Friday, March 31, 2006

Good Reads - 3/31/06

Some posts I recommend from the past few days:

With The DaVinci Code movie coming out soon and the plethora of books which debunk the theology of Dan Brown's novel, how about a different approach? At Middlebrow, we find "9 Art Bloopers in the DaVinci Code." Here's one of 'em:

The Mona Lisa didn’t go by that name. We don’t know what name it went by during Leonardo’s lifetime, but it was the biographer Vasari who called it Mona Lisa long after Leonardo’s death, and the name didn’t really stick as definitive until the 19th century. This only matters if, following “symbologist” Robert Langdon’s lead, you’re supposed to re-arrange the letters to spell Amon L’Isa. Not a challenging anagram, exactly, and not very enlightening at that. But the point is that if you did this, you’d be re-arranging letters Leonardo didn’t arrange in the first place, which would be silly.
(A tip of the ol' ballcap to Charlie at Another Think.)

Sick and tired of reading my thoughts about what's wrong with church? Here's an old post I stumbled upon at DTOUR called Escape From Consumer Church which does a fine job of exploring the idea of what church is all about.

Ben Witherington answers his own question in What's Wrong with Prospering? The Gospel According to Joel Osteen. This is a must read if you've ever wrestled with the idea of stewardship and wealth.

What about prospering as a preacher? Todd at Monday Morning Insight reprints part of an article from John Koessler about the purpose of ministry in Finding Your True North in Ministry.

Is there supposed to be a separation between Christians and everyone else? After a far-too-lengthy absence, Chad is back at Eternal Revolution and he returns with a shot across the bow of the good ship Separation. Read When the Walls Come Crumbling Down.

And on the lighter side, it's not something to read, but you really need to listen to Hello pastor... at Ship of Fools. Running a church to please everybody is impossible, especially when there's a guy there who has had at least 1400 messages from the Lord.


Thursday, March 30, 2006

And one more thing...

After spending the past couple of weeks considering the problems and advantages of church, then seeking some solutions to the problems, my mind is a little like overstretched elastic -- the underwear waistband that is no longer functional. But it's starting to snap back. Or at least slowly shrink down to reality once again. Please bear with me as cinch my belt one notch tighter today.

My mind is still on church. I like the local church. I've been both behind and in front of the pulpit on Sunday mornings. It's different for a pastor than it is for the person in the pew/soft, cushy chair. I'm not saying it's better. But it's different.

I remember Sunday mornings where the last thing I wanted to do was to put on decent clothes (meaning: no sweatpants with holes in the knees and tattered t-shirt) and go have shallow conversations with people, all in the guise of going to worship God. It took me some time to figure out that even those people whose conversational depth wasn't beyond cold fronts and yesterday's winds were children of God -- my brothers and sisters in Christ. Hey, every family has its share of characters... why not God's? But beyond that, we often had shallow conversations because I refused to let them go any deeper into my life. I wouldn't let them in. I didn't allow myself to have closer relationships because I could see the faults in these people and I didn't want them to see the faults in me. The quality of my relationships with my fellow believers changed when I realized what I was doing, then corrected it.

There were plenty of Sundays when I just didn't feel that close relationship with my Creator either. And those were the days when it would have been easier to baptize a family of alley cats by immersion than to pull me from my warm bed. I felt disconnected from God. But I also felt that I was somehow of stronger character than those other Christians because I didn't need to go to church like those other people did. My real fear, though, was that I could easily go for an hour of worship and come out unchanged. And if that was the case, then what was the point of it all?

Once again I found that this feeling changed when I worked on deepening the relationship with my God and Savior. I didn't come to that conclusion by sitting in a pew, listening to a sermon. I came to that conclusion by realizing just how much about my faith that I was ignorant of. A few Christian radio shows taught me more about Christianity than I had learned in years of attending church. Then I figured out why that was: this time I was willing to learn. I wasn't just enduring a sermon to sing the closing hymn. I came in with a different attitude. I could really benefit from being in church, as well as giving glory to God! That changed not only my experience in Sunday worship, but also my entire Christian walk.

From that point on, the Bible didn't sit there and mock me. It challenged me to dig within its pages to find what Jesus was all about. It pushed me to make my faith real. My prayer time wasn't just talking to myself, but communicating with a real, loving heavenly Father. Sunday morning wasn't just a time to show up and look pious, it was an opportunity to pour my heart out in worship and let Him fill my heart up again.

After that, I didn't miss many Sunday morning services. Maybe for an occasional weekend away or a sick kid, but I more fully understood why I was there. Beyond that, I needed to be there. If I had to miss two Sundays in a row, that was 21 days between worship services! That drove me crazy! I really wanted to be a part of that worship experience, and yes, even to have some shallow conversations with my brothers and sisters in Christ whom I didn't know well yet.

When I became a pastor almost nine years ago, I took on a new role in worship. Sure I had participated in the worship service while in the pews. I had also sung in choirs, read Scripture, performed solos, and even given testimonies in services before, but as pastor the responsibility of expounding upon God's Word through the power and the guidance of the Holy Spirit was now on my shoulders. But I liked that. There was no problem. Most every Sunday, God had armed me with His words from His Word and I had no difficulty standing before the assembled and delivering them.

Still I noticed that things were different, especially when I would attend a conference and would return to the role of participant in the pew, if only for a couple of days. It is a different kind of experience being used in a different kind of way. Over the past nine years, God has blessed me with the opportunities to sit and be filled in a corporate setting from time to time so that I would be refreshed and ready to head back to the pulpit once again.

Then came one Sunday, almost two weeks ago. I was empty. I had nothing. It wasn't just Sunday. It was much of the week leading up to it as well. I had managed to put the service together and craft a sermon, but I didn't know if I had the spiritual strength to deliver it. It had been a particularly rough week mentally and emotionally, and I longed for the opportunity to go to a different church that Sunday morning. Maybe somewhere where I could just sit and worship and be filled once again. But that wasn't going to happen. I have no assistant pastor. I have no staff. I am my own secretary. It was up to me. Or was it?

God was ready to fill me up. I just had to lean on him. He wanted me to fill his people that Sunday, and He was perfectly willing to ready me for the task. But I had to bow my knee and my heart and my whole being to Him. My mind wasn't able to sit and read Scripture. I had to sit and meditate upon Him and upon His very Being. I had to wrestle in prayer. I had to come down from my comfortable stronghold and be vulnerable to Him once again. And so I did.

That Sunday went well. God spoke through my words. I could feel His presence that morning and His guidance as I stood behind the pulpit. And through that experience I realized (or perhaps remembered) that God will fill me so that I won't run dry. God will provide what is needed if I just ask. He will never leave me, nor forsake me. Nor will He give me a job to do without providing the tools and the materials. What an incredible God we have!

I've talked with many people who are at one of the places where I have been. Church isn't exciting. The people are bothersome. The Bible confuses rather than inspires. Prayer is like talking to a brick wall. I know all those feelings, and I know what it took from me to change them. It took the faith to quit trying to stand on my supposed strong moral character and to lean on the everlasting arms of Jesus.

The churches where I sat in the pews were not perfect. Not even close. The church where I stand behind the pulpit isn't anywhere near flawless either. Yet I am filled by being there and by preparing to go there. That affects my Bible reading. It affects my prayer life. It affects my parenting. It affects my responsibilities as a husband, a friend, a brother, a son, a worker, a writer, a pastor and a whole host of other roles. Besides giving me the opportunity to glorify God, church makes me a better Christian. And there were many times when I would have believed just the opposite. God even uses my out-of-church times to make my in-church experiences meaningful. I can see that now because it helps to have a little perspective, courtesy of my heavenly Father.

How To Get Here - 3/30/06

You know the way to get here. It seems there are fewer and fewer ways not to get here. Here's how a few adventurous souls stumbled into Attention Span this week:

rick warren being fed - If potlucks at Saddleback are half as good as potlucks at my church, Warren could be fed to the point of weighing 750 pounds.

john macarthur emergent - Now there's a search string. Why not try "Paris Hilton virgin", "Congressional Ethics" or "William Shatner acting"? Interestingly, Attention Span was the only result from this search. I hope I can keep the Pyromaniacs from burning me in effigy.

99 luft balloons katrina - I think a hurricane would pretty much destroy 99 balloons, no matter how "luft" they are...

olympics revealing neckline ice 2006 - Did I miss a wardrobe malfunction during the compulsaries?

installing Amish clothesline - That must be the clothesline you don't have to plug in.

apocalyptic overreaction of the military - The last time I saw a phrase like that, Matthew Brodrick was playing chess against a computer in War Games. "Want to play a game? How about Global Thermonuclear War?"

purpose of turn your head and cough during a man's physical - Personally, I think it's to see how well a guy handles stress.

Of course you can always follow the avenue leading from my post at Christian Carnival CXV now up at The Secret Life of Gary.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

What's Wrong With Church - Solutions?

Over the past couple of weeks, we have looked at various aspects of the Christian church in Western civilization. Each piece has brought forward many valid complaints about the state of the local church:

What's Wrong With Church? - An Introduction
What's Wrong With Church? - Doctrine
What's Wrong With Church? - Club Mentality
What's Wrong With Church? - Glory Thieves
What's Wrong With Church? - The Business of Church
What's Wrong With Church? - Conforming to the World
What's Wrong With Church? - You and Me

Then to balance this out just a bit, we discovered things which only the church could do:

What's Right With Church?

This post was set up to help us realize that the idea of a local church is not something to be scrapped. There is a reason people assembled in "churches" since Paul went about planting them and sending folks like Timothy and Titus to be pastor/teachers of the congregations. Every church has its own set of problems and rebelliousness. A quick read of Revelation 2 and 3 will show us that many churches don't have it all together. Then a tour of 1 and 2 Corinthians will make us wonder how local churches have survived for almost 2000 years. Churches and problems seem to go hand in hand. But that's not what we want our churches to be like. We want everything perfect. Of course we each have our own definition of perfect. But now, as we wrap up this series, let's see what can be done to address the problems of the local church.

I'll start by saying up front that we begin to fix the local church by prayer. I am hoping that this is a given for most people, but I know that is probably not the case. Instead of digging in and staking our claim and defending the methods and people of "my church" the first attitude change must be to acknowledge that it is not "my church" but God's church. This harkens back to the post about stealing God's glory. But more than anything we must be praying for a mindset and a perspective which allows us to loosen our grip on "my church" and instead look to glorify God
through every service, every ministry, every prayer, every class and every meeting. We must be willing to accept that. We are caretakers of the church, but it is not ours in any sense of the word.

With that understood, perhaps the most effective step toward fixing the church would be, of course, getting rid of all the people. I realize that's not exactly practical. But since people are causing the hurt and the problems and the disputes, we need to address this important issue. I have a couple of ideas. They may seem radical to you, but I think we're at the point where radical is what we need.

The first is the quaint biblical notion of church discipline. Paul writes extensively in Corinthians about the problems which occur when sinfulness becomes tolerated and even celebrated within the context of God's people. Steps to church discipline are laid out by Jesus Himself in Matthew 18, and the principle is clearly featured in Paul's first letter to the church at Corinth. We, as Christians, are actually supposed to boot people from our fellowship!

I'm sure you all have scenarios running through your minds about what would happen if the church were to cast out Old Lady Jenkins, the human gossip machine. You're imagining the fallout from disassociating Old Man Taylor, the shady businessman on the church board. I know this sounds drastic, but it is what Scripture tells us to do. And Paul tells us why in 1 Corinthians 5:5:
"Hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord."
Discipline is not to be done to hurt someone, but to correct him.

Would there be catastrophic fallout if churches split because the denomination or the church board or the pastor and elders challenged the corrupt church patriarch? You bet there would be. But on the other hand, we're seeing some mighty big fallout right now because churches fail to keep themselves free from this nonsense.

Which brings me to my second suggestion. How about closing a few churches? This is not a conclusion I come to easily. The attitude of "letting them go" if they're "not hurting anyone" besides themselves seems like a good plan. It's non-confrontational. It lets the corrupt churches be happy among themselves. But aren't we supposed to rebuke our brothers and sisters in sin? Are we really supposed to let them continue without warning, without doing something? For years I favored letting these churches have their own little private parties each Sunday morning, but no longer. If a congregation has no desire to serve more than its own comfort zone, then they should mercifully be shut down. Denominations seeking more pastors would be well served to pull them from these "club churches" and put them to use where people want to seek God's face.

Finally, if we are to change the people who cause the problems, it is going to happen through the power of the Holy Spirit. We can pray. We can plead. We can try to reason with the unreasonable. But if the Christian who gives Christ a black eye by his or her actions is going to change, it's going to be done by the Spirit. That means that we are to provide the opportunities to get each person in touch with his Christian responsibilities. We are to put all kinds of effort into making disciples of those who are still sucking on baby bottles full of pablum. We are to give them the chance. And if they refuse, the Church must go on without them.

This all sounds so very hurtful. And I wonder what God feels like when He sees a person who claims to know Him but proves otherwise by her actions.

Then I remember the image of my Savior, riding on a donkey's colt to the cheers of the bystanders along the road to Jerusalem. As he approached the gleaming city on a hill, with the sound of "Hosanna!" ringing in His ears, He wept. He wept because most of the city was missing the incredible gift which it was to receive. I guess I'm supposed to feel this way.

If you have other suggestions of how to fix what's wrong with the church, I'd love to read them. Feel free to offer them up in the comments, or provide a link to your blog where you have posted them.

And for those of you who have been hurt by the well-meaning, but mistaken or by the selfish and ignorant or even by the arrogant and judgmental at a local church, I offer my apologies. But more than that, I don't want you to give up on the idea of being a part of a church. Sure there will be plenty of idiots to put up with. But by the same token, as I have learned on many occasions, they'll have to be putting up with you. It's the grace of God which He has freely given us that we
are in turn to offer to our brothers and sisters in Christ.

A Thief in the Night

If you're planning on breaking into a church in the near future, you may want to avoid this congregation. They take prisoners.

If the Lord literally comes like a thief in the night, I hope these folks don't break out the baseball bats!

(A tip of the ol' ballcap to Dunker Journal.)

Monday, March 27, 2006

What's Right With Church?

I've spent the bulk of this series ripping into the Western Church. I think I've given voice to many of the complaints of people who are dissatisfied or even outright angry with organized Christianity. I did this for a reason. For the most part, these people are right. The church really is all these things. Some steal God's glory. A chunk of them have serious doctrinal issues. Some have a club mentality. There are those which are too businesslike in their operations. Too many have conformed to the world. There is every reason in the world to not want to set foot in a sanctuary or associate with any church people again this side of eternity. But that's not the way it is supposed to be.

Oh sure, I've heard people claim that there is no biblical warrant for local churches but their arguments have been quite weak. While Christianity is the result of individual faith, it is also expressed corporately. And I think it is expressed at its finest in a corporate setting. You see, even with all the things the church does wrong, there are plenty of things the church does right.

Like it or not, some ministries require many people and much money -- more than one person or even one small group is going to be able to handle. Besides the self-serving things we like to point out, churches are also putting missionaries on the field, supporting inner-city outreaches, and setting up new programs which feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the strangers, and visit the sick and imprisoned. Could these things happen with individuals working together? Yes, it's possible but highly unlikely. It's only natural for a smaller group to have a smaller dream. The big dreams are usually envisioned and brought to fruition by the Holy Spirit working through a larger group of people.

Churches can make a difference in a community through their actions. Christianity needs a public face with which local people can identify. Seekers want someplace they can turn to in their search. Communities need visible groups of people to provide a moral presence. We all want to see Jesus represented in the public marketplace. That some churches fail in their mission does not negate the need or the usefulness of the local church in the slightest.

One of the things churches do best is to provide a loving support system for its members. I have personally lived through tragedy without a church family and fully realize that something God designed for our comfort was missing in the process. Our meeting together provides for our encouragement, our support, our repentance, and our sympathy. As brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus, we are designed to act not as long lost relatives but as God's children. A family.

Then there is the obvious answer for what churches do right. We worship together. I have some very touching times of worship in my private moments. God clearly communicates with me often while I am locked away in my prayer closet or with one or two other people. But there is absolutely nothing like worship in a corporate setting. Being blessed by the talents of others as they lead me in praising Him and applying Scripture to my life. There is the indescribable experience of coming to the Lord's Table with a group of believers. God uses these corporate worship times for our benefit. We bring Him our praise and we are blessed as well.

I remember the first time I attended a Promise Keepers event in Indianapolis. I couldn't tell you much about the speakers or what they said. But I remember lifting my voice along with 60,000 of my spiritual brothers inside a domed stadium. The tears flowed. There is something about knowing you're not alone. Like Isaiah after the slaughter at Mt. Carmel when he thought he was the last person alive who hadn't betrayed God, then being told that there is another large group of people who share your faith. It is not only reaffirming, but it is refreshing in a way that can hardly be put into words. The local church creates the same refreshment and encouragement every week.

I realize that I'm writing in generalities and that there are far too many churches who have no good points whatsoever. Yet as I stated before, the failure of some does not mean that need for the local church isn't valid. It works. Church glorifies God. It strengthens Christians. It reaches where individuals do not. It touches lives. Even with all the problems and headaches, we have no business throwing in the towel on the local church. And as Christians, we are responsible to make the assembly of belivers pleasing to our God and Savior.

Up next: Solutions?

Friday, March 24, 2006

What's Wrong With Church - You and Me

Many of you have detected a theme to this "What's Wrong With Church" series. Implicit in any discussion of doctrine, club mentality, glory stealing, running like a business and conforming to the world is an acknowledgement that it is the people who cause all the problems. Not just other people, but you and me also.

The picture below rings true for me -- bad colors, odd pose, lots of flowers and smiling faces. It looks like it could have been taken from the scrapbook of most any church in the 1970's. The three are inexplicably gathered around a sewing machine, probably the symbol of a missions project finished or something similar. The people look friendly enough. How could fine folks like this be what is actually wrong with church? Or even, how could a fine person like me be what is actually wrong with church?
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A common charge leveled at the church is that it is full of hypocrites. The people inside think they're better than the sinners outside, but they're just as bad if not worse. Certainly you've heard that if you haven't made the claim on your own. Sadly it can be very true. Church people are very protective of their turf and won't let just anybody intrude on their space. Fine smiles like we see in the picture could easily hide a spirit of pride and selfishness. A subtle (and occasionally not-so-subtle) form of classism rules. The club mentality is played out in church politics. Long-established members enjoy their positions of authority and power. In many congregations, any new project or idea must first be approved by a church patriarch or matriarch who essentially runs the church. If the patriarch approves, then all is well. If the patriarch rejects the notion, you might as well get a shovel and bury the thing.

If a patriarch has authority, it is very tempting for him to desire keeping the status quo. Needed change falls victim to the patriarch's axe. After all, change could mean a shift in the power structure. And anyone new in the congregation must bow the knee to the patriarch and wait for his approval to do any ministry. Many believers have been soured on the church due to church politics, often because of a small group of people terrified of losing their grip on "their" church.

In newer churches, the patriarch is often the founding pastor. The people are devotees of the pastor. This can be a real danger if the pastor is more interested in glorifying self instead of glorifying God. It is also dangerous if the goals put forth by the pastor are not goals for the church. While that's not always obvious, the temptation of pleasing others or pleasing self instead of seeking to please God is always strong.

This brings us to the issue of accountability. In denominations, the pastor and the church itself is to be accountable to higher authorities in the church. If the denomination has a strong enough structure, discipline can take care of terrible problems within the local congregation. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Dysfunctional churches are usually simply tolerated by the higher-ups, provided the church assessments keep coming in.

In cases where a denomination attempts to reign in the dysfunctional, the outraged congregants simply votes to go independent and avoid any accountability. A pastor in danger of denomiational discipline can simply move to a new denomination or link up with an independent church. And the problems perpetuate. Many independent churches have absolutely no accountability and too many times it is obvious to the spiritually discerning Sunday morning visitor.

A church shopper usually finds that there are certain expectations to be met if she wants to be a part of a certain congregation. She must be of the right social class. Intellectuals don't really want non-intellectuals around. The poor don't want the show-off affluent. Democrats don't want Republicans. Pro-lifers don't want abortion supporters. The potential member must meet the unofficial requirements before she has to worry about jumping through the other hoops -- bowing to the patriarch, be willing to volunteer for what the others don't want to do, don't try to rock the boat.

Perhaps the biggest problem with you and me is that as a church we don't usually stand for Jesus Christ. Sure, we mention Him in every prayer and we sings songs about Him, but do we really represent Him to the world? Too often we aren't looking to reach out to others. We aren't trying to meet the needs of the single mom or the lonely college student or anybody else who doesn't fit into our notions of who deserves our help. We reject the prostitutes and tax collectors that Jesus ministered to. We give the impression to the lost that we have no problem with them staying home, rejecting Christ and burning in hell. We show them by our actions that we don't care. We show them that we stand for absolutely nothing except perpetuating what we have now.

We are lazy people, you and me. Instead of seeking out ways to please God, we are content to please ourselves. Instead of reaching out to others, we find ways to exclude them. Instead of sharing the incredible news of salvation through the grace of God and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we distort the Gospel to meet our own preferences. Instead of submitting ourselves and our churches to God's word and God's will, we selfishly refuse to relinquish control of anything.

The biggest problem in church will always be the people in the church.

Up next: What's Right With Church?

Thursday, March 23, 2006

So Long, Cracker Jack

It's been a rough week around here. Monday morning I was awakened by my 12 year old son telling me that our pony was lying down in his stall and wouldn't get up. If you know much about horses, you know that's not a good thing.

When we moved here back in 1998 we had more backyard than we needed. My wife had horses while growing up. She had always wanted to get another, but that wasn't a great idea for our previous neighborhood. But here in the country, we had the room and at the county fair we found the horse. Pony, actually. A Welsh pony named Cracker Jack, just a little more than a year old. He was big for a pony, almost the size of a small horse, but he wasn't big enough for my wife to ride. But once he was trained, he could give our boys rides through the yard.

A few years ago we bought a cart and taught him to pull. He caught on quickly. It wasn't too long before he could pull the four of us down the road and back without incident. When my wife became pregnant the last time, she couldn't do the training anymore and we ended up selling the cart. Since then, Cracker Jack spent most of his time grazing in the pasture or even keeping the grass short in the yard. My four year old daughter would get a ride every once in a while too.

He was more like a dog than a pony. If I would walk by him on the other side of the fence, he would come up to me and follow me down the fence row. He'd even sneak up behind me and slide his big head under my arm and jostle me around, wanting to have a little attention.

We spent all day Monday trying to keep Cracker on his feet. Oftentimes a horse or pony will have abdominal problems. Sometimes the intestines will get blocked or even twisted around and knotted up. We knew that if Cracker's insides got knotted up, he wouldn't recover. So the best medicine was to keep him up and walking. I also brought an injection home from the vet to help relieve the gut pain. It was the first time I can remember having to give anything a shot. I guess I did it right.

I kept my 12 year old out of school on Monday. My wife had to work and I had my four year old at home. Figuring it would be hard to walk the pony outside while she was alone inside, the boy got the day off school. He did a great job walking him and even getting him up all by himself after Cracker had stopped to lie down. The vet even made a house call to give another shot and check his belly.

Things looked a little better Tuesday, as Cracker stayed on his feet. He didn't seem to want to lie down, so it wasn't necessary to walk him as much as the previous day. I gave him one more shot that evening, as he still hadn't given us any evidence that his intestines were in working order.

Wednesday the vet tried to lubricate the digestive system by running a tube down Cracker's nose and pouring in a mixture of oil and stool softener. After the vet left, Cracker got very restless. He wouldn't stand still. My wife walked him for about a mile. He laid down near the house and the two of us got him back on his feet. He was miserable and wanted us around. He would whinny at us when he caught sight of anyone outside.

Finally I left at 3:30 to get another injection. This time they gave me a tranquilizer, figuring that Cracker's insides had tied themselves into a knot. The vet must have been right. By the time I got back home at 4:10, Cracker was lying dead in his stall.

The family's reaction was varied. I was probably the most prepared, as I had been talking with the vet about what was going on. My 14 year old figured out what had happened before I could tell him. I think he was expecting it too. The 12 year old who had worked so diligently all day Monday then again Tuesday evening, was really broken up about it. My wife was sure that he was going to die Monday morning and remained convinced all week. But when the end came, she was the most broken hearted of all.

Finally it was time to tell my four year old girl. She looked at me for a minute, taking in the information. It wasn't the first time one of her pets had died. Finally she asked me, "How did he die?"

"He was so sick that his insides couldn't work right and he died."

"Oh, okay." The answer seemed to satisfy her. Later in the evening, she looked up at the starry sky and told me, "He's up there with God and Jesus." Isn't it amazing how a four year old can understand death? She told me that she would like to see him again and ride him again in heaven.

"Someday," I told her. "Someday."

I don't fully understand what happened with Cracker. The vet says that it's likely we'll never know. He also reminded me that there was nothing we really could have done, short of trucking him a few hours away and spending thousands of dollars on treatments with low success rates.

As I type this, I am waiting for a man to come to take away what's left of Cracker Jack. I can't bury him in the backyard as I have with all the other pets we've lost over the past few years. Ponies are different. But at the same time, they're so familiar. I remember those same feelings of helplessness, wanting to take away the pain from a sick child or needing to comfort my pregnant wife. I was reminded of the times when we had a sick infant who couldn't talk to tell us what was wrong. Once again I realized that I cannot control so many things around me.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

How To Get Here - 3/22/06

Still more roads which lead to Attention Span:

name for the fear of commitment - Somthing-better-may-come-along-ophobia?

lyrics "My life - channel" - I have no idea what this person was searching for, but do we have enough cable channels that we can each have one for ourselves now? And can I fast forward to see how my day is going to turn out before getting up in the morning?

I loved the person I thought you were - Try searching at

Altzheimer Disease Fear of washing hair - Another hair search leads to the blog of a bald guy! God and Google each have their own sense of humor.

attention span for church members - I'd guess about ten minutes from the beginning of the sermon. At least that's the way it looks from the pulpit!

Cheer up, Sleepy Jean. Oh What can it mean to a Jesus believer - Are the Monkees on tour with Third Day?

delilah topless - Apparently somebody's Bible doesn't have as many pictures as he would like...

Of course you can always follow the avenue leading from my post at Christian Carnival CXIV which is posted now over at all kinds of time.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

What's Wrong With Church - Conforming to the World

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I have already briefly discussed the charge leveled against many churches of being run like businesses. Provided we aren't losing the purpose of the church along the way, a certain amount of businesslike structure is necessary. But it's in this area where lines can become blurred after a while. A church is not a business, yet the two entities have some natural similarities. If leaders do not keep the true purpose of the church at the forefront of their minds, the church can morph into an odd reflection of just another business. The trick is being able to work within contemporary society without becoming just like it. A church must not conform to the world any more than a Christian should conform. But it happens.

In a way, it's odd that we think that conforming to the world is bad but at the same time see churches built to mirror what we see in society around us. How similar should the church be to the world? Where is that line? I'm not sure we could all agree on where to draw it, but most of us can easily see when it's been crossed (in our own subjective opinion, of course). And I think much of that is because conforming is mostly a condition of the heart and not simply a physical appearance. But we see it as "looking too much like" or "sounding too much like" instead of "trying to be just like" and I think we miss a great deal when we do.

It's easy to take shots at the church for thinking like the world. We do it all the time. The world likes things bigger and better. The church... well, same thing. Is there any real reason we count the people who attend each weekend? Is there a point to keeping a running score of the number of members in each local church? There must be, right? But to tell you the truth, I'm not sure why. To measure success? Perhaps, if your definition of success translates easily into numerical trends. But isn't the job of the church to not only make converts, but also to make disciples? It's not always about quantity, but quality. I've visited churches that are a mile wide but only an inch deep. How about you? Certainly it doesn't take a theological genius to distinguish between a church of 300 people and a church of 300 disciples.

So why do we count? Because we naturally determine success by keeping score -- just as the world does. If I am at a pastoral conference among strangers, I am certain to be asked three questions: 1) Where is your church? 2) Which denomination is your church a part of? 3) How many people do you average on Sunday? If the person knows the answer to #1 and #2, then it doesn't take long to get to #3. And once the answer is given, the questioner has mentally determined if my church is successful or not. Isn't that ridiculous? It is. But I find that I do it too. I'm trying to break that habit. But the world continues to work at forming me in its image.

One of the scarier complaints is that there are churches who are trying to be cool. It's hard to believe, especially when "cool" is almost always an anti-establishment term. Church is establishment. Yet some complain that churches try to slink away from what they have always been to be seen as something new. I'd call it the "hip factor" but the word "hip" isn't too "hip" these days. Therein lies a problem. If a church tries to be cool, it had better keep up with the times. Each generation -- X, Y, Boomer, Buster, Whatever -- has it's own image. To conform to each preference is impossible.

But beyond that, is the issue of why we would appear to conform. Do we try to appeal to Generation Y to reach them or to not look out of date? Some charge it's nothing but surface change with no real desire to reach the next generation. I'm not sure that is accurate, but again appearances are subjective. It comes back once again to the state of the heart.

The hot button issue of the past few decades is music. Some charge that putting a drummer with a trap kit in the sanctuary is not only conforming to the world, but falling in line with Satan! I've read the propaganda from those who claim that specific music styles are "of the devil" and are sacreligious to use in a worship setting. "If it wasn't written by Fanny Crosby or Charles Wesley, we'll have to put it to a council vote." You know the type. But I'm still hard pressed to find the Satanism in Lord, I Lift Your Name on High or Shout To the Lord. Maybe I'm just not spiritually discerning enough.

Finally there is the emphasis in many churches placed upon having the best. Certainly this attitude is nothing new in the church. For years it was an unwritten rule that those attending church would dress in their "Sunday best" to show respect for God. These days it is assumed that excellence is to be the goal in everything the church does. Polished music teams, flawless technology, spotless facilities, entertaining services. God help the poor soloist who is a little "pitchy" during her song or teacher who stumbled through a prayer. We want to project the best. But like wearing our best clothes, our motives can lose their way in the pursuit of excellence.

Many stories have been told of poor folks who felt very unwelcome in a church because their best clothes didn't measure up to the church folk's expectations. I've also heard from people who were embarrassed that their best singing or playing wasn't good enough for their brothers and sisters in Christ. Many times I've heard from pastors who were told they weren't good enough or that their messages "didn't feed" the right people. Somehow the average Christian in the pew can go through a transformation so they he or she can determine what is worthy of God or not. That isn't a matter of having the right heart, but a matter of thinking like the world. God is not honored by the biggest and best building if it isn't built to bring Him glory. God is not glorified by the most beautiful voice if the song is sung to garner human approval. In this sense, far too much in the church has been conformed to the world.

But in most things we face a dilemma: being conformed to the world outwardly is seen in different ways by all kinds of people. Since the hearts of those involved cannot be known, charges of being too worldly are easily made and subjectively proven. The "right" way to worship or to dress or to do anything in the church is often seen through the periscope of each person's preferences. Fights are easily picked. Offense is easily taken. Churches are easily torn apart. Innovative ministries are often squashed for fear of looking too much like the world instead of being used to the glory of God.

Yet there are still many churches who are guilty of conforming to the world for no other reason than the comfort and reputation of the people who attend. Congregations fight over which is the biggest and most popular within a community while some seekers are brushed aside because they aren't rich enough or cool enough to add to the net value of the church. Paul wrote,

"Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind."

When the mind is renewed, the heart will be also. And when our hearts and minds are transformed by a genuine desire to grow as Christ's disciples and to bring others into that kind of relationship with Him, then we are not shaped by the world but by the Creator.

Up next: You and Me.

Monday, March 20, 2006

What's Wrong With Church? - The Business of Church

I have heard complaints from people who are angry that their church is being run too much like a business. I've never quite understood that objection -- after all any group of people who collect money should have some sort of business organization, for accountability if nothing else. I wouldn't put anything in the plate if the money was just dumped in the vestabule and was gone by the time the last person left the building. Church bills must be paid -- electricity, phone, etc. Employees who draw a salary must have taxes withheld. Clearly there must be some sense of "business" to a local church.

I think the objection is more rightly described as a church being run with the same goals as a retail store or a factory. The bottom line for a business is the bottom line. The bottom line for a church is glorifying God. That is the bottom line, right? We may try to statistically analyze every possible indicator which can be added, subtracted and divided by pi, but it's all about glorifying God. Right?

Sure, I've known church board members whose major concern is the financial picture. Some of them don't seem to have much concern about the need for evangelism, especially when the offerings are down. But then again, those people were using their God-given abilities to help the ministry of the church.

So what about using marketing techniques to reach more people? Are there specific rules to be followed if a church wants to invite seekers to visit? Are radio ads too worldly? What about a television spot? A full-page newspaper advertisement? It seems that anything other than posting service times and unlocking the doors can be seen as too commercial and anything less can be viewed as uncaring. It's a lose-lose. Anyone can complain and see that their complaint has merit. Perhaps this criticism is more a matter of preference than a definite standard. Perhaps I'm missing something, but for the most part I don't see a church being run like a business to be a problem, provided the goal is to glorify God instead of to make a profit.

This does lead us into another area though...

Up next: Conforming to the World.

Friday, March 17, 2006

A Quick Apology

I just wanted to offer a brief apology for my posting infrequently over the past two weeks, and especially during the current series. Life's problems, most of them of my own making, have held things up. We're about halfway through the What's Wrong With Church? series. My thanks for the kind words and for your patience.

What's Wrong With Church? - Glory Thieves

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"Ah, such a beautiful building! What happy, smiling people! There are so many! This church does so much for the community! Your pastor is such a dynamic speaker! I really like the way you make it easy to get from the parking lot to the sanctuary. I just can't say enough about your church!"

What's wrong with the above string of praises? On the surface, nothing. Compliments on a church facility or the people or the pastor or the charity work... those are fine. Where the problem lies is in the response of the church. Does the church accept those comments as praise heaped upon them or as praise for the One who deserves it? Deeper still, does the church exist to draw comments like the above paragraph? Are we looking to glorify the local church? Are we rejoicing in glorifying our pastor or our denomination? Are we trying to glorify ourselves? Or is our church doing ministry so that the world "may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven"? There are far too many churches who seek to glorify themselves first and foremost. They brag about their denomination and show off their celebrity pastor. And somewhere in the process the glory due to God gets waylayed. Sidetracked. Stolen.

One of the most basic excuses is that anytime the church is lauded, so is God. And to a certain extent there is some truth to this. But as with most everything in our lives, God is more interested in the condition of our hearts rather than the justification slathered on afterward. So you've built a $15 million facility. Is it for God's glory or for your own comfort? Be careful with the answer because God knows what's in your heart.

Is God more glorified in a huge cathedral or a school gymnasium? Does a huge and beautiful facility really reveal God's character? What about a hut made of sticks in the jungles of South America? Why do we get so caught up in having a nice church campus? First, because some people won't bother to come hear if the building isn't comfortable -- trying to please the world. I've wrestled with this whole issue previously. Certainly there is a need to keep a person from being physically uncomfortable, but too many churches cross the line into luxury and opulence.

The second reason we want the church to be nice is because it is for us. Just as we attempt to make improvements in our houses and try to have the latest, fastest technology, and strive to make everything as easy as possible in our lives, we take that same mindset and try to squeeze the church into it as well.

Third, we want things to look good so that others will be impressed by them. Let's be honest about things, we enjoy having people talk about our wonderful facilities. The sanctuary or the gym are bragging points. But it's more than just the facilities. We want the most entertaining music, the most charismatic pastor, the fastest-growing denomination or church. We take pride in our blessings rather than in our Blesser. We gladly accept the praise of man for ourselves in our finest Pharisaic style.

The dangers of stealing God's glory are not readily apparent unless your are looking at the situation spiritually. It all seems right to have the best... to keep up with the Jones' church and maybe a little better. It seems normal to take pride in the "selling points" of one's denomination or pastor or church, but the church exists to enable His people to give Him the praise and worship and honor and glory which He and He alone so richly deserves. If we steal His glory, our heart is in the wrong place. It's not supposed to be about us. It's about Him. And if our boasting is in anything other than Christ Jesus, we are taking the glory which so rightly belongs to God.

May the words of the Apostle Paul be the prayer of each and every person within a church and within the Church:
May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.

Up next: The Business of Church.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

And now for something completely different...

Pining for musical comedy with a theological slant? Been wondering exactly where Mary Poppins meets Martin Luther? Come sing The Reformation Polka!

How To Get Here - Mid March '06

More recently paved roads which have led people to Attention Span:

Old racist white guys - So, are there more wrinkles on the face or on the sheets?

teenagers wearing racists clothing - The trouble with police work is you can never get an accuate description. Teenagers? The last guy said they were old guys!

song on sandlot with vomiting at carnival - Oh sure, that song. Yeah, they just don't write 'em like that anymore...

pretty people - How that ever got someone to MY blog, I'll never know. I'm only vaguely "people" let alone "pretty!"

George Carlin on baptism so, father, what if I was in the middle of the ocean - Now come on, how many words can you fit in that search engine, anyway?! Why do I find it odd that there are two commas in this string and neither one is between baptism and so?

comfort in chairs leads to more attention span - This is absolutely true. When I'm comfortable in my chair, I tend to type more for this blog. Chances are, when you are comfortable in your chair, you'll sit there longer reading. I may have to make this my blog's motto.

As long as you're comfortable, you can try out yet another road which has just opened coming directly from my post at Christian Carnival CXIII which is posted now over at Light Along the Journey. Lots of other great reads there as well!

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

What's Wrong With Church - Club Mentality

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I've spent far too much time shaking my head at the actions of church members. I've heard far too many stories of the most unchristian responses from supposedly Christian individuals. Certainly we're all sinners and can't be expected to behave as we should every time, but often that is simply an excuse for not seeking to do as Christ has taught. It's a cop out. And I see it done primarily in those people who view their church as a club.

What do I mean by that? I mean those churches who guard their traditions and their people from all who might change something and have little regard for others outside of their own sanctuary. A church where one must be an accepted part of the group or else face virtual shunning. I'm sure you know about them. I could show you a small church where the pastor would bring visitors on Sunday only to have them virtually ignored for the better part of two hours by the spiritually negligent. Why were these folks ignored? They were different. They wouldn't fit in. They're not "one of us" -- meaning they aren't going to be allowed to become "one of us" at any cost.

I myself have visited a large church where not one person spoke to me during my entire time on church property. Why not? Certainly I must be with someone else. I wasn't part of the crowd they usually talked and visited with. I wasn't recognized. I wasn't part of the club. Although it's easiest to detect in small churches, this club mentality is very much alive within any sized congregation -- even house churches or small groups. One such group that I was a part of got a bit big, but refused to split in half for fear of losing what they already had. They didn't want to give up the club. I'll admit that I didn't want to give it up either, but I was willing to do it. I may have been the only one.

Some of the freakiest people on earth are church people. In a fellowship where people are to be loving God with all they have and loving their neighbor as themselves, far too many people never move beyond the "loving themselves" part. Or maybe the person who has sat in the next pew for the past twenty years. That attitude doesn't make sense. Either they are not paying attention, or they simply refuse to believe that any of that stuff the preacher is rattling off actually applies to them!
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Dana Carvey skewered these people on Saturday Night Live years ago when he invented the character known as The Church Lady. Carvey said that he got the idea for the character remembering how some of the old ladies acted at the church he attended while growing up. They were all sweet and lovely one moment but could turn and be acidic and judgmental the next. If you were a part of the "club", you would be welcomed and fawned over -- provided you didn't cause any trouble. Step out of line or disagree with anything and the fangs and claws were brought out. And watch out for that "superior dance."

The stories are numerous. Churches splitting over the color of the carpeting or pastors being fired for altering the order of service. Importance is put on the club and its traditions. "We've always done it this way," is one of the church's most frequently used justifications. Never mind if the ministry doesn't work or if the tradition gets in the way of serving Christ, just don't change anything! The thought is often expressed, "Why can't they just do things our way?" instead of considering that "our way" isn't doing anybody any good. The thought that God could be honored by a three-hour charismatic service AND a 60-minute traditional service AND a down-home prayer meetin' AND a high church liturgical service would never even occur to most club members. It's "my way" or the highway -- the one paved with good intentions.

What is it that turns a group of Christian believers looking to serve Jesus Christ into a club looking only to perpetuate itself? Losing connection with the Head. There are countless buildings, less-than-half-full of people, who claim the name of Christ but only on their own terms. The charge to serve others is lost upon them, except when "others" refers to people they accept. Picture the priest and the Levite stepping over the poor bleeding robbery victim and you'll see more clearly. "I'm late to get to the Temple," or "I don't want to get blood on my good clothes" doesn't cut it as an excuse when we're dealing with those who need help. Their solution is to tell the victim to turn his life around and "do things like we do in our church... only do it in somebody else's church."

I know I'm being hard on these folks. I'm probably exaggerating a little, but somehow I doubt that. These folks make me maddest of all. These are the people taking God's name in vain -- dragging His name through the mud -- all because they don't want to be moved from their comfort zone. I've read many times in the Bible where God says He will comfort us, but I don't read where we are supposed to get comfortable. That's when we get stagnant. And stagnant stinks. Sadder still, these clubs pass this odoriferous mentality on for as long as the club doors can remain open. The result is that these people miss the point of what Jesus Christ is all about.

"Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?"

"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'

Up Next: Glory Thieves

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

For Catharine

I don't usually take a separate post to answer a commenter, but I thought this one deserved special consideration. Catharine left this comment on the "Very Special Episode" post and I thought it addressed the subject matter from a completely different perspective. Here is what she wrote:

I left the Church (and, now that you mention it, I was running) two years ago. It wasn't about being fed or being loved. My home church was very loving and supportive. My crisis of faith was in believing in a religion where such a huge population of the practitioners wholly and completely ignored their Savior's call to mercy, nonjudgement, tolerance and love, in order to continue their petty little hate-mongering and fascist ideology.

I felt that, if I were to continue my association wtih such an organization, I would be complicit in the furtherance of such evil. I don't "hate fags," I don't believe that God intends for women to be subordinate to men, I don't believe that God has ordained the upper-middle-class white guy as arbiter of all things Christian.

Being a former history major I can tell you with 100% certainty that, despite with teh President of the United States tells you, this country was not founded by Christianity or on Christian principles, but was in fact, founded by a handful of men who referred to themselves as Deists. Full stop. End of story. They weren't Christians. Get over it.

So American, contrary to current public opinion, is not a Christian nation. It is a nation built on the premise that there be no national or state religion, and that, regardless of how the majority worships, every person living under the aegis of this great country and her miraculous Constitution should be free to do so in peace, tolerance and acceptance. It is nothing less than your Messiah preached 2000 years ago. Yet so very, very few Christians see their way clear to live in that.

I left the Church -- running -- because I knew that if I spent one more minute there, supporting a system which was turning my beloved democratic republic into a theocratic autocracy, which I find repugnant and despicable on every level, I would be suborning that action -- upholding it -- giving comfort to it.

My soul and my conscience simply could not allow it. I have since turned to Deism myself, in a attempt to retreat to the teachings of the men who created this great country -- Jefferson, Paine, Franklin, Washington.

And -- I mean this with the utmost sincerity without a hint of sarcasm -- thank you for asking. No one in the Church ever has.

Catharine I'm not going to patronize you, but let me tell you right up front that I am sorry. I am sorry for the way that group of Christians treated not only you, but also many other people. It's funny that a group who can be very "loving and supportive" can also be merciless, judgemental, intolerance and unloving. Maybe funny isn't the right word. Odd would work. So would sad.

I'm not going to defend those people. You see, they disgust me as much as they disgust you. Reading your thoughts I can see that you are not afraid to speak out against the things you disagree with. You want to change things. So do I. That's much of the reason I'm writing this series about what is wrong with the church. I don't want a group of morons to do to anyone what they did to you -- give you the impression that Christianity is about legalistic living and conforming to the church's wishes. I'll admit that I've seen churches and Christians like the ones who drove you from the church. But that's not the way Christianity is supposed to work.

The problem is simply that we Christians are no better than you deists. We want to be better. We wish we were. But we're not. We have our own prejudices and quirks. We hate watching society decay just as you do. We detest injustice in the world. But like everyone else, we have our selfish side. And that selfish side speaks very loudly in the darkness of our souls. Too loudly. And it's all too easy to please ourselves rather than to start tilting at windmills. Forgive us for that.

I do notice that your comment isn't directed to me as much as it is directed at Christians in general. Since you do that, I won't bother to point out that I'm not any too concerned with the religious beliefs of a bunch of occasionally brilliant men who lived a couple of centuries previous. I'm a big history buff, and we could probably have some great discussion about it, but the truth is it really doesn't matter what they thought about God. What matters is our own individual opinions and how we act upon those opinions. I know I'm a failure working toward my goal of living a perfect life. I'm also a failure at living a perfect day. That's why I am grateful that my God is a merciful God. He forgives me when I ask Him because I've trusted Him with my life for all eternity. I want to reflect that exact mercy toward everyone else, but again I'm a failure, just as you are and everyone else taking in oxygen on this planet.

You ran from the church because you saw your political views out of step with the other church members. The sad thing is that Jesus isn't about politics. Jesus is about people. So instead of seeking after the opinions of mere men and women, why not seek after the opinion of the One who created them? You can ask questions. God can handle them. It's just that some of us idiots don't know how to handle them as well as our God. Sorry about that.

Finally, I'm very sorry for the fact that nobody either missed you or they didn't respect you enough to ask why you left the church. Too many times we don't want to hear. We're bad that way. But know that there are quite a few of us who are willing to listen. The reason I'm bothering with this series of blog posts is to try to spur some thought on how we can be more like Jesus and less like the uncaring, unloving people from your old church. Thanks for pointing out just how far we have to go and the extent of the damage we can do.

Monday, March 13, 2006

What's Wrong With Church - Doctrine

Let's start our look at the church with a problem which Scripture warns us about repeatedly -- the importance of doctrine. Already I realize that there are people hurriedly moving their mouse, trying to close this window, disgusted and disappointed that a discussion of a practical subject like improving the church is beginning with such a theoretical and theological approach. But I ask that you bear with me, because there is little to be discussed which is not practical, and little to be done which does not deal with the issue of basic Christian doctrine. Peter and Paul each warned the early Church to guard their doctrine closely. So did John and James. Why? Because doctrine is the foundation for the way the Christian as an individual and the church as a whole do things.

I see churches going both ways. There are some who guard doctrine very closely, but the list of which doctrines should be guarded gets extremely long. Finally some of the most trivial decisions a local church can make are considered a strict matter of determining God's will. Denominations divide over secondary issues which are not expressly spoken of in Scripture. People are cast out of the fellowship for offering a different perspective on being saved without baptism or which Bible translation is allowed in the sanctuary. Doctrine gives way to legalism. Strict codes of behavior must be adhered to or else face an official or unofficial boot from the congregation, and perhaps from heaven itself. Usually these churches are giving Christ a black eye by their disparaging remarks toward "sinners", all the while acting as if their own sins are easy for God to overlook. I'll address these hypocrites later in the series, but those whose doctrine about debateable issues is inflexible make many people consider the church to be impractical and foolish.

However, lately the trend has been going the other way. Doctrine is taking a back seat in many church circles. Some have tossed it out of the back seat altogether, leaving it lying there on the side of the road. Doctrine, after all, scares people. It is a series of claims about what is true in a culture where truth's absolute nature is discounted. Where the legalists want to make most everything essential Christian doctrine, the other side wants to erase the lines altogether. The Trinity, the reliability of Scripture, man's depravity, salvation without Jesus, the physical resurrection of Christ -- the doctrines which many Christians have shed their blood to preserve are being swept away in a spirit of unity at any cost. If we stand for nothing, we fall for anything. The fact that unbiblical practices are commonplace at some churches which call themselves Christian are proof that removing a strong stand for the essentials of the faith will lead to most any practice entering the church. Discernment is unnecessary if anything is possible. An honest look at the "anything goes" stance on church doctrine will lead a person away from the church. After all, if any interpretation is acceptable, then why would a believer have any need of a group of fellow believers or a shepherd to protect and guide them through uncertain teachings and uncertain times?

We need a clear teaching as a church. Don't misunderstand. I'm not saying that everyone who walks in the doors of a church must sign some sort of creedal statement or risk being ushered back to the parking lot. But I am saying that the stated goal of a church should be to teach, promote and adhere to the core doctrines of the Christian faith. Anyone in a pastoral position should agree and teach these doctrines. Anyone who wants to take a leadership role within a local church should agree with these essentials. And anyone, regardless of belief system, should be not only allowed in the doors, but be encouraged to attend to hear the Word of God, especially as it pertains to those doctrines.

If the question you're asking is, "Is this guy a Fundamentalist?" my answer to you is to stop trying to label me and deal with the facts. There are basic tenants of the Gospel which are to be held to. Let's deal with that instead of trying to attach a label to people.

The problem of a lack of church doctrine is expressed in any number of ways within the local congregation. Discipleship is not encouraged. Spiritual disciplines are not taught, recommended or practiced. The Bible is mentioned in passing, but messages are preached from a self-help perspective. A Christian worldview is unheard of, let alone taught. Without a clear teaching of doctrine, there is no foundation to build upon.

Unless a church stands for the historic doctrines of the faith, experience becomes more important than truth. The excesses of certain Charismatic movements have illustrated a person's willingness to accept anything which "seems right" to them. And a lack of grounding in Christian doctrine prevents any kind of spiritual discernment. Any emphasis leading one to neglect or abandon the study and meditation upon God's Word is wrong. It doesn't matter if the experience feels good or if it takes place at the front of the church, if it contradicts Scripture it is wrong. And if a church belittles the Bible in favor of experience, that church is in grave error. I am not arguing against anyone's experiences. Each of those experiences are separate issues. What I am saying is that without a solid stated belief in the essential doctrines of Scripture, a church is not making disciples of Christ, but disciples of a church or of a preacher or of a self-help philosophy.

Is there still room for denominational differences? Of course. There may even be some wiggle room on exactly which doctrines are essential. But churches who are afraid to offend by standing for Christianity and churches who needlessly take extreme positions on debateable points of theology are part of what's wrong with church today.

Up next: Club Mentality.

Friday, March 10, 2006

What's Wrong With Church? - An Introduction

When I started formulating ideas for this series, I wanted it to explore reasons and solutions. I don't want to lay down a multi-part diatribe against churches, nor do I want to write a scathing condemnation of those who either have left the church or feel no need to be a part of one. There were a few raised eyebrows when I used the term "ran away from the church" in my post last week, but let's be honest here, that is an accurate phrase. Running away from the church is not the same as running away from God, but that is often what happens.

So I want to begin with some definitions. What constitutes "the Church" anyway? For my purposes, I'll use the big C "Church" to designate the Church Universal and the little c "church" when I'm talking about the local church. There are all kinds of arguments that the "church" is the only true expression of the "Church" but I'm going to leave that alone for the time being. I'll also delay dealing with the argument that the Bible doesn't call for a "church", only a "Church" until we get going here.

Who are those who have "run away" from church? In this discussion, I will specifically talk about those people who purposely stay away from any church. There are plenty of people who are "between churches" at any given moment and get frustrated with the whole visiting process. I understand that. I will give the benefit of the doubt to those people, even though many times people aren't very motivated to get to that next church. I think some who have left the church began by being between churches, then stopping in mid-stream.

The purpose of this series is to try to find some answers. Why are people staying away from the church? What are churches doing wrong? Why are the people staying away? Are they legitimate problems or the product of a sin nature and a self-absorbed culture? What about house churches instead of the tradition, institutional kind? What does God want from us?

I don't think there are many crystal clear answers applicable in every instance, with the possible exception of that last question. But there are trends we can notice. But in searching for answers, the conversation must be generalized. It is uncomfortable for me to sit and type criticisms of the church, knowing full well that some churches don't have some of these problems. It is just as tough to type criticisms of people when there are many cases where the generalities do not apply. I am not trying to attack anyone's character or salvation. I just want some solutions that both sides can address. If you take offense, fine. I'm sure some on each side of the argument will do just that. But let's figure out what is wrong together and work toward finding answers.

As a pastor, it has been asserted that I have a bias here. Well, I do. I'm a churchman. I make no apologies for that. However I am hardly a traditionalist as some would try to label me. That could be because of my background. I have been a pastor for nine years and a Christian as far back as I can remember. But there was also a time when I was not a part of a church. For nearly seven years I mostly avoided church. I wasn't rejecting God so much as I was too lazy and intimidated to find a church. The fact that I was moving to a new state every two years didn't help matters either. But I suffered through the same struggles as many who have run away. I found every legimate criticism I could to justify my own actions. In the end, it became more about seeking God and His will for me than it was trying to find a perfect church. It must have been, because I didn't find a perfect church. I found one where it was hard for an outsider to become accepted; where you were expected to be of a certain economic and educational standing; where the church's customs were expected to become your own; where you were lost in a sea of people, yet at the same time alone and sticking out like a sore thumb. That was the church I found -- the Western church, shaped as a product of our culture.

I thank all of you for your comments on the question thread last week. As we go through the series, I hope you'll continue to question and comment on anything that strikes you. Above all, I hope that this series will spur some thought to those of you in a church to do something in your own life or with your church to help alleviate these problems. And I hope God may use it to direct those who have left the church to help overcome past hurts and issues. May it be a fruitful process for all of us!

Thursday, March 09, 2006

How To Get Here - 3/9/06

Still more roads which have landed people here at Attention Span. So far as I know, none of these were the result of googlebombing from John the Methodist:

what does it mean to have a dizzy head - You've been watching DVDs the wrong way?

trump pretty woman - Why am I picturing Julia Roberts with a really bad hair-do?

"It's all about me" t-shirts - No need to wear your heart on your sleeve when you can wear your selfishness on your chest!

naked rears - I'm guessing this searcher was trying to find the manufacturer of those skimpy hospital gowns which never have enough material to close in the back.

What's wrong with Rick Warren? - Attention Span is not If Rick wants a diagnosis, he'll have to turn his head and cough like every other man taking a physical. And tell him to hold his robe together in the back.

winter olympic words starting with y - Yawn? Yellow snow? Yikes, another figure skater falling?

Stay alert. You may find that all roads don't lead to heaven, but apparently all roads lead to Attention Span.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Bad Week To Be 44

The post title doesn't have anything to do with the fact that I haven't posted anything of substance in almost a week. It's not an excuse that I haven't finished outlining and started posting my series on "What's Wrong With Church" -- that's something I'll get posted very soon. But going through the weekend with access to the news, I was struck by the passing of two very different people. In fact, if not for the entertainment culture in this country you would never see these two people's pictures posted together.

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The picture on the left is labelled for you. He's Minnesota Twins slugger Kirby Puckett, who died after suffering a stroke this past weekend. The picture on the right is Dana Reeve, widow of Superman actor Christopher Reeve. Reeve died after a battle with lung cancer, contracted despite the fact that she never smoked. Puckett was 45. Reeve was either 44 or 45, depending on the report. I am 44.

I've never been worried about my own mortality. I'm going to die sometime. Who isn't?

In the past, I was amused by older folks who get the local newspaper to check the obituaries. I would always ask, "So, have you made the paper?" Nobody ever hit me. A couple of times I think it crossed their minds though!

Today I am the one checking obituaries, but it's not so I can see if my classmates or even if I made the paper. These days I check it as part of my job as a pastor -- to see if anyone's relatives are listed. I see the occasional infant and the almost-commonplace suicides, but for the most part the obituaries don't hit home for me. The deaths of Puckett and Reeve last weekend didn't really make me struggle, but my wife did look at me funny for most of an afternoon as if checking me for terminal symptoms.

Death still ranks as one of the biggest fears of most human beings. I talk to many people who are facing life and death challenges. Surgery, cancer, diabetes and just plain old age cause different reactions in people. Some are genuinely scared, but most people facing death have a certain determination. Whether a believer or not, each person makes his or her own peace with the Grim Reaper. Faith is placed in something. We know that faith in anything besides Christ Jesus isn't going to save, but that doesn't keep many from having faith in the illusions of good works or a God grading on a curve.

I don't fear death, but at the same time I'm not out looking to invite it to dinner either. First, God has given me a life and He expects me to do something with it. Second, if I died today there would be many headaches and sorrows for the ones who don't come with me. That's the real agony for most people who are dying. We hate to cause people pain. So, we try to make things as easy on our loved ones as possible. We don't buy life insurance for our own benefit, but for our beneficiaries -- usually our families. We write wills, pre-plan funerals, set up trust funds and perform countless other details so that our loved ones won't have financial difficulties after our passing.

However the most important preparatory detail we can perform is the way we live our lives and how we prepare others for eternity, not simply for the temporary. I want my kids, my wife, my friends, my acquaintances, my blog readers, and even those who just stumble upon my obituary to know that my trust is in Christ -- not just for after death, but before death as well. So even if death comes at age 45, I have provided not just the economic groundwork, but a spiritual foundation built upon the rock of Christ Jesus. After all, I want them with me in heaven too. Death is only swallowed up in victory with the Lord.

I offer my prayers for the families of Kirby Puckett and Dana Reeve. I pray for all those affected by their lives and their actions. And I pray that their passing may spur on a few other 44 and 45 year olds (and anyone else) to provide not only financially, but eternally as well.

Sunday, March 05, 2006


Just a quick note to alert y'all that Amy, of Amy's Humble Musings, finally had that baby after a pregnancy of well over 52 months. Or something like that. Stop by and say congratulations and take a peek at the baby!

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Good Reads - Early March '06

I've been busy this week setting up the blog series for next week and a couple of sermon series for the church, so blogging has been light. However, I've found a few posts which I really enjoyed:

Ever run into an athevangelist? A protester standing outside your church with a sign proclaiming "GOD IS FAKE"? How would your church handle it? Here's how one church did it, posted by sparrow at Intent.

Do you know what every married person should know? Jim Martin of A Place For the God-Hungry has begun a series entitled 41 Things Married People Ought To Know. Start with part one.

I'm not sure if I can go along with Mark Driscoll's central thesis, but from the figures it appears the Presbyterians are dying off. Is it true that churches with a low view of Scripture diminish while those with a high view of Scripture tend to grow? Perhaps if those with a low view of Scripture simply stop attending a church. Beyond that, I'll need a little more convincing.

You think you're writing a lot? Check out the list of Ben Witherington's books coming out this year as well as the rest of his schedule. Sounds like some interesting reading for my wish list.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Representing Christ

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It's amazing what passes for a story about religion these days. This article from the Los Angeles Times last week is clearly filed under "Religion" yet the story is about Thomas Kinkade, an artist known as the Painter of Light. The report is about the outcome of an arbitration case where a couple of Kinkade fans became Kinkade Gallery owners, then felt betrayed by Kinkade's company, lost money, closed the gallery and took the Painter of Light to court to recover damages. The couple's initial investment was $122,000. Through hard work, they made up to $60,000 one year. Their arbitrated winnings? $860,000, although the amount may be inflated to around $3.5 million when interest and attorney fees are figured in.

The crux (pun intended) of the story is that the couple alleges that Kinkade and his associates used his faith to get potential gallery owners to trust the painter's company. The panel stated that besides failing to disclose material information to the potential gallery owners,
...Kinkade and other company officials used the artist's familiar Christian-oriented themes to create "a certain religious environment designed to instill a special relationship of trust" with the couple. ... "Media Arts through its agents Thomas Kinkade, Ken Raasch and Barnett, in particular, held itself out to be acting on a higher plain," the panel said in its written opinion, adding that the men frequently used terms such as "partner," "trust," "Christian" and "God" to convey a sense of "higher calling" to [the couple].
So the focus of the story (but a secondary focus to the arbitrators) was that of using Christian faith to build trust where none was deserved. Let's face it, the story is pretty boring otherwise. People are deceived in business deals all the time. Still others are too naive to ask good questions or do good research before sinking a ton of money into a business. But when Christianity is involved, then it's a story. Man bites dog. Hypocritical Christian swindles (misleads) gullible couple.

My point is not to condemn or defend Kinkade and company, nor to belittle a couple who trusted people without checking out the situation very well. My point is not even in the outrageous amount of money awarded by two of three court-appointed arbitrators or the cut taken home by the attorneys. My point is that as professing Christians, everything we do is seen in the light (again, pun intended) of our belief system. And any chance to show Christians as anything less than what we purport our Savior to be is cheered by the world like the villain's demise in a melodrama. After all if Christians are just as bad as everyone else, then nobody needs to be bothering me to read a Bible or say a prayer or waste my time and money going to church.

It's tough to take the name of Christ upon us. It's impossible to live up to. There is precious little earthly reward in the eyes of the world. Oh, those eyes... watching, waiting, hoping to see us slip up. Because when we fail, it's not personal news, it's not business news. It's religion.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

How To Get Here - In like a lamb, out like a stupid question

I never figured this would become a weekly feature, but the weird search strings keep rolling in. And perhaps I'm just blessed to get the weird stuff get to this place. But coming in like a lamb (just wait until they go out like a lion) are these searches which people actually bothered to search for:

Why are winter olympic games so important? - It provides outdoor activity for people in spandex suits?

nudist preaches behind pulpit pictures - Well, at least he stayed behind the pulpit. Hope it wasn't one of those fancy clear pulpits. Believe me, if I was the preacher, you don't want to see pictures!

Where did Thurston Howell III meet his wife? - Oh, come on, just go to or or something like that. I doubt Lovie's sister is still available.

famous church fights in history - Ladies and Gentlemen! In this corner... standing 4 feet 8 inches tall, weighing 170 pounds.... wearing a blue dress and hair to match... the champion, Church Treasurer, Mrs. O'Grady!

Swear old-fashioned expletive - Yeah, there are far too many people using those newfangled expletives these days. Gimme that old time swearing, gimme that old time swearing, gimme that old time swearing. It's good enough for me! Now turn down that racket! And you kids get off my lawn!

And there is the direct method... click the link on my post at Christian Carnival CXI which is posted now over at Wittenberg Gate. (And a big thanks to Dory for assembling the carnival at the last minute on short notice and on Ash Wednesday.)