Founders

Fords haven’t received much respect in my family.  I have never owned one, and I’m pretty sure my sisters’ families haven’t, either.  My parents had an Aerostar van for a couple of years, but I1965 Ford Mustang for sale 100888597 was more or less conditioned to Ford-aversion—which is interesting, because they’ve been around a long time, and such models as the ’65 Mustang and T-Bird are classics.  Contemporary Ford paint colors are the best, and founder Henry Ford, despite not being the inventor of the automobile, is justifiably an industry icon.

I cracked a new book the other day, and I immediately read this:

Henry Ford died, with exquisite irony, during a power failure on the dark and stormy night of 6-7 April 1947, whilst sleeping fitfully at his vast Dearborn, Michigan, estate. On the 9th, his body lay in state in his mansion’s cavernous ballroom while almost 100,000 people filed by to pay their last respects. The next day, 20,000 spectators gathered in silence, and in the pouring rain, outside St Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral . . . .

So begins the impressive, attractive book The Life of the Automobile:  The Complete HIstory of the Motorcar by Steven Parissien (St. Martin’s Press, 2013).  When I read the opening words about this integral figure in cultural and industrial history, I immediately wondered whether new employees of Ford Motor Company today are introduced to the company’s founder.  If this page is any indication, I’d guess that new employees probably at least receive some literature in order to give them some sense of the founder and the history of the company.

And what about churches?  When a person is brought into a church, is s/he introduced to the Founder and to the early history of the group?  Does the new person hear communication designed to connect a new person with the Originator?  Or is s/he merely made into a “member” of the organization, perhaps like new employees of most companies?

“Well, of course I am connected to Jesus in my church!” you say?  I sincerely hope so.  I still feel justified in throwing out this caution:  just because the name “Jesus” is mentioned a few times on Sundays doesn’t guarantee the connection to the Founder—the real, living Lord.

A half-full (half-empty?) term

I recently rejected as a possibility for our family a church called Bethesda Worship Center.  This church meets in a nicely renovated, older school building, and the inside is very inviting.  My college band may end up rehearsing there during a construction project, and the staff members I’ve met have been very nice, but I doubt we’ll end up visiting the church itself.

I was even drawn somewhat by the church’s name.  The meaning of “Bethesda” implies healing, recalling the pools of Bethesda (a/k/a Bethzatha) of John 5.  Although “Worship Center” is a bit one-sided for a church name, the lead pastor’s message does indicate that they also laugh and cry, so it sounded relatively balanced.

Anyway, everything was leaning toward a visit by our family . . . until one little two-word expression showed up:

full gospel

 

Now, if you’re anything like I was for the first portion of my adult life, you’re mostly oblivious to certain descriptive labels such as “reformed” or “full gospel.”  Even the implications of traditional mainline denominations’ names can be elusive or devoid of meaning that anyone really considers.

But “full gospel” means something.  Something misleading.  And it’s a shame to waste a decent term.  Consider this short list of misuses:

  • The common use of “reverend” has robbed it of its truer meaning.
  • The use of “reformed” implies that the group has done all it needs to do by way of restoring and reforming.
  • The use of “Church of Christ” may suggest that it is the only group that could be possessed by Christ.¹
  • And “full gospel” is clearly a misnomer.

Now, to the point . . .

“Full gospel,” in religious parlance, implies belief in, and practice of, supernatural “spiritual gifts” such as miracles and speaking in “tongues” (another misnomer, but we’ll leave that one alone).

The real, complete, full gospel (the ευαγγἐλιον [euangelion]) is the good message about the saving work of Jesus in His dying, His being entombed, and His rising.  That  is the full gospel.  Even if you accept the veracity of modern, “pentecostal” miracles (such as the supernatural speaking of unlearned languages and immediate, otherwise unexplainable healings), you have to admit that those are outgrowths of, or confirmations of, the gospel, and not the gospel itself.

I wonder, Bethesda . . . if I believe in the full gospel described in the scriptures but am by no means persuaded of the current existence of types of miracles you suppose do happen, could we coexist pretty well on Sundays, or not?

=================

¹ A particular CofC (which we will also not  visit) advertises itself in a free, local paper as “Thee Church of Christ.”  (That “Thee” was not a typo.)  They are going for two things here:  1) association with the thees and thous of King-James language, and 2) presenting themselves emphatically as thē only true one.  Good grief.  That was a bad idea in the 50s, and it’s even worse now.  It’s embarrassing to anyone with Christian perspective, but God can have mercy on the isolate folks in that group, too.

Are these your church’s stats?

Sometimes I wonder how many churches are really financially healthy.  The stats shown below are from the Sunday bulletin of a church we visited in May.  The numbers are different in each distinct church, of course, but I’m guessing the numeric relationships will look sadly familiar to many of you.

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What I’m interested in here is the “blah”ness and disengagement that comes from churches’ not meeting their budgets and experiencing decreases is attendance.  I’m thinking that the discrepancies might say something about leadership and/or morale, in general.  Or maybe it’s just declining demographics and/or economies . . . some of which may in turn lead back to morale and leadership issues.

(I also wonder whether financial health can be correlated much with spiritual health, but that’s a tangent.)

Essentially, this little church bulletin caption looks all too familiar to me.

Oh, and one more thing: I’m convinced that the more organic groups, e.g., groups that meet in homes, aren’t characterized by the same kinds of number blahs.

The right side of the tracks

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We see this building way too often when visiting family.  It is located in the N. Little Rock area.

What a wonderful tribute to a church’s decided move to the “right side of the tracks.”  What a convincing testament to the wisdom of the leadership.  What a glorious credit to the state of this church’s treasury.

Not.

It’s an embarrassment, actually.

Some Pentecostal or charismatic groups (Assembly of God, e.g.) are rather known for catering to the “other” side of the tracks.  Apparently, this church wants to be known for having arrived on the right side of the tracks, or it wouldn’t have built such an ostentatious building.

 

Signs

Below is some verbiage from church signs that comes specifically dis-, un-, non-, and in all other ways NOT recommended.

You might note that several of these ill-advised sign examples concern congregational worship.  I’ll make three advance comments about this proclivity to try to attract people by virtue of congregational worship:

  1. If a church is trying to proselyte members from other churches where the worship part of things presumably isn’t as cool or exciting, shame on the proselytizing church.
  2. If a church is under the impression that backslidden believers might be influenced by worship-related signage to say to themselves, “Hey, yeah, I really should get back to church attendance,” it might consider that worship isn’t the heart language of many of the backslidden.
  3. If a church is trying to bring unbelievers in, it ought to be cognizant of the fact that outsiders aren’t thinking in terms of worship, either.  Messages about worship aren’t very likely to attract the unchurched.

Now, to seven non-wonders of this particular church sign revelation. . . .

“Exciting Worship”

Assuming that many inside this church think their corporate worship is exciting, I’ll bet I wouldn’t.  I might instead think, “Deafening would-be worship” or “pathetic-attempts-to-look-like-you-know-what-you’re-doing-and-are-in-relationship-with-God worship.”

“Come Worship with Us”

I’m dozing already, and I haven’t gotten out from behind the wheel of my car yet.

“Monthly Sermon Series on Sundays”wpid-2013-09-10_13-12-59_607.jpg

Think about it:  who is this sign for?  Potential visitors who are interested in something interesting  will avoid this church like I avoid a dead skunk on the road.  And regular members who already know about the monthly series are probably monotonized by said series already.  (Okay, that last statement wasn’t fair.   But I couldn’t resist.  For more on this particular sign, go here.)

“Praise Victory Church”

This kind of church sign seems passe to me now.  20 years ago, it was attractive — even fetchin’ — to use a label like this.  These days, it just seems old hat and shallow.

For starters, it conveys the false impression that victory is yours for the mere claiming.  Or, worse — that if you follow Jesus, your life should be happy or else you must be doing something wrong.

Yet more insidious is that a message like this tends to disenfranchise those who a) don’t feel like praising, b) don’t understand what praise is, c) have had their fill of churches who major in boisterous praise, d) don’t feel the need for a victory in their lives, e) have given up hope that “victory” can occur, etc.  Before you take me to task for not giving credence to the notion of bona fide spiritual victory based on the atonement, pause to consider the actual, likely reason the word “victory” is on the sign.  It’s not any deep reference to the Rider on the White Horse defeating the dragon; it’s likely just a feel-good, Osteenish thing.

ADDENDUM 6/23/14:  I came across an apt quotation from Walter Brueggeman, OT Theologian:

The problem with a hymnody that focuses on equilibrium, coherence, and symmetry (as in the psalms of orientation) is that it may deceive and cover over.  Life is not like that.  Life is also savagely marked by incoherence, a loss of balance, and unrelieved asymmetry.  In our time—perhaps in any time—that needs no argument or documentation.    – Walter Brueggeman, “Psalms of Disorientation,” in Spirituality of the Psalms

“B A Y   A R E A  Fellowship”

The letter spacing on this sign was so poor — and my orientation to Latin-derived vowels and the mention of Berea in Acts so strong — that I initially had no idea this sign was referring to the Corpus Christi Bay.  I pronounced it aloud within the confines of our car, and “Bay” became “Bye,” so it rhymed with “diarrhea.”  Whoops.

“Come let us test your ways and examine them”

I actually saw this on a changeable church sign, and I have witnesses.  I’ve seen a lot in my time, but it is beyond my comprehension that anyone could consciously post this message unless s/he had a death wish for a presumably comatose church.  It’s not that passers-by shouldn’t have their ways tested, and it’s not even that this church didn’t have some healthy, well-founded judgment going for it.  It’s that this is not a good idea to put on a sign.

“How To Be a Church Member”

This one happens to have appeared on a regularly changing sign that I pass regularly.  And I have observed that people in this church are pretty energetic and sincere, as a rule.  I even met this church’s head pastor, and he impressed me with his character and manner.  But “How To Be a Church Member?”  If this is what we’re conceiving and advertising, it’s no wonder no one is interested.  One thing that’s wrong with the institutional church is that it wants to convert people to it and not to Jesus.

Caveat:  it could very well be that the actual message spoken on this topic ended up meaty and biblically based.  In other words, maybe it was really about how to be a member of the body of Christ at large, rather than being about how to be fully functioning churchman in this particular local group.  In this case, I give the group points for being coy, but would seriously recommend that they get a new advertising agency.  🙂

Simple, yet profound

“Intimacy demands simplicity, and with all due respect to hymns filled with great theology, complexity is not what Scripture reveals as God’s personal preference.”

– James McDonald, Unashamed Adoration, in Worship Leader Magazine

With all due respect to the author of this article, I’m not sure he knows completely whereof he speaks.  Certainly, the language of some  hymnody is rather obtuse for today, but that is only a slice of the pie.  Many great hymns are simple — and yet profound.

Nor does everything we gathered (or solitary) Christians sing need to be simplistic, to the point of being on a 4th-grade reading level.  The beauty of well-used words and imagery can provide an effective vehicle for the soul.

In essence:  complex word formulations are probably not advisable, but deeply meaningful, well chosen, and even profound words may be very beneficial — and simplicity is often helpful, too.  I suspect God is pleased with most words used in worship when the words are sincere and understood/heartfelt.

I like “I love You, Lord,” but I also like “Like the holy angels who behold Thy glory, may I ceaselessly adore Thee.”

I would like “Take care of me, O God,” but I like “Keep me, O keep me, King of kings, beneath Thine own almighty wings!” even better.

I like “You’re my all.  You’re the best!” but I also like “God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes, most blessed, most glorious . . . Thy great name we praise.”

==> Please share examples of some of your favorite, God-oriented verbal images.  The musical style doesn’t matter.

Furniture

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I ask the questions below not to preach or criticize or even head in a particular direction.  Rather, I want to probe a relatively surface-level aspect of church facilities — furniture — as a means of looking beneath the surface at values that may be implied by related choices.

What might it imply about a church and its values when the pulpit/lectern is the most elevated piece of furniture in the gathering hall?

And what if the table used for communion elements is later placed higher than the pulpit?  (Sub-question:  what does this say about the leader who pushes for the re-positioning?)

What does it imply if the table used for unleavened bread and juice/wine are stationed in the back of the hall?  Or if there are is no table at all?

What if the stage is large enough to hold a 40-voice choir and boasts five throne-like chairs for all the official leaders?

And if the pews are straight, facing directly toward the front, or if the left and right sections are angled slightly toward each other?

What if there are theater seats (and the lighting is dark)?theaterseat

What if there are a) comfy chairs in the lobby/foyer/entry hall and b) hard pews in the gathering hall?  And if there are castoff pieces of living room furniture in the adult Bible classrooms and new, and brand new, brightly decorated furnishings in the children’s classrooms?

This is not groundbreaking stuff; the probing may have little eternal significance.  Still, these are questions that could be asked by self-assessing congregations with a view toward helpful insight into values and potential impressions made on those who meet together.

Twelve for 2012 (2)

[ … continued from here]

Inherently, the modus operandi of quasi-prophetic, interrogatory verbalization runs counter to long-practiced norms — and to a good many beliefs tenaciously held by the masses.  For this disequilibrious endeavor I will make no apology, but if I ever seem to be fighting the individual’s independent, sincere pursuit of Almighty God and His eternal kingdom, I sit ready to be corrected.

In my last post, I listed an initial, six things I would do in, to, and for the earthly, western church of the 21st century, if I had the ability.  These had to do with sects and structures, the clergy role, and scriptural moorings.  The ramifications of some of these items are broad, and I’m fully aware of the audacity of some of them.  In order to be clear about my human fallibility, I am presenting my list of twelve items in half-twelve lists of six, the “number of man.”  The total number — a nice, round, “biblical” one — has more reference to the current calendar year than to biblical completion:  here, although I touch on several matters I consider crucial, I make no claim to being exhaustive.

Below, then, is the second group of six things I would do in, to, and for the earthly, western church, if I had the ability.  These six concern (1-2) relational dynamics, (3-4) concepts of worship and of the Christian gathering, and (5-6) understandings of beginnings and continuations.

  1. create small groups and other home gatherings where they do not already exist
  2. inject a more apt understanding of the assembly (for starters, not thinking of it as a “service”)
  3. infuse a deeper understanding of the nature and extents of worship — neither a) considering it to be singing or as confined to a musical style preference (e.g., so-called “worship music”), nor b) superimposing liturgical notions of “service,” thus obscuring worship
  4. balance reverence with familial informality — establishing a patently respectful, informal (although not a casual) approach to worship and other church activities
  5. cause an acceptance of the biblical place of the believer’s immersion in clothing oneself with Jesus as Savior — thus identifying fully with His death, burial, and resurrection (as a result, eradicating residual trust in such items as infant sprinkling, the incantational “sinner’s prayer,” and institutional church affiliation)
  6. instill a solid, long-lasting, far-reaching concept and practice of discipleship, as opposed to false security in hereditary church “membership”

Not all the twelve items (the ones above, plus the last six) are of equal importance, but they are all important to me.  They don’t represent the gamut of need within Christendom; there are other areas that need attention, as well.  I don’t claim to be all that circumspect or insightful — only ardent for pure Christianity where I find its current iteration tainted.

While the list of twelve items may contract or expand with the passing years, I have given these enough thought, through enough time, that I expect them to remain with me, to some extent, until I die — or until the Son returns to claim His own.  I do not believe m/any of the items will ever come to pass, in any appreciable measure.  In the circles in which I have influence, however, God giving me life and influence, I am resolved to encourage the absorption of these and other aspects of biblically well-founded Christianity.

Twelve for 2012 (1)

Caveat lector:  Despite my deep-and-wide-spreading neo-protestant roots, I don’t want to be a tree made of hard wood that never sways with the refreshing breezes of God’s Spirit.

I do intentionally strike a posture of challenge toward any nominally Christian element that seems not to emanate from scripture.  Plus, I’m relatively comfortable with speaking sincerely, earnestly, even prophetically (although NOT miraculously so! – I claim no special revelation, only attentiveness to the witness of God’s inspired spokesmen of old) for God and for pure Christianity.

The M.O. of quasi-prophetic, interrogatory speech necessarily counters long-practiced norms, and a good many beliefs tenaciously held by the masses.  [To friends and acquaintances who tolerate and/or love me anyway most of the time:  is this introductory elaboration helping to illuminate?]  I make no apology for speaking against cults, various human hierarchies, and merely tradition-based denominational tenets, but if I ever seem to be battling the individual’s sincere, independent pursuit of Almighty God and His kingdom, I stand ready to be corrected.

Several months ago, I was led to think anew about the tone of some of my blogposts—thus the verbal groundwork laid above.  I had actually started this piece before the beginning of 2012 but was unsure about it.  I’m still unsure about the thrust of a few items.  Although some question remains about certain extents, my reluctance stems more from insecurity over the reception of what I’ll be saying.

We’re now almost finished with 2012.  Although originally planned for 1/1/12, this post is now scheduled to be broadcast at 12:12 on 12/12/12.  Nice number, huh?  The ramifications of some of the items below are surely broad, and I don’t present them, deluded, as “gospel.”  I’m fully aware of the audacity of some of them.  In order to frame them clearly as humanly fallible, I’ll now present these items in half-twelve lists of six, the “number of man.”

I would like to present these somewhat incendiary thoughts with a special invitation for feedback.  Responses I receive may be used in, or as, follow-up posts, so if you write privately, please confirm whether you want to remain anonymous if quoted.  Perhaps we can have some valuable discussions—whether openly on the blog or on the backchannels.

Here, then, are the first six things I would do in, to, and for the earthly, western church of the 21st century, if I had the ability.

If I could, I would

  1. instantiate exegetical Bible study methods into every Christian church
  2. morph sermons, with their “points” and jokes and poems, into studies with scriptural exegesis at their core
  3. abolish the “pastor/minister” role altogether — this role (not to mention its attendant hierarchies) is an unknown entity in New Testament writings, and although many of these individuals clearly do good in our day, the harm inherent in the position and its ramifications is not insignificant; perpetuation of the institution is contra-indicated, although many of the persons currently in such positions could serve well in other roles
  4. inculcate the principle of the Bible as “the only rule for faith and practice” — and this would necessitate a) ridding ourselves of superimposed creeds and “faith statements,” and b) abandoning residual loyalties to articulate, more or less charismatic non-specially-inspired personages, whether past or present
  5. eradicate all traces of denominational pride and loyalty (if not all evidence of denominations, period)
  6. sell most of the church buildings in the country, leaving only the ones used several days a week for Kingdom business and neighborhood service

To be continued . . . my next post will list the remaining six items. . . .

Revised thoughts on “church” gatherings (4 of 4)

These erstwhile opinions come from an 18-year-old letter I wrote to a now-dear friend, describing some of my “church values” at the time.  They were originally penned with a view toward a joint “church venture” that never happened.  In re-reading the letter, I found that most of the thoughts were ones I continue to affirm.  However, there are now a few differences, based on life-roads traveled, differing situations, and presumably greater insight. This final installment will offer three distinct, extracted  paragraphs, with new/revised commentary following each.

Things I would now say differently (first, the original quote; then, the current comments in italics)

I should note that I could become concerned with the lack of reverence if [certain] ideas were taken too far, but like so many other areas, we should deal with what we need now.  What we need is less formality, more personal-ness, more genuine encounter with God.  In my view, we are not generally hurting for a concept of reverence for God.  No one with whom I’ve been well acquainted has ever felt that God is just one of the guys, on our level.  If we ever get to that point, it would then be time to shift, ministering to what we would then need.  We would need more teaching on and experience of God’s otherness, His transcendence.

Now, in 2012, I still become concerned with the lack of reverence in Christian talk and gatherings — and yes, I’m one of the those that are still appalled when professing Christians use names for deity carelessly, thoughtlessly.  Speaking of God carefully and reverently is a mere baseline, but an important one.  The ubiquitous, pop-culture abbreviation “OMG” is telling.

One difference I would note now is that, based on my current experience, I don’t think we need much more informality or any more personal-ness.  Those longings were from a different place, a different time.  Since 1994, most believers I contact do indeed seem to have moved on; some almost do seem to manifest a feeling that God is on our level, or, to re-appropriate a now-popular, apt, denigrating cliché, that “Jesus is my boyfriend.”  These days, we probably need LESS personal-ness, in general; it depends on the particular setting whether one would need less or more formality.  We do still need more of a sense of God’s otherness and transcendence, in my opinion.

~ ~ ~

Spoken acclamations/”God” talk.  I would like to incorporate into regular Christian gatherings some relaxed time for progress reports on individual lives . . . how God is working for you and for me.  These comments would naturally lead into unplanned honorings of the Lord–spoken acclamations of praise which would lead into other forms of worship.

The above paragraph now bothers me on two levels:  

  • “God talk” that drew me in 18 years ago now tends to repel me.  The whole “personal testimony” think is just so much foaming at the mouth, most of the time.  I used to cheerily chime in, “Well, whether God did X or Y or not, it surely wouldn’t hurt to give Him the credit!”  These days, I’m probably less inclined to speak out with phrases like “God’s goodness has really been shown in X” or “Praise God for that!”
  • (Confession time now)  Although I don’t particularly aspire to being a walking “testimony” as many evangelicals would think of that, I do miss the time that I felt God was more active in my life (whether He really was or not).

~ ~ ~

More than “not having any qualms” about worshipping with instruments, I personally worship unabashedly with them.  I don’t need them, I don’t think, but I seem to tune into worship music that effectively uses instrumental accompaniments.  Such music tends to affect me powerfully and with a newness that I can also find, albeit more rarely, in “a cappella” music.  At this point in time, and in the context we’re discussing, I not only believe that instruments aren’t wrong.  I believe that they are right and should be used.

Any die-hard CofCers among my readers (there are a few of you left!) 🙂 will be instantly aghast that I wrote that 18 years ago — maybe back when you thought you knew me better.  I was hiding more of my scruples then! .

However — and this is a BIG however — I have since come about 317 degrees around the circle.  I don’t often use instruments in group worship times anymore and frankly don’t care for any loud sounds in worship as much as I once did.   My aversion ranges from the pipe organ, which I’ve pretty much always detested, to over-zealous “worship bands” hopped up on testosterone.  I continue to believe, essentially, that the use of instruments is basically neither here nor there, speaking biblically or theologically.  Practically, however, when there are too many instruments all at once, or when the ones used are too loud, they grate on my nerves, not to mention that — and PLEASE get this — they can easily distract, and they can easily inhibit participation from the congregation.  In many churches, “worship bands” have become masters rather than servants, and I often find myself longing for simpler music in worship — a cappella, or maybe with one or two acoustic instruments at a time.   The thoughtful reader may note that my preferences viz. instruments also have to do with my preferences viz. church size!

As always, thank you for reading.  Please feel free to comment or send feedback on the back-channels, as some of you do regularly.  

I’m within 15 of the milestone of 900 total blogposts.  At that point, I plan to lay down the blogpen for a month or so, taking a summer sabbatical.