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.

I’m not sure I like being THIS honest

HonestyI went to a program at a wealthy, suburban mega-church tonight.  It took me back to my younger days in youth ministry back in SoCal.  Beautiful, over-the-top, multi-functional facilities.  State of the art sound, lighting and video.  Incredible, in-house graphics all over the building.  Expansive parking and a perfectly manicured landscape.

And don’t forget the hip coffee bar in the lobby.  Yikes.

Even though the past 25 years have taken meministry, theology, Kingdom priorities, all of it…in a completely different direction, there is still a little residue of jealousy in my soul.  There.  I said it.

The truth is, there are certain kinds of churches and certain kinds of pastors  that have stuff that’s pretty easy to envy:  CEO-level salaries, expense accounts, health insurance, big staffs, open checkbook conference expenses (including travel) and healthy program budgets.  Add to that, top-of-the-line technology and ministry related equipment, expanding facilities, and all the other incredible tools that can make ministry easier, more effective, and wildly influential.

Not to mention the professional credibility and notoriety that comes from our culture’s infatuation with bigger and betterand the opportunities that come to those who lead these churches of influence and example.

*moment of transparency*

There is something about all of that can still appeal to my base nature, when I forget who I am and what God has led me to be.   Ego can be such a slimy bedfellow, sometimes.

But I would never go back there.  My life and heart have been captured by a completely different way of living out my commitment to Christ and his Kingdom.  I get up each day with different priorities than my fraternity on the other side of the table.

This week, our church family is facing the very real possibility of having to pay for the repair of a plumbing problem in our not-so-state-of-the-art facility that will completely deplete our savings accountthe one that we’ve worked diligently to replenish after the recession his us hard back in 2008.  (Those were the days we pretty much existed on whatever came in the offering plate the previous Sunday.  Fun times, they were…).

But we will be deeper because of the experience.  And better equipped to connect with a whole part of our culture that is neither financially independent nor comfortable in the presence of those who are.

Yeah.  It would be nice to have financial options.  It would be great to simply write checks and not have to be concerned about what significant areas of ministry are going to have to be cut.  It would be awesome to have the freedom that comes with financial flexibility.

But that is not who we are.

And YOU should be jealous of me.

Differences

anvilScot McKnight wrote this over at The Jesus Creed  the other day, in response to some words written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Until we understand what the church is — a fellowship of sinners at different locations in a journey — we will not understand what the church could be and can be. No two Christians are perfectly compatible — in theology or praxis (process) — and therefore there will be tension in the church, which is precisely where we need to begin to see what the church is. Not a fellowship of those who agree or who are alike, but a fellowship of those who don’t agree and who are not alike.

In relationships, it is not in our similarities, but our differences, that we see the greatness of God displayed.

Being on opposite sides is what moves us to the anvil where our pride is pounded out and our humility is forged.  If we are truly followers of the Way, then treating people as Jesus would treat them is of highest importance… no matter what the issue of the moment is.

Living our lives around people who think, act, spend, drive, vote, pray, worship, and play the way we do is a big deal.  It can certainly reinforce the goodbut also the badof our day-to-day.  We can simply carry on without thinkingnever realizing the worth and value of the other side.

But when you are forced to drink from the same cup and stand side-by-side to contend for a kingdom that is greater than all your ideologies and all your preferences, with a bunch of people that aredifferent,  it is only then that you get to taste the breadth and depth of what God is doing.

Now that’s the church I want to be a part of.

The thoughts of a bus driver

Bus Driveri have a thread of thoughts running through my head this afternoon.  I hope you’ll see the connection by the end of this post.

There’s a lot of bad stuff going on in the greater church world these days.  Abuse of power.  Manipulative theology.  Political posturing.  Gross, unloving judgment.  Financial impropriety.  Sex scandals.  Over-the-top church leader celebrityism.  Infatuation with the Big Show.  More than I want to list right here.

When the  Farra-clan decided to fly below the radar (move to Texas, work in a small renegade church, smoke my own brisket, etc…), I forfeited my insider’s position and my seat at the big boy’s table.  I now watch them play from a distance and reserve the commentary to those in my personal blogosphere…or those I can eat lunch with.  But it doesn’t mean I care any less.  I just realize the only real difference I can make is in my own church family…and that is more than enough for me.

Here are some words from one of the most prominent and influential leaders of young pastors in the world today:

Here’s what I’ve learned. You cast vision for your mission; and if people don’t sign up, you move on.  You move on. There are people that are gonna to die in the wilderness and there are people that are gonna take the hill. That’s just how it is.

Too many guys waste too much time trying to move stiff-necked, stubborn, obstinate people. I am all about blessed subtraction. There is a pile of dead bodies behind the busand by God’s grace it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re done.

You either get on the bus or you get run over by the bus. Those are the options; but the bus ain’t gonna stop.  And I’m just a—I’m just a guy who is like, “Look, we love ya, but, this is what we’re doing.

There’s people who get in the way of the bus. They gotta get run over. There are people who wanna take turns driving the bus. They gotta  get thrown off.

And by moving on, he doesn’t mean the pastor is supposed to up and leave.  Nope.  The new way of doing church business is much more slimy.  The new plan might just be to kill off the church you are serving.

“Replanting” is a term used these days to define the process of determining if an existing church needs to die and start over again.  Apparently, God will give the young leader a vision for killing off the old and starting the new.  Here are some words of advice given by an experienced church planter and mentor to young men who dream of following in his footsteps:

In speaking of his own “dream”…

But was it all a dream? Could it be realized, I asked myself. Was I stuck in an endless continuum of leading one self-centered, apathetic, prideful, spiritually-arrogant, biblically-ignorant church after another with no real lasting change?

Prayerfully determine if God has called your church to enter a replanting at this time. Do you feel God is calling you to replant your church?  Once affirmed, lead fearlessly through the rough waters, people jumping overboard, sea sickness, and mutiny among the crew.

Many people (including leaders and even spouses) will become disoriented, discouraged, and dissenting.  Lead the body patiently, lovingly, but firmly  – just as Jesus would.  But don’t lead fearful of losing popularity, friendship, or a comfortable, secure job.  A manager is a pleaser of people.  A visionary leader is a pleaser of God.

In preparing for my sermon on reconciliation yesterday, I came clean.  I am not a fighter.  I am a peacemaker.  I have few, if any, real enemies because I am a peacemaker.  I follow in the footsteps of the Apostle Paul as an ambassador of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5)…an ambassador of peace.

People can disagree with me.  They do all the time.  We have different theological points of view.  People may not be drawn to my personality or are uncomfortable with the roles I play…especially in my church family.  We have the freedom to go our separate ways…and some do.  But it is never without great cost and great pain.  And it is never with me invoking the last word because of my vision, my authority, my position, or my calling.

I do not believe that pleasing God and disagreeing with people needs to be militant.  It will never require me to run over people who get in the way of my bus.

More to come.

In the meantime, I think I need a shower.

Such a strange feeling

IcemageddonI gotta say…I’m feeling kinda weird right now.

Normally, at 8:00 on a Saturday evening, I‘m  settling in to put the finishing touches on my weekly theological discourse. I’ve never really been one of those rabbi’s that gets the sermon done by Thursday afternoon, so they can practice it in front of a mirror multiple times on Friday and Saturday.  Not my thing.

Tonight, everything is different.  Late this afternoon we made the decision to cancel our church services for tomorrow morning because of the ice on the road and the unsafe driving conditions in the whole Metroplex, especially in Denton county.  Pretty sure our yankee neighbors to the north will laugh shamelessly at us, but no matter.  It’s a prudent decision.  (Today’s pic is from my front porch).

Although it may have happened at some point in my distant past, I can’t remember a time I was ever part of cancelling a Sunday morning service.  Ever.

Maybe that’s why it feels so awkward.

My awkwardness is certainly not because of an unhealthy, unbiblical requirement to be in a church building on a Sunday morning.  I can remember back to the early 1980’s when I was forbidden by the church leaders to do youth retreats that caused us to be gone from the church building on Sundays.  What?  No lie.

Needless to say, I bucked that decision.  And won.  And the system has continued to be bucked for the past 34 years.

I’m truly grateful to have learned that being a follower of Christ is so much more than coming to church…so much more than empty ritual…so much more than religious obligation.  And so much more than the Sunday Big Show.  But that doesn’t mean I won’t miss being with my family tomorrow.  A lot.

So I will focus on the benefits of the decision:

  • No one will run the risk of a travel accident tomorrow morning.  This is no small thing.
  • I have an additional week to work on next week’s sermon on Reconciliation.  So important.
  • All North Pointers get an unexpected free pass tomorrow.  I expect a full house next Sunday.  I mean it.
  • Can’t wait to see the jumbo-sized offering next week.  Think about it…
  • I get to stay up and watch the Mountain West Conference championship game starting at 9:00 tonight.  Guilt free and no pressure.  Sweet.
  • I promise you I won’t be watching church television in the morning.  I haven’t watched The NFL Today in years.  You can pray for my soul.
  • I will revel in the awareness that we live and breathe by grace and not by fear or guilt…and that Jesus came to give us more life than we could ever imagine.

Here are two things you can do.  You have no reason not to do the first.  The second is for the crazy few…

First, if you are a North Pointer, why not consider joining me at 11:15 to read the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7)?  It should take the average reader less than twenty minutes to complete.  That’s less time than my weekly sermon!  Maybe you could even do it as a family.  Let the words sink in…let it be Jesus’ personal message to North Point for tomorrow.  I guarantee it will be better and more profound than anything I would say.

The other is if you are battling cabin fever and craving a little church tomorrow afternoon, you can find Mike and Wanda at Fuzzy’s on Main Street eating some fish tacos and watching the Chargers-Giants game around 3:00.  Mmmm.fish tacos, football, and church…and freezing temps!

I’m thinking this could be a great Sunday, after all.

Still a little weird, tho.

Sunday

sunday 2Sunday.

I was told I was around five when my parents decided to go back to church.  I’m guessing it was because they wanted me to get some “God” in my life.   A lot of young parents do that.  I’ve never completely understood their logic, but I suppose it’s better than a kid never getting the church experience at all.

Throughout my childhood and early teenage years, “church” was something I did on Sundays.  It was part of my family routine.  My mom helped in the nursery and joined with other ladies to plan potlucks.  She and my dad both sang in the little church choir.

I attended Sunday school and Vacation Bible school and church camp and youth rallies and Bible studies and church work days and youth group parties at Christmas and Halloween.  But the big day…the church day…was always Sunday.

Sunday as “church day” got assimilated into my life.  There was nothing wrong with that.  In fact, it was a huge part of my spiritual formation.  Although it was often nothing more than the weekly ritual, it was still something important and the practice sunk deep into my psyche.

When I turned 18…in my second year of college…it all changed.  “Attending” church on Sundays took on a whole new meaning.  Wanda and I (now in our third year of dating) began guiding the youth group…teaching Sunday school, leading a Wednesday night Bible study and organizing youth group activities.

Sundays began to be a day that others needed me…instead of being a day I struggled to see value in devoting my time and energy to.  And that serving began to build the structure of my next 40 years.

Through the years, kids in the youth group (and even some of their parents) liked to call me a professional christian.  And on some level, they were right.  For the whole of my adult life, Sundays have always been work days for me.  As kids loved to remind me, “Dude, you’re paid to be here on Sundays!”

There is no doubt my relationship with Sundays is different from most.  A big portion of my work week is spent with Sunday in mind.  It is certainly the day in my week where I have the greatest volume of connection with the greatest number of people.  Of course its important to me!

But here are two truths that help me keep perspective on Sundays:

First, I learned years ago that most people don’t have the same attitude about Sundays that I do.  Because of long work weeks and hectic schedules and the incredible demands of raising children in our culture and the pull of extended family…not to mention the unrelenting grip of home ownership and the weekly management of all the “stuff” we own and how much of our time and money it requires...a weekly commitment to Sunday mornings is a very difficult thing to make.  The benefits of “church” are often completely obscured by the potential benefits of anything and everything else.  And I get it.

Second, and most important, my commitment to Sunday mornings at North Point really has nothing to do with my job and my perceived “requirement” to attend.  I am present on Sundays because I am always better for having been with my church family.  When I miss, it is my loss.

I didn’t preach today.  I sat in the crowd.  I sang songs.  I followed the sermon that Adam preached (very well, mind you).  I hung out.  I talked to people.  I was reminded that, more than anything else, I’m just a part of a really cool church family that meets altogether every Sunday morning.

I wish you felt about your church family the way I do mine.

Of leading and parenting

Good ParentingI’ve been kind of bugged lately.

Not the stuff that pushes me to full-blown depression, but definitely enough to keep my mind and heart pre-occupied most days.

I’ve grown weary…deeply weary…of reading about abusive church leaders.  About pastors who live opulent lifestyles.   About theological wars between Bible teachers and the churches they lead.  About affairs and divorces and toxic relationships of those who claim a calling to shepherd.

I’m sick and tired of how ministers are portrayed in the media, because much of it is deserved.  My frustration with celebrity preachers and pastor-worship is at an all-time high.  Stories of power and politics and judgment and immorality seems to be everywhere in my leadership corner of the ecclesiastical world.  Sometimes, I’m just plain embarrassed to be part of the fraternity.

It’s a shame.  I feel with all the posturing and flexing and middle school locker room antics that goes on among the spiritual power brokers in the church, the point is simply being missed.  We are here to serve and love.  We can do that in a lot of ways.  Teaching.  Shepherding.  Leading.  But always as a servant.

Over the years as the lead sheepherder of my church family, I’ve come to see my job is more like good parenting than being the boss, the chief authority figure, or even the lead dog.  I’m not abdicating responsibility…I’m just choosing to redefine it.

A goal of good parenting is to raise children that are strong and independent.  Sometimes I think pastors are deliberately raising people who are dependent on their teaching…dependent on their priestly postition…dependent on their approval…dependent on their blessing.  Teaching, approval and blessing are generally good things, but not when it breeds co-dependance.

Another goal of good parenting is to create an atmosphere of exploration and questioning.  Yeah, we spoon feed five-year-olds the “right” answers.  But we can’t do that when they’re teenagers.  That’s what produces rebellion.  I’m afraid much of the rebellion we see in the church is related to the lack of space for questioning and the affirmation of doubt as a positive part of the faith process.

Good parents are not frightened by their children becoming different than they are.  I think deep inside, most parents want their kids to grow up with similar goals and tastes…but most of the time, it doesn’t happen.  Just like parents need to let their kids grow up and march to their own drum, good shepherding in the church is much the same.   We are not in the business of cloning people.

We all are reading the same book, but we don’t all understand it the same way.  (Witness the thousands of different denominations.)  I’m pretty sure we ought to tolerate a little variance in our own church families, don’t you think?  Isn’t that what love does?

And speaking of love, the church must learn to welcome and love all kinds.  We need to point them to Jesus and let his words and counsel (Holy Spirit) take up residence in their hearts and minds…on his timetable, not ours.  We need to learn patience.  We need to practice grace.  We need to give people room to grow and learn and develop at their own speed…and enjoy the ride.  And, oh yeah…make mistakes and still get hugged anyway.

We need to leave the heavy-handed approach to behavior modification to Gitmo.  We don’t need it in our families.

Either of them.