Saturday, May 30, 2009

More On Saving the Church

"The truth is I feel tremendous pressure to save the United Methodist Church."

So says Rev. Eric Van Meter, director of the Wesley Foundation at Arkansas State in a column for the UM Reporter. And so say we all. It is a pressure from within, driven by our love for the church and our deep desire for the church to flourish. It is a pressure that he says many young adults feel, and I count myself as one of those many. So I really resonate with what Eric is saying, and commend his column to you to read in full.

I have written before about the ministry of young adults; I have led a couple of workshops; it is one of my favorite topics. Among other things, my underlying feeling is that young adults are being objectified by the church as "savior" figures, rather than being valued intrinsically.

It seems sometimes as if young adults are valued as long as they can be useful in reanimating the dying denomination, and by "reanimating the dying denomination" I mean acting like younger versions of the people currently populating the pews. But not if they're just being themselves.

The problem, as Eric sees it, is when the church does things that "give church insiders something to rally around, [but have] little impact on most folks who populate Sunday morning worship or Wednesday night council meetings." And a lot of that complicated (and expensive) navel gazing has exactly the opposite effect that was intended. Let me explain.

Trendy programs and slick websites sometimes give the impression of trying too hard, especially when the true life experience of the church just doesn't jive with what is being presented. Or as Shane Raynor puts it (as only Shane can), "Let's face it...some of our churches stink. Why should we spend money advertising them?"

I might not want to say it exactly that way, but I fully agree with the sentiment. When a young adult (or any adult, just about) looks for a church, they go online. Based on what they find there, they'll attend a worship service or two or three. But if they do not experience a connection, something that resonates with what they have seen in the ad, they'll head somewhere else in a hurry.

As I see it, the way to "save the denomination" is to stop trying to save the denomination and focus on the church's identity as the body of Christ in the world today. The early church grew amazingly quickly, and it did so with an anti-publicity campaign that actually kept everything secretive and subversive, meeting at night and communicating with codes. They basically just cared for one another, ate meals together, and talked about Jesus. What would be the 21st century equivalent?

I love church, and I would like to see the United Methodist denomination flourish by being the body of Christ in a distinctively Methodist way. And I think that if we do, we will grow. Eric Van Meter asks, "Does wanting to save my church mean that I should fight to keep her young, or let her die and trust in the hope of resurrection?" I think that is a false choice; there is another way to think about it.

I think that wanting to save my church means that you have to abandon all thoughts of saving your church, and simply be the church as best you can. God will save the church if God will. In the meantime, we just live faithfully.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Chasing After Wind

Better is a handful with quiet
than two handfuls with toil,
and a chasing after wind.
(Ecclesiastes 4:6)

This verse from Ecclesiastes called out to me this week, begging to be reflected upon.

It makes me think of Jesus saying, "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest."

It reminds me of a part of my sermon a couple of weeks ago, from 1st John 5, "God's commandments are not burdensome."

It makes me think about so many people I know who work until 6:30, 7:00, 7:30 at night, or even later, relating to their families like the proverbial ships passing in the night. Chasing after wind.

It makes me think of a lot of pastors I know who work 60 hours a week or more thinking they have to work themselves into worthiness. How many of them burn out early and spend the last years of their ministry cynical and bitter?

Why do we tend to place unqualified value on hard work? We wax on about a high work ethic as if people who work hard are to be emulated without critique. There's nothing inherently wrong with working hard, to be sure. But there's nothing inherently right about it, either.

Better is a handful with quiet ...

(Give us this day our daily bread ... just enough for today ... a handful.)

...than two handfuls with toil.

(Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin...)

I mean, sure. You've got your two handfuls, but at what cost? Love your house! Great car! But have you worked so hard that you are unable to enjoy it? Wouldn't it be better to have a handful and be able to enjoy life in the meantime?

I know that some with the metaphorical "two handfuls" are content with life, even happy. I'm not saying that those who have done materially well in life are automatically sad work-a-holics who never spend any time with their family. I'm saying that it is all about balance.

When the scales tip over to the side of material gain and work to the detriment of contentment and harmony, then you've got problems.

And it doesn't have to be just affluent people affected by this insidious condition. Pressure to work hard and produce results affects us all. I feel it. Middle managers feel it from their bosses. Every day working people feel it all the time. The expectation of hard work is pervasive.

And a lot of it comes from within, to tell the truth. Much of the pressure we feel comes from expectations we place on ourselves. Although those self-expectations are learned from somewhere, likely imprinted upon us at an early age.

In an environment of pressure, expectations, and hard work, a verse like Ecclesiastes 4:6 is refreshing. Better a handful with quiet - in other words, a happy life with just enough - than two handfuls with toil - in other words, a miserable life with excess. How much time are we going to waste chasing after wind?

I for one have better things to do.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Nice Is In

Great news everyone! Apparently use of the word "idiot" in blog posts is down by nearly 50% in the last 6 months.

The New York Times opinion piece where I read this fun fact is saying that it is now "in" to be nice. Actors like Paul Rudd, advertisements like the latest Volkswagen campaign, and websites like Operation Nice dot com are evidence of our new found era of niceness, according to the piece.

There is a critique, however, offered by Professor Eric G. Wilson of Wake Forest University. Niceness, he thinks, results in mediocrity. The attempt to be agreeable and polite leads us down "predictable and vaguely reassuring" paths like "easy listening radio or greeting card sunrises or Tom Hanks." (When asked for comment, Hanks reportedly said, "What an idiot.")

On the other hand, I happen to think that we can be nice without drifting into mediocre fluffiness. I do not see the two as mutually exclusive, I guess. Being nice to one another doesn't preclude disagreement, dialogue, and even argument.

So I for one applaud the social trend toward niceness. Especially as so much of what is happening in the world seems to trend toward fear, tension, and suspicion, simply being nice to one another can lighten the atmosphere considerably. A smile, a heartfelt handshake, a hug, holding the door open for someone, allowing another person into the line ahead of you - simple gestures of kindness can convey a lot.

I love watching what happens to a foul ball hit into the stands. People get pretty excited about it, and it's fun to see their celebrations. But what I love most is that inevitably, if a grown up catches the ball and a kid is nearby, the grown up gives the ball to the kid. Nice! In fact, if the grown-up doesn't do so, there are almost always a few "boos" from the crowd. Being nice to the kid is the norm, and keeping the ball for yourself is socially unacceptable.

It's easier to be nice than mean, anyway. Being mean sucks too much energy. Being nice somehow seems to generate energy of its own. Being nice to one another makes everyone feel a little bit better, including you.

So be nice - everyone's doing it.

Have a nice day.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Can I Get a Witness?

One of the last things Jesus says to his disciples just before he ascends to heaven is, “You will be my witnesses…” (Acts 1:8). What is a witness?

Sometimes we carry a perception that “witnessing” must by definition involve publically telling an emotional story to a group about how the speaker was living a horrible life and turned 180 degrees around after accepting Christ. The experience is quite cathartic; there are almost always tears, uplifted hands, and “Thank you Jesus”-es.

This is indeed a way that witnessing can happen, but by no means the only way. In fact, sometimes our misperception (that this way is the only way) prevents us from witnessing ourselves. Since not many people have the kind of dramatic, emotional life stories that tend to define the caricature of witnessing, we might fall into the trap of thinking we cannot be witnesses ourselves.

We may even think our own testimony unworthy, after hearing an especially touching story. “Well,” we might think, “my life isn’t all that bad. Surely anything I have to say about my relationship with God would be pretty pathetic compared to his.” We therefore minimize how God has been and continues to be active in our lives in a myriad of ways.

The thing is, if you say you are a Christian, you ARE a witness. For Jesus’ disciples, “witness” is the default mode of living. Everything you say, everything you do, every conversation you have, every purchase you make, the kind of house you live in, the kind of car you drive, the amount of time you spend with your kids, the attitude you assume toward your co-workers or classmates, etc. – everything that you are gives testimony about Jesus.

More specifically, everything that you do/say/are gives testimony to who you think Jesus is. Remember, testimony is neutral; in that it can say something negatively just as much as something affirmatively. So for example, if you treat a person with contempt, that says something about who you think Jesus is to those who are watching you. And that wouldn’t be a good thing.

Conversely, knowing Jesus to be loving, compassionate, forgiving, and just, our actions and words and being should testify to that knowledge. Christians ARE Jesus’ witnesses, in our families, in our churches, in our communities, and “to the ends of the earth.”

Monday, May 11, 2009

Commanded to Love

This Sunday is the last Sunday in the season of Easter, and so will be the last in our worship series “Love So Amazing.” I cannot begin to share with you how reading 1st John all during this season has impacted me.

The punctuation mark on this season is taken from John 15:12 – “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Here the theological parallels between the Gospel According to John and the book of First John are very apparent. Quite simply, followers of Christ Jesus are commanded by our Lord to love one another.

Not only love one another, but love one another as Jesus loved us. This seems like an impossible task. How can we possibly love with the kind of selflessness and grace that Jesus offered?

However, the author of First John tells us that “…his commandments are not burdensome” (5:3). And so it seems that this apparently impossible task is not only possible, but will not even be a burden to undertake. It makes me think of Matthew 11:30, where Jesus promises, “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Maybe it’s like riding a bike. (Bear with me here.) Learning how to ride a bike is really hard! It is scary to think about losing your balance and tumbling to the pavement. Sometimes the fear of failing even prevents us from making the attempt.

But when we do, and begin to get the hang of it, riding a bike is exhilarating! It sets us free! We roll along with ease, wind in our face, wondering what we ever could have been scared of. And once we learn how, we never forget. It’s like … well … actually it’s like riding a bike!

Perhaps that’s what it means to say that the commandment to love one another as Jesus loves is not burdensome. Maybe it sets us free in a way we cannot imagine unless we put our fear aside, make a few wobbly attempts, skin our knee a time or two, and figure out how exactly to love one another as Jesus loved us.

And then when we finally get it, it is exhilaration like no other. We are set free in God’s love to live as sisters and brothers together, without having to hang on to all of that burdensome baggage that comes with trying to do it by ourselves. It’s only impossible when we think we have to do it alone.

And so, as this season is ending and likewise our brief sojourn with First John, I am hopeful that we will enter the next season transformed by God’s amazing love.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

My Brush with the Law

Saturday’s mail had a letter from the City of Springfield, addressed to me using my full name, which caught my attention right away. When I opened it, it had a couple of green pieces of paper, one of which said


The copy of the warrant enclosed with the notice indicated that my charge was “Failure to appear in Municipal Court to answer the following charge: 18/52(A) - Dog not displaying rabies tag. FTA arraignment 04/17/09 @ 9:00 a.m.”

My bond had been set at $500.00.

Okay, see, here’s what happened -

Six weeks ago, our little old dog Amos got out of the yard. It remains a mystery as to exactly how the gate got left open, and interestingly enough no witnesses have yet come forward to offer testimony to this event. Regardless, Amos was picked up by a thoughtful neighbor some five to six blocks away from our house, and turned in to the animal shelter.

Amos did not have his tags on.

You see, we had removed the tags from Amos’s collar earlier because he has a skin condition that causes him to itch so that he chews on himself until he bleeds. (I know that is probably too much information, but nevertheless, it is the case.) In the middle of the night, this chewing on various parts of his body would cause his collar tags to jingle very annoyingly, waking us up even out of our deepest, most restful slumber.

So we took them off.

And then he got out of the yard.

And then someone picked him up and took him to the Springfield animal shelter.

We discovered him in the shelter by perusing the pictures of the various dogs they have there. These little canine mug shots are posted along with a description of the dog and the location and time they are picked up, so that families can come and get them. Click here to see what I'm talking about.

At this point I might note that we live on the southeast corner of Springfield. The Springfield Animal Shelter is on the northwest corner of Springfield.

It takes seven hours to get there from here.

Seeing Amos’s canine mug shot on the website, our daughter Cori and I jumped into the car and rushed off to rescue him. Eleven days later, when we arrived at the shelter, we discovered that it had closed five minutes prior to our arrival. Nonplussed, we journeyed the three week trek back home, resolving to spring Amos in the morning.

Arriving in what I thought was good time the next morning, I went into the shelter and verified that it was, indeed, Amos who was incarcerated there. We figured out how many nights he had been there, which determined the amount of the fine. Pulling out my checkbook to pay the agent, I was informed that he could not accept a check, the bail had to be posted in cash. “No problem,” I said through clenching teeth. “I’ll run to an ATM and be right back.”

“We close in ten minutes,” I was informed.

Apparently, the Springfield Animal Shelter is open for intermittently random hours at a time. Just kind of whenever they have enough income to pay their workers, perhaps.

Anyway, I sped to the nearest ATM, at a convenience store exactly four and a half minutes away from the shelter, got my cash, agreeing to pay the $1.50 fee for doing so, and sped the four and half minutes back to the shelter, arriving exactly one minute before they were scheduled to close.

At the counter, ready to pay the guy, get the dog, and go home, I was informed, “Oh, and then I’ll have to write you a ticket because he didn’t have rabies tags.”

There was a moment there, in the terse silence that followed, that I thought to myself, “Why not just leave him? You know, I could tell the kids that the trauma had just been too much for old Amos. His heart just couldn’t take it, and now he was playing up in doggie heaven.”

(They would never know!)

“A ticket?” I asked.

“Yep, we’ll just set you a court date here and you can just go in and pay the fine ... or you could plead not guilty and see what happens,” he said, oh so very helpfully.

So he wrote out the ticket, handing it to me with the receipt for Amos’s bail, and we went to the back to get the dog. Now, I don’t know if you have ever been to a dog pound before, but it is the most disgusting place I’ve ever been. The stench is palpable; my eyes were watering and I was struggling not to gag. A worker had Amos in his arms, so I clipped on his leash and took him to the car, loaded him in the back and drove the six month pilgrimage from the shelter back to our house.

(I should pause at this point to explain that it really isn’t all that far to the shelter, but driving in Springfield, Missouri is like entering into a rip in the space/time continuum and so everything seeems loonggerr thaaan iiit reeaaalllyyy iiiisssss.)

Well, here's where it gets a bit tricky. Amos was rescued, the gates were closed, the tags were reattached to the collar, and life moved on. In fact, life moved on so rapidly over the next few weeks that the hearing date for Amos’s rabies tags began to fade into the mist. I think I was always vaguely aware in the back of my mind that I had some nebulous obligation I needed to fill, but other thoughts so quickly crowded that one out that it really never had a chance to take hold.

The date of the hearing came and went without fanfare; in fact, we didn’t even notice at all. It was just another day of chasing toddlers, shuttling kids to school and other various and assorted activities, maintaining a household, working (Holy Week and Easter happened in there somewhere), and just generally living the busy-ness that is our life. To tell you the truth, the notice of my impending arrest was the first time I had thought about it at all in weeks!

So, from that fateful Saturday when I got notice of my arrest warrant until Monday morning, I was a wanted man.

I had visions of one of the police officers who are a part of the congregation walking down the aisle as I was preaching on Sunday morning ready to take me it. “Excuse me, Mr. Bryan. You’ll have to come with me. I’m placing you under arrest for failure to appear in court. You have the right to remain silent,…” And so forth. There would be gasps of surprise all around the room, and murmured conversations as people asked one another what, if anything, they knew of the drama unfolding before their eyes. Then someone would make a pithy quip like they always do on Law and Order. (*dun dun*)

It felt strangely exciting. I was dangerous. On the lam. An outlaw. I watched the world go by through desperado eyes, squinting suspiciously at anyone I came across. I trusted no one.

I made it through Saturday and Sunday without incident. The first thing Monday morning – actually the first thing right after I got the kids ready for the day and dropped the bigs off at elementary school and the smalls off at their day care – I headed to the City Court building. I entered the building, then had to be directed back out so that I could come in through the metal detector since I had entered through the exit side. (Outlaws do that kind of thing.)

Boldly I strode up to the counter where a clerk waited behind a plexiglass barrier, a suspiciously pleasant expression on his face. “Can I help you, sir?” he asked.

Taking my notification pages out of my pocket, I put them on the counter and said, “I’d like to take care of this, please.”

He very anticlimactically asked me for my name, went to the back room and came back with a file folder, which he opened and glanced over. “Do you want to just plead guilty?” he asked, “Because I can go ahead and recall this warrant right now if you do.”

“Yes please,” I replied, suddenly not feeling very desperado like.

“Okay,” said the clerk, “and do you have the $99.50 today?”

He said “Ninety-nine fifty” and so I thought he was talking about a form or some kind of official document. “I don’t know what that is,” I said.

“It’s the amount of the fine and your costs,” he said, with a rather puzzled look.

“Oh. Yes, I have it.” I wrote the check.

Taking it from me, he printed off a page and handed it to me, saying, “You should probably keep this with you for 60 to 90 days, in case you get pulled over or something like that. The warrant should be recalled in the computer, but just in case. And that’s it.” I sensed that I was being dismissed.

So I said, “Thank you, sir,” and left.

The paper says, “WARRANT RECALL NOTICE.” It has the ticket number on it, the date of the recall, and the signature of the Honorable Todd M. Thornhill, Municipal Court Judge.

So that’s my story. Having stood toe-to-toe with the Thirty First Circuit Court of Missouri, Springfield Municipal Division, and then humbly paying my debt to society, I have come out on the other side a better person for the experience. And now, after living life on the edge, a fugitive of the law, I may be a bit harder, a bit more flinty, but at least I can say with confidence that I am a free man.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

From Success to Signficance

I believe that the time has come for the church to stop thinking in terms of success (or effectiveness or excellence), and start thinking in terms of significance.

I have been nudged three times recently along this path. The chair of our Trustees got me thinking again about this shift at lunch Tuesday, when he told me about a meeting in which the speaker talked about shifting from success to significance in the business world. Then two days later the website "Church Marketing Sucks" linked to this article about the same idea as applied to churches. My first nudge came a while back, when I heard Melissa's sermon about significance last fall. Added together, it has made an impact on me.

In the article that "CMS" linked to, the author (Eric Swanson) wants to flip the business cliche "Good to Great" that so many churches have glommed onto. Instead, he sees churches engaging in a different movement - "Great to Good." Even though this original article is from 2003, it is really appropriate today.

From the article:
But large churches discover a troubling secret. Size alone isn't good enough. Great or small, churches need something more than bigger numbers.

Congregations with a lot of people, an impressive facility, a big budget, and a whole lot of activities can rightly be called "successful." Let's just give them that. So now the question is, being successful, as you are, how are you significant? After the initial reports of your high numbers and net worth are out of the way, tell me about how you are embodying Christ in the world?


Yet Jesus' ministry is summed up, "he went around doing good." [(Acts 10:38)] Maybe from God's perspective, the greatest thing we can do has more to do with goodness than greatness. Some churches follow that pattern—trading "greatness" in numbers for doing the "good" that Jesus modeled.

These are the "Great to Good" churches.

This has been a favorite topic of mine for a long time. In August of 2005 I wrote

And what do we mean when we say a church is “succeeding?” Lots of people, (and more and more people every week), lots of money, lots of programs, super-cool facility, high-tech sanctuary, snappy t-shirts and coffee mugs with the church logo emblazoned on them. Yes! Absolutely, the church that exhibits these fruits can properly be said to be a successful church. The problem is, we are not supposed to be holding the church up to the yardstick of success in order to assess our faithfulness to the gospel. We are supposed to be holding the church to the yardstick of the cross of Christ.

Now, I have changed my mind about a lot of things, but not this. With the cross of Jesus Christ as the standard, our entire approach shifts from striving for success to striving for significance. We may have a deep theological debate about whether or not the cross is "successful" or perhaps we could redefine what we mean by "success" in terms of the cross or perhaps "success" looks different to God than it does to people - no doubt a scintillating conversation. But we would all likely agree that the cross is significant.

Swanson specifies significance in four areas: ministries of mercy, ministries of empowerment, ministries of evangelism, and ministries of replication. Ministries of mercy are those that meet an immediate need, like feeding hungry people. Ministries of empowerment are those that make a lasting difference, like teaching people to read. Ministries of evangelism are those that invite people to participate in the reign of God, transforming lives for an eternal impact. And ministries of replication are those that trasform followers into leaders, who subsequently continue in significant ministries themselves.

How easily would this translate into congregational life? I'm telling you, people understand "significance." It makes sense intuitively. It would not require a 40 day book study to implement. It is simple, and profound.

"Significance" gives shape to ministry in a way that "effectiveness" doesn't quite convey. Significant ministries penetrate deeply and work at foundational levels; effective ministries may move a lot of surface-level stuff, but lack the depth to make a lasting difference. At least, that's the way I hear those words - I may just be splitting semantic hairs.

It is the same with "excellence." It has been very trendy to talk about doing things with excellence, and I understand where it comes from. We want to give our very best in service to God. But excellent can turn into a synonym for showy, and may imply a layer of razzle-dazzle shellacked onto an insignificant activity.

"Significant" goes beyond "effective" and "exellent" in that it is possible to have an excellent, effective ministry that is not at all significant. Say for example, you have a very excellent, highly effective spelunking ministry in your congregation, developing some of the best spelunkers in the area. I've got nothing against caves, but the most effective spelunking ministry in the world is not very significant in terms of being the church that God calls us to be.

Now, of course a spelunking ministry may be significant. For example, if the church is inviting impoverished kids who otherwise would never have the experience to participate. That would be a ministry of empowerment. Or if the ministry focuses on the wonders of God's creation and learning to be good stewards of that creation. That would be a ministry of evangelism.

Becoming a disciple is deciding to be significant for Christ's sake. A church should be a community of people whose desire is to be significant, to make a difference, to move from great to good. Let's stop scrambling for success and start being significant.