Verifiable words on real, organic church

Following up on recent thoughts on being vulnerable and real, I’d like to share “Strategic Words in Facilitating Movements.”  I take these thoughts as dealing with real church.  This isn’t to say that non-organic, hierarchically organized churches aren’t real; rather, it is to accentuate some positive qualities of a genuine, scripture- and discipleship-based movement.  In other words, this is not about a denomination’s regional staffing decisions or a megachurch pastor’s move to establish another “campus” a few miles away.  This is about something that appears to move on a smaller scale and yet possesses great potential.

Since I am currently in Africa working with phenomenally fruitful leaders, I thought it would be good to share a few “key words” on church planting movements.  These words are adapted from Galen Currah who adapted them originally from David Watson.  Each “word” listed here has so much meaning and power when walked out.

[Selections mine — bc]

1. Prayer:  . . . Know the mind of God and join Him in His work.  Deep intimacy with God is the foundation for everything else!

3. Disciples:  Make Disciples, not converts.  Converts focus on religion.  Disciples focus on Jesus and obedience to His teachings.

5. Churches:  Communities of Believers.  Form new believers into minimal Bible practice groups that will become Communities of Believers (churches) who transform families and communities.

6. and 2.  Authority and scripture:  Authority of the scriptures and the Holy Spirit are all that is needed to start.  Church Planting is an act of God and His people who are obedient to the Word and the Spirit.  ||  Scripture is foundational and the source of all teaching and preaching.  Scripture → Principle → Practice

9. Plan:  Act Intentionally:  Organic does not mean the same things as “accidental.”  Crops are grown through intentional sowing with wisdom.

14. Culture:  Redeem local culture by embracing all you biblically can in a culture and transforming or redeeming the rest.

As I read and revise this for the last time, I am struck most by the phrase “minimal Bible practice group” in #5 above.  Minimalism tends to be tiresome to me in music, but “keep it simple,” “less is more,” and the “tiny house” bandwagon are contemporary cultural examples of related values.  The “minimal practice group” concept draws me.  How about you?

→ Roger Thoman’s original blogpost, quoted above, may be found here in its entirety.  For more, read this post:  Underground Revolutionaries

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Real words on real church

Suppose a leader wants to show others what “church” is all about.  He might have some great ideas, facilitate some good things, and analyze those well over the short term.  Still, “church” will seem incomplete at best.  (Isn’t it always lacking?)  I myself have wanted to show others what church is about, and I’ve not succeeded very much.  Each of us is a product of his experiences; every vision is limited.  Our values have, in part, been shaped by our respective personalities, emphases, and opinions.

About 15 years ago, I started drafting a charter for a new “church.”  (Here, please substitute small group of believers for “church,” a word that typically implies more organization and institutionalism.)  I revised that document from time to time, based on growing, changing emphases and understandings.  The vision has never amounted to anything and probably never will, but I still dream.  I still feel I know a few things church is not about, primarily:  doctrine, buildings, opinions on assembly procedure, and clergy/hierarchy.  But isn’t it more important for me to discern what church is?  Should it be . . .

A hospital?

A shed for grace and love to be stored and brought out once in a while?

A set of programs that feel comfortable and/or purposeful?

A charging station for the electric-car needs of all who’ve been racing down the freeway?

Church certainly shouldn’t be an opportunity for isolationists to bury themselves deeper, but it has been thought of as a haven.  Is that image sufficient?

I’m not so sure that any presumably advanced, contemporary manifestations and iterations of church are any better than your basic mainline Christian club.  (Indulge me as I revert to considering more of what church is not.)  Is it really that important if the latest, greatest speaker and the richest, most flavorful coffee and the most charismatic greeter and the best-organized parking lot ministry are combined for a great Sunday experience in YCCCoT?¹  First Methodist or Main St. Presbyterian or East End Christian Church might offer just as much nourishment, and I might find a beautifully devoted, exemplary disciple of Jesus Christ at Johnston St. Church of Christ or St. Paul Lutheran.  Coffee bar or not, contemporary music or not, great programs or not . . . church is more about helping disciples on their way in living loyally to God, honoring him.

There is in some sense, after all, a call—and that call might be easy for some to answer initially, but it is anything but comfortable to continue a disciple’s walk over the long haul.  An e-friend recently disseminated some provocative thoughts from respected writer John Stott.  I pass them along here:

The Christian landscape is strewn with the wreckage of derelict, half-built towers—the ruins of those who began to build and were unable to finish.  For thousands of people still ignore Christ’s warning and undertake to follow him without first pausing to reflect on the cost of doing so.  The result is the great scandal of Christendom today, so-called “nominal Christianity.”  In countries to which Christian civilization has spread, large numbers of people have covered themselves with a decent, but thin, veneer of Christianity.  They have allowed themselves to become somewhat involved, enough to be respectable but not enough to be uncomfortable.  Their religion is a great, soft cushion.  It protects them from the hard unpleasantness of life, while changing its place and shape to suit their convenience.  No wonder the cynics speak of hypocrites in the church and dismiss religion as escapism…  The message of Jesus was very different.  He never lowered his standards or modified his conditions to make his call more readily acceptable.  He asked his first disciples, and he has asked every disciple since, to give him their thoughtful and total commitment.  Nothing less than this will do.     – John Stott (1921-2011), via Bob Lewis
Seen on a T-shirt, July 2019

Surely church is nothing if not a group of devoted disciples, living loyally to the Lord.  And surely church is nothing if the disciples stay home.

Next:  More Real Words—on the “Strategies” of some successful church planting activities (from David Watson, adapted and selected by Galen Currah, Roger Thoman, and me)


¹ Yuppie Christian Community Church of Today

Of confinement and freedom

These inspirational quotations come directly from Roger Thoman’s blog.   The original source is Francis Chan, Letters to the Church.

Church, the answer is not to build bigger and nicer cages. Nor is it to renovate the cages so they look more like the wild.  It’s time to open the cages, remind the animals of their God-given instincts and capabilities, and release them into the wild.

There are elements of modern churches that on the surface seem like good ideas, but they can actually keep us from the biblical vision of unity, true fellowship, mutual love, and pursuit of the mission.  Too many look at these elements and insist you can’t have a church without them.

I believe God is leading a movement in this country toward simple, smaller gatherings, and I long to see this movement gain greater traction.  I get so excited when I dream about the Church spreading in small, invigorating expressions that look and feel like the early church. 

Many years ago: sermons

This is from a church bulletin quite some time ago:

While I hope my friends through the years of my church history would be glad to know I had presented on that topic, the same ones might be mildly amused to find that I’d requested a change in the format/sequence at this early point.  I would do that kind of thing steadily for the next couple of decades.  Not falling prey to assembly patterns became sort of a theme in my earlier, public-leadership life; I espoused the notion that habits get in the way of meaning, so it is better to do things purposefully than ritually.  I myself am amused that, after the mention that I had requested a change in the order, the congregation was encouraged to pray for the return of the regular preacher.  Of course the folks at St. Elmo, Tennessee didn’t mean anything by that, but I suppose I was a thorn in the side of some preachers, elders, and church administrations in later years.  I have a tough time leaving things alone when they are broken or just need shaking up a little!

Now to the content . . . I have delivered fewer than ten sermons per se in my life.  (I am better at, and more interested in, “class” types of settings and general assembly planning and leadership.)  The topics of the sermons for which I have records are as follows:

  1. So What? (about human response to God’s grace)
  2. What For? (about the Christian assembly’s purposes)
  3. Remembering the Lord
  4. Hearing and Doing
  5. The Sectarianism Within Us
  6. What Are We Waiting For?
  7. John 9:  the Blind Man, the Jewish Establishment, and Jesus
  8. Philemon

Looking back, I’d say that at least five of the eight (#2, #3, #4, #6, and #7) have a distinct focus on the Father and/or the Son.  I’m proud of that.  A couple of them (#2, #5) challenge rutted, traditional thinking.  I got in a mess of hot water over #5, but I would preach it again today, more than 20 years later, with only a couple of sentences toned down (if I thought anyone who needed to hear it would hear it).

The last two sermons reflect my still-growing interest in textual basis (as opposed to topical or traditional, etc.). Not that I didn’t say reasonable, or reasonably provocative, things in #s 1-6, but I’d now prefer #s 7 and 8, for the most part.  Generally speaking, we will all be more solid and grounded if we stay with the text—and not mere prooftexts, either!  We must pay attention to the original documents, attempting as best we can to honor the original literary and historical settings.  That is what I tried to do with #s 7 and 8.

Not an elder, but older (and wiser?) (2)

[Find part 1 here.]

Given my background/scriptural understandings and some of my personal history, the reader won’t be too surprised that my suspicion of “church leadership” has not faded.  I think my church paradigm overall has been morphing and growing ever since.  It has reached a point of no return and very little likelihood of being influenced in a different direction.  I say this not to discourage dialogue but to acknowledge a reality.  I simply have no interest in what smacks of pandering to a clergy person or to a hierarchy or any other structure.  These organizational things trouble me too deeply.  Lest a CofC reader think I am talking only about other denominations, I will clarify that I think the problem is of the same hue (although typically not as deeply tinted) in CofC congregations as in, say, Methodist or Baptist ones.  It is notable that small, non-franchise “community church” groups are likely to be equally un-healthfully reliant on the “pastor.”

I do affirm that, when possible, people with training and/or experience should work in some areas.  I think here of the teaching of children, the counseling of youth and married people, and the exposition and exegesis of scripture.  Talents, training, and experience do have their places in the healthy, vibrant functioning of churches and other Christian groups, but titles and staff ministry positions can distract and can even be found to compromise the health of a body of people.  Although in just the right situation, I suppose I would myself consider taking a church salary for some kind of church role or roles, I really do not believe in that kind of church anymore.  That doesn’t mean I don’t find good people in institutional churches, and that doesn’t mean I don’t go to them regularly.  I do, and I do.  I simply cannot invest in them or dream about them as I once did.

Back to the present
So, now that I am old enough and experienced enough to be an elder or pastor or shepherd or bishop just about anywhere (no matter how the given group conceives of the label), I have to wonder about another aspect of being the church elder I once aspired to be:  wisdom.  (Please recall that I have recently been drawn to the “wisdom literature” in the Hebrew Bible.  See here and here.)  It is assumed that the old have gained some wisdom.  Not that I’m all that old, but I am a whole lot older than I was 20 years ago.  So, while I thought I had all the main things right in my head in my 20s or 30s, I later learned that that I didn’t.  And now, even if I wanted to be an elder in an institutional church, I wouldn’t think I was wise enough.  I’m surely a little wiser than I was when I was 20 or 30 or 40, but I would feel so inadequate if I were in a role that caused a church group to view me as inherently wise.  Here is another way to put that:  I think all pastoral pedestals ought to be destroyed and discarded—especially any that any unsuspecting person would try to put me on!

Enter another assumption I learned as a kid, based on a patternistic, proof-texty reading of two brief passages in Paul’s (so-called) pastoral letters:  maybe a special level of wisdom comes from having a plurality of children in the home.  A 33-year-old father with three kids (like my dad was) goes through all sorts of interpersonal situations, and by the time he’s in his 50s or 60s, he surely has learned a great deal about how to “shepherd” different personalities within a group.  I, on the other hand, have an only child, and I haven’t always manifest wisdom even in dealing with the one.

When I was having a heart-to-heart with my son a year or so ago, I told him that there are some benefits and some drawbacks to having an older (more presbytish!) dad.  On the downside, I am wounded (deeply so), and life’s experience brings as much incapacity as capability.  I am tired and generally less than patient with antics than a younger dad.  On the upside, there are experiences and insights I can share with him that could not be shared by a younger father of a nine-year-old.  I don’t think I’m a very good soul-shepherd, but I’m a passable physical-needs overseer for him.  I could teach him things that a 33-year-old father probably couldn’t.  (I’m rambling in a sea of inadequacy.)  I would hope I have additional wisdom, but I’m not so sure most of the time.

I feel pretty experienced in “the faith” (depending on how you define that), and I’m “apt to teach,” and I might manifest a couple other qualities mentioned in Paul’s lists, but I don’t feel wise enough to be an elder or a dad.  I will never be an elder in a traditional sense.  I am a dad, however, and I can only hope that I have more wisdom than I did before Jedd was born, and more likelihood of using it in difficult situations.  Good grief.  He just turned nine, and we have not even had difficult situations yet, really.  I am terrified of when he is 11 and 12 and 14.  God, give me wisdom.

Not an elder, but older (and wiser?)

In our day, the notion of “church leadership” appears as something of an overlay on New Testament principles and scenarios.  For some, the disconnect (between the status quo and the original info) is tantamount to heresy; for others, it’s just the way things are, a non-issue.  As for myself, it’s complicated (I know, like many other things).  I have some definitive ideas, but there are gray areas, and I don’t care about all the same subtopics anymore.

For starters:  I find the contemporary use of “pastor” to represent a human misdirection, sometimes running counter to God’s purposes, although almost always well-intended, at least at the outset of a “pastoral ministry.”  In the NC scriptures, I don’t see the word “pastor” referring to a role that’s much like today’s pastoral roles, and I think that’s worthy of note.  Primarily, I’m interested not in a strict-minded, narrow approach but in an awareness of the kinds of leader roles that emerged in the early church.  In other words, it’s not about the title or label, really; it’s about what people are and what they do.  One problem arises when a Bible word is used to refer to a current role, thereby linking the two and imbuing the modern practice, title, or role with supposedly biblical authority.  Such labeling doesn’t mean a practice, title, or role is necessarily bad; it just means we have jumped to a conclusion.

I’d say we ought to differentiate roles and titles in each unique situation, and we ought to explore nuances, and we ought to engage in word studies and historical studies, too.  Is it possible that (the Greek antecedents of) “bishop,” “overseer,” “shepherd,” “pastor,” and “elder” might describe similar (but not necessarily the same) roles in the first-century church?  And aren’t these labels commonly distinguished differently today?  John A.T. Robinson has commented that the letters to Timothy and Titus “do not presuppose monarchical episcopacy” (ruling bishops) that appeared at least by the 2nd century.”  Pauline writings, on the other hand, appear to assume the “equivalence of bishop and presbyter”—or overseer and elder, in alternate translation. °

At this juncture I could be found betraying a mentality that’s now part and parcel of Church of Christ operational doctrine.  I am not particularly interested in whether two centuries of sectarian history in this respect have been on target, nor do I care much anymore about a patternistic re-appropriation of first-century titles and labels.  After all, we are separated by millennia and language, and this whole scene ought to benefit from more thorough, careful examination.  I am after an honest assessment of church leadership roles that I see as having run amok.  I think Christians should all be deeply interested in meaningful leadership roles, quite apart from the titles and routines of tradition—no matter whose tradition, and how deeply or widely it is entrenched.  With all that said. . . .

Once upon a dream
As a child, I never envisioned myself becoming a preacher, despite being a “good kid” and a good Bible student who was always at church.  (I developed a moderate stutter that stayed with me into high school and beyong, so perhaps no one else wanted to see me turn out to be a preacher, either!  I could always have done better than the devoted but poorly spoken Mennonite man who muttered, sometimes unintelligibly, for 50 minutes two Sundays ago, but that’s beside the point.)  I do recall wistfully that my youthful vision for later adult life involved being a church elder.  That role seemed important to me, and the men I knew as elders were worthy of respect.  I knew of a couple of elders who were also preaching ministers, and that was generally viewed askance in my tradition because one could be viewed as one of those “pastors” who had too much power.  Although I retain some of the same philosophy of suspicion, most of this was in a very different time and place for me.  Worlds apart, really.  Elders were elders, and preachers were preachers, and I didn’t know anyone personally who went by the title “pastor.”  I did know fairly well a man who became a church elder when he was 35.¹  By the time I passed that John F. Kennedy age, I was already past thinking I would ever be an elder.  Soon after that, I decided I never wanted to be one.  It was moot, really:  I was soon to be a divorcé and had no children—that those facts would disqualify me in most churches I cared about.

Background understandings
But what is, or was, an elder?  A pastor?  A minister?  A “clergyman”?  A childhood anecdote should help to illuminate some of my predilections.  There was a period in which my dad was visiting people hospitals fairly regularly, and he apparently noticed there were “clergy” parking spaces . . . so he had the wood shop teacher in his school make him a “C L E R G Y” block.  It stayed in the glove compartment, but Dad put it in his window when he was at the hospital.  A schoolteacher by vocation, and also a servant of God and of the church, my dad was somewhat more narrowly read than I in Christian matters.  Nonetheless, he stood on solid ground in conscientiously believing he was a minister or “clergyman” just as much as someone with a salary and a title on the letterhead, and I believe he was right.

It was later that I learned from my parents to be suspicious of the notion of “church staff.”  I was not completely on their side at the time:  once, I sided with a “junior minister” (with whom I was working closely) in the reality that there was a de facto church staff, and it probably needed to have a meeting periodically.  For as long as I can remember, though, I have given absolutely no credence to the clergy-laity distinction, seeking to overturn that supposition in the minds and hearts of anyone over whom I have any influence.  However, specified roles will naturally exist.  What if one person works primarily in administrative/secretarial capacities, another is the primary teaching minister, and another serves and engages with families of young people?  In a large church, their roles will interact and overlap, and it certainly doesn’t hurt for the three to talk together every now and then.  They should be on the same page about procedures, philosophies, etc.  Now, if one of them came from the “staff meeting” and declared to the whole church, “In our staff meeting this week, it was decided that X,” I would smell something going awry.²  Neither a staff nor a staff meeting ought to become invested with power and influence—an institution itself, we might say—but just talking isn’t a bad thing.

Surely Paul, who couldn’t have envisioned seminarians or sound systems or elevated pulpits or “senior pastors” or parking lot ministries, would be supportive of dialogue among those who lead and teach.  However, that which is acceptable in a modern scenario might never have been imagined by New Testament writers.  It’s hard to imagine Jesus’s or Paul’s approving of an in-charge “pastor” who makes business decisions.  Don’t fool yourself thinking that your senior pastor is different from the rest—a real spiritual leader and carer-of-the-flock, you say?  He is on a pedestal and a platform, “elevated” to clergy status.  You likely don’t even call him by his first name, or if you do, you prepend “pastor” or “brother.”  He is surely a good man, but he is in a different class in your mind.

I remember that Dad once “pranked” our church’s preacher by asking for “the reverend” on the phone, so I learned that there were jokes to be made, but I don’t recall much else specific along these lines from my early years.  I do tend to “blame” my parents (particularly, my dad) for maybe half of my negative inclination toward pedestalizing church staff.  I don’t think it’s off-base, mind you, but it is quite a strong bias that has probably kept me from getting a hearing in some situations.

For a couple decades, Dad had a deacon role that primarily involved making arrangements for assemblies and brief devotionals on Wednesday night.  Mom taught ladies’ the Bible class.  Neither of them would have been considered among the official leadership per se then.  Later, Dad did become an elder/shepherd, and he could have been called the “head elder” in a couple of respects, although he would not have liked that at all.

Conclusion (next post):  my continued, apparently irreversible “morphing” with respect to “church leadership,” and my relief that I will never be an “elder,” so to speak


° John A.T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament, 68.

¹ Being an “elder” at 35 sounds as silly as being a “senior pastor” at 30 or even 40.  Hey, at least it beats the Mormon Church practice of college-aged “elders.”  In the case of the man I knew, he was one of the two oldest men in a very young church, he had four children, and he was relatively experienced in the faith (or in church matters, at least), so his having been named an “elder” made some sense, speaking relatively.

² And something did go awry, with the “junior minister” mentioned above, in multiple ways.  I think he became jealous of my influence, and my personal life took a decidedly negative turn, and I began to annoy him, and he rejected me, and he popped open a can of ego.  I perceived that he was the primary purveyor of the “official clergy” mindset among the three “church staff” members, and he began to rub a few of us the wrong way, although he had an intensely loyal following.  I wish he hadn’t later made a point of the logo he created, claiming it was his intellectual property and denying the church the use of it after he left.  I’ve actually experienced similar feelings in my vocational world, so in a sense, I get it.  And some of that would never have come to mind if (1) the other guy had not been a staff minister and (2) I had not learned what I had learned.

To serve and contribute

Some time ago, I worked for a specified time time in a difficult role.  I worked hard, and I worked well.  I felt appreciated by subordinates and was commended by colleagues for my service.  However, I learned recently that my former supervisor spoke of me in a less-than-complimentary way, and I felt blindsided.

I notice that it is getting more and more difficult to spin things positively.  Mistreatment breeds insecurity, distrust, and disillusionment.  These can in turn lead to rash statements (of which I have been guilty).

I’ve had more than one difficult boss in my life.  (My current boss is just fine, and he seems to appreciate what I try to do, I hasten to point out!)  But not everyone has been like that.  One previous boss was embarrassing to be around at times.  He was called “a bull in a china shop” by a colleague.  Another one was called a “dud” by his boss.  Another looked like (and acted a bit like) Boris Yeltsin.  Yet another boss was a flash in the pan, coming on like gangbusters with unwise, early decisions and moving on pretty quickly.  That one seemed deliberately to mislead me on one occasion by diverting attention to a personal connection (instead of dealing with time-sensitive substance) for nearly an hour.  I’ve had a few benign bosses, and a few very good ones.  But one boss had done what he could to undercut his predecessor, forcing him out; then the guy promptly undercut the good I had been doing (which had been documented and strongly approved by said predecessor).  Aside from the boss element, more than one position I’ve held has turned out to be something other than what it was cracked up to be.  In one situation long past, it was my immaturity and a philosophical misfit that led to my decision to move on quickly.  In two others, I was treated dishonorably and even unethically.  I feel at this point that I have had more than my share of difficult situations.

I should also acknowledge that I have not always been the easiest employee for my bosses.  I’m relatively task-oriented but can become distracted and discouraged when barriers arise, one after another.  I’m communicative, honest, and helpful, but my manner of communication can be problematic for people who are less complex.  I’m creative, and a natural analyzer/challenger of the status quo, but also a proofreader—which is patently annoying to some people who don’t pay attention to those kinds of details.  Some of these qualities, while they are strengths, can also make me difficult to “manage.”  (Fortunately, I neither need nor want managing most of the time!)  I have made unwise decisions, and I have spoken too quickly on occasion, but I have never been unethical or misrepresented facts to hurt someone else, whereas those things have been perpetrated on me.  Thinking back . . . and I do think and remember too much of the past . . . I have an increasingly difficult time believing in people, processes, and institutions.  It can be hard for me to maintain a positive outlook.  Basically, in my better moments at the outset of a new endeavor, I see the good and am enthused over the potential, but when downturns occur, I can become cynical because of past experiences.

New opportunities
I think I’ve been a positive contributor to a startup arts school’s board during the last year or so, but my role is so far limited, and that school will be 60 miles away.  Now comes the opportunity also to serve in a nearby public school organization.  I would get nothing for this other than some potential fulfillment as I try to help the cause.  Can I ultimately be a positive contributor?  My answers to two application questions about this role led to some reflection, and it was not easy to probe certain situations mentally.  For the time being, here are two sentences through which I hope I presented myself and my potential contribution both honestly and in an upbeat manner:

“I would rather listen, share collaboratively, and attempt to bring collective wisdom to bear along with others than simply to wonder or listen to gossip.”  (I intended the “gossip” reference to speak to certain newspaper articles and a destructive, gossipy Facebook group that has made the school’s work more difficult.)

“I am honest and sincere to a fault, often governed by principle.  I am usually able to see various “shades of gray,” and I can intuit fairly well, but I am also rational.”

 

What do you think of those statements?  If you were forming a team of people to help a public school, would that sound terrific, or would any of it give you concern?

Christian groups
May I just say that it’s also difficult, given the paths I’ve traversed with churches and other Christian groups, to consider and speak of those possibilities in a positive light.  I have seen a bit too much and have become  disillusioned after successive experiences.  So many churches are little more than religion clubs, and Sundays can be humdrum at best.  Where are the believing analyzers, the dedicated disciples-in-training, the challengers and reformers with whom I could partner?  I don’t have much patience with the antics of ritual, but I do want to be in the midst of thoughtful, organic/simple approaches to Christian gatherings, earnest efforts to engage with scripture texts, and honest moves to honor God in word, thought, and deed.

General/civic engagement
I retain a longing to contribute to good things of various types, even if I’m not fully “on board.”  Last Sunday morning, I did something that I put in this category (although you might just as well place it in the above section).  On the previous two days, I did something else to help another group.  I don’t actually do very much at this point, mind you.  My wife is more interested and involved in certain aspects of “civic life,” but I do think about things and stay marginally informed on a local level.  Serving as an assistant coach on my son’s baseball team was terrific in terms of working relationships, and I’d say the three of us did something good for the community through the team . . . but I do have some suggestions for the league that might not make me popular with them.  Remember, I’m creative, analytical, and a proofreader by nature.  Plus, I actually have the gall to believe that umpires ought to be able to identify the strike zone before being inflicted on unsuspecting, young players!


For more on civic service, please see

Next in series: 

“To edit and harmonize (opportunity for musicians)”

“To explain and clarify,” an even less comfortable post that defies categorization as it covers some old personal ground.  This one may take a while to finalize.

Music box dancers in church

One of the oddest “pop” hits of the seventies was an instrumental called “Music Box Dancer.”  If a YouTube comment is to be believed, it was an accident that this was ever played on a rock radio station, and then the single became a hit.  Not to toot my own horn (wind my own box?) too much, but I recalled this tune a few days before I became aware of an interesting “Instrumental Oldies” channel on AccuRadio.  This station plays the likes of “Chariots of Fire” and the “Miami Vice Theme.”  If I ever hear “Music Box Dancer” in that audio stream, I’ll probably switch channels to something else.

“Music Box Dancer” was one of those things a young piano player could learn to play fairly easily, even by ear, but I have no affinity for it, and the thrust of this post has little to do with it, either.  So there you have it.

Last Sunday, I did have the sense that I was listening to a music box and watching a kind of dance evolve during a church visit.   The tune was particularly child-like and repetitive, and each “verse” lasted about as long as a typical music box tune would last.  There was a little pause at the end of each repetition, at which point someone robotically decided in favor of another rep.  This decision was made based on the “dance” that was going on with people passing trays.  Was there time for another complete repetition, or would the music box wind down and slow down?

This thought-pattern may indicate nothing more than the ennui of the typical church experience in my soul.  So there you have it.

Three theological tidbits

One  I’ve come up short in terms of knowledge so often that it’s hardly worth mentioning.  It’s happened again, in the last couple of weeks, with respect to a theological teaching known as PSA.  Here, PSA is neither an oncologist’s measurement nor a mediaperson’s “public service announcement.”  Theologically, apparently PSA is Penal Substitutionary Atonement.  I didn’t even know anything had been labeled as such, and I’ve never before considered PSA’s pros and cons.  Essentially, I think most people who would call themselves Christians assume some degree of PSA, whereas discriminating, studied theologians have nuanced it and decided on at least a partial yea or nay.

I have only barely started thinking about this, and even a cursory search and scan immediately sends me spiraling suspiciously down a staircase of suppositions.  In other words, I get dizzy with the labels and can’t find my way to the elevator.

Did you know that the root word “atone” is not found in the entire New Testament in the RSV or NASB or NJB translations?  It does appears 4x in the NT in the NRSV, and there are dozens of instances in some English Bibles in the Old Testament (but only 4x in the OT in the Roman-Catholic NJB).  The words “propitiation” and “expiation” come into play here, too . . . but the exegete’s questions must be focused on original-language words such as “ἱλάσκομαι” | hilaskomai and what they mean in context in such passages as Hebrews 2:17.  How intriguing that the only other place hilaskomai is used is in Luke 18:13, and the aorist middle/passive form is not translated “atone” there in any of my English Bibles.  Related, cognate words such as ἱλαστήριον | hilasterion ought also to be considered (and this word is also rendered with multiple English words), but cognates won’t all necessarily refer to the same theological notion.  The questions keep coming. . . .  In pursuits like this one, we deal in concepts, not merely words, and we cannot blindly focus only on the concepts present in the receptor language (in my case, English).  Still, the absence and presence of “atone” or “atoning” in certain English Bibles intrigues me, perhaps betraying theological alignments or biases.  Another interesting “find” is that atonement appears ten times in three apocryphal books (Sirach and 2nd and 4th Maccabees) literature.  Could it be that the literature from inter-testamental period, as appropriated after Christ, influenced a new-covenant theology of atonement?  I really have to stop here for now.

Eventually, I ought to ponder and study more about atonement and PSA.  This notion is potentially highly significant, and its long legs extend into such areas as soteriology, eschatology, and congregational worship.  Theological matters do have ways of extending themselves.  They also have ways of making some of us yawn, recoil, or shrivel.  A friend once relayed to me the following quotes or near-quotes:

“Happy is the Christian who has never met a theologian.” – Vance Havner, an influential Southern Baptist evangelist

I was wandering around lost in a dark forest with only one little candle to light my way when a theologian came along and blew out my candle.  – French Renaissance essayist Francois Rabelais

I can laugh at those, but, in my mind, theology has a forbidding presence—one that I’m only sporadically interested in acknowledging.

Two  In the current Lexham Press catalog, I found a few titles I was interested in:

  1. Honoring the Son: Jesus in Earliest Christian Devotional Practice (Larry Hurtado’s forthcoming work on the worship of Christ in the early church)
  2. The Universal Story (Dru Johnson’s treatment of Genesis 1-11)
  3. The Bible Unfiltered (Michael Heiser’s angle on the supernatural worldview inherent in scripture)

So many titles, however, seem like mere theological meanderings:

  • The Apostles’ Creed:  A Guide to the Ancient Catechism 
  • 1) Christian Essentials and 2) Theological Institutes (two different titles, surely with two different lists/presentations)
  • Studies in Historical & Systematic Theology (series)
  • Introduction to Dogmatic Theology (most of it is, I’d say!)
  • The Theological Correspondence of John Frame
  • No Quick Fix (an exposé of Keswickian “higher life” theology)
  • An Exegetical Theology of 1-3 John

Even the last one’s blurb shows the book to be more connected to “systematic theology” than to 1-2-3 John.  When I do take time for theology, it’s with trepidation.  In a recent “church” visit, I was unwittingly put on notice that I could never belong there, because anyone who does not support X theological construct is clearly viewed as heretical.

Three  I do appreciate the following wise words on the theological bent, so I’ll leave you with them for today.  Don’t miss the final clause about the likely mingling of motivations.

Theology is a bit like a spider’s web, in the sense that cutting a single strand of a theological framework can drastically alter the shape of the whole.

A good theologian understands the web from many angles. They can identify the fundamental tenets of an intricate system. They can foresee the potential effects of disregarding those tenets in advance. They can perceive when an apparently obscure issue is being used as a proxy for the underlying disagreement — and when it is not actually an obscure issue at all. They can spot patterns, echoes, allusions, and possibilities.

This obviously requires clarity of thought — but it also demands empathy and a wide-ranging understanding of context, since personal motivations are so often mingled with doctrinal ones.

– Academic scholar Maddy Ward

Past blasts #4: AVB’s “U Can’t Go 2 Church”

A few people in my past were big fans of the A Cappella organization.  At one point, it was just two guys on tour with pre-recorded tracks, but it was more often several guys.  Later, additional groups were spawned, including women and children.  AVB, the A Cappella Vocal Band, made forays into rappish tunes and used more vocal percussion effects.  I was never too big a fan myself, but I find myself going back to the past once in a while now.

Here is a YouTube link to an AVB song I happened to pull out yesterday.  Jedd and I listened while on an adventure and hour-long errand.  The message is simple but simply provocative for all of us—even those of us who’ve heard throughout our lives that we should call “Bible things by Bible names.”  I was happy this morning to be able to remember the words to the chorus.  I left the last line open for Jedd to fill in, and fill it in he did, with a smile.  I think this song’s punch drove home something he’s known for a few years already.

U Can’t Go 2 Church

You can’t go to church as some people say —
The common terminology we use everyday —
You can go to a building—that is something you can do—
But you can’t go to church
‘Cause the church is you

While I’m heading into the past with music from the 80s and 90s . . . a song that still gets to me, as sung by the parent group A Cappella, is “Fly Away,” in which I am reminded that “we will fly away when He hears His Father say, ‘Jesus, go and get your bride, today is your wedding day.'”

Youth, service, and “God time”

In connection with what gets labeled as “God time,” I think of two youth group “mission trips” to Mexico.  I was not involved, so I know only second-hand of how the lives were affected, but I suspect those who went on the trips would agree that it was an entirely positive experience in terms of relationships with each other and with God.  If you asked Bret or Mark or Matt or Holly or any number of others, I’m sure they’d echo the last sentence.

Thom Schultz’s (Group Publishing) polls show that young people tend to draw strong connecting lines between service opportunities and relationship with God.  There is a downside, though.  Schultz mentions how these “service opportunities” are typically framed:

With all this ministry firepower working for us, you’d think we’d be dialed-in to the discipleship possibilities that service trips generate.  Instead, the actual experience most-often compartmentalizes the service part of the trip away from the “spiritual” part of the trip.  I mean, the work kids do to serve is framed as simply “helping people,” while the program (morning and evening gatherings, and devotion times) is billed as “God time.”

Well, the Kingdom of God is not organized into compartments.

– Thom Schultz (Group Publishing, Holy Soup blog), “De-compartmentalizing your Disciple-Making”

Right he is.

Of course, the Kingdom of God is not equivalent to the church or the institutional church, either (heavens, no).  Not one of those should be thought of as involving pigeonholes.  Even the institutional church is better conceived as having a reach outside the walls of a building.

Despite the influence and good intent of songs such as “Take Time To Be Holy,” it should be understood that no devotional or church assembly is inherently more holy or more “God timey” than helping people.  This reality does not downgrade the assembly or prayer or listening to Christian radio or studying the Bible.  It does, however, allow a higher berth for other Kingdom activities.

More meditations: membership, ministry, & making connections

I am more committed to Christian togetherness than might be assumed by a casual observer—in part, because I don’t actually talk about it much.  To consider aligning with, regularly assembling with, and working alongside others is no light or inconsequential undertaking!  It can be wearisome to explain the mental, spiritual, and physical toil involved in searching for a group of Christians to which to belong.  This enterprise runs deep, requiring thoroughgoing thought and enduring energy.  The very idea of passively allowing geography, denominational history, or the availability of “programs” to make a choice for me is not really an option.  I shared prior thoughts in these two posts:

The crisis of ministry

Musings on ministry and membership

Reactions to those have been mixed, and I’ve wished at times that I had quashed the inner drive to speak “prophetically” and the desire to be understood in this sphere.  I didn’t have to make this so publicly explicit by blogging about it, but it is not out of character, given my “earnestly speaking” modus operandi, to attempt to say something that I believe is (a) important and (b) on the right track.  Words like these can be misread—or perfectly read and sincerely criticized.  Critical attention is never any fun, although it can be helpful.  Something in me craves new or renewed connections with various souls, so the effort is worth it to me.  It might at times be that two will talk past one another or simply turn away, coming from vastly different vantage points.  Perhaps simpatico and/or a potential for synergy might be revealed.  In a rare case, could someone actually be taught or influenced for good through a blog?

Sarah, a friend of nearly ten years with whom our family has shared a great deal, wrote something I want to spotlight:

“Struggling with similar things lately too. I think there is so much to be said about attending the church in one’s neighborhood regardless of minor differences to be connected to those who are literally one’s neighbors and to be serving in one’s physical community, but I don’t know if that’s enough for me. I think I feel guilty about that. The churches in my physical neighborhood feel uncomfortable…preaching that is shallow at best, congregation lacking young families, significant theological differences, and worship style and preferences that leave me bored and/or cringing. We have been attending a church 45 minutes away that just instantly felt like home in every aspect, but it’s hard to be involved and active while living at a distance. Tough. Do I sacrifice the potential for far greater spiritual growth and vibrant fellowship for the sake of what I think I’m “supposed” to do (plug in to The Church as it exists in my neighborhood)? How will that choice affect my daughter as she grows?”

Probably no surprise to anyone who read the first posting, Sarah’s response reverberated in me at a forte dynamic level.  Poignantly and succinctly, she has touched on concerns such as standards and traditions, geography and distance, guilt feelings, service/ministry, preferences/styles, and the intersection of church choice with parenting.  Here, I’d like to echo her good thoughts (con forza e con espressione!) and say a little more before putting these topics to rest for a while.

Communities and neighborhoods.  I know something about Sarah’s locale, but I don’t know her family’s neighborhood intimately.  I can really only speak to my own area, also drawing from past experience in other regions.  I perceive, sometimes to my shame, that my neighbors (in the most obvious sense) are not often the types of people to whom I readily, naturally gravitate.  The lifestyles of some appear to be undesirable or overtly sinful, or their families are broken because of criminal drug use, or their properties are not cared for, or their children are unkempt.  Of course they need friends and they need Jesus, but it’s not always the easiest proposition to deal with that need.  Children that behave poorly require too much of the attention in school, and it’s not exactly easy to put one’s child (or oneself) in the middle of more bad-behavior examples in the neighborhood.

Further complicating these critical feelings in me, I sometimes detect a “boot straps” self-sufficiency and a leave-me-alone quality in many residents of my area.  I don’t know whether it’s the Germanic heritage, the effects of windy or stormy weather, the legacy of a historically agricultural setting, or what, but I find many people unapproachable.  Put another way:  it’s at least as difficult as it is in East Coast Suburbia to get to know my neighbors.  One more thing: where we are, the preponderance of Roman Catholic and Lutheran heritage appears to breed a steely unwillingness to consider anything else.

“Feeling uncomfortable.”  Beyond the neighborhood, there can be a palpable sense of discomfort in a sanctuary or church hall—or, on the other hand, one can just as easily experience an inviting, energized vibe.  I think that some personalities tend to minimize these factors.  It is not insignificant for others of us.  This is not really the type of discomfort that Sarah referenced, but If I feel like a fifth wheel or an alien within a given group, I feel a tremendous inertia when considering either serving/ministering or being ministered to.  Such discomfort is just a part of the picture, and it’s partly mental, but it’s no less real, and sometimes, the chemistry just isn’t there.  Sometimes one just gets a feeling upon walking into a place. We’ve had instantly positive ones (at least one each in Sheridan, Searcy, and Atchison areas) but also instantly negative ones, some of which led to hasty exits.

A lack of families.  A family that moved away was one of three with a child roughly Jedd’s age.  We haven’t been back since, and I feel that we could be viewed as shallow ourselves since we were ostensibly going there partly for that relationship.  How childish of us.  Or maybe not.  Maybe it’s more about the “vibrancy” to which Sarah referred—and the deep desire for connection.  It is not necessary to have organized youth groups or children’s Bible school programs or senior citizens’ programs, but it’s generally a sign of health if a congregation has a range of ages and a balanced demographic.  Families with young children should be careful not to regale middle-aged or single folks with constant talk about their children, thinking it’s all about them, but it should be acknowledged that, for young families themselves, the likelihood of connection is increased if there are multiple young families in a group.

Shallow preaching.  Shallowness has sometimes played a role in narrowing our choices.  It would be unthinkable for us to align in any sense with a church that regularly featured shallow teaching; the churches that stand out positively in our minds do have fairly strong public teachers/preachers.  I fully recognize that many churches are not blessed with gifted communicators, and I lament with Sarah the prospect of having to try to gain nutrients from the tripe or high fructose corn syrup offered from some pulpits.

It might seem a strange question to some, but I nonetheless feel the need to probe. . . .  Because of preaching’s ubiquity and the proportion of time it typically receives, it typically garners a lot of attention when a family is trying to decide on a church.  Notably, the church groups spawned after the Protestant Reformation are distinguished from Roman and Eastern churches by an emphasis on public teaching as opposed to liturgical ritual.  Luther, Calvin, and others therefore played significant roles in the rise and eventual enshrinement of preaching and preachers.  I judge that preaching as a method is greatly exaggerated and has itself become an institution within the institutional church.  It is what it is, but the reality continues to warrant reconsideration.

Theological differences.  Within some churches of my heritage (not necessarily those I’ve been a part of myself), “theological differences” might be reduced to “worship style” wars or other puddle-depth considerations such as whether to have a kitchen in the building or whether to support para-church agencies.  But Sarah is one who knows well that there really are significant theological differences that tend to affect many things.  For instance, I experience sea-depth differences with a person who is interested in starting Bible study opportunities at one of the five churches I wrote about, and I know that there would not be room enough for the two of us in such an enterprise.  I could not even sit in a class with him.  Everything this person says smacks of a bent I cannot accept, and vice versa.  This fact does not damn either of us, but it makes it nearly impossible to work together in the same place.

Distance.  In our case, a couple of churches, including one I didn’t mention, are 25 or more miles away.  There are additional options at that distance—larger groups that would offer us more spiritual food and, in one case, more opportunity for corporate worship output.  We have traveled 40 miles one-way for more than year, and 65 miles for the better part of four years in another location.  Now, one church under current consideration is a 10-minute family walk away.  What are we “supposed” to do with that?

Cringing.  I was initially surprised when I read that Sarah sometimes cringes, because I know her enthusiastically positive demeanor.  But I know she is a thinker and a devoted disciple who also has some opinions once in a while . . . so my “hmmm” reaction turns out not to be paradoxical after all.  It’s rare in my experience that someone uses the term “cringe” to describe feelings and inner reactions to church, but I myself so immediately get this that I want to stand up and shout, “Amen!  There are others of us out here who cringe inwardly and sometimes outwardly when your churches do weird, meaningless, or adulterated things in the name of God!”

Thus ends this series of membership and ministry.  Perhaps in the future I’ll document some experiences from gatherings in Kenya and at camps, in rec rooms and at retreats—or perhaps I’ll point longingly to the open-fellowship chapel groups in Jefferson City, MO or Alfred, NY.  Even more likely, I’ll continue to move in the direction of simple/organic church.  Those who don’t really share the feelings and longings shared in this three-part series are in a large majority, and I don’t even mind if you pity me from afar!  If you don’t “get” or can’t support our struggles, that’s okay.  Perhaps you could consider it an illuminating experience in someone else’s sandals.