and doctrine.

the world has changed.  technology has changed.  the flow of information has changed.  the rate of change has changed.  but people still need to meet jesus.

and if that’s going to happen in the world as we know it now, we need to have people who can navigate the middle.

will that be you?

(if you think this is a call for people to have no convictions and to take no stands, you have missed my point.  wholesale.  i will study to show myself approved by god and contend for the truth as i understand it with passion and determination.  but i refuse to be a stumbling block to those who see things differently that i do.  living as jesus lived and treating people the way he did must take priority.)