A Reluctant Post about Hobby Lobby

I am reluctant to post on inflammatory issues–especially those with a political bent. This isn’t because I don’t have opinions, but because the medium of a blog (and even further, social media) doesn’t seem to accomplish much in the way of advancing the conversation. Yet there are a couple thoughts I wanted to share with the hope that they can contribute positively to the tide of reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision to allow Hobby Lobby to opt out of providing the morning after pill. Whether or not it’s really helpful–I guess you’ll have to be the judge.

Let’s be honest with our language and perspectives.

I am so sick of the crafting of language to barely tell the truth (or sometimes not at all). There are media outlets whose entire enterprise is characterized by this endeavor. For instance, to say that Hobby Lobby is denying people birth control is barely true. They are refusing to pay for one specific kind of birth control (morning after pill) because they have convictions that lead them to believe it is wrong. They cannot and are not keeping anyone from going and buying that pill. Now, a person could believe Hobby Lobby absolutely should pay for the morning after pill for their employees and have well-formed reasons why. But if we can have that conversation with honesty about what is happening we’ll get much further. When we mischaracterize a situation we basically negate any opportunity for honest dialogue. And there is no ideology that is innocent of doing this.

Let’s try to look at things rationally.

When it comes to inflammatory issues we get worked up and irrational! Passion is great–especially about things that matter, but when that passion leads to irrationality it shuts down any chance of conversation. Sometimes we need to stop whatever we’re reading or saying, take a few deep breaths, and calm ourselves down. It is wonderful for our passion to come out, but when engaging those who adamantly disagree with us, unchecked passion can become an insurmountable barrier to conversation.

If the Supreme Court had ruled the other way I’m sure we’d hear people sounding the alarm for the end of all religious liberty in America. As it is, people are decrying a massive step in the violation of women’s rights. Both of these rely on some pretty slippery slopes for footing–and those aren’t places where good footing is usually found. This isn’t to say that many small events can’t lead to substantial societal changes, but we need to check our runaway reasoning at times. Let’s try to be at least moderately levelheaded about the importance of events like this. It will help the conversation .

Let’s do our best to look at each other (and especially our ideological opponents) as people.

In engaging issues like the Hobby Lobby ruling, it is very easy to caricature our opponents and thereby cast them in a mold that allows us to see them as less than human. We assume the worst possible motives for the actions of those we disagree with–all sides are guilty of this. For instance, this post from Matt Walsh is well-reasoned and expresses many things that seem logical and true, but it does so with a tone that dehumanizes its opponents. I would challenge people on whatever side of whatever issue to be creative and compassionate enough to write and speak about their ideological opponents as human beings. Human beings who probably have a mixture of good and bad motivations for their perspectives–as we all do.

Why numbers matter, and don’t matter, in the church

Woman in Empty ChurchI have a confession to make–I am a pastor and I care how many people show up when we do something together as a church. This is especially true of our weekly worship gatherings. I know, I know, you’re not supposed to care about numbers–it’s shallow and egocentric. But truth be told, most pastors (dare I say all pastors?) care on some level about numbers. This has been true for me since my first gig in a church context, as a young adult pastor in a large church. We met together on Sunday nights and when there were 50 people there I felt great. When there were 15 I figured it was all falling apart. At my current church I face this issue especially during the summer months when our people are often on vacation or exhausted from a long weekend of activity. Sometimes we have a large crowd and other times it feels like a small group.

Ten years have passed from my first job as a pastor until now, and while I still care about numbers, I have had significant time to process and pray about the emotions that numbers inevitably arouse. I think my perspective has become more mature, at least at times. And there are some reflections on the topic I think are worth sharing.

There is a sense in which numbers should matter.

Numbers are not really numbers, they’re people. I’m sure you’ve heard that before, and it might sound cliche, but stick with me. When we have people at our gatherings (or other places where people might see the collective life of the people of God’s kingdom) who are not living life in Jesus, it is something to be celebrated. And the more there are, the bigger the celebration should be. If our motivations are right then we are not celebrating the fact that a room, house, or park is full, but that there are many people hearing and experiencing the kingdom in some way.

And what of the number of people who are already living life in Jesus? Well, if we believe something valuable is happening in the time we gather as a people–something that is drawing us closer to God and shaping us into the kind of community God wants us to be–then we would rightly long for everyone to be there every time we gather. And if we do not believe this then we should just quit gathering completely. People don’t need help wasting time.

In the past ten years I have become profoundly convinced that Jesus longs for the reconciliation of all people to the Father and that the life of the church is a primary way, I think even the primary way, that he has chosen to help people experience his kingdom and the life it extends to all who enter it. In the past two years I have also been challenged on the role of the gathered church for those already living as followers of Jesus. I am increasingly convinced that the gathered life of the church is essential in our formation and witness. It is not the only thing, but it is an important thing. So numbers matter because people matter.

There is a sense in which numbers shouldn’t matter.

As much as pastors might strive against it, it is a difficult thing to gather together with the church only to find that a small percentage of the church is there. I have already discussed the reasons why disappointment can be a right response, but there is no denying that the disappointment often flows from less noble sources. Pastors can invest so much of their identity in how the church is doing that low numbers can be taken as an indictment of the pastor as a person. We internalize what is happening and struggle with it not because of the benefit of people gathering together but because of what we think it says about us. This is egocentrism and it is wrong. Pastors, we must repent when this is our reason for disappointment and discouragement over numbers because it is not about us and our egos. For those who are not pastors, understand that this is a real battle, and even for those of us who understand it is wrong and fight to destroy this line of thinking, it is much harder to eradicate it from our hearts.

By the grace of God I have grown in this area over the past ten years. Especially in that first job I found it nearly impossible to keep numbers from defining me. However, more recently God seems to be allowing me to move past this. I remember one Sunday at my last church when the weather was bad and eleven people showed up on a Sunday morning. In earlier days that would have been debilitating to me. But as God was working in me in this area I was able to adjust, engage God with those eleven people, and be truly moved closer to them and to him. Experiences like that continue to allow me to sever my identity from the numbers and trust God to work whether there are twenty or two hundred.

Two Idols

There are two ways we can make idols out of numbers. The first is what has already been discussed–we use numbers as the measure of our worth–whether as pastors or churches. Instead of rightly giving God glory for the people he draws to himself we celebrate ourselves for the “good work” we’re doing for him. The American Christian culture is no help in this regard. We exalt the churches who grow large and their pastors. They are the ones who write books and speak at conferences. We assume that they are the best examples of the healthy functioning of communities of the kingdom of God, often without deeply exploring what’s happening in those communities. We have fully accepted the American culture of fame into the church. This doesn’t mean those large churches aren’t healthy kingdom communities, only that we very easily and regularly idolize size for the sake of size.

The second idol is somewhat the opposite. We can react so violently to the first idol that we swing entirely the other way and idolize stagnation. We lift up our lack of growth as proof that we don’t idolize numbers. But what is normally behind this idolization of stagnation is comfort and safety (those, in fact, may be the real idols). Interestingly, these are two other deeply entrenched values of American culture (along with fame). We like being small for our own sake, not because it proves something about our faithfulness to Jesus and his kingdom. I do know of churches who are committed to remaining small while seeing the kingdom grow and expand so they are continuously planting churches. That’s great! I really resonate with that approach and see great value in not growing too large, but I hope it is not driven by my own sense of comfort. The kingdom of God expands and grows (like a mustard seed or yeast in dough) and we are all called to be a part of that, whatever the size of our church community.

Hope

My hope is that as we are able to value numbers for the right reasons, and not for the wrong ones, we will dispose of either of the idols they can create. With Jesus we will long for the expansion of his kingdom and the reconciliation of people to God because it is part of his restoration of all things. May his kingdom come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Why So Critical?

Lately I have been reading articles or thoughts people post to Twitter or Facebook fairly regularly. While I enjoy the links to things I probably wouldn’t otherwise read, I’ve noticed that especially in the realm of Christian commentary a majority of pieces are largely based on criticism. Five things that are wrong with… Why __________ is wrong. What I don’t like about…

Now there is a place for criticism. Not all is right with the world and being thoughtful about things is a beneficial exercise. At the same time, it seems we followers of Jesus aren’t great at seeing the good in things. I admit this is often how I look at the world too. I am quick to point at the aspects of something I view as poor but slow to point out the parts that may be beneficial. Why is it that we are so critical?

Pride.

We always think we could do something better, that our answers are right (often without exploring the thing we’re disparaging), and we subtly assert our intellectual and practical superiority over others. For example, I used to be very critical of large churches. I knew all the reasons they were evil, or at least less than, and enjoyed pointing out those problems. Now, while I have never been the pastor of a large church, just being a pastor makes you realize that there are difficulties with any form of church. I still have my preferences, but I also understand that it’s not as easy as I used to think.

The main thing I’m trying to work on in this regard is truly seeking understanding before leveling criticism against something or someone. Like I said before, there is a place for criticism, but that place is after true understanding, not before it.

Lack of Creativity.

Sometimes we pick on other things because we have nothing positive of our own to pursue. We have no imagination or creativity so we find the flaws in the imagination and creativity of others. I struggle to have respect for those who sit on the sidelines and disparage others when they are unwilling to get in the game themselves. Think the church is messed up? You’re probably right. So do something about it. Plant one of your own if you want. (And then soon you will find out people think you’re doing it wrong.) Upset with your city leaders? Find out how you can engage positively with things in the community.

In order for criticism to be valuable it has to arise out of investment. Criticism without investment is lazy and worthless.

We Care.

There are times when our criticism comes out because we deeply care about a certain topic or people. This is good. There are things in the world that really matter and many of them are not as they should be. Before we level criticism I suggest we ask two questions. 1) Have I sought to truly understand the person/issue/organization I’m criticizing? 2) Am I willing to be a part of positive change if that opportunity becomes available. If we ask these questions first we’ll be much more likely to engage in criticism in ways that actually matter.

What in the world is a vocation infusion?

Work LifeNear the end of last year I was invited to apply to be a part of the 2014 Vocation Infusion Learning Community (VILC). The idea of vocation and it’s importance for living a life of holistic discipleship is something I’ve been engaging for a few years, so I thought it was a great opportunity. I applied and our church was accepted along with fourteen other churches of various affiliations and sizes. What in the world is a vocation infusion you may be asking. Well, that’s why I’m writing this post–to talk about what it is and share a little bit about what it means for Trailhead.

First, we’ll look at vocation: 1) a particular occupation, business, or profession; calling. 2) a function or station in life to which one is called by God: marriage, job, neighborhood, etc. (I include both of these definitions here because I believe both are important in the conversation about Christian vocation.)

I would summarize vocation as a Christian’s calling into the entirety of their life. As disciples of Jesus we are meant to live as citizens of the kingdom of God in every moment of life. Our new life in Christ is to touch and transform everything we are and everything we do. A primary aspect of vocation is our work since we spend the majority of our hours working (no matter what our work looks like). One important part of understanding this well is Tom Nelson’s clarification that work is primarily about contribution, not compensation. Just ask a stay-at-home mom. So vocation is about the intersection of faith and work. From there the concept moves into the other spheres of our lives–which we are called into by our King–marriage, friendship, recreation, rest, etc.

The fundamental push of the VILC is to expunge the divide between Sunday and Monday from the life of the church and individual Christians. The Church has often taken one of two approaches to people’s lives outside of Sunday. One is to be silent. We focus on atonement, salvation, righteousness, and other biblical themes without connecting them to the lives of people in any significant way. This approach naturally digs an insurmountable canyon between the “spiritual” life and the rest of life. The second approach is to view our vocational spheres (our jobs, marriages, recreation, etc) as nothing more than fields for evangelism. This is not to say we should not be witnesses for Jesus in our vocational spheres–indeed, we are to be his ambassadors all the time. It’s just that this is not the whole story.

In her phenomenal book, Kingdom Calling, Amy Sherman outlines four aspects of Christian vocation that form a more holistic perspective when taken together.

  1. Ethics: How do we do our jobs (and engage the other aspects of vocation) in a way that fits with the moral/ethical way of Jesus? Are there decisions we make differently or actions we won’t take because of our faith in Jesus?
  2. Evangelism: We believe that people need to be reconciled to God through Jesus. This is something we attest to through words and actions everywhere we go–including the workplace.
  3. Enrichment: We are able to grow as people through our work–whether it is dealing with challenges or engaging opportunities. Seen rightly, work is one of the things God uses to grow us into the fully restored people he wants us to become.
  4. Experience: “Work has both intrinsic and extrinsic meaning and purpose. That is, the particular work someone does, in and of its own right, is of theological value.” In other words, the work we do matters because it is a part of our purpose as people made in God’s image to contribute to God’s world. This is the aspect that is most often overlooked. (There is important theology behind this point. It is not my aim to address the theology in this post, but I will do that in another one soon.)

Vocation, rightly understood, involves all of these aspects of how we engage our work (and again, other areas of vocation). When we allow any of these to fade, whether the inherent value of work (as has often been the case in Evangelical churches) or evangelism (as has often been the case in Mainline churches) we lose a significant part of true vocation.

So that’s some about vocation, but what about infusion?

Infusion means introducing and instilling one substance, idea, or focus into something that already exists. For instance, a new principal at a school might infuse a responsibility to be kind to all into the culture of the school. So when we talk about vocation infusion, we are asking how churches (and in this case Trailhead in particular) can infuse a holistic understanding and practice of vocation into the life of our community. How can we shape the church and live our lives in a way that gets rid of the Sunday/Monday gap? This has been the focus of the VILC gatherings (we’ve had two and have two more). We are being challenged to assess our current posture toward vocation and then think strategically about how we can gain a fuller understanding that can lead to more fulfilling practice together (the vocation infusion plan).

The VILC seeks to do this through lectures about the theology of vocation, stories of churches and communities where it is already happening, and each participating church sharing the things they’re trying. One simple idea that has been shared is doing “vocation interviews” at Sunday gatherings. During these interviews the churches have asked questions that help to draw out the implications of all four aspects of vocation from people in a variety of professions. Other churches have shared how they commission people into their jobs in the same way we might traditionally commission missionaries. I find a lot of value in this since if we understand our calling rightly we are all ambassadors (or missionaries) for Jesus and his kingdom, not just those who go to another country to do it.

So what does this mean for Trailhead?

On the whole the answer is I’m not sure yet. What I do know is that we want to be a people who are intentionally living in the way of Jesus and that means the idea of vocation–and perhaps how our faith impacts our work in particular–is essential for us to engage. We can’t do this through a sermon series once every few years–it has to be a part of our shared language and practice (our culture). I don’t know exactly what it looks like for this to happen, but the VILC is giving us some great ideas (Todd and Anne are participating in the gatherings as well). I also look forward to conversations about this where we can figure it out together. This is one of a number of things I’m excited about as God leads us together into the future he has for us.

Exponential Top 6 (and Bottom 1)

#6: Vince Antonucci talking about greeters.

Who has designated greeters when you walk in? Walmart does. Do greeters who have to be friendly really make anyone feel welcome? It’s important to have friendly people available for people who want to engage (and I’d add it would be good if we’re all friendly toward people we haven’t seen before), but greeter as a job is a little weird. Instead, think about the places where you feel welcome. Why? What can you learn from that?

#5: Dave Gibbons and his vision of a large woman.

Dave Gibbons was sharing about the way the Holy Spirit sometimes breaks in when we learn to listen to him. He was in a cab, wanting to keep to himself, when God started giving him visions to engage the cab driver. One of the first things he saw was a very large woman. He hesitantly asked the cab driver, “I don’t know how to say this, but is there a large woman in your life?” It was good hearing a story of how God used Dave during a time where he really didn’t want to say anything. It’s worth being obedient to God.

#4: Danielle Strickland

I’d never heard her speak before, but she was awesome. I was deeply struck by her challenge to really see people. Not to stereotype them or think we know them, but to view every person as a unique person who is loved by God and is likely to surprise us if we get to know them. It seems simple, but the more I consider what it takes to really see people like that, the more I am convinced it is an immense challenge. (She was really funny too, which is always an added bonus.)

#3: Michael Frost and the questionable life.

Michael shared about what it means to live a missional life (and some of the ways that word has become misused). He said that for those who are not gifted supernaturally as evangelists, we should be living lives so deeply influenced by the values of the kingdom of God that we are regularly questioned about why we are the way we are (living a questionable life). And when that happens we need to be able to talk about Jesus like he matters. He has a free ebook that talks about this and outlines five practices of truly missional people.

#2: Propaganda.

I can’t find the spoken word he did at Exponential online, but here’s one from another conference.

#1: Oscar Muriu.

I have failed to be influenced by non-Western Christians, but Mr. Muriu’s talk helped me understand in no uncertain terms that I need to be. He was someone outside the incessant consumerism and individualism I swim in and he spoke like it. “Is what you’re living for worth Christ dying for?” And he backed that up with twenty minutes of biblical, Spirit-filled conviction and exhortation. Powerful. Powerful. I just hope I and many others who were there do more with it than clapping for him when he was done.

#-1: Not adjusting the program.

After Mr. Muriu’s powerful and convicting talk, they went right into a skit that was supposed to be funny about photo-bombing. I wish someone would have had the wisdom/courage to change the program and skip it. I know that would be immensely hard with all the planning and all the people it takes to pull off a program like this one. I also know I probably wouldn’t have the guts to call an audible in that situation, but I hope I can become the kind of person who would.

When Courage Fails Us

Pen and PaperLast Sunday evening I sat on a cushy chair in the front row of the room where our church gathers. I had just finished walking people through Jesus’ arrest and trial–trying to shine light on the character of the kingdom of God. There was a list on the screen I had put together. On one side was the heading “Kingdoms of the World,” and on the other “Kingdom of God.” Under each heading were a few words I felt fell out of that story. I was sitting there because I had asked people to consider where they saw themselves on that list and to listen for what God would want to say to them about that. After thirty seconds sitting there it occurred to me that I should do what I had asked of everyone else.

I looked up at the list and almost immediately my eyes, mind, and heart were drawn to the fourth word under the “Kingdom of God” heading–courageous. Just as quickly, I realized that I was being led to that word not because I am a shining example of it, but because I’m not.

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” Winston Churchill

And…

“Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” C.S. Lewis

Since Sunday I’ve been thinking about what keeps me (and maybe others) from being courageous.

Being liked is my highest value.

Being courageous means doing the right thing even when it is not easy. Apologizing when I’m embarrassed and want to avoid whatever happened. Saying things I believe to be true with all my being when I know others will disagree.

The fundamental reason I fail to be courageous is that I care what other people think about me more than pretty much anything else. This isn’t what I’d tell you if you asked me what I care about most. My heart doesn’t beat faster at the thought of being able to make people like me. But whenever I have an inkling someone doesn’t like something I’m doing or saying tension begins to rise in my chest. When someone is short with me I begin imagining what I’ve done to upset them and why they won’t want to be around me anymore. I am tuned into how people view me far beyond reality and it shapes my days.

I am trying to stop. I’m trying to learn to trust that love and kindness toward others are enough. That I don’t need to base my life on my view of how they view me. I even have some wonderful people who are trying to help me change. They’re loving me in the midst of my failure. They’re reminding me that I am already loved deeply by the King and that I don’t need to seek approval elsewhere.

I hope I can be transformed, because I know until this changes in me I will struggle profoundly to be courageous.

I am slow to act.

I used to be pretty impulsive, and still can be at times. But I’ve noticed a trend in my life. There are times where I know the right or good thing to do and I don’t act on it right away. I file it away. I think about what conditions need to come together to make it the right time. And most of the time the time that passes erodes my courage until there’s not enough left to do the right thing.

I know patience is a virtue. There are times when the right thing to do is to wait. But when I know the right thing to do and talk myself out of acting for ignoble reasons, it is not patience but cowardice.

I’m not sure courage is worth it.

There are times I have stepped out courageously in my life. Many of these times it has been due in large part to my wife’s willingness to take my hand and do it with me. And as I think back on those times, the first thing to strike me is how it didn’t turn out the way I hoped. There was always a vision, a hope, that drove me to courage. I saw what could be, or should be, and the cost didn’t matter. It was the right thing to do. Yet those visions have never been realized.

This is both a truth and a lie. It is truth because I can’t remember a time when courage has led exactly to the place I thought it would. There have always been differences–deficiencies–between what I hoped for and what actually materialized. But it is a lie because there has been tremendous good that has come from these courageous acts. It is true that the good was not exactly what I imagined, but to say courage has not been worth it in my experience would be to deny love, friendship, purpose, adventure, healing, and growth. The reality is that tremendous good has come from doing what I knew was right, the times when I have done that, and it is a trap to view courage as not worthwhile because it didn’t always lead where I thought it would.

I don’t like pain.

Acts that are easy don’t take courage. By it’s very nature courage calls us to do things that will likely cause us pain and cost us convenience. I like comfort and convenience. I don’t think I’m alone in that. But failing to be courageous for the sake of comfort is pretty boring. The truly good things in life almost never come through ease or cowardice. Discomfort, even pain, when experienced because of courage is often the path to life.

A Renewed Pursuit

The good thing about all this reflection is that it has sparked a desire in me for courage that has been absent for a while. By God’s grace I will continue to pursue a more courageous life for the good of others and the good of the kingdom of the King I love.

When the Bible Makes Me Sleepy

yawningThis morning I read my Bible and it was so profound I almost fell asleep. I can’t really blame the Bible. I was on a comfy booth in a warm Starbucks and I was just tired. But it didn’t help that I was reading the life and times of Jehoash, Amaziah, and Jehoahaz.

Confession: this isn’t the first time I’ve almost (or actually) fallen asleep reading the Bible.

Many times in my past (including the not too distant past) and I’m guessing many times in my future, I have taken this as a cue that reading the Bible just wasn’t for me on a given day. Yet this morning I pushed through because of a challenge I received from a friend who spoke at our gathering last Sunday. He was talking about John 15, which says this…

“Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers…”

Remaining. Abiding. That’s an ongoing activity, not something I do for a while in the morning or evening, right? Those words speak to a presence with God throughout the day–working, playing, eating, resting. Yes! And the truth I have come to experience is that this essential activity of remaining or abiding does not happen magically. I have found it impossible to ignore God in the realm of intentional action and yet abide in him in the midst of living.

A funny thing happens when I devote myself to intentionally seeking him. When I set time aside that is not given to anything else. I am more able to abide in the times when I am doing something else. This seems to be mysteriously true even when my devoted time is full of fighting sleep or a wandering mind. Shoot, it seems to hold true even when I don’t really fight those things. It is as if God uses my attempts at abiding to allow me to actually abide. It is a significant mercy.

I like to accomplish things. I often postpone (which actually means cancel) all the spaces where I intentionally abide in Jesus because there are too many things I need to get done. You know, things for Jesus. Yet if I do not abide I am a dry branch with nothing real to offer. “Apart from me you can do nothing.”

I read through my sleepiness this morning because I heard Jesus say, through my friend, that there is no more important work than that of intentionally seeking to abide in Jesus. This is utterly counter-intuitive to me. But I have said that I will trust Jesus. And when I hear him speak I will try to obey. So I take him at his word that abiding in him is the most important thing I can do.

Tolerance and Love

I’m sitting in a coffee shop right now listening to a man talk about why he just can’t believe in “conservative Christianity” anymore. (Look, maybe I’m eavesdropping, but my ears are plugged with a cold and I still can’t ignore it!) In particular he’s hit on not thinking it possible that people could go to “heaven and hell” (I use the quotes because he did) or that we should ever seek to see someone’s life change through faith. The views of his former belief system are too narrow and seemingly intolerant. “After all, you know what the Beatitudes say–take care of the poor and stuff–it’s just love.”

There are a few things within this sentiment I want to address because I feel like I’m hearing them so frequently lately. I won’t speak to this man’s statements directly because he admittedly wasn’t stating things in as robust a way as some others do, but I share what he said because the thrust of the viewpoint is the same, even if it is more fleshed out by some other writers and thinkers.

On Tolerance

Tolerance now means completely accepting viewpoints that culture, and especially the media and TV/movie industry deem correct. Many of these viewpoints are against traditional moral stances. So those who hold to the “outdated” views are intolerant. Yet this has almost nothing to do with tolerance. In fact, very often those who rail against those “intolerant people” are being intolerant in the process. Here’s what it comes down to…

You do not tolerate someone or something you agree with.

The dictionary defines tolerance as “a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from [emphasis mine] one’s own.” So the only people and opinions we can logically tolerate are those we disagree with. If we change our opinions and beliefs we would now be tolerant by continuing to respect and treat with dignity those we used to agree with. I am for tolerance (really I’m more for love than tolerance, but we’ll get to that in a minute), but this is teetering on the edge of being a useless word in our culture.

On Love

Here is the sentiment I have heard so often recently. “God wouldn’t ___________ because he’s all about love.” God wouldn’t judge anyone, allow consequences, ask people to change, want anyone to feel bad, and on and on. We have such a shallow and individualistic view of love.

When I discipline my son for pushing my daughter, do I hate him? / When I hit my finger instead of a nail and experience immediate pain, does God not love me? / If a man continually cheats on his wife is she wrong (and unloving) when she leaves him?

With real love, sometimes discipline is required. To fail to discipline is unloving. / Our world is set up in such a way that actions have consequences. At times we will experience pain (or happiness) not because God doesn’t love us, but because that’s the way the world works. / Destructive behavior carried out consistently over time has significant, and often lasting (eternal?) consequences. These things do not negate love, they keep it from being a Hallmark card sentiment.

When we really love someone we long to see them become the best version of themselves they can be. When we love someone we weep when their choices destroy their lives. Yet the way love is talked about now it so often is equated to our culture’s vision of tolerance. Love is letting everyone do whatever they want, as long as it makes them happy, and never passing judgement on them–unless they do something intolerant.

On What We Believe

Do you (and I) take Jesus as our King (Lord, Ruler, Guide) and your (my) Savior?

If the answer to this question is no, then this next part doesn’t apply. However, if the answer is yes, we are willingly placing ourselves in a position of submission to him (that’s what you do with a king, only this King doesn’t force you), and this has implications. If we take Jesus as our King and our Savior, then we can no longer say “God would never __________ because it is too intolerant/unloving/distasteful to me.” If he is our King, then we must say, I will seek with all I am to know the ways of Jesus and then follow in those ways. Now, from the things we are told about Jesus we certainly can say he is loving, kind, and sacrificial. However, we must always allow him to define these things, we cannot define them and then put our definitions on him.

I see this especially in the widespread view of those who place themselves inside Christianity that there can be no heaven and hell–no eternal consequence. I like that sentiment. It seems loving to me on the surface and therefore it must be reality. However, this places my belief first, and then I place that belief on God, rather than seeking to know the way and teachings of Jesus and then submitting to those. Jesus talks too much about judgment and hell for me to imagine he was just being sarcastic. (An aside, there certainly are many things to be factored into exactly what Jesus meant when he talked about this issue. My own view on hell is not completely traditional. What I am saying is that if Jesus is our King we can’t just ignore him and pretend he didn’t say things because they don’t seem loving to us. Maybe we are the ones with an insufficient and limited view of love?)

This issue aside, the point here is, the fundamental issue at stake in Christianity is not what you think about various doctrines but whether you submit to Jesus as your King and trust in him as your Savior. That becomes the starting point for a life of faith and practice, not vice versa.

Why do people care about Donald Miller’s church attendance?

Don MillerIn the last few days this post from Donald Miller has received an incredible amount of attention. In it he shares that he doesn’t connect with God through the form of worship that usually includes some songs and a sermon. For that reason, he doesn’t find himself in church services too often. That sentiment has spurred quite a backlash. The responses ranged from civil and well thought out to accusatory and mean. Apparently this is a topic that strikes a nerve.

Before I saw this post from Miller (I don’t know what to call him–I don’t know him enough to call him Donald or Don and Mr. Miller just sounds so formal!), I wrote this in response to a video that dismissed church attendance, devotions, and “lists of rules” in favor of learning to live all of life like Jesus. (Which sounds great! If you think I’m crazy for having any problem with that please read what I wrote first.) Then someone sent me the link to Miller’s post thinking I was writing in response to that.

Yesterday, Miller wrote another post entitled “Why I don’t go to church very often, a follow up blog.” This is much more lengthy and explores a variety of angles on the topic. So what I’d like to do today is briefly respond to the initial blog post, then engage the various points Miller raises in his second post, and finally offer some overall observations. So that means this is going to get a little longer than normal, but I’ve labeled each section to make it easier to look through. (By the way–don’t assume this is all going to be negative. There is A LOT of good in what he wrote, as usual. And even where I disagree I hope this is a friendly dialogue, not a diatribe.)

A Response to the Original Post

Since he explained much of this post in the second one I won’t spend too much time here, but there are a few things I wanted to note.

First, when he describes the community he is a part of, I think there’s a good chance he’s describing a church (and every “local church” is really a part of the one big Church of Jesus). A community of people who intentionally pursue God together, support and challenge each other, and participate somehow in God’s big, all-encompassing, holistic mission of restoration is a church. It doesn’t matter if that group gets together in a home, a warehouse, or the kind of building traditionally called a church. And we shouldn’t be exclusively defined by our “official” gatherings either. At times we fight about this topic because our definition of what a church looks like is limited by form rather than values and behaviors.

Second, there does seem to be a tint of individualism in his approach to experiencing God. I hesitate to say this one only because many others have said it in such a mean and attacking fashion. But I think it’s important enough to at least raise the concern. In reading about the history of the people of God, especially in the Bible, it seems there is more importance placed on the whole than the individual parts. This does not mean the individual parts have no value–as image bearers of God we all have immense and undeniable value. We should pursue connection with God in the ways that fit best with how he has made us. We don’t need to pretend to connect with God in ways we don’t. At the same time, as we place the community above self, we should also consider how we might be called to engage things that don’t fit us perfectly for the sake of declaring our identity in Christ together with others. This point should not be limited to the form of what normally constitutes a worship service, I mean for this to include a wide variety of things. Whether or not I experience God from some specific practice should not be the full measure of whether it is worthwhile in my formation as an individual in a community.

Finally, I wonder if we put too much emphasis on learning styles. One thing Miller points to for whether we should engage the components of worship services is whether or not they fit our learning style. I am not denying that learning styles are a real thing! I’m admittedly not an expert in the area of education. Just thinking about my own family, there is no denying we learn best in different ways. But does having a preferred learning style preclude learning through other formats if we work to engage them? For instance, sometimes in the worship gatherings at our church we have stations set up to journal, paint, or do something tactile. I don’t learn through these as well as some other forms. But when I intentionally engage it I do benefit from it. I also greatly benefit from seeing the creation of others in our community. I don’t want to deny my learning style, nor do I want to be a prisoner of it.

Interacting with the Follow Up Post

Here I will just digest each of his points in order–with more to say about some than others.

I was moved by reader sensitivity.

I appreciate his humble response to the outcry over the first post. It is good to be passionate about things that are important, but I hope we can do it in a way that indicates an understanding that we are brothers and sisters of the same Father.

I do hope that we can also do this in ways that don’t assume moving past traditional church forms is necessarily a form of progression in spiritual maturity and understanding. “My faith and intimacy with God has grown as I’ve evolved in my understanding of church, and as I said, many find that threatening.” I think it’s good that our faith and intimacy with God grow and we wrestle with how to engage Christ’s Church. I had a season where I thought the gathered church was unnecessary, and even harmful. On the other side of that I have come to a place (for now) where I find it more important than ever. Leaving more traditional forms of church doesn’t automatically mean greater spiritual maturity.

Feelings are not valid?

If you haven’t read Miller’s post, especially this part, you should. I also cannot understand the dismissal of emotions. I have experienced it, but to marginalize emotions seems like marginalizing an essential component of how God has crafted humanity. It would be great if we stopped doing this.

Church isn’t about you, it’s about God?

“…if we don’t enjoy a specific kind of worship experience, He could care less whether we go choose one we enjoy more.” As I stated earlier, I do think pursuing God in the ways we experience him best is great. Yet I can’t help feeling like this sounds more like how we choose a restaurant for lunch than how we interact with our Creator and his Church. I am not trying to prescribe a church form here, I’m only saying that life in community and relationship (with God and others) always includes things that are easy and enjoyable and things that take work and are a struggle. Miller says this line of thinking leads to the assumption that God wants us to suffer for him (which I agree should be differentiated from whether we do suffer for him). My perspective is that relationships require sacrifice for the other–whether this is with God or other people. Do I enjoy doing the dishes? Not really. Am I okay with doing them because it’s part of my life with my family? Absolutely.

We must attend a church service to be impactful for God?

“The point, though, is this: Jesus engages people inside and outside the church. It’s almost as though He sees the church as one, without walls, denominations or tribes. I’m starting to see the church that way, too.” Yes! I hope we all come to see the church more this way. There is no doubt we have a limited understanding of God’s work.

On this one I would only add that this seems like another instance of siphoning off one thing that can be a beneficial part of following Jesus in order to make it appear inconsequential. I wrote more about that here.

No church means no community?

This is a great section. I love his point that creating community takes work–whether you’d call it a church or something else. And as I said earlier, if this community is loving God, each other, and the world in the name of Jesus, I think it’s a part of the big Church whether we call it a church or not.

You are either with us or against us.

Due to variance in belief or practice we unnecessarily set ourselves up against each other–absolutely! There should be room inside and outside our communities (or churches?) for doubt, wondering, and disagreeing. We do lose out on opportunities to grow and learn to love each other when we decide people are either “with us or against us.”

I’m not sure why Miller went on to say this, “People are either kind or mean. I choose kind ones, I don’t care what they believe. This is part of why I feel like my community is so healthy.” I want my community to include people who believe all kinds of things too. We intentionally pursue relationships with people who don’t believe what we do. I also think there is sufficient biblical reason to think connection to a group of people following Jesus is important–even when they’re unkind at times (because we are too).

Do you attend a traditional biblical church?

There are many points Miller makes under this heading. One primary one is that our churches today don’t look like the church in Acts. I think that’s largely right. However, I see significant movement in the church toward community that moves beyond meeting once or twice a week to figuring out how to live life together in a way that makes the kingdom of God more visible. I’m sure it will still be very different from the church in Acts, but hopefully it moves in that direction.

“That said, lets stop using the word “Biblical” as some sort of ace card when it comes to how church should be done.” I think here he means our modern church forms wouldn’t fit well in Acts. I agree. I think that’s okay. The point is to be communities connected to Jesus, living in the kingdom of God, and trying (imperfectly) to make it visible to others. I am with Miller in pushing back against a view that says you can’t be a biblical church if you don’t have a big worship service.

Jesus doesn’t have power outside the Church?

Man, I hope there aren’t to many people who think this. God is at work in every nook and cranny of our world. If we limit God’s power and work to our capabilities we are making God our servant. God’s power is at work on Monday at the factory, Tuesday on the streets, and even Sunday in a worship service (and simultaneously outside the worship service)!

The church can’t adapt beyond a worship/lecture system?

I would suggest in many circles this is already happening. Miller says it will have to come from outside the existing leadership. I understand his point about radical reform, but I also see churches all around my city engaging people, community, and faith in ways that move far beyond music and lecture. I just don’t see the need here to say that we must reform music and lecture out of our shared life. As humans it seems like we always think adjusting for deficiencies or shortcomings means completely abolishing what currently exists. More often than not we trade one unhealthy extreme for another.

In this section Miller also says the church cannot adapt beyond its current form because pastors need to get paid (he does say this is not why most pastors do what they do but that it inhibits adaptation to another form). He’s right. This is true in the same way that writers need people to buy books, contractors need people to buy houses, and rescue missions need people to invest financially in their vision. Here again though, many pastors (not all) are finding their role to be something other than just preaching sermons and running worship services. I think there is a place for paid pastors, but it is not wrong to consider if at times pastors are paid to prop up a system rather than pursue a mission.

A Few Observations

This is a great conversation and I’m thankful Donald Miller is willing to engage it even when some don’t do it civilly. It is helping me think through why I think what I think. And out of that there are a few other thoughts I want to briefly share.

We need to love each other, even on blogs. Communication from behind a keyboard can be so destructive. It can be very beneficial as well, but too many of us use the anonymity of the computer to attack, discourage, and degrade others. When people are courageous enough to process things like Miller has in a public way we should approach the ensuing dialogue as family who want the best for each other, not competitors who want to destroy each other.

Sometimes we ask the wrong question. I continue to be convinced that rather than asking if something is necessary we should ask if it is beneficial. And not only if it is beneficial to me, but if it is beneficial to the church as a whole, and the mission of God in the world. I wrote more about that here, and I really believe this is an important shift we need to make in the conversation. (And here is a post applying this specifically to the life of the church.)

Rhythm is important. If we are to experience deep relationships with God and other people we need consistency. This doesn’t need to be a worship service in the traditional sense, but what is it? And beyond this, I think the components of worship services can be a good rhythm (not the only one or maybe even the best, but good). Even if you don’t like to sing, there is goodness in the music and lyrics that are sung. Even if you don’t learn best through lectures, it is good to hear teaching from Scripture. And in the midst of all this we are also drawn together with others trying to follow Jesus. Growth in any area of life requires consistency.

We need to keep considering the power of the gathered church and not assume we have considered every angle. Being together with other followers of Jesus is not only about whether I like music or get something out of a specific sermon. The rituals, practices, and messages aggregated over time help to shape our identity and desires. James K.A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom has been a helpful challenge to me on this. My background has been to dismiss gathering for worship because I viewed it primarily through a lens of what I got out of it on a specific week. But the potential of these times together is much greater than that. What I get out of it on one specific day is not the point. My love for the gathered worship of the church has evolved beyond what I could have imagined because of books like Smith’s and the challenge of fellow followers of Jesus who are thinking deeply about this.

One aspect of this is that we may most clearly proclaim our identity as the body of Christ when we join together in proclaiming it. There is certainly more than one way to achieve this, we’re not limited to three songs and a sermon. Whatever the specifics of what we do when we come together, there is power in proclaiming that we have a King and in worshipping him.

Church Attendance, Devotions, and Morality, Oh my!

This morning a number of my friends posted a video for a recently released book by a popular author and speaker. The video was really good. The concept behind it was really good. But I found myself wrestling with an internal tension as I watched it.

One side of me yelled, YES! The video was creatively and powerfully making the point that following Jesus is about every corner, every moment of our lives. Truly following Jesus leaves no part of who we are or how we live untouched. This video echoes Dallas Willard when he said, “I am learning from him how to lead my life in the Kingdom of the Heavens as he would lead my life if he were I.” I love that the video shows Jesus working a desk job, doing some tricep dips, and shoveling the sidewalk. We don’t think of what it means today that Jesus was human in meaningful ways often enough. This video does a brilliant job of making the humanity of Jesus tangible.

So why was I feeling tension? It stems from this quote.

“What if following God or following Jesus isn’t about church attendance or getting your daily devotion in or trying not to sin too bad? The incarnation…is actually an invitation to respond to what he did on the cross and actually live his life here on earth.”

I have long been immersed in the streams of Christian thought that label themselves missional and organic. I love so much of what the leading thinkers in these areas have to say. There is so much truth and power in it. The part I have come to wrestle with is that it seems the church, spiritual disciplines (especially “devotions”), and morality are regularly set up as punching bags. This is not true only in the video I saw, it seems to have become widely true in these circles.

Statements about following Jesus not being about church attendance, spiritual disciplines, or morality are true in one sense. It is possible to have perfect attendance on Sunday morning without being changed by the power of God and learning to live all of life as Jesus would if he were you. But there are multiple problems with the assertion as well.

Problem 1

First, it is possible to isolate any part of a holistic life of following Jesus and then say “that’s not what it means to be a follower of Jesus.” For instance, it is important to be a good neighbor. However, I could also say, “What if following Jesus isn’t about being a good neighbor?” That one thing does not make you a follower of Jesus. However, based on the teaching of Jesus it would be difficult to assert that it doesn’t matter if you’re a good neighbor or not. When we pick on church attendance, spiritual disciplines, or morality we are siphoning off one part of following Jesus and saying it is not the whole thing. This is a bit like saying, “What if making a sandwich wasn’t about buying bread?”

Problem 2

Second, statements like this make it seem like church attendance, spiritual disciplines, and morality have no role in being a follower of Jesus. Yet it would be difficult to make the case that these things are meaningless in the life of a disciple of Jesus.

We are called together as the people of God, and when we gather to worship God, grow in relationship to each other, and be reminded of the mission we have been given by Jesus, we are standing in a long train of followers of Jesus stretching back to the early church in Acts 2. It is also in these times that our collective identity of a people who give allegiance to Jesus as King can be most clear. The church gathered is not the whole of following Jesus, but it is a part of it.

Similarly, spiritual disciplines contribute to our connection to Jesus–the One who gives us life and continually teaches us what it means to follow him. Finding ways to intentionally connect daily with Jesus–including devotions for some–is a good thing, not something to be disparaged.

And while our faith is not about following a list of rules and being good enough to merit God’s favor (this would be the opposite of grace) it would also be difficult to read the teaching of Jesus and think he doesn’t care how we live. Finding freedom in Jesus means finding freedom from sin. We should try to avoid sin. Not because this will make God like us more but because sin is destructive and Jesus died to free us from its power.

Statements like the one above paint an unnecessary and harmful false dichotomy of what it means to follow Jesus. What if instead we said, “What if church attendance, getting your daily devotion in, or trying not to sin are strokes in a much larger and more beautiful painting?”

Third Problem

Finally, the statement ultimately works against itself. The charge is to learn to live all of life as Jesus would. This should absolutely be the goal of discipleship. And if that were to happen, then we would gather with others who worship God to worship him together. We would spend time in “devotion,” intentionally seeking a deeper relationship with the Father. And we would strenuously pursue being “perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.” To do the thing we are being asked to do includes doing the things that are being disparaged.

It is on this point where I wish we could make peace with each other as followers of Jesus. Right now there are important things being said by those who self-identify as “missional.” There are also great things happening among those focusing on the intersection of faith and work. There are deep insights being shared from people focused on the formational aspect of the church as a gathered people. None of these things are bad! We don’t have to pick on the others to make our perspective seem more important. Rather, if we value each other, and our different emphases, we will be able to more fully accomplish the task of becoming people (individually and collectively) who are all we are meant to be in Jesus.

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