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” or 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.


Musings on ministry and membership

I have learned a couple of things since posting “The Crisis of Ministry.”  For starters, I learned that I should be more careful in using words like “crisis.”  (I am not in a psychological crisis )¹  It would also have been ill-advised to call it a “crucible” of ministry.  Would anyone accept “psycho-social locus of moderate melancholia and partly floundering quizzicalness”?

I also learned that I underestimated the effect of the lack of recent, face-to-face relational time.  A common background goes a long way, but if I haven’t spent an appreciable amount of time with people in a long time, there’s a likelihood that we’ll both misunderstand or talk past one another when describing some things.  Despite the best intentions and the best of hearts, some comments did not connect for me.  Perhaps they spoke to readers; if so, that’s good.

Internet media can seem to whitewash things sometimes.  A quick comment after a fairly quick read of a somewhat hastily conceived blogpost won’t always be on target.  And I must’ve subconsciously overestimated the capacity of the intentionally written word to overcome any communication gaps.  A few might be able to read between my lines or interpret what I really mean or how I feel about it all, but a topic like this was probably better discussed face to face than blogged about.  I regret aspects, but can’t really say that I repent, because I’m about to sin similarly again.

I’d like to return to a few things so I can perhaps explain or respond to a few suggestions—or even answer “objections,” in a couple cases.  In no case am I intending to take anyone to task, and I’m intentionally moving Facebook and other comments around, so it’s hard to trace who said what.  I am using isolated sentences as a springboard to clarify and illuminate.  The quotes from friends appear in blue below.

Someone said,

We always tended to go somewhere close and just see where we could serve.”

This is as practical as it is good-hearted.  I have had this goal in mind, too, and actually, this is precisely how we started out in our current location and others.  We simply have not found that place we could serve.  We want to do this.  Maybe we are blind and/or deaf, but it has not worked out yet.

“I get the feeling you are looking for the perfect place to minister.  It’s been my experience it doesn’t exist.”

My experience, wider and longer in this respect than that of pretty much everyone I’ve run across, bears out that there is no ideal.  Truly, I have no ethereal dreams anymore and am not looking for a non-existent group.  After visiting scores² of them in the last decade+, I am all too aware that no perfect place exists.

“I find it hard to locate someone really on my wavelength.  I am just glad Jesus didn’t really wait to find someone on his own wavelength before trying to minister!”

Agreed on both thoughts.  What should “wavelength” matter if I find myself near a genuine person wants to please Jesus, learn scripture, and be in a community of disciples?  As for imitating Jesus in serving:  it is always good to think about the one we call “Teacher” and “Master.”  This makes me think about other things (i.e., all of them) that I don’t do as well as Jesus.

“Jedd definitely needs some church friends.  Maybe you can give him that without being totally satisfied in what you need.”

I can appreciate this.  I’m not sure how to weigh the church friends factor alongside others, but I’d rather that Jedd had some.  He does have friends at a Wednesday afternoon church-sponsored activity.  He had one other one that moved away.  He also has friends in our home group (adults plus one toddler).  It would be nice if there were a little quartet of 8-to-10-year-olds that could pal around together once or twice a week.  Maybe a couple of them would see each other at school, too.  But that “perfect group” doesn’t exist for Jedd, either.

Karly is better at “going along” than I am, but she is discontent and wondering what to do, too.  If our parental goal is to have Jedd maybe see two or three kids his age weekly, a line of questioning forms in my heart:

Should we go to a place where. . .

  • . . . we cannot conscientiously participate in some aspects of worship?
  • . . . we have been rejected (and even mocked a little, in one case)?
  • . . . we cannot “join the community” according to its present terms?

Is it really valuable for Jedd to be with a small motley crew of kids when he knows his parents are struggling upstairs, and when sometimes all he remembers is how crazy another kid was acting?  I’m actually unaware of any better possibility at the moment (given distance and other factors).  I suppose having regular “church ‘friends'” is valuable regardless, just like anything “stable.”  I don’t know.

“Church is not trying on people to see if they fit, instead it is looking at how God will use you with the people he has surrounded you with.  Ministering at home is part of God’s plan, but so is ministering to others in a local community.  I would say that if there is something you feel needs to be changed at a local church, first see if it is you who needs to change in your heart.”

Please recall that I am “ministering to others in a local community.”  We happen not to have a “church home” that most others would call a church home, but the lack of recognition does not in itself preclude that what we do have (or search for) can be pleasing to the Lord.  In other words, if our group doesn’t measure up to someone else’s standard, that doesn’t mean it’s not a valid “local community” in God’s eyes.

Now to the “heart.”  More than one person said something about this, and it took me at least a week to quell a negative inward reaction in order to respond as best I can.  The “heart” is a curious symbol.  Linguistics and historical cultural concepts aside, I would all too readily admit that my heart is not in great shape.  I intended to imply that confession in my expression “maybe it’s just me,” but it wasn’t clear enough.  In the third and fourth paragraphs in the original post here, I confessed that I am not who I once was in terms of the inclination to serve others.  I probably should have said more about that later in the first post, after specifically describing a few churches.  I don’t need to be informed that my heart needs examination.  I’m not blaming anyone for not knowing this, but honestly, for me, that “change your heart” verbiage is reminiscent of certain “multiplying ministry” (Crossroads/Boston/L.A. CofC) phrasings with which I was once associated at arm’s-length.  The leadership of that sect used to say you “had a bad heart” if you questioned said leadership.  Well, maybe or maybe not.  (Often, I think those questioning things were not the ones with the heart problems.)  In my case, my heart is certainly in need of some defibrillation or de-calcifying or something.  I don’t think my heart is so bad as to need a transplant, but maybe.  My heart is not as healthy as it was in say, 1981 or 1987 or 1991 or 2002.  My heart needs shaping.  My heart needs conditioning.  Give me an Rx, and it might or might not be the best one . . . but, yes, I do know my heart can use some help.

In the above suggestion to look at my own heart, I detect what I take as a sincere commitment to the gnat-camel and speck-beam principles.³  Yes, there might well be more wrong with me than with the people in the churches.  I’m not consciously judging anyone’s intentions or worthiness.  I’m thinking of groups far more than individuals.  As much as I can, I’m trying to separate thoughts about the people from thoughts about the institutions.  Yes, there might be “chemistry” problems that keep us from being close to certain folks, but I am speaking corporately when I say that the institutions we’ve visited recently range from “civic club” churches to sectarian maintenance groups to corpulent, opulent institutions.  (We’ve generally learned to filter out those that would impress us as repulsively off-track or comatose.)

Back in about 2012, someone I barely knew commented to someone I knew a little better that he didn’t “experience life” as she did.   Those individuals did seem to move to different drummers . . . and the way we experience church is not necessarily how someone else does.  Having lived in 8 states together in 13 years, my wife and I experience “church” out of an unplanned set of experiences.  After scores² of visits and many re-visits, the process of trying to connect and find a reasonable group to be with is exhausting.  I will simply ask that those who have lived in only one or two places try not to be quick to criticize the process and effects of “church searching.”  Some folks may always feel we need to relax our “standards,” and that might be a real need (but not in this one4 described below).  Still, where our Goodyear tires experience friction with the asphalt is here:  we have consciences and principles involved in our discipleship.  You do, too, or you wouldn’t have read this far.  To extend the metaphor, walking a few Sabbath Day journeys in each other’s sneakers would help people to understand each other—and sometimes, to prescribe for them.  Yet my sneakers don’t fit everyone else, so it’s sometimes hard to empathize, let alone help.

It takes all kinds in the world.  We are not of the kind that can sit and accept things we earnestly believe to be off-track and even wrong.  Here, we are not talking about carpet colors and “worship styles” and nursery staffing and parking lot ministries and church bulletin mistakes.  We are talking about deeper, more important things.  My frequently on-target wife commented incisively, “If everyone just went along with the status quo, nothing would ever change.”  It is precisely on this point that I will continue to lose some of you.  For me and us, it is a given that some things require change.  Other things, not so much.  In mere matters of preference, change is not often needed at all.  But it is not helpful to assume that, because you are okay with this or that, that everyone else can or should be content with it.

I can certainly relate to that calling you are feeling.  I’ve been starting to feel a sense that perhaps starting up something from scratch might be the way.  Now for the method.  I’ve lots of ideas.  We’ll see.  I don’t always wait years for an answer if I don’t get one bright away.”

Image titled Console a Very Sad Person Step 8

I too tend to look more for creating and innovating than reforming these days, but I’m also not sure if I have the gusto anymore . . . which almost leads full-circle to the sense of “crisis in ministry” about which I initially wrote.  I have a strong, inner sense of things I need to do in order to be useful.  That “list” has changed in the last 10-20 years, but remains a presence in my heart.  Too, the last decade has been chock-full of times of not doing nearly as much as I used to.  I have had those times of trying to settle into friendships and the ministry of others to us.  Or at least I’ve hoped for that, but very little has materialized, and when it did, it was all too short-lived.  The “sabbatical” of rest and preparation that one acquaintance referred to has lasted way too long, and it’s actually not fulfilled much of a purpose, as far as I can see.  (Yes, I know I shouldn’t depend wholly on my own sight.)

These days, it’s no secret that mainline denominations and other sects are losing members, generally speaking.  There are many more community churches and purportedly nondenominational groups springing up.  Most of these younger groups strikingly resemble the churches from which their pastors came, so it doesn’t seem that much new is happening.  I paraphrase my wife again here:  few are willing to step away from the traditional models—into something that doesn’t look like “church” as Americans and Europeans have defined it.

In mulling all this over, my wife and I remember knowing of some wacked-out people who had taken an evening or two to sit in lawn chairs, in the middle of a fairly busy neighborhood street, yelling at drivers to slow down around their children.  Sometimes it takes radical action like that, but prophesying against dangerous drivers that way doesn’t strike us as very effective.  (Nor do community action groups or speed bumps offer much good effect, but that’s another story.)  We don’t stand in the middle of traffic and scream at passersby that they need to leave and develop something new.  That is too stark an image, no matter how strong we feel.  Even as we continue to value individuals in all sorts of churches, along with some doctrinal tenets held and principles at work in various groups, we figure we’ll continue looking to innovate more than to join and reform established churches.

Here are a couple of places to go if you want to think more along these lines:

  1. A collection of thoughts and further links to Simple/Organic Church material
  2. A specific posting related to the book Simple Church
  3. A New Gathering of Christians—a work-in-progress document I began nearly a decade ago and haven’t thought about for quite a while

Next:  Responsive, resonant comments from Sarah, a strong friend of nearly ten years, will more or less outline the next post.

¹ Nor am I “in ministry,” in the sense that most people use that term.  Yet since I was a teenager, my confidence has been unflagging in that, in terms of the New Testament writings and more, there should be no clergy/laity distinction.  During two isolated phases of my life, I made a little motion toward becoming a paid, formally recognized minister in the institutional sense.  I once had a phone interview but pulled myself out of the running, realizing I was not cut out for it.  A decade later, I made the second cut for the worship minister position at a large Nashville church.  A year or so after that, I was almost hired as a half-time worship minister.  It seems better that none of these things materialized.

I doubt I will ever be a paid minister, and that is fine with me.  I am settled on the more important matter:  all believers, functionally speaking—by constitution and intent—are ministers/deacons/servants.

² Rough estimates of the number of churches visited since 2005:

  • 6 in Sedalia
  • 8 in Greeley
  • 35 in Fillmore (70-mile radius)
  • 8 in Kingsville
  • 6 in Sheridan
  • 12 in Searcy
  • 25 in Atchison (40-mile radius)
  • a couple dozen more when traveling (IA, WA, DE, PA, TX, TN)

³ One should not strain out a gnat and swallow a camel; one should first remove the plank from his own eye before attempting to extricate a tiny speck from someone else’s.

4 In a post in December 2016, I wrote this about one church.  There is probably an “excuse” for the existence of this group in God’s eyes, but that doesn’t mean we could or should be a part of it:

Most churches fall somewhere between mildly disappointing and stultifying in many activities.  The singing aspect of this church’s gathering, experienced for a grand total of five minutes this very morning, didn’t come anywhere close to either of those.  It wasn’t even embarrassing.  It was an utter travesty, and doubly so because no one seemed to be aware of how bad it was.

     aSd     du023d23yad -ad+^^^DqEl878m/]*

Did that make any sense?  Didn’t think so.  The singing at this place was like that:  nonsense.  The reasonable-quality gospel song sung from a poor-quality hymnal should have been familiar to at least half the people in the room, but the “leader” had not a fraction of a clue.  This was not your garden-variety obtuse or relatively unskilled leader.  This was like a paraplegic in a relay race or a short-order cook negotiating a nuclear treaty with the dictator of a 2nd-world communist country.  “Face to Face” ended up sung to a mixed-up, bad-form version of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” and believe me, no one intended that—or registered a quizzical look when it happened.  It was melodically confused and harmonically chaotic.  The next song, the Gaither favorite “He Lives,” began in at least three different keys with equal melodic confusion.  And no one even seemed aware.  And that in itself should be embarrassing.  Maybe I should have left out the 2nd half of this paragraph.  Nah.


Cross-posted: signifiers

Do you think Christianity and nationalism go hand in hand?

For you, is “church” an extension of civic life, merely one of your clubs or organizations?

If your honest answer to either of those questions tends toward “yes,” you might not want to read this from my Kingdom blog.  On the other hand, if you consider yourself able to consider potentially challenging ideas without feeling offense, I hope you will read it.  If you do, please know that, while the ills I describe are pervasive, the examples I use are mere examples.  It could have been any church or Christian group.  Most have issues in this area.

Church signs and signifiers   (revised & expanded 2/15 – 2/19)

Were they serious?

The crisis of ministry

Unprompted, our son prayed one Sunday for us to find a church home, because, and I quote, “I’m getting pretty tired of going everywhere all the time.”  We feel your pain, son.  Well, not exactly the same way, but we do feel it.

I can think of at least five churches (some connection exists in four of them) in which I have felt a significant level of interest.  Unfortunately, I also experience a lack of ability to minister within them.  There is little “chemistry” with the majority of the people in each of these groups.  The scenario constitutes an inner sense of uselessness:  I feel that I would be unable to “minister” there.  In my own tiny world, this is something of a crisis.

There was a time when I was more likely and equipped to reach to the under-served, the underprivileged, the down and out.  One time, I almost got done in by helping the down and out . . . .  I let an acquaintance borrow Picture of 1977 Dodge Colt, exterior, gallery_worthymy old car while I was out of town on vacation, and when I returned, I discovered that he not only had had an accident but had also left illegal drugs in my car!  On several occasions, people have needed temporary places to stay.  Those friends were not in the same category, really, but still, they were in life-places of need, and I was capable of ministering to a few needs . . . so I did just that.  Then.

When I consider my life situations right now, it is abundantly clear why I am not as inclined to get involved.  I have my hands full taking care of myself.  (This sounds awfully selfish, doesn’t it?  One friend who knows a fair amount about me recently suggested that I must take care of myself.  Popular self-help malarkey aside, there is some truth to the notion of not being able to do much for others unless you are OK yourself. I probably need to listen to those with insight into my scenario.)

Back to the churches—and my disinclination to minister within them.

  1. Church #1 is composed of about 15 or 20 people, about three of which seem educated.  Those three are more or less disorganized and show too laissez-faire an approach for my taste.  Several others seem to have come from places in life that I can’t seem to connect with or help with.
  2. Church #2, where leadership is much more overt and capable, has a somewhat similar clientele.  Probably half of the 60 or 70 folks seem very “other” to me.  (I can think of five couples/families to which the above description does not apply.  There is a serious doctrinal disconnect with at least one of those, depending on the day.)  To be quite frank, I don’t recall ever having heard such a fine, well-conceived mini-lesson at the immersion of a new believer ever (not in Restoration Movement churches or anywhere else).  Sadly, there is evidence that two more of the families with which I could have shared chemistry have decided to skip by me, rather than the other way around.  This church recently put forward an opportunity to get involved with re-integrating prisoners into local society.  This notion sounded like something very worthwhile.  I am just not sure whether I, as an “at-large” Christian who knows several folks at this church, could be involved.  There is also a looming sense of “I don’t have the wherewithal anymore, anyway.”  (See above paragraph on “taking care of myself.”)
  3. Church #3 carries the moniker “biker church.”  Now, many of my readers who knew me only a dozen or more years ago might have a difficult time seeing me as a motorcycle enthusiast, & I’m not a crazy or obsessed one by any stretch, but I do enjoy short rides and have owned four motorcycles in my life.¹  Anyway, the Bluffs Biker Church already has a pretty good thing going, and its leader/teacher does not need any help from me to continue what he is doing.  Nor would I have as good a manner of ministering to the unique clientele as he does.
  4. Church #4 is a more traditionally formed one.  It meets in a modest, well-apportioned building about 35 minutes from us.  We found a couple of arm’s-length connections.  This is a reasonable group that uses a rotation of traveling public teachers.  While there can be benefit in this structure, and while we have appreciated some of the presentations on some levels, it differently perpetuates the preacher-centric mentality.  This setup, along with a permeating sense that this church is staid and set in its ways, combine to limit the possibilities for me to minister there.  Eventually, perhaps I could be one of the teachers, but I am not at all sure that I’d actually be ministering to anyone if I were.  Even my ability to lead worship in song would sort of fall on deaf ears there, if you know what I mean.
  5. Church #5, just visited a second time after an initially split impression more than a year ago, still puts me in two minds.  On the one hand, I like the personality of the group as I walk in, and there are two leaders besides the recognized pastor—unusual in such a small group.  I was even oddly impressed with the simple, unassuming music (over which no one was embarrassed—they were all participating).  The problem here is not the potential chemistry with the “people in the pews” with with the current preacher-pastor, who has a sort-of irritable manner.  He has seemed persistently, mildly annoyed and punchy both times.  He’s also more wordy than he should be.  Something about the group’s “look and feel,” despite the apparent normalcy and pleasant diversity of the people, makes me feel I’d be intruding.  Or travailing.  Or simply wasting my time and theirs.

Maybe it’s just me.

After a year-long wait, we did begin an intensive study in our home last fall.  This is my primary place of “ministry” right now, I suppose.  As I type those words, the thoughts of Will Campbell about so-called ministry echo in my head.  He believed that the very idea of “ministry” tends toward arrogance—as though I can do something better than you.  Despite being better equipped and more experienced in teaching than anyone else in the group, I wonder if I truly do “minister” or not.

Perhaps I should simply be content in little connections here and there:

  • showing someone that I remember something about a past tragedy in his life
  • intentionally verbalizing, in the presence of an acquaintance of unknown or affiliation or belief structure, that I distinguish between worthwhile Christian books and patently dogmatic ones that serve the denominational interests as opposed to God’s interests
  • expressing sincere sympathy when, in the course of my job, I meet or talk with people who are undergoing hard times

Those are such tiny, tiny things, but could they be viewed as ministering?  (Potentially, I suppose.)

¹  The present bike is the best fit for me, and it is an added nicety, that no helmet is required in my state; plus, a child (with helmet) is allowed to ride on the back.  So, Jedd loves riding with me.


Technology and instruction (1 of 2)

With regard to technology in education, I am becoming more skeptical¹ . . . an admission that in itself would likely cause Millennials to become skeptical!

Skepticism does not preclude engagement and even enthusiasm.  I am involved in a distance learning enterprise—a high-quality, exceptionally focused one through which learning occurs and goals are reached (and I’m not just saying that because its founder and chief teacher will likely see these words).  The existence of online education does not confirm its superiority, though; it merely means there are additional possibilities these days.

I consider that distance and online learning are concessions—nods to the global, mobile society in which much of the world lives.  Programs of instruction can now be offered online and can enjoy successes.  Many of us can now take advantage of educational opportunities when we don’t live close enough to the instructor(s) to learn face to face.  I would suggest that most teachers would prefer, if they could, to be able to look into students’ eyes than into a screen.  They’d rather speak into air and ears than into a sterile mic attached to a camera, all while wearing headphones.²  Sure, good teachers will often use appropriate technologies in the classrooms, but most teachers and most students will prefer the ambient sounds of voices than the glitches and limitations of GoToMeeting connections with people in multiple locations—people who cannot all experience the same facial expressions and mannerisms of the one who is talking at a given time.

Several years ago, when presented with an opportunity, I jumped on board with a pilot group that was learning and experimenting with online course delivery.  I do not regret that for a minute.  I will also tell you that the means had not been researched or developed enough, and the technology failed about as much as it succeeded as I attempted to teach a few brave, intelligent, committed souls.  I called the course “Musical Topoi, Character, and Gesture:  Studies in 18C-19C Instrumental Literature.”  In hindsight, I’d say it was quasi-successful in that people learned things, but those things could have been learned better in a studio setting.³  The teaching method (hybrid/online) was experimental and was also a concession to the fact that the four students were in different locations during the summer.  I do think it’s important to be able to use things that are available, if they make sense.  But I continue to find that education is best (read more likely to result in learning) when it occurs face to face, with live visuals and aurals.  Sure, some of those sights and sounds may employ technologies.  Technology-based educational opportunities can prove to be real blessings, but rarely will distance learning scenarios prove more effective than classrooms, living rooms, and even coffee shops and restaurants.

I think now of another friend who is also more tech-savvy than I, at least in some areas, and this one’s perspectives and energies are more given to traditional church ministry.  How does he conceive of and exploit technology in his setting?  Many other readers and their friends could be considered, as well.  My own interests in Christian circles tend toward the smaller-scale and the more informal.  In other words, I think “small group” and “living room” more than “church sanctuary,” and even in my home, I sometimes use the internet and Google Drive and my own reasonably sized smart TV.  (Far better to use a tablet with a bluetooth speaker in my living room, I say, than to roll out a portable pulpit.  I kid you not:  I actually experienced that in someone else’s home church setting once.)  Established, brick-and-mortar church groups I’ve visited recently include two that use technology well.  One of them is the best example of timely song-slide changes in recent memory (you have to change to the next slide before the moment the new words are to be sung, or else it’s too late for people to breathe and sing!).  Another used video clips well and did not amplify the sound too much.  In both cases I’m thinking of, the technology did in fact seem to serve the purpose, and that is obviously a good thing.

Many of us care about teaching well.  We use technologies that aid in communicating about God—and even to God, all for what we earnestly think are God’s purposes.  Where technologies assist, and where they are not cost-prohibitive, many of us will naturally be predisposed to their effective use.  I’m interested, though, in distinguishing between using technology and letting it use us.  Maybe you have also seen that the means can sometimes become the end.  Is a pastor or preacher a better one merely because he gets on a particular technology bandwagon?Image result for online pastor

I am not only skeptical about financial-services technology that Millennials trust (see here for the precursor).  I suspect few there are who understand technologies’ fragile bone structures or their vulnerable circulatory or nervous systems; I myself know little more about financial technologies than the fact that risks to functionality and information security exist.  I am also cautious about the assumption that computer-based education, whether in the secular or sacred realm, is viable.  Note that I did not say computer-based education and technologically driven methods are not, or cannot be, valuable.  What I challenge is the presumptive approach that makes new/cool technologies the goal.  “Let’s use this technology,” some church growth person will say, “because it will appeal to the Millennials.”  That motivation, taken at face value, is shallow.  Likewise, I challenge the assumption that online education in academic is viable merely because it is modern technology-based.

The notion of skepticism about technology provides my segue to something I’d written two years ago to another ensemble instrumentalist.  (Please see the next/final installment in a couple of days.)

¹ If I had spelled “skeptical” “sceptical,” would the British-aware think I was a different sort of mix of conundrums than I am?  Would my little essay here be pigeonholed differently by readers—or by technological algorithms that “feed” the post through social media sites and search engines?  I’m irked by the very notion of an algorithm that makes decisions for me, and I would say Facebook feeds me the “right” things less than half the time.

² As I am finalizing this post, and after I inserted those last words, I recalled with pleasure the teaching experience I had on Sunday evening.  My experience testifies to what I just wrote.  I’d used technology in teaching the week before, and I’d sat in a fine online class the previous day.  Technology can and should be used in this day and age.  Can you even imagine a professor worth his salt sitting in his office teaching to a computer while the students are sitting in a classroom down the hall, watching him on a big screen?   The point is that, if given a choice, teachers will probably choose face to face.

³ As I was finishing the draft of this essay on Jan. 11, I asked my 8-year-old son what he thought it would be easier to learn on a computer:

  1. Spelling words
  2. Word problems in math
  3. Conducting
  4. Surgery

He thought for a moment and decided in favor of #2.  I would have chosen #1, but he has had good experience with #2, and he might be right.  Anyway, he recognizes that #3 and #4 would not be easy to learn on a screen.


Of 1.6-liter engines, V10 4WDs, theology, and biblical studies

A great start to the morning includes another statement of reliance on what is written.  The following Q&A led an interview found here:
Interviewer: What led you into biblical studies, and in particular, Pauline studies, in the first place?
Seyoon Kim:  When I embarked on my post-graduate theological studies, I was aspiring to become a systematic theologian. During the first year of preparatory reading for it, I realized that to become a good systematician, I had to be well grounded on biblical foundation.  So I decided to do my doctoral work in biblical studies, and chose Pauline studies, thinking that it would prepare me the best for my eventual systematic theological work (but I have not been able to “advance” to it!)

Oddly enough, my first introduction to “biblical studies” was a negative one.  (When a school or institute is called the “School of Biblical Studies,” abbreviatory jokes can be made.)  Yet I know of no more apt moniker, and biblical studies as an academic field must continue to enjoy a respected place.¹  I started to say that it should have a berth “quite distinct from” theology and ministry, but I actually don’t believe that.  My wish might be better stated like this:  biblical studies² should be recognized as a foundational discipline for faith-related academic inquiry, constituting the stage on which theology, church history, ministry, and religious philosophy play out.

Dr. Kim appears to have used the word “advance” with a wink.  I would grant that theological thought is “advanced,” in that it makes judgments and synthesizes.  Here, I think of Bloom’s Taxonomy, which for me was Knowledge – Comprehension – Application – Analysis – Synthesis – Evaluation.  (See current info here and here.)  I  think I learned and comprehended that model fairly well as a young college student, and I have applied at least the lower end of it throughout life.  In other words, I don’t know that I have analyzed, synthesized, evaluated all that much.  At any rate, I would grant that those who think more philosophically and theologically often have advanced minds.  My brain is a 4-cylinder, 1.6L Ford Escort, whereas theirs are V10 fuel-injected V10s Ford F250s with 4WD.  (Or maybe Ford Excursions with bells and whistles inside?)

I’m content to drive along trustworthy, relatively flat paths with my little engine.  I think those big ol’ vehicles can get themselves into deep mud and crevasses as they attempt to climb hills and traverse rugged terrain while watching movies with their on-board Wifi.  The windows can get all covered up with mud, and the drivers have a hard time seeing the path, though.  So keep me in the text along with Dr. Kim, and save me from “advanced” theological machinations unless they are inextricably tied to the texts.  Theological pursuits may be rewarding, but most of our minds (certainly not mine) can’t handle them very often, and I think we’re all probably safer on level ground.

¹ It is difficult to respect the theology department of a supposedly Christian institution of higher learning when it offers courses in church history and philosophy but not a single course in New Testament Greek.

² Within “biblical studies” we might include (but not be limited to) manuscript investigation, rhetorical analysis, discourse analysis, text criticism, studies in Hebrew prophetic genres and Hebrew poetry, studies in the literary nature of the gospels, Pauline studies, and, of course, studies of ancient scripture languages such as Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.


Again with the reforming

A man named Kevin Vanhoozer is apparently leading an effort to mark the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 theses with a new “confession of faith.”  Click here to read about the “Reforming Catholic Confession”—a document that is by definition not Roman but that uses “catholic” in its purer sense.

Now, for three decades I’ve believed (and periodically asserted) that reforming and restoring should be conceived of as ongoing, perpetual processes.  Never should one think he has arrived at a state of having been restored.  Nor do I think it becoming or wise for a group, no matter how broad and inclusive it thinks it is, to call itself “Reformed.”  Even if one were to include all the denominations that call Reformed theology their doctrinal home, you would still only have a slice of the Christian pie.  There are many others, and a great many of us have hearts and brains, too.  (One of the great offenses of the Christian church world is that so many people seem to think Reformed-type academics have dibs on scholarship.)

Vanhoozer’s name sounds Dutch to me, which leads me to presume he is from a Christian Reformed or Dutch Reformed tradition.  Whether I’m correct on the identification or not, I find the efforts of this group at once admirable and ill-conceived.  Admirable, because even a quick scan reveals that the “Reforming Catholic Confession” goes to some effort to be ecumenical, playing nice in the larger sandox.  It’s even ostensibly scripture-oriented.  But it is also ill-advised:  at its essence, this confession is but one more tarpaulin covering scripture’s spiritual ground. 

Part of me celebrates the idea of the Reformation—a complex of ideas and events, certainly not all attributable to Martin Luther.  On principle, I tend to use process-oriented gerunds such as “reforming” or “restoring” instead of “reformed” or “Reformation,” but even the Protestant Reformation deserves some attention as an event.  The confessions, not so much.  I suspect that, in time (maybe just a couple of years!), history will find this particular “confession” to be little more than another historical curiosity, superimposed on scripture.


An attempt at an analogy

Domingo is to Denver
High Church is to Low Church

The song was “Perhaps Love,” and it was sweet and innocent.  The singers were none other than operatic tenor Placido Domingo and country-folk star John Denver.  Domingo was always my favorite among the “Three Tenors,” and Denver was a favorite of my good friend Helen when she was a teenager.  I learned a few of the latter’s songs, such as “Annie’s Song” and “Country Roads.”

These days, I wouldn’t necessarily choose Domingo over Denver, although my training and background might suggest such a preference.  In fact, I’m now more attracted to Denver’s stylings (although not to his voice or his self-oriented atheism).  The point is that there’s quite a contrast between the two in terms of vocal production.  Not all listeners would initially find the contrast as great as I do, but even if the focus is only on vowel sounds, it’s pretty easy to hear if it’s pointed out.  It’s not unlike the difference between formal British and twangy southern U.S. accents.

The difference between Domingo and Denver strikes me as analogous to the contrast between a high-church organ prelude or choral anthem (on the one hand) and a folksy “y’all c’mon & praise the Lord, now” that might be heard in a really southern Southern Baptist or Pentecostal group (on the other).  Listening to the first 60 or 70 seconds of this recording of “Perhaps Love” will give you an idea of what I’m talking about.  The contrast is first heard at about 0:41 (as compared with 0:16).

Ya gotta give credit both to Domingo (for caring enough about music in general to sing with someone that most of his fans would have laughed at) and to Denver (for caring enough about music in general to sing with someone that most of his fans would otherwise never have heard of).  The “crossover” can potentially bring new listeners to each “side,” expanding horizons.

I wonder if any churches think like this.  Seriously think.  Can Lutherans and Presbyterians gain from nondenominational teachings, low-end crossover stylings, and Getty music?  Can Baptists and Nazarenes and Church of Christ people be built up by intentional formality, serious scholarship, and Charles Wesley hymns?  Perhaps yes, perhaps no.

For more on style in church music:



Impressing pastors, parishioners, and accountants

The card shown below (front and back) appears in the pew of a large institutional church near us.













Prior to the appearance of these cards in the pews, I imagine there was an extended conversation in the regular Tuesday morning church staff meeting.  Let’s listen in on the meeting. . . .

Pastor Being:  So I assume most of you have noticed that our offering is dropping off.

Staff of 19 (not including the custodial staff of 5) [in unison, sighing ] Yes, we know.  What can we do? 

Advisory Accountant:  So glad you asked.  Here is a graph of the weekly and monthly figures leading up to Reformation Sunday.  We are off 20%, especially after that sermon series on Ecclesiastes.  Ahem, sorry, Pastor Being.

Pastor Being:  Thank you, A.A.  Now let’s get down to business.  We at RLSC¹ need to find a way to ensure that everyone feels the tug to give.  I mean, it’s good for people to be involved, and to hear sermons and all that, but we can’t do any of this unless we put forward a new pitch for pesos, if you know what I mean.  A decisive dash for dollars.  A bigger buttload of bucks.  (Smiling winsomely) . . . hey, this Christmas, if there’s no cash-y, there’s no creche-y!

Staff of 19:  [collectively, aggrandizingly]  Hahahahaha! 

Advisory Accountant:  Projecting out current trends, it is a distinct possibility that we’ll have to cut 25-35% on holiday expenditures.  The issue, if you ask me, is accountability.  Everyone’s concerned about privacy and identity theft, so donation practices are more private then ever.  I mean, how can the left hand know what the right hand is doing if all the giving is done on an app in the privacy of one’s home?  That doesn’t make a good impression on visitors . . . and what are the pastors supposed to think when the plate is passed through the pews and only 40-50% of the parishioners are dropping in cash and checks?  We need more accountability!

Pastor Being:  Based on A.A.’s recommendation, I support the notion of accountability.  Something doesn’t smell right about the left hand and right hand thing there . . . I’m not sure why . . . but I agree that the impression left when fewer hands touch the collection plates is a downer.

Pastoral Intern:  I learned in my Church Growth class last semester that if funds are being contributed by less than 75% of the membership, there is less than a 25% chance of growth during the next two quarters.

Pastor Being:  Thank you, P.I.  We definitely need a steady growth rate if we’re going to break ground next year on the new office annex, and if we don’t increase the rate, we can kiss the organ loft and pastor bonuses goodbye.  

Staff of 19:  [Collective sigh and downcast countenances]

Pastoral Intern:  I learned in my Church Methods class last fall that organs and choirs . . .

Pastor Being:  [interrupting]  For the moment, we can’t expect to have much esprit de corps unless we all have a shared sense of everyone else’s giving.  You know, like the workplace that displays a United Way contributions thermometer, coloring in the increasing level as it moves toward the goal. . . . 

Staff of 19:  [collectively]  Hahaha! 

P.B. [continuing] I’ve been wondering about those internet-savvy hipsters, working in tech companies and carrying the latest devices.  How do we know if they’re contributing regularly?  

Lead Tech Pastor:  Some of them might have encryption devices, or they might know how to disable our spyware so we can’t track their use of our new donation app.  For the run-of-the-mill donor, we are working on flash projection, using the robotics we use with the cams for the worship team.  When the team is taking a break, we can live-stream the contribution amounts in real-time, moving the screen down the row on the robotic arms in sync with the collection plate.  Later on, we can add the number of new donation app users as a sort of soft incentive.

Pastoral Accountant:  Studies have shown that people feel more obligated to give if everyone around them is giving.

GenX Involvement Pastor:  Seriously?  We’re going to make people feel uncomfortable?  I guess so, if we have to.

Creativity Pastor:  I was talking to the Pastoral Accountant after I saw the contribution figures last Sunday—thank goodness for our lay accountancy team that counts the money during worship.  Anyway, the P.A. and I both think we need to develop a card or some object that everyone who contributes online can drop into the collection plate on Sundays.  It would be symbolic, but it would increase the pressure on others to donate, too.

Pastoral Accountant:  Absolutely.  I think it should be a card that says “I give electronically.”  A card is heavy, so the sound of them being dropped into the plates will add sonic stimuli.  An additional benefit of a card would be that it gives the lay accountancy team something more to count, and that makes them feel more involved, and then they’ll probably give more money, too.  

Pastor Being:  What biblical passages can you think of that support such a card?

Biblically Learned, Subservient Pastor:  Hmm.  None, really.  Not even a principle that I know of.  Come to think of it, not even 1 Corinthians 16 . . . 

Pastor B:  [interrupting] Well, we can keep researching that.  Surely there’s something. . . .

Devoted Sheep among the Staff:  There is another way, you know.  Has anyone read about Francis Chan’s new movement? Check this out.  According to this report, “Chan leads a house church movement in San Francisco called We Are Church.  There are currently 14 to 15 house churches, he said, and 30 pastors (two pastors per church) — all of whom do it for free.  Each church is designed to be small so it’s more like family where members can actually get to know one another, love one another and make use of their gifts.”

Pastor Being:  [Never having considered a simpler, less costly way]  That seems sort of pie-in-the-sky, doesn’t it?

Assistant Pastoral Advisory Accountant:  You can’t be serious, little follower-sheep!!  What would that kind of model do to our cash flow and our end-of-decade projections?  We would experience more decline in our contribution income, and we would default on our installment notes.  Two or three banks would accelerate the balances on our loans.  We’d probably have to tap into our investment funds—or worse, go into hock with HQ.  The tax returns would be a nightmare!  Who would want to consult for us next quarter or serve as our independent auditors if we’re right around the corner from filing for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy??!

Pastor Being:  [continuing and calming the others]  Okay, okay. . . .  We all know we have this wonderful facility, and we’re not going to lose it just yet.  You know what?  Look around you.  There are some really well-to-do people in our immediate vicinity.  I see no reason the Lord wouldn’t want us to reach out to them just as much as to the lower classes. 

To inspire and to impress—our twofold mission.  We as a pastoral staff do the inspiring, and that impresses our parishioners to the point that they in turn are inspired to impress all those around them by giving more.  Everyone is inspired by all the giving, and more giving is the result of that, and that surely impresses our visitors and God, too.

All:  Amen.

P.B.:  All right, it’s settled then.  Let’s develop these contribution cards and roll them out in first month of the fourth quarter.  Then we can engage independent teams of auditors and church growth consultants to study the effects on cash flow and institutional involvement. . . .

For the complete blog referred to by “Devoted Sheep among the Staff” above, click here.

For a prior blog specifically about e-giving, click here.  Near the bottom are two additional links to posts about 1Cor 16:1-2, often cited in support of Christian contributions to churches.

Annnnd . . . I had last written about contributions and tithing in institutional churches here.  That piece was a protracted tearing-apart of a very poorly done brochure.  At the end, I expressed that I hoped I had the restraint, when coming on this topic again, merely to refer to that post.  Unfortunately, the sighting of the cards above brought the topic back, and I was compelled to speak against it.

¹ RLSC:  Reformed Large Swanky Church


Inexplicable courses of action

HastingsLogo.PNGIn a good-sized city, a Hastings store went out of business last year.  Inexplicably, a new store with essentially the same slate of business lines just installed a store at the same location.

Also last year, in a small town with a fairly prominent Taco John’s and two fine mid-range Mexican restaurants, a Taco Bell/KFC went out of business.  Subsequently, an entrepreneur decided to add to the somewhat lacking mix of fast-food options Taco Bell 2016.svgwith a startup burrito joint that offers mostly Mexican fare.  Later, a restaurant group inexplicably tore down a ramshackle building and broke ground to install a new Taco Bell . . . a block away from the Taco John’s and five blocks from where the last Taco Bell failed.

Both of these examples call to mind the proverbial definition of insanity—doing the same things and expecting different results.

In a new locale, tired Christians try to maintain a trusting outlook.  Almost inexplicably, they visit church after church, hoping to find a small, biblically attentive, mutuality-emphasizing, non-franchise group to work with.  Nearly every visit to an established congregation results in listlessness, discouragement, waning hope, and windless sails.  (Churchiness has a way of doing that.)  I think these folks are more idealistic and fatigued than insane, but the matter might be argued otherwise.

– B. Casey, 7/29/17