Saturday, March 28, 2009

Blowing It: Part 3

We’re talking about two possible reasons the Church is such a mess. Here’s point 2:

Bad Teaching. Another area where the church has “blown it” is in teaching. So often we don’t make disciples of Jesus, rather we make disciples of some ideological or political or denominational agenda. (And it happens on both sides of the political spectrum). So our people grow up in the faith to be “one dimensional.” They don’t get that Jesus is about more than one issue and that Jesus wants you to follow him and learn from him to be prepared for any and all circumstances and to make disciples for him as well.

For example, let’s talk about social justice. I know a lot of kids who grew up in our system and they got the message: “Jesus loves the poor and you should too; Jesus wants you to do things to help the poor.” So they all grew up to work for non-profits but they don’t go to church and they don’t follow Jesus‘ other teachings. It’s not that the message is entirely wrong. Jesus does love the poor and we should help people in need. It’s just that without the corresponding pieces of Jesus’ teaching, (be devoted to Jesus and pray and read Scripture and go to church and tell others about Jesus, for example) that single focused message comes off as a form of works righteousness that elevates serving over worship and that doesn’t square with what Jesus says is the Greatest Commandment (Mk 12). We need to both love God (worship) and love people (service). If you only love God and don’t love people you wind up shutting yourself up like a monk away from the world that needs to hear what God says. If you only serve and don’t worship, you wind up being simply another of the world’s social service agencies. We are called to both worship and serve.

This over-emphasis on social justice leads to accepting sinners to the point where we tell them they don’t have to change. And churches without life change and transformation are dead. Jesus accepted and loved sinners but he always left them changed by the experience. The most famous verse in Christianity, John 3:16: For God so loved the world that he gave His only Son.... It describes how God wants to save the world through Jesus. He loves the world so he provided a way for it to be saved. But a social works philosophy that de-emphasizes the necessity of Jesus for salvation merely loves the world the way the world wants to be loved: without any commitment or repentance. And that’s not the Christian message.

Now I’m not just picking on social justice. I could say the same for other churches about various lifestyle issues that get communicated as the entire Gospel when they are really just different foci of Jesus’ larger teaching. More examples of “blown it” teaching:

We fail to teach our young people especially, and any of our members in general, how to share their faith. Jesus commanded the church to go and make disciples. We don’t know how to do it and we don’t teach our people how to do it so we wind up merely making more church members. We aren’t to make disciples of the church, we’re to make disciples of Jesus. It’s much more involved.

We have developed educational programs that teach denominational identity instead of identity in Christ. We spend hours going over the ins and outs of our view of theology and our own history but we don’t spend nearly enough time teaching people about Jesus and how following him might look in their daily lives.

With children and young adults, we emphasize catechesis (the teaching of the catechism/doctrine) over evangelism. And what happens is that we teach them things that mean little or nothing to them because they haven’t been invited or challenged to give their life to Christ or to struggle with what it means to live out their faith in Christ in their own lives. So they may learn a lot about what they are supposed to believe but may never believe in the One who gives everything and who can teach them how to live.

We don’t do near enough teaching on what the Church is and isn’t. Our people have preconceived notions of what church is that may not even be biblical. We seldom talk about how the Bible says churches are to be organized or about what it means to be a leader or elder. We don’t talk enough about Spiritual Gifts and how the Holy Spirit provides the necessary structure for every church by giving them. We don’t talk about how to treat one another or how to speak the truth in love or about how to hold people accountable or about how to disagree or how to bear another’s burden. And we certainly never talk about the importance or responsibilities of leaders and members. Instead, we prefer to organize like corporations and simply try to “get people involved.” Instead of finding out what God wired them to do we try to stick them into our existing programming which we consider “necessary.” After a while, one church looks and feels just like any other. And the home office asks us to send them money so they can do ministry for us. I believe that if you polled most Christians they wouldn’t see how their church played a role in mission or in reaching the lost or changing lives. I think most Christians (certainly those of us in the mainline) have come to believe that what we do on Sunday morning is for us and for our kids and not for Jesus to use to reach the world.

So lacking a clear understanding ourselves of our own role in God’s plan, we make our ministries all about ourselves and when “outsiders” do come we don’t know what to do with them except to ask them, “Who do you know here?” and “Why are you here?”

We’ve also failed to teach the Bible effectively. We don’t seem to know how to give people “the big picture” of God’s Word nor do we seem about to preach or teach about it in a way that leads people into daily Bible study. I think it’s because we don’t necessarily know how to preach for life change or, as my old professor put it, “for a verdict.” We don’t know how to reach people where they are so we can show them Jesus has a better plan and inspire them to follow him and be changed.

Finally (for now), I’m not sure we in the Church have figured out how to teach the Bible in a way that people will apply to their own life on a daily basis. One of our members was telling me today after the service that Pliny the younger apparently wrote to Pliny the elder describing what Christians do: “They meet down by the river on the first day of the week and sing hymns and make oaths to be good and not to do bad things.” The point of this remark is that not much has changed in the Church. We promise to do better on Sunday and by Monday we’re out there out-paganing the pagans.

For instance, I was told a story recently by one of our guys. He said his son works with several people who attend another church here in town. The son told his father, “If that’s what Christians are, I don’t want any part of it.” Why? Because these church members behave in deplorable ways at their work place. We don’t teach or preach in a way that causes people to live differently than the world lives. We aren’t very good about putting into practice what we believe. We’d rather hire professional religious people and pay them to do it for us.

Thanks for reading. This concludes part 3. God bless you. Next time: Blowing It: Part 4 PJ

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Blowing It: Part 2

Forgive me, dear reader, that I have been absent from my task for so long. It has been an exceptionally busy time in life and in ministry. I admit also to struggling with the issues discussed in my last blog. I now see that this blog, called “Blowing It,” will be more than the two parts I first contrived. For the more I ruminate about this topic, the more encompassing the issues seem to be.

To summarize: I think the Church “blows it” when people don’t see Jesus in us. When the world sees strife, hypocrisy (the failure to practice what we preach) and that there is a definite insider/outsider mentality in many churches, they don’t see the Jesus of the Bible who welcomes sinners and changes them.

Why is the Church such a mess? Two ideas:

Power and Pride. In too many churches people fight for ownership of the ministry or aspects of the ministry. They want to be “big potatoes.” Churches are usually so desperate for “volunteers” that they will accept anyone and they therefore become refuges for people who can’t command anything in the marketplace but can command a lot of attention in the church.

Sometimes in the church we behave as if the worst thing that could happen to us was for someone to leave and go to another church. So we do everything we can to keep people where they are. Even if those folks don’t share the same vision or values. I remember a story I was told once by a pastor: There was a certain racist gentleman in the church (does this very statement strike anyone but me as extremely odd?) who one day saw the pastor baptizing the child of a non-white family. The man began screaming his outrage and other racial epithets. The pastor calmed the man down and got him to go home. The next week several families of color left that church but the old racist stayed and continued to broadcast his hateful feelings. My question is simply why the pastor didn’t tell the man he was wrong, that Jesus came to save everybody, and that if he didn’t repent he would be put under church discipline? But you get my point, I hope. We do everything we can to hold on to folks, even when it’s clear they aren’t getting what it is the church is about: Jesus.

It is doesn’t help that usually local church leadership seems these days to be either “too hard” or “too soft.” What I mean is that in many churches the pastors or leaders are either absolute dictators (we used to call them “Herr Pastors”) who don’t see the need to cast a vision for people to grab hold of and expect to be followed without earning respect or giving it; or they exert no leadership at all and allow the people in their congregations to do whatever they want (which usually winds up handicapping the church because nobody was leading so nothing went on except conflicts between differing interest groups).

So we waste our time and our money just trying to keep the doors open and never doing any of the disciple making that our Lord commanded us to do. Visitors, too, can sense conflict in the air and they don’t want any part of it. They can also sense in a place if there is leadership or not and if there isn’t, well, they usually don’t stay (unless they are looking for a place to become a big potato themselves in which case they’ll gladly stay and fill the vacuum).

This model of the church doesn’t function because few people operate within their Spiritual Gifts doing the things God gifted them to do and most of the others are tied up in alliances with one petty kingdom or another. So the focus becomes not Jesus or the mission he gave us, but the congregation itself.

Continue reading the second point in our next installment. Thanks for reading. God bless you. PJ

Monday, March 9, 2009

Blowing It: Part 1

When the Church is the Church of Jesus Christ there is no better place to be this side of heaven because when the Church is the Church it’s the most perfect expression of the kingdom of God we can experience here on earth.

When the Church isn’t the Church of Jesus Christ but it becomes the Church of Somebody Else then it’s more like hell on earth and people get hurt and terrible things are done and the innocent suffer.

I’ve been struggling a lot with this lately. Not that there is something going on at Zion right now that’s caused me to be more reflective about this. But I’ve had lots of conversations lately about this with people inside and outside the church. Even in my devotional life and in preparing the sermon series on Mark it seems to be a constant and pervasive theme.

What causes the Church to go off mission? Some of the reasons are obvious. Following people and their prejudices instead of Jesus and his teaching. Bad leadership. Emphasizing the wrong things. Majoring in minors. Fear of world. Fear of change. Fear of sinners. The one I’ve been focusing on lately is this: misunderstanding or misapplying the concept of grace.

Grace. Jesus died on the cross for us when we didn’t even know him and by his blood we are set free from sin, death and the devil. That’s grace. The “unearned love of God.” Another definition is “treating people better than they deserve.” You and I didn’t deserve to be saved but Jesus died for us anyway. We deserve hell, but because of Jesus, we get heaven. Wow. Grace.

We Lutherans understand ourselves theologically as being in the grace business. Jesus gives it and our job is to proclaim to the world forgiveness and life in his name. It’s an awesome calling. So, as a Lutheran pastor, I sort of think of myself as an agent of grace: that is, I’ve got this grace of God to give away for free. Who wants it?

So I went to a funeral last week. Someone close to me, but I guess not that close, because there was so much I didn’t know. Like this person hadn’t been in church for 22 years. Let’s call this person “Pat.” When Pat became sick and it looked like Pat might die, Pat didn’t even want to go to church on Christmas Eve. You know, Christmas Eve - that fun service with candles and familiar songs and everybody is happy...

What on earth could’ve happened to Pat to make Pat not even want to go back to church, any church, on the happiest and best service of the year? I mean scores of people who don’t regularly attend show up come to church on Christmas Eve (and sometimes Easter!).

I was told it had something to do with the fact that Pat was divorced and heard something from someone at church that made Pat feel a second class citizen. Knowing Pat like I do, I wonder if it had anything to do with Pat’s own feelings of failing God and the family that loved Pat and brought Pat up in the faith. I’m not sure about this, but it sounds plausible, knowing what I know about people.

So here I am at the graveside and at the party afterwards pondering this enormous frustration: I’m a pastor. I’ve got truckloads of God’s grace to give away and look here, I missed an opportunity to “make a sale.” The one thing Pat needed and I’ve got boxcars of it. I tear up just thinking about it.

Now I know that some of you are rushing to say, “Hey, Pat could have gone to a different church!” Sure Pat could have. But Pat, along with millions of others, don’t. In the church, unlike baseball, you usually only get one strike and you’re out.

Some of you are going to say, “Hey, Pastor, the church has to stand for something. God hates divorce, if people can’t handle it, tough!” OK, yes, that’s what the Bible says but the Bible also says we’re all sinners and Jesus came to seek and save sinners and the church is the continuation of his ministry. So, I counter, why can’t we deliver the truth of Scripture in a way that is full of grace and leaves people loving Jesus and clinging to him and his forgiveness (grace) instead of running away for 22 years?

Look at the ministry of Jesus: the sinners flocked to him. He accepted them as they were and they left changed by his love for them. “Go and sin no more.” The religious people are the ones who killed Jesus. They hated grace and hated his guts. They only wanted a God who loved the good people (or the people who looked good). Jesus said, “It’s not the healthy who need a doctor, it’s the sick” Isn’t it weird that so often we do the exact opposite of Jesus? We turn off the sinners and collect the saints...

When the Church messes up because of stupid human stuff, like the inability to live out or even to explain God’s grace, we ruin people’s lives by keeping them away from Jesus in this life and possibly the next.

Now, please hear this, I am not naive. (Naive = Evian spelled backwards for those of you who swear by bottled water!) I know I’m as much a sinner as the next guy and we’re never going to get this right 100% of the time. In fact, it’s really complicated, because sometimes to show grace and explain grace you have to have a relationship with people so you can also speak truth. And it’s hard to get that kind of depth in a relationship sometimes. There are lot’s of reasons we will continue to fail (see paragraph 4). But I feel what I feel and I feel the unimaginable weight of knowing that someone I knew and loved would find themselves at odds with God when I know a Savior who has the words that bring life and grace and peace and hope.

Yes, it weighs heavy on me. So does this: since I came to Zion in September 2005, by our records some 16 families have left the church. Oh, sure, there are a lot of reasons and those “other” reasons explain about seven of those departures. That leaves nine families who basically left the church because they didn’t like the Gospel I/we preach; didn’t like the vision I/we have; didn’t like me personally or whatever. No, it’s true you can’t please all the people all the time and we shouldn’t even try, we should please God only.

But... I know from doing a lot a lot of pastoral counseling on two continents that 75% of the counseling I did was because people misunderstood the teaching of a church or were hurt by what that church did or did not do to them. The summation: 75% of my life time counseling load was because either people weren’t taught about grace or were taught wrongly or because they failed to experience it in their church.

As a church everything we say and do is important because we represent Jesus. We are the sole proprietors on planet earth of his Gospel and therefore his grace. Sure we won’t achieve 100% results, but it’s a lofty goal worth trying for. Thanks for reading. More later in Blowing It: Part Deux.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

By the Numbers: Zion's Numbers and the New Testament

Have you stopped and considered that the book of Acts in the New Testament uses statistics to glorify God? It shows how the Holy Spirit grew the Church both qualitatively and quantitatively, so that human readers like us can understand.

In Acts, we see the growth of giving as people realize the fullness of a relationship with Christ and his Church in their lives. Acts says that whenever there was a need, people would sell their property and provide for each other and for the work of the whole Church. Paul talks about different churches throughout the world raising money to help each other. The whole New Testament is filled with numerical details about conversions, attendance, and financial transactions. We are even told what percentage of his wealth Zacchaeus the tax collector gave back to the people from whom he stole.

I suppose the Bible does this because God created us with a propensity to understand things by measuring them.

As promised in my previous blog and at services this morning, here are financial and membership statistics for Zion. It does us well to remember that they are only numbers. May God be glorified in all that we do at Zion.
Some things to keep in mind:
1. We “cleaned the books” in 2008, removing many people who no longer live in our city or who indicated that they were already attending other churches. Such bookkeeping adjustments are necessary from time to time for the sake of transparency.
2. We decided to go back 10 years for historical perspective. To get the information beyond 10 years is a real chore.
3. Financial numbers are rounded. The information comes from the treasurer’s reports. It does not reflect income, only giving from members.
4. Thanks for reading. God bless you.

Ttl members (00): 995
Ttl members (01): 1061
Ttl members (02): 1038
Ttl members (03): 1145
Ttl members (04): 1168
Ttl members (05): 1232
Ttl members (06): 1174
Ttl Members (07): 1243
Ttl Members (08): 782

Year: 2000 397
2001 373
2002 360
2003 352
2004 358
2005 362
2006 334
2007 355
2008 366

Average Calendar Year Giving:
2000 $439,000
2001 $465,000
2002 $483,000
2003 $515,000
2004 $532,000
2005 $585,000
2006 $680,000
2007 $700,000
2008 $631,000