Theology for Grasshoppers

grasshopper-3(For the uninitiated, “Theology for Grasshoppers” is my attempt to tell my story of faith to my grandkids.  I hope I’m around long enough to tell them personally.  But just in case I reach the finish line before I get the opportunity, these letters will be the record of what I believe and why I believe it…in words and stories they can understand.)

Hey there, Farrasprouts!

I’m going to tell you something today that lots of people will probably disagree with, but I’m your Papi and this my letter to you.  Not anybody else’s.  And you won’t be able to use this information for another 12 or 13 years.  And even longer for you, Tatumonster!

There will come a time when your parents will have no influence over your decision to be part of a church family.  Most people call this “going to church”, but I’ll explain why I don’t ever call it that some other time.  Anyway, it will totally be your choice.  100%.  All on you.  When your daddies lived at home with me and Mimi…long before they met your mommies…we made the decision about church for them.  If we went to church meetings, they went to church meetings.  It’s what we did as a family.

They could whine, argue, fake being sick, or negotiate, but in the end, they pretty much did as we told them to. (Even though they sometimes complained about getting up early on Sundays or having to stay late because I was usually the last one to leave, they experienced many of the good things about church life and most often enjoyed being part of it.  We only strung them up by their ears, occasionally.)

But once they moved out on their own, they got to do whatever they wanted to do.  And that’s the way it should be.  And it will be that way for you guys, too.

So I want to tell you something while it’s fresh on my mind.  Here’s my advice for choosing a church family:  Find a small one.  Close to where you live.  Don’t get all excited about the things a church provides for you.  That totally misses the point of “church”.  Be part of something where you can help it to grow strong and healthy.  Don’t be part of a church family where you are not truly needed and genuinely noticed.  

Make sure it’s a place that poor people feel welcome.  There is a special place in God’s heart for people in need.  The more people of different races, the better.  Oh…and make sure there are old people and young people and they have lots of ways to become friends with each other.  Rubbing elbows and lives is the real stuff of church.

Don’t ever be overly impressed with the skills of the person that does most of the preaching.  It’s not the important thing.  In fact, he’s not really all that important!  And I should know…  Be impressed with the kinds of conversations people have with each other.  Listen carefully to the way they talk about people who are different.  Find a place where loving others is not just talked about, but it is what people actually do.

Make sure it’s a group of people who respect and teach the Bible, but they also make room for differing opinions.  None of us are smart enough to have the whole Bible figured out. Church people seem to have the tendency to believe they are the only “right ones” and that they have more understanding of “truth” than the other guy.  There are always going to be disagreements.  People are not always going to see things alike.  Be with a group of people who listen carefully and who make room for doubt and questions.

Choose to be with people who respect women.  History has not been kind to women, especially in the church.  So find one where women stand on equal footing with men and they are challenged to explore and express every bit of their giftedness for the good of others.  

And this is especially true for the three of you:  Find a church family that doesn’t take itself too seriously.  Be with people who love to laugh.  Find some people to stand beside and link arms with.  Make sure that Jesus is their example.  

That’s my advice.  I hope it serves you well, someday.  There are lots of other important things, but I’m pretty sure you’ll be smart enough to figure them out as you go along.  How do I know that?  I know where you come from!

Be wise, Grasshoppers.




BullseyeThis morning, I read five or six blog posts that referred to the same thing, in one way or another.  They all wrote about a really important concept for church leaders who have the responsibility for pulling off the weekly Big Show.

(If you’re new here, I usually refer to the weekly worship services as the “Big Show”, as a not-so-subtle reminder of our propensity (got that Krystal?) to turn our services into elaborate productions that require professionals to do on behalf of the adoring crowd who come to watch…and pay…every week.)

The concept is “Know Your Target”.

It’s actually a well-known marketing concept the church co-opted years ago. Companies that are in the business of selling products, following profit margins, and expecting quarterly growth understand it well.

It’s all about knowing who you’re selling to…knowing your demographic…knowing who you’re trying to reach with your product.

In the church, that means since you can’t reach everybody, make sure you define the audience you are best at reaching (or who you desire to reach), and “target” them. Understand them.  Identify with their interests and personality.  Play to those things that connect with them.

The targeting strategy is built on the idea that if you don’t structure to hit specific kinds of people, you may end up missing the mark altogether.  In other words, if you try to reach everybody, you’ll end up reaching nobody…and forever be stuck in the horror and irrelevance of small churchdom.

As a marketing strategy and plan for expansion, I happen to agree with the concept.  I even understand the logic of applying a form of it to church family life, although I’ve always struggled with the visual image of people walking around with a bulls-eye on their foreheads.  What happens if we only wing them?  Yikes.

I don’t mean to be petty, but I guess the fundamental problem I have with targeting an audience for a weekly Big Show, comes from my understanding of the nature of worship.

In worship, there is an audience of one.  The only target we are trying to connect with is the one we have come to worship.

And that’s not the awesomeness of the pastor.  Nor the hipness of the music.  Nor the coolness of the building.  Nor the vision of the church.   Nor the bounty of the program smorgasbord.

We target the King.

A not-so-subtle disconnect

Disconnectif you’ve read what i write for any length of time, you’re probably familiar with my ongoing cage match with the clergy.

the fact that i am one, only makes things more awkward.

look.  i am more than okay with what it says in the bible about the position of elder, bishop, shepherd, minister, deacon, preacher and even pastor (even though that word only appears once in our english bibles).  i just kind of live at odds with what the church and society have made the pastor out to be.

for uh…hundreds of years.  it’s been a while, but i’ll save the rant for another time.

here’s what i’m thinking tonight, tho.  i read a lot.  the majority of what i read is about the church.  church leadership.  church growth.  church programs.  church shepherding.  church discipline.  church problems.  church finances.  church…church…church.

on top of that, i do church stuff every day.  church counseling.  church planning.  church study.  church management.  church strategy.  church problems.  church relationships.  church meetings.  church…church…church.

i read this article today about pastors and why they quit.  the author said that nearly 1700 pastors quit their roles as pastors every month.  geez.  i had no idea there were that many of us.  the article also said every year, 4000 new churches open their doors…and 7000 churches close theirs.  wow.

talk about a mess.  talk about a disconnect.  now i don’t know all the reasons why pastors quit.  i’m sure burnout and disillusionment and feelings of failure and unrealistic expectations rank right up there.  i’ve listened to pastors talk about how frustrated they are that their church family doesn’t view the church the way they do.

i’ve listened to pastors complain that their people don’t respond to their sermons…don’t give enough money…don’t come consistently…don’t show enough support.  i suppose this is at the heart of my ill feelings towards pastors the role they play in our culture.  i’m weary of the whining.

most people are never going to have the emotional investment in church life the way i do.  just like i won’t have the same emotional investment you have in your job or your family.  that doesn’t make me better.  it doesn’t make you bad.  it just makes us normal.

i figured out years ago that most people…

  • don’t think about church programs every day.
  • don’t reflect on my sermons all week long.
  • don’t remember what i preached on the previous week.
  • don’t get overwhelmed by the church calendar.
  • don’t even know where to find a church calendar.
  • don’t think about the church’s utility bill.
  • couldn’t care less that i know greek.
  • don’t understand what seminary is.
  • don’t have a clue what i do.
  • won’t think about “church” again until next saturday night or sunday morning.

and i’m ok with it.  really.  i don’t obsess about what HR is doing at your work.  i have no clue what the labor / management issues are at your place of business.  i don’t know what your yearly budget is.  i don’t know the details of the crises that you are managing at your work.   i don’t know what IT guys do.  or how pilots fly planes…or how to fix faulty gas shut-off valves…or how to deliver babies.

…and your work and your life and the details of how you spend the overwhelming majority of your time are close to your heart and give meaning to your days.   just like mine does for me.

church is not a building or an event.  it’s a family.  don’t ever confuse church programs with the church.   and i won’t confuse my role as the benevolent ringmaster of all things north point with the friendship we share.

A rule worth having

It’s no surprise that I’m not much of a “rule” guy…especially the older I’ve gotten. It’s not that I don’t see the value of rules…especially in the public sector, for the benefit of healthy community living. But after years of church life spent fighting the stranglehold of unbiblical, and even toxic legalism, well…let’s just say my wrestling match with rules is not ending any time soon.

That said, I wouldn’t mind having this rule…one that is posted in the kid’s playground at our local Burger King…hanging in the North Point lobby.

Totally appropriate.


My love-hate affair with church attendance…part five

these words come a little harder tonight.   i want to be careful.

we are all products of the families we grow up in.   some have wonderful,  warm and healthy memories of childhoods full of love…full of great experiences…full of large extended families.

others have memories of family life that is not so good.   dysfunction.   neglect.   fighting.   separation.   abuse.   empty promises.   overreaction.   apathy.

and everything in-between.   the family dynamic is huge.   for all of us.

the family i grew up in shaped me.   i am an only child.   my mom and dad had siblings that lived in other parts of the country.   i met my cousins when i was young,  but had no real relationships with any of them.   i only met one of my grandparents…and she lived 1500 miles away.   the other ones died before i was old enough to know them.

we never had family reunions.   there were no cousin camps.   there were no trips to see grandma and grandpa.   there were no family vacations to see the relatives.   there were none of those cool family pictures where everybody’s colors are coordinated.   there was no extended family for me.   nada.

both of my parents were gone pretty early in my kid’s lives  (my dad held on a little longer,  but we had moved away).   both of wanda’s parents died when our boys were really little.   our boys have almost no recollection of  trips to grandma and grandpa’s house.   

almost from the very beginning,  family  was just the four of us.   and our church family always meant everything to us.

admittedly,  i have a totally different perspective on church and church attendance  than most.   my most significant mentors and examples were church leaders.    church activities were seldom ever in competition with family events.   older couples in the church were functional grandparents  to our boys.

our closest friends and ministry partners were written into our early wills to take care of our boys,  in the event of our deaths.

the four of us were never insulted  from life in the community or neighborhoods that we lived in.   we were always active in youth sports and school activities.   probably more active than most.   we even had to make a few hard decisions about which events we would participate in…and those we wouldn’t.   but that never happened very often.

but our extended family never competed for our time or allegiance.   because we had no extended family.

we have always been free to invest ourselves in the lives of others.   our hearts and calendars have never really been pulled in different directions.   we always made time for our church family…because,  if we didn’t,  there wouldn’t have been any family.

our church family has always provided our deepest and most profound relationships.   it is where we have found accountability and teaching and healing and profound life experiences.   for wanda and i,  family reunions happen every sunday.   for us,  family dinner  happens every sunday at whatever restaurant we find ourselves in with friends.

oh…wanda and i still have special times with our boys and their wives and the great holden.   in fact,  they don’t happen nearly often enough for us…and we always make time and whenever we get together,  it means more to us than anybody knows.

but our lives have always been bigger…waaaay bigger…than just the four (and now seven…and soon-to-be eight)  of us.   “blood”  has never been  “thicker than water”  for me and wanda.   there has only been “blood”.   family  has always meant the people we share life with…and not just the people who live under our roof.

this is why church attendance  means something more to me than it does to most others.   it’s never about counting noses and getting bigger and proving my worth as a leader.   it’s about connecting and relating and being near people.

attendance just means we’re all home.

My love-hate affair with church attendance – part four

there have been massive changes in the ways families have functioned over the course of my lifetime…and they have had a huge effect on how life in a church family  looks.

when i was growing up,  i played little league baseball.   it was the most sacred and enjoyable eight weeks of my year.   it always started the middle of april and ended mid-june…except for the year i made the all-star team.   that year we squeezed another week or two out of the season.    when i was twelve years old,  my team played 22 baseball games.

when corey was twelve years old,  he played ten months and about 100 games.   (god bless texas.)

…and that was thirteen years ago!   i don’t really have the time or space to write about the culture children are growing up in today.   sports…dance…gymnastics…cheerleading…band…school… school…school…pressure… competition… fear… anxiety…stress.

total craziness.

no wonder church is reduced to just another activity to pencil into weekly schedules that already have no room to breathe…no room to rest…no room to re-create.   attendance  at church activities is often seen as an intrusion… impositions that are begging for apologies,  instead of invitations.

and i get it.   i totally get it.

i don’t think anyone…not the planners,  nor the participants…believe that church programs are pointless exercises in time-wasting.   i believe people see the value in church programs.   i believe people see the value in christian education and corporate worship and shared service.

i believe that,  deep down,  most people desire authentic friendships and spiritual accountability.   i think most people even feel a certain amount of remorse when they choose not to attend…for whatever the reason.   most people sense a responsibility as part of the whole and know they are missed when they are not present.

but for most,  family events…especially activities for the good of their children’s education and personal development… will always trump church activities.

this discussion is difficult.   there are no easy answers.   the value of home life and the value of church family life are not to be mutually exclusive.   they should support and honor each other.   they should exist for the growth and development of the other.

but,  the kingdom of god lived out in our families…and the kingdom of god lived out in lives of people we don’t share a roof with…should be the same kingdom.   sadly,  for many,  they are kingdoms at war with each other.

what’s it like for you?

My love-hate affair with church attendance…part three

years ago,  i created a table that reflected what i really believed about church attendance.   i’ve taught it to my youth ministry classes over the past three decades.   it was pretty specific to youth ministry in those days,  but looking at it with fresh eyes today,  i think it applies to any age group…in just about any context.

here’s how to interpret it:   in this discussion,  there are four “levels” of spiritual maturity when it comes to participating in church programs.   the lowest level of spiritual maturity are people who don’t come to our programs for all the wrong reasons.   lame excuses like,  “i don’t have the right kind of clothes”,  or  “so and so hurt my feelings”,  or  “i’m going to a movie instead”,  or  “i stayed up too late last night”.   i think you get the picture.   people who don’t come and their reasons don’t hold water.

the next level of spiritual maturity is reserved for people who come to our church programs,  but for all the wrong reasons.   guys who show up because there are cute girls to hit on…or girls who come to get out of doing chores at home…or people  who show up hoping to impress god with their attendance or to work off guilt from the night before…or men who want to get their wives off their backs.   sure…it’s attendance.   but there’s no heart…no passion…no integrity.   it’s generally better than not coming at all,  but only slightly.

the next level is where we want most believers to find themselves.   these are people who come for right reasons… for study or fellowship or commitment to serving or ministry responsibility or relationship building or worship or personal growth.   it’s all good.   they are coming to our programs for healthy and honorable reasons.

but here’s a curve ball.

i think the highest level of spiritual maturity might be reserved for the unlikely…for people are mature enough to make decisions to be somewhere other than our church programs.   even on a regular basis.   these are people who don’t come…for right reasons.

these are people who take personal responsibility for their own spiritual growth and development…so they can spend their time investing in others.   especially in those who don’t regularly darken the doors of our church buildings.

maybe it’s a teenager who decides to spend wednesday nights at home with her parents…eating dinner,  handling the clean-up and dishes,  and then sitting with her folks and talking or watching television…in order to develop a deeper relationship with them and show them the love of jesus in a tangible way,  simply because they need it.   instead of going to the youth group bible study.

or maybe it’s like the guys in my youth group years ago who intentionally developed friendships with some mormon guys at their high school.   based on those friendships,  the mormon guys invited these boys to join them for basketball on the same night as our weekly high school bible study.   so they came to the next bible study,  told the group what they were going to do and asked us to pray for god to use them to help these other guys see jesus.   it was incredibly cool.

or maybe it’s a mom or dad who need to put food on the table in a difficult economy and the only job they can find requires them to work on sundays.

…or any number of legitimate,  honest and purposeful reasons to miss church programs to meet a greater need for the  good for the kingdom.

it’s not a perfect way to evaluate attendance,  but understanding these four types of people has always enabled me to keep the bigger picture in mind…and the greater goal  in front of people:  the goal of forgetting self and offering our bodies as living sacrifices for the good of others and the honor of god and his kingdom first.

just sayin’…