Evangelism Doesn’t Have to be a Bad Word

One word that brings with it a variety of responses based on each person’s own experience is the word “evangelism.”  

To some, evangelism can be a passion of the soul that brings purpose to a person’s role in this world.  Every day they wake up ready to evangelize the world.
To others, the idea of evangelism creates anxiety.  Talking to strangers about one’s faith is out of their comfort zone.
And yet, to others, the word evangelism invokes feelings of downright anger.  Perhaps they experienced the abuse of someone who preached a gospel of judgment and hate, all under the guise of evangelism.
Evangelism a tricky word because of all the different meanings it has adopted, and yet, it is a word that we need to take seriously as Christians.  
In its essence, evangelism simply means to announce good news.  Most of the time that it is used in the Bible it is translated as “preach,” but not always.  
Oftentimes when we think about evangelism in the Bible, we think about the New Testament.  After all, when we talk about preaching the good news of the gospel, we are usually referring to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
But have you ever thought about evangelism in the Old Testament?  If you think about it, God created the nation of Israel as God’s holy people.  They were to be set apart from the world to point the world to its one, true God.  As a nation, they were living the good news of the kingdom of God.  
They didn’t have to sit people down and verbally convince them that their theories about God made more logical sense than somebody else’s.  No, they simply lived differently, and by doing so, they pointed people to God.  They were practicing evangelism by living within God’s plan and design for their lives.
The truth is, there isn’t one, true way to practice evangelism.  Think about how many different ways people find God on their individual journeys of faith!
Yes, for those who are intellectual, someone may need to provide a convincing argument for the existence of God.
But for those who are hurt, someone may need to love them with God’s unconditional and forgiving love.
Or for those who are lonely, someone may need to invite them into their home with the radical hospitality that Jesus showed to everyone he met.
Really, we could spend all day talking about the best methods of successful evangelism.  But what, exactly, makes evangelism successful or not?  What if the success of evangelism wasn’t based on the immediate outcome, but was instead based on the faithfulness of the person to practice it in the first place?  
In other words, what if we focused less on the result, and focused, instead, on the practice?
Sometimes we focus so much on the goal, that when it doesn’t turn out like we think it should, we give up on trying at all.
It’s kind of like the game of golf. 
You can spend 4 hours building frustration toward that little white ball that will never, ever go where you tell it to, and completely lose sight of the fact that you have the physical ability to be playing golf in the first place, the freedom in your schedule to take a four hour break, the resources to participate in such an expensive game, all in the context of God’s beautiful creation!
You can get so focused on your perceived goal, that you lose sight of the main goal of any game: to provide enjoyment.
It’s the same with evangelism.  We get so focused on our perceived goal (to amass countless numbers of converts to Christianity) that we lose sight of the main goal to which God calls us: that is, simply living out God’s love publically and faithfully, announcing the good news with each breath we take, each word we speak, and each decision we make.
1 Corinthians 3 reminds us that we can do the planting and the watering, but God brings the growth.

Does that mean we don’t want to see people give their lives to Christ? Of course not! We want every single person to experience the good news of the gospel as we have!

What it does mean, is that we don’t have to be afraid of the word “evangelism.”  We don’t need to feel overwhelmed by the responsibility of saving the souls of the world (which often leads to giving up trying at all).  Yet, on the other hand, we also need to recognize that although God brings the growth, God uses us in that process.

May we learn to point the world to its Creator, simply by the way we live our lives.  May our words and actions be a reflection of the One who created us, and who desires for us to thrive.  And may we be faithful in our calling to continually plant new seeds, to water the seeds that have already been planted before and around us, and to pray to God for the growth that God has promised.

17 Things You Didn’t Know Your Bible Could Do

Inspired by the “15 Things You Didn’t Know Your iPhone Could Do” article that had every other person on my Facebook news feed commenting, “Wow! I never knew about #5,” and “I can’t wait to try #13,” here are 17 Things You Didn’t Know Your Bible Could Do:

1) Open

Yes, believe it or not, the Bible that sits on your shelf collecting dust can actually be opened.  Here’s to hoping that doesn’t come as a surprise…
2) It has a table of contents
Sometimes the most intimidating part of reading the Bible is not knowing your way around it.  Here’s a secret: “There’s a cheat sheet in the front.”
3) Some even have an index
Just like the table of contents, there are no funny gifs that could possibly illustrate an index.  Instead, this is one possible reaction of a person who just discovered the usefulness of looking up a particular topic or name using the index in the back of their Bible.
4) Fancy Bibles have cross-references
Want to find out who else told the same story or used the same word or referred to the same miracle in a completely different book?  Check the cross reference.
But don’t forget, if your Bible doesn’t have cross references, you may have to upgrade.
5) Many Bibles contain maps
Don’t make the mistake of reading through a story without familiarizing yourself with the landscape.  A lot can be clarified when you pay attention to the directions.  Using the maps in your Bible can shed new light on familiar stories.
6) Ever wonder why it’s called the B.I.B.L.E.?
I can neither confirm nor deny with 100% accuracy whether or not this is the real reason they call it the Bible.  I kind of doubt it.  But what if…?
7) It contains stories that are NSFW
Sure… now you want to see if #1 on this list actually works.
8) It can show you that you’re not the only one struggling with sin
Sometimes the realization that you’re not the only one is the first step toward improvement.
9) It can encourage you with hope
If you haven’t read the story of Corrie Ten Boom, do it.  Now.  As a prisoner in a concentration camp, she and her sister encouraged their fellow prisoners by reading from the Bible they had smuggled in.
10) It can actually be used to unite people (not just to divide people)
This one relies pretty heavily on the next:
11) It can be read in full sections at a time…
…not just one selected verse at a time.
When was the last time you let the Bible speak to you, rather than you speaking to the Bible?
For those who care: how often do we actually practice eisegesis and mistakenly call it exegesis?
12) The Bible can show you that you’re not the only one confused by life
 Some things in life will just never make sense, just like this guy thinking, “Why did I ever decide to become a Raiders fan?”  It can be downright depressing trying to find an answer, but sometimes we can find hope in the simple fact that we are not alone in the search.
13) It can also show you that you’re not the only one who has been angry at God

All throughout the Bible there are examples of people who were ticked off at the Creator.  You’re not the first, and you won’t be the last.  The good part is it’s natural, and it’s okay.  God is always there waiting for us when we decide to stop throwing our tantrum.
14) It can be accessed in many forms
 With each new Bible app invented, you have one less excuse why you still haven’t tested out #1 from this list.  Also, next time you see someone on their phone in the middle of the Sunday morning worship service… give them the benefit of the doubt.  We’re living in a new world now, and there’s a chance they’re reading the Bible while you’re sitting there judging them.
I didn’t say it was a big chance.  That depends on your church.
15) It can be used by God to communicate directly to you
Don’t just read the Bible so you can check it off your to-do list.  Expect the Holy Spirit to show you something.  Like a whisper from heaven, listen for God’s still, small voice.  
16) It can help you find your place in God’s story
Ever feel like you’re floating through life without being on a team?  Good news: you don’t have to be like Tom Brady here.  YOU are a part of God’s story.  Whether you want to be or not, the Bible tells a story that includes you as a character.  You have the opportunity to be a part of something that is so much bigger than yourself. 
17) The Bible can literally change your life
“It changes everything.”
Maybe you just haven’t given it a try.  
Or maybe you have, and you gave up for some reason.
Today is a great day to try it again.
Sure, you can read your Bible alone, but the experience is so much more rich when you read it with a friend or small group.  Remember: read the Bible expecting to hear from God.
And don’t be embarrassed if #1 rang a little too true.  You’re not alone in that either.
May today be the day that you begin to fall in love with God’s Word.

When History Hinders

There are many churches around the country with similar stories to ours.  20-25 years ago you experienced the “glory days” with a full sanctuary, a thriving children’s program and 700 different Bible studies you could choose from!

Today, however, things look different.  There are more empty seats in the sanctuary, the children have grown up and the Bible studies have been replaced by committee meetings.
You long for the days gone by, those days when all you had to do was make sure that the Sunday morning services were attractive and people would show up.  Going to a church was way more “normal” in the life of the average American than it is today; it was just a matter of finding the one that met the needs of you and your family.
So what do we do?  Where do we go from here?  Will we ever return to what used to be?
Unfortunately, no.
In today’s post-Christendom, post-congregational American society, our ecclesial imaginations must be rewired.  What worked to attract people yesterday won’t work in a society of people who are more concerned with sleeping in or spending a day with their children on the sports fields every Sunday. 
Church is no longer a central component in the lives of Americans.
This reality can be depressing to those of us who pour so much of our hearts and souls into ministry, both clergy and laity.
I suggest that one of the greatest hindrances to moving forward in new and creative ways is our obsession with the past.  What I am not saying is that there isn’t a place for tradition.  Tradition is a vitally important element of who we are as the Body of Christ.  What I am saying is that many churches like ours become hindered by the history of their “glory days.”
Have you seen the movie Men in Black?  You know the little gizmo they use to erase people’s recent memories on the spot?  Wouldn’t it be great if we could use one of those with our churches?
Granted, our memories shape who we are as a people, and I would in no way advocate actually doing this…
But, think about the results if we did.
Imagine if a church like ours was to have the memory of its last 20-25 years erased, and let’s say they started meeting in a sanctuary that required people to stand because there wasn’t enough seating (as opposed to meeting in their current sanctuaries with empty seats that used to be full).
This would completely change the focus of the questions we ask as ourselves as we attempt to move forward. We wouldn’t spend so much time worrying about what is missing, because we wouldn’t know anything different!  Rather, we could focus on discerning what it is God is calling us to do today.
So, instead of asking, “What can we do to attract more people to our church, so we can return to the numbers that we used to have?” our questions might sound more like, “What can we do to be faithful disciples of Christ and make a difference in our community today?”
When we operate out of scarcity, our default questions tend to focus on the negative.
When we operate out of abundance, we recognize the fact that we have everything we need to be used by God now, today not in the future when our seats are more full, not when we have a larger budget to work with, not putting any conditions on our answer at all, but saying, “God, we trust that YOU know what you are doing, so we are going to follow YOU into the unknown.”
Now, does that mean that we don’t want to grow?  Of course not.  God calls us to make disciples, which means growing in number.  But, we leave the growth the God.  We do our part by being faithful disciples, and we allow God to add those numbers to our church family.
We can’t confuse the end with the means.  We often think that growth in numbers is the means to a healthy church that can make a difference.  Instead, we should see growth in numbers as one possible end, or result, of a church that has been faithful and is making a difference with what it has.
Luke 16:10 says, “He who is faithful in little will also be faithful in much.”
When we are faithful with what we’ve got, God will bless us to be faithful with what God decides to give us.
But it takes trust.  Sometimes the only way of finding out what God has in store is to step out in faith without knowing what lies ahead.  
I’ve heard this kind of trust compared to the headlights of a vehicle that only illuminate a particular distance into the darkness.  The only way to find out what lies ahead is to simply keep driving.
Or you can think of it like the training wheels of a bicycle.  A child can go their entire life riding a bicycle with training wheels.  It’s familiar, comfortable and safe.  That child will never realize the feeling of freedom that comes when those training wheels are removed until they actually try it!  Then they’ll realize what they have been missing and they will never want to go back.
It’s the same way in the church.  We like what it feels like now because our imaginations are limited to what we’ve seen and what we’ve experienced.
What if God actually does know what God is doing?
What if God actually does know where God is leading?
Then we need to pray for the courage to see beyond our own histories, to trust in the plan that God has in store for our futures, and enjoy the blessing of being used by God today.


On July 1st, when First United Methodist Church in Duncanville received a new Senior Pastor, Rev. Dr. Frank Alegria, we began to receive weekly emails cleverly called, “Frankly Speaking.”  Each of these emails was signed:


Pastor Frank
Obviously this led to some confusion that Pastor Frank needed to clarify.  So he explained, “PGFWABF stands for the beginning of the Doxology that we sing every week: ‘Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow.’  It’s a constant reminder that we need to operate from a perspective of abundance, and not a perspective of scarcity.
Over the past couple months this idea has been constantly on my mind.  While not wanting to ignore the reality of scarcity in the world, as we think through decisions we make every day, it makes a significant impact when we intentionally focus on the positive, instead of the negative.
Our human nature seems to set our default thoughts toward the things we do not have.  What if we chose to focus, instead, on the things that we do have?
When God calls us to do something, instead of saying, “Well, God, I’m just not equipped to do something like that,” we might actually say, “Well, God, I have no idea how I might do that, but I’m trusting you to multiply the blessings that you have given me to carry out this calling!”
Last week we passed out wristbands with the acronym, “PGFWABF,” as it has kind of become a mantra of our church, popping up regularly on church members’ Facebook statuses and Tweets.  As a church, we are asking the question, “How different might our ministries look if we were to practice a posture of praise, and not a posture of apprehension?”
And yes, people will inevitably ask those wearing the wristbands, “What does PGFWABF mean?”  And we will gladly tell them all about the great blessings that God is giving First United Methodist Church in Duncanville when they do. 
“Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow”

It’s about living life from a perspective of abundance, not a perspective of scarcity.

It’s about focusing on what we have, not on what we don’t. 

It’s about operating from a posture of praise, not a posture of apprehension.

"All Things to All People: Growing Up with Missional Parents”

As I embark upon my doctoral journey, finally beginning the project phase of introducing the concept of missional living to an established congregation, I have come to recognize an irony in my theological training.  After all of the books read, and classroom hours spent, as a philosophy/theology major in undergrad, completing my Master of Divinity, and concentrating on missional leadership in my doctoral work, I have come to realize the blessing of my own upbringing.  Better than any author or professor could possibly communicate the concepts of missional living, my parents embodied what it means to be missionaries in our own backyard. 

In the 1980’s there was an influx of refugees from Southeast Asia to the United States.  The town in which I grew up in Northern California, called Redding, had a lot of Mien people move in.  The Mien are a hill tribe from Laos, so you can imagine the culture shock they experienced as they arrived in the US. 

Through a series of circumstances that included one little old Mien lady being brought to our church by her neighbor, my parents’ hearts resonated with the Mien people.  What started off as my mom deciding to help by teaching English to a handful of refugees soon developed into a Bible study that continued to grow.  Through the efforts of my parents, others began to see what God was doing and decided to jump on board, as one Mien family after another turned away from their religious pasts of Animism and Daoism into a relationship with Jesus Christ.  The Mien Christian community in Redding continued to blossom into a self-sustaining church with trained and ordained Mien pastors leading the congregation. 

My parents began doing this about the time I was born, so I was raised in the midst of this, never really knowing how unique it was that I, a middle-class white kid with about as blonde hair as you can get, was always hanging around poor Asian refugees who had literally just arrived in America.

My parents embodied what Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 9:

“Becoming all things to all people so that by all possible means some might be saved.”

And they did this in many different ways.

Though they could have used the language barrier as an excuse to say, “We don’t fit with them,” my mom was the one giving English lessons, my dad was the one who developed a passion for learning the Mien language.  You should see the surprise and thrill on the face of Mien people, who don’t know that my dad can speak Mien, the moment he greets them in their own language!

And when the Mien families who had just become Christians asked my parents to help them host a ceremony to burn their idols and artifacts from their former religions, my parents could have said, “We don’t do that type of thing in our church,” but instead said, “We would be honored to help.”

When my dad would walk around the house, singing “…Aengx maaih ziex nyungc dongc yie maiv hiuv, maaih ziex norm dorngx yie mingh maiv duqv….(I had to reference him for those lyrics)” with its unique Asian melody, inevitably getting stuck in our heads for days, I could have said, “Dad, seriously.  Stop it.  I’m sick of that song!”—and I’m sure there were times that I did—but I also remember realizing how significant it was that there were worship songs in the Mien language in the first place, and how brave it was of my dad (who isn’t exactly a professional vocalist…) to join the Mien choir at church and sing boldly, even in a different language.

At the potluck feasts that were held on a regular basis in the apartment complexes in which they lived, when I was passed a serving bowl with a type of food that looked like nothing I had ever seen before, I could have said, “Ew, gross,” but my parents taught me to put a little on my plate, and ask what is was later…

And when my parents raided my closet on a regular basis, looking for clothes that would fit the children of a family who just arrived, I could have thrown a fit and protested—and I probably did at first—but I remember the feeling of joy I would get seeing one of my new Mien friends wearing an outfit that he didn’t know came from me.

You see, this is what it means to be missional.  This is what it means to become “all things to all people so that by all means possible some might be saved.”  And not just some were saved… many heard the good news of Jesus Christ and came to know the one, true God who created them. 

Mission living isn’t about coordinating occasional projects of mercy. It’s a complete orientation of life, committed to justice, driven by unconditional love. 

Thank you, Mom and Dad. 

Some things you just can’t learn in a book or a classroom.

Becoming Comfortable Being Uncomfortable: Lessons from a Glass Elevator

Think of a time in your life when you stepped into a scenario, and immediately upon entering, you knew you didn’t belong.  Maybe everyone around you looked different, or dressed differently, or you showed up to a costume party without a costume (or to a regular party and you were the only one wearing a costume!).
Have you had an experience like that?
I know it’s a little soon to be talking about Christmas, but I have to share a story about one my family’s Christmas traditions.  Every year around Christmas time we would drive 3.5 hours to San Francisco to get our family picture taken with Santa Clause on the 7th floor of Macy’s overlooking Union Square, in downtown San Francisco.
While we were there, we would always take a day to go sightseeing.  And at the end of our sightseeing day, when we could not possibly look any more like tourists, wearing the San Francisco sweatshirts we had just bought and our cameras around our necks, my parents would take all of us to the St. Francis Hotel. 
Now, you have to understand, we weren’t checking in; we weren’t guests at the St. Francis Hotel.  Far from it, actually.  Guests at the St. Francis were the people having the valets park their Maseratis and Bentleys out front. 
No, you see, the St. Francis Hotel happened to always be at the end of our sightseeing list because it had outside elevators.  These were glass elevators that faced Union Square and took you from the ground floor all the way up 32 floors to the top of the hotel.  And at night, especially, the view was spectacular.  This was free entertainment for the Fitzpatrick family, and we loved it!
I mean really–you can pay almost $100 per person to go to Disneyland… or you can ride the free elevators at the St. Francis Hotel.
So every year, we would walk into that hotel like we owned the place, past the gingerbread houses that look like they took three months to construct, past the gorgeous Christmas trees adorned with expensive ornaments, past every real guest of the hotel who was dressed to a tee, straight to elevators. 
You should have seen some of the looks we would get.  Talk about fish out of water!  Especially when we packed our family of six into the first available elevator, pressed the button for the top floor like we were staying in the penthouse suite, and then all squeezed our way to the window to get the best view for the ride.
For me, it was the norm.  This is what we did.  I don’t think I really began to realize how out of place we looked until I was in junior high and you start noticing those things.  But it was also at that time that I realized what a gift my parents had given us to not care.  We were going to ride those outside elevators at the St. Francis no matter what we looked like!
Sure, we may have looked out of place.  And people may have looked at us and said, “How awkward is that?”  But it’s only awkward if you let it be. 

We obviously didn’t belong in the St. Francis hotel.  But we stepped outside our comfort zone, and we walked in with confidence.
Can you imagine if we had missed the experience of that family tradition simply because we felt out of place? 
I wonder how many times we talk ourselves out of opportunities that could end up being really incredible experiences by telling ourselves that we don’t belong, by giving in to the idea that feeling “out of place” is a bad thing?

Maybe we should work on becoming comfortable being uncomfortable.
Next time you feel that lie crawling to the front of your mind—the one that tries to convince you that you don’t belong—push it right back, in full confidence, knowing that you were created to do great things.  Sometimes we just have to step outside our comfort zones in order to create those opportunities.  

“May the Best Meme Win: Social Media’s Impact on Theological Inquiry”

This week has been revealing.  The many goods and ills of social media have been on display, taken to the limit and even pushed beyond their normative boundaries.  As the deeply meaningful topic of marriage has been brought to the forefront of the society’s collective dialogue, arguments from every angle of the issue have been clawing their way to the surface, attempting to win the day.  On whichever side of the issue one finds one’s self, the form and fashion of both personal discernment and civil debate have been fascinating. 

Over the centuries, the Church has sought to identify the source of God’s revelation, particularly as it pertains to the task of theological inquiry.  When faced with various issues, the burning question being asked has been, “How do we discern the truth?”  One of Martin Luther’s key concerns with the Roman Catholic church was its twofold source of theological truth: scripture and apostolic tradition.  Raising the banner of sola scriptura, Luther argued that Scripture alone should be the sole source for theology.  As theologians continued to wrestle with Luther’s premise, however, the impact of one’s context on the theological task began to raise questions.  Within the Methodist tradition, the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” (practiced by John Wesley, but coined by Albert Outler) seeks to broaden the scope of theological revelation.  While it affirms the legitimacy of scripture and tradition, it also recognizes the importance of reason and experience.
For those within the Wesleyan tradition, this quadrilateral approach is the litmus test for theological truth.  When faced with an issue, one is wise to view it through all four lenses, always remembering to keep Scripture as the primary source.  With the advent of social media, however, the entire task of theological inquiry seems to have taken a back seat.
This week I have read, heard and watched solid arguments on both sides of the marriage issue.  As I continue to strive toward “intensional living” on the via media, I have done so with an open mind, trying to bring as few prejudices and biases to the conversation in order to give my full attention to both sides.  As people have publicly grappled with this issue by sharing articles, videos, references to scripture and stories of personal experience all over Facebook and Twitter, the thing that perhaps makes me most uncomfortable is the viral sharing of memes, and the startlingly serious comments in reply.
For those of you unaware, the phenomenon of “memes” is the pairing of pictures and illustrations with pithy and witty sayings, often shaped by irony and/or humor.  The more clever the meme, the more it gets shared on Facebook and retweeted on Twitter.  In a world where Stephen Colbert and John Stewart are more trusted news sources for young adults than any of the major networks, wittiness wins the day.  If you can relay information in such a way that makes somebody laugh, they are more open to trusting it as the truth.  I won’t lie; many of the memes that I have seen are extremely clever and often elicit a chuckle from me.  However, I cringe when I see someone share one of these pictures or illustrations and say something like, “No further questions,” as if this singular image and saying has made up their mind on such a deeply significant issue.   
Allow me to share a couple examples:
In favor of homosexual marriage:
Opposed to homosexual marriage:
In reference to the trend of those in favor of homosexual marriage changing their profile pictures to the red equal-sign logo as the SCOTUS makes their decision:
Again, witty? Yes. 
Funny? Sometimes.
Authoritative? Absolutely not.
You may think that I’m simply blowing things out of proportion, or making a caricature of the sharing of memes, but I beg to differ.  When a teenager in my youth group shares a meme, I am not surprised.  When they comment on a meme and make obvious the fact that they have not put much time into personal discernment on the issue, I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt.  However, when I see self-respecting adults sharing these images and sayings and commenting on them as if they actually add credibility to one side of an argument or the other, I have to shake my head in disbelief. 
Has our social dialogue been diminished to this?  Has personal discernment taken a back seat to collective pop-humor? 
As faithful Christians, we are called to be disciples and to create disciples.  We must do everything we can to train and equip thinking and discerning Christians who take the theological task seriously.  With Scripture as our guide, and with tradition, reason and experience each contributing to the conversation, may we not lose sight of the importance of the process of faithful inquiry.

Lost in Translation: Guiding Metaphors in the Church

My last blog post was about the changes in spirituality that have occurred since the 1950’s.  Robert Wuthnow suggests that there are direct correlations between changes in American culture—particularly in the structure of families—and changes in the way people think about spirituality.

This got me thinking even more about the power of guiding metaphors in the way we think about, talk about and organize our churches.  As Wuthnow suggests, when people use the metaphor of a “perfect family home” to organize a church, their actions follow.  God becomes the father of the family and God’s house is the sanctuary in which that family worships.  Congregants dare not put their feet on the pew in front of them, just as they would not dare to put their feet on their father’s coffee table (nor bring coffee into the sanctuary in the first place!).  Just as June Cleaver is never seen wearing anything casual, congregants wear their Sunday best to church.  There is a genuine element of respect for God’s house.

This is not a bad thing.  Sure, changes have taken place in American culture that may make this type of church less effective than it once was. However, it is critically important for us to recognize that there are people in our churches who grew up with this guiding metaphor, and who still prefer to think about church in this way.

It is also equally important to recognize that this is not the only metaphor people use to think about the church. 

Some people prefer to think of church as a business.  Progress and “the bottom line” take priority in decision-making processes.  Congregants become “giving units.”  In order to attain growth, churches look the latest marketing strategies.  Pastors become Chief Executive Officers, organizing various levels of middle management. 

Other people prefer to think of church as a social organization, such as a country club.  Congregants attend church to see and be seen.  They pay their dues and receive the perks of membership.  Their membership fees include a full-service staff to organize and run the operations of the church.  If a church isn’t providing social events (a.k.a. “fellowship opportunities”) then the church is failing.

What about those who see the church as a hospital?  Congregants are all patients, looking to be healed.  There are support groups for individuals suffering from a variety of maladies.  God is the Great Physician, looking to heal those who put enough faith in Him. 

Some prefer to think of the church as a flock, a collection of helpless sheep that are simply following their shepherd, the pastor.  Their pastor embodies the Great Shepherd who walks with us through the valleys of darkness as He leads us to still waters for refreshment.

Jesus used all sorts of metaphors throughout Scripture to describe the kingdom of God.  Even using the term “kingdom” is metaphorical to point to the idea that God is the king!  Jesus said that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, like yeast, like a net and like several others images with which people connected. 

Paul loved to use metaphors as well.  He regularly returned to the metaphors of the body of Christ or of a family to describe the church. Throughout the Pastoral Epistles, Paul uses the metaphor of the household of God, and the order that is required as a result (which helps shape the context of his instructions to women in 1 Timothy 2). 

If the church is an earthly reflection of a heavenly reality (ideally), then we really don’t have adequate language to describe what, or who, exactly the church is.  By recognizing the guiding metaphors that exist in our congregations, we are able to identify the various motivations to different thoughts and actions of our congregants.  Many of the arguments that unnecessarily turn the smallest disagreements into large, drawn-out “big deals,” are often simply a matter of competing metaphors.  For example, picture the conversation that might occur over the issue of electric guitars in church between someone who sees the church as the holy house of God and someone who sees the church as the latest, greatest business venture to reach new generations.

The pastor’s job, then, is to become a translator.  We need to do our best to recognize when competing metaphors are guiding the actions of our congregants, not to point out who is necessarily right or wrong, but to help each party understand the worldview (or “churchview”) of the other. We also need to realize that it is not our job to convince our congregants that our metaphor-of-choice is the best choice.  Different people connect with God in different ways.  We need to do everything we can to honor the variety of ways our congregants experience the Divine.  Sure, there are negative aspects to various metaphors with which we can pastorally disagree and discourage, but not before listening first.  Only when we make a genuine attempt to listen and view particular situations through the metaphorical lenses of others can we begin to understand why it is they act, think and speak in way they do.  Until then, we cannot expect to convince anyone that our view of the church is more effective. 

As churches continue to wrestle with the vast—and fast—changes in American culture, it is my prayer that we will learn to listen to one another, appreciating the perspectives of those who think differently than us, and finding creative ways to unite in our mission to embody the gospel.  This is part of what it means to live intensionally in the church.  

Dwellers, Seekers and Missionaries: Why the Church Needs to Change

            Imagine life during the 1950’s and 1960’s.  For some of you, you won’t have to use any imagination at all.  Remember when going to church was almost a cultural norm?  Sure, there were people who chose not to be religious; but for many families in America, every Sunday was spent at church.  Whether the faith of those individuals was genuine or not can only be determined by God.  Either way, much of the country was very familiar with Christianity.  As the years have gone by, however, fewer and fewer people have decided to make the act of going to church a priority in their lives.  With more options than ever on Sunday mornings, families are now spending their day on soccer fields, tennis courts, or simply in the privacy of their homes.  Times have changed.
            In his book, After Heaven, sociologist Robert Wuthnow describes very interesting categories of spirituality to help think about this dramatic shift in the spiritual culture of America.  He argues that the baby boom and expansion of suburbanization following World War II led to the centrality of the nuclear family in the lives of Americans.  The picture of a father, mother, children and pets, all living together peacefully under one roof, became the guiding metaphor for peoples’ sense of spirituality.  Referring to it as “dwelling-oriented spirituality,” Wuthnow suggests that pastors shaped their churches around this picture, creating churches that were “comfortable, familiar, domestic, offering an image of God that was basically congruent with the domestic tranquility of the ideal home” to make people feel “at home with God.”[1]  This central theme also shaped the mission of the congregation.  Wuthnow says the goal of the local church, whether explicit or implicit, was “to provide a safe haven amidst the growing uncertainties of the world in which people live.”[2]  It would be wrong of us to judge this metaphor of spirituality negatively in retrospect.  The approaches of church life that emerged during this time were effective for the context in which they existed.
            The 1960’s, however, marked the beginning of the shift toward an era of exploration and “freedom.”  Turned off by the denominational “claims to having absolute truth,”[3]as well as “changes in the U.S. family,”[4]the shape of dwelling-oriented spirituality began to change.  As more and more families became dysfunctional and complex, the idea of a church reflecting one’s home life was no longer attractive.  Wuthnow says that these “complex social realities [left] many Americans with a sense of spiritual homelessness.”[5]  Instead of finding comfort in the church buildings in which they grew up, people began to seek for experiences of the divine in a variety of places.  This new seeker-oriented spirituality changed the congregation from a refuge to a “supplier of goods and services”[6]in competition with the range of alternate voices.  Again, for the context in which it existed, the practices of churches to attract seeker-oriented individuals were effective.  American spirituality, however, has continued to change.  The problem is that many of our struggling churches today are still operating with one, or both, of these guiding metaphors shaping their programs and missions.
            In the new religious America we find fewer and fewer families attending church on a regular basis.  Going to church is no longer a priority in the lives of individuals, much less of whole families.  While many people had a basic knowledge of Christian beliefs and practices in the 1950’s and 1960’s, people today are very naïve to the ways of the church.  We can no longer assume that the people we are trying to reach are already familiar with the Christian language we use.  Christianity has gone from being a cultural norm in America, to becoming an afterthought, if it even enters the psyche of an individual to begin with.  Again, times have changed.
            So, if being a safe-haven no longer works to attract people to our churches, and appealing to “seekers” is no longer working as well either, then how is a church supposed to attract its neighbors?  What if I told you that being “attractional,” in and of itself, might be one of our biggest hang-ups?  Enter the missional church.
            For the first time in the history of American culture, the church must be formed around the mindset that it no longer exists as a primary entity in society.  Instead, the church in America now finds itself as a missionary outpost in the midst of a post-Christian culture.  In the same way that a missionary adjusts to life in a foreign country, the church in America is forced to adjust to life in a highly secular world.  Our best bet to making this adjustment as painless as possible—fully recognizing that it will not be pain-free—is to take our cues from missionaries around the world who have been faithfully embodying the gospel for generations.  This is foundation of what it means to be a missional church.
            Does that mean that we kick everyone out who grew up within the context of dwelling-oriented or seeker-oriented spirituality?  Of course not!  In fact, recognizing these categories can really help us communicate across generational divides within our church families.  These different spiritual worldviews are not necessarily “wrong;” they’re just that: different.  Depending on the context in which each of us was formed, individuals connect to and prefer different models of church structure and organization.  The bottom line is, the dramatic shifts in American culture are forcing us to ask the question: “How will the church respond?”  In my humble opinion, our churches must make the shift toward becoming missionally-focused, or else they risk letting their numbers dwindle as fewer and fewer people step foot into their sanctuaries.

[1]Robert Wuthnow, After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950’s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 33.
[2]Ibid., 15.
[3]Ibid., 56.
[4]Ibid., 19.
[5]Ibid., 168.
[6]Ibid., 15.

Turning Handouts into Handshakes: Discussing the Differences Between Mercy and Justice

Having just finished Dr. Elaine Heath’s doctoral seminar class, Evangelism and Discipleship in a Missional Church, at Perkins School of Theology, the topics of justice and mercy are filling most of my thoughts.  One of the richest conversations we had during the course was a discussion about the differences between mercy and justice, as we sat around a table at the Refugee Services of Texas.
Inspired by the conversation, I decided to see how the teenagers in my youth group would handle a discussion of the topic.  So last night, during our weekly small groups, I began our time together by offering a metaphor.  I explained that mercy can be illustrated as giving someone an aspirin to alleviate a regularly returning headache.  Justice, however, is the discovery and surgical removal of the tumor that is the true cause of the recurring headaches in the first place.  While mercy may provide temporary relief to a problem, justice identifies and addresses the source of the problem.  I then dismissed each of the small groups to discuss this idea further amongst themselves. 
Each week I have the privilege of leading our high school guys’ small group.  Last night’s small group discussion with these young men confirms my use of that word, “privilege.”  As we talked about biblical examples of mercy and justice, one young man spoke about the injustice that Jesus addressed as he turned over the money-changing tables in the temple.  Another young man brought the discussion home as he talked about our annual mission trip, which has taken us to Oklahoma City for the past two years to work with an intentional living community of urban missionaries called, The Refuge OKC. 
Commenting on his observations, he said, “You know, when we fix up and paint all those houses, we’re showing mercy to the residents of that neighborhood.  But the real justice is found in those members of the Refuge who have chosen to move into that poor neighborhood for the long-haul.  They’re the ones who are bringing the light into that darkness.”
At this, another young man piped up and said, “Do you remember when a couple of the guys from the Refuge talked about arms-length ministry?  It’s like arm-length ministry—when you give someone a handout—is mercy.  But when you turn that into a handshake, then you level the playing field.  You’re saying, ‘We’re equal.’  That’s justice.”
Sometimes in ministry you shake your head because you cannot understand why people keep choosing to make the same mistakes over and over, as if nothing you were trying to teach them was sinking in.  And then there are those divine moments, when all of a sudden, something sticks.  Last night, as I listened to these young men grasp the difference between acts of mercy and the pursuit of justice, I thanked God that they were getting it! 
Now the question becomes: “How do we address issues of justice in our own back yard?”  As we tackle this challenge together in the coming weeks, it’s my prayer that our youth ministry will lead the way in teaching others that although mercy is good, it’s not enough.