Professing and practicing

A job posting advertises for a new “Assistant Professor of Worship.”  Something about that rubs me the wrong way, and I can’t quite put my finger on it.

A few years ago, an associate was working on a doctorate in “worship studies.”  Nothing against that person, but something about that endeavor still chafes me.  Historical and theological studies in an area such as worship will obviously be valuable, but we mustn’t presume that certain historical realities of what has been termed “worship” can be directly correlated to that which pleases God as worship.  Similarly, the realities of church history might throw us off track.  We shouldn’t, for instance, look at two millennia of history and attempt to elicit some sort of average.  It’s not that the average, most common practices should be normative—not without the application of critical analyses, anyway.

I was once accused, in a friendly way, of leading “didactic worship.”  To the extent that I was perceived as practicing, articulating, professing, and fostering worship, I’m pleased with that.  On the other hand, if I were professing principles and procedures, while presenting myself as some sort of connoisseur, I repent.  Far better to worship, to be a worshipper, than to talk, theorize, and study about it.  Put another way:  if “professing” means doing it and advocating for it, great.  I want to be a mouthpiece for genuine worship.  If on the other hand professing means putting on an “expert” hat, getting “tenure,” or actively giving the appearance that one thinks he out-ranks others, count me out.

The notion of studying worship as an academic discipline makes me draw back, concerned that such a pursuit might lead to a false validating of all historical practices.  Yet I do see value in studying just about anything.  The gracious smile of God, shown in accepting sincere worship, is compelling.  Whether a learned professor or a simple, devoted disciple, it’s possible to be a pure worshipper.  Let us all be practicers—doers—of what we profess.

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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

Being real & vulnerable

Some topics I touch are ones I should probably stay away from.  “Vulnerability” might be one of those.  Inimitably and famously, Brené Brown has given talks on this topic, touching something deep within many of us.  Surely no one like me could add anything worthwhile to her research and insights on this topic.  On the other hand, it might just be that I can note and transmit something very important, being an under-informed but sincere, sometimes-earnest observer of people and culture.  I’m betting many of you will agree that the following material about vulnerability and the pressure of social media is on track.

A book by Donna Freitas is titled The Happiness Effect:  How Social Media Is Driving a Generation to Appear Perfect at Any Cost (Oxford University Press).  Freitas, also the author of Sex and the Soul, “comes from an epicenter of sociological research on adolescents and young adults, Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Religion and Society.”  She conducted 200 interviews of university students.

The Happiness Effect is organized around the topics covered in these conversations.  Each chapter overflows with personal stories, making the book an enjoyable read.  But on a deeper level, Freitas has a theory to test.  She contends that headline-grabbing abuses like bullying, stalking, and sexting are not the greatest dangers that social media poses for young adults.  Rather, they distract from a more insidious phenomenon:  the drive to look perfectly happy, all the time.  (emph. mine   -bc)

. . .

As Freitas puts it, Facebook and Twitter are, in a way, the anti-confession, the places we pretend that we have it all together as though we were the gods of our own future.  The gospel challenges the assumption that confessing weakness and need makes you a failure. . . .

– Andrew Root, Reviews, Christianity Today, March 2017

“Church” has for decades (centuries?) been a place for facades, for hiding.  The age-old story of the stereotypical, churchgoing family yelling at each other, slamming doors, stewing in silence all the way to the church building, then putting on fake smiles and acting as though “God is good all the time” is anything but humorous.  Despite encroaching reports of the likes of emotional illnesses, divorce, pain from LGBTQ concerns, human trafficking, and more, some Christians are still fixated on the need to “celebrate Jesus.”  This celebration sensibility comes from reasonably good, yet partly shallow theology and from good-hearted people.  I, on the other hand, resonate more with the need to be communicative, “real,” and vulnerable, sharing every emotion and experience, not only the nice ones.  I’d go further, too:  lament and other negatives need some affirmative action in churches.  In other words, there’s already enough celebration and praise, way too much slap-happy trivia and hype, and not nearly enough honesty.¹  Let the vulnerability emerge.

Facebook is not the only venue through which anti-confession (falsely presenting oneself and one’s situation as marvelously in control and persistently happy, as though there is no weakness and need) rears its head, but it’s a nearly omnipresent one.  Most of those I know are both well acclimated to FB and/or aware of its limitations and potential fallout.  Let us use it well (and not too much).  Let us share the great pics of our kids and our food creations, and maybe an interesting selfie or two (up to two, not two hundred, thank you very much).  Let us share our inspiring thoughts for the day and our scriptures.  But let us also share² our weaknesses, our vulnerabilities, and even our griefs.


¹ Our chosen, local church takes as its moniker “Historic Faith – Honest Fellowship – Humble Service.”  It makes quite a nice triumvirate, I think, and here, I would call every reader to the “honest fellowship” part—honest both with God and with other believing journey partners.

² Facebook allows one to share selectively, i.e., via private message and to specific individuals or groups.

If we took the microphones away

  1. If we took the microphones and the electronic effects away from half the vocal “artists” in the world, we would hear something far less impressive.  (This assertion begs questions around artistry.)
  2. If we took the microphones away from those with the gift of gab who are in leadership positions, they might talk less, and the rest of us would waste less time.  I regularly observe a lack of audio-consciousness on the part of those who would probably do better if they were only made aware.  Conference calls with poor microphone placement and paper shuffling and people muttering….  Processes are sometimes hindered, and the experience can be frustrating.  I digress.
  3. If we took the microphones away from half the men who pray aloud and read scripture publicly in many churches, we would hear little to nothing, although many of us have probably heard such machismatic mumbo-jumbo as “Hey, I don’t need a microphone.  Heh-heh.”

Did you notice that I referred to “men” who pray aloud and read scripture publicly?  What about women?  If we took the microphones away from church venues altogether, much of the “official” sense would fade from the minds of those who have concerns about women’s roles “in church.”  I myself care about such things, but not necessarily with the same level of concern, or for the same reasons, as many of my historically closest siblings.  Today, I’m wanting to pay attention to only a side aspect of this age-old struggle:  the physical setting.  I would put it this way:  The more informal the setting, i.e., the less official and pulpit-like (with microphone), the less present the women’s-role issues.  Of course, the size of the venue can be an issue; if it’s a large hall or other acoustical factors are present, amplification is necessary.

Thoughts of pulpits and microphones are surface-level thoughts, and people’s actual concerns are not necessarily so shallow.  Or are they?  If such physical items are removed from the scenario, and if a guy’s concerns then fade a little, I’d say he wasn’t sure what really mattered to him in the first place.  Did the bare fact that a woman spoke create the issue for him, or was it the setting in which she spoke?  Is it her voice when there are men present that disturbs, or is it the audible voice amid pulpits and microphones and pews?  Perhaps a conservative or narrow-minded person doesn’t need to ignore his conscience but to ponder why he feels the way he feels.  If the issues seem to fade when the surroundings are less official-looking, less institutional . . . then I’d suggest that the woman’s voice wasn’t the only concern in the first place.

A particularly traditionally minded person once spoke for many of his mindset while on a youth retreat.  He noted a few nontraditional elements in what we were doing in that setting and commented setting, we could “get away with” more where we were (in a big cabin in the woods).  The praise team didn’t bother him there, for instance.  See what I mean?

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 lead and serve (Houghton Philharmonia “officers”)

In thinking about some students of a decade ago, I came across a document that evidenced one of my somewhat creative approaches.  The orchestra at Houghton College was the “Philharmonia”—a bit of an aged designation, I thought, but it was what it was.  The two other “major ensembles” on campus were the Symphonic Winds and the College Choir,¹ and each of those had a slate of student officers, but the Philharmonia didn’t.  So I thought, I’ll get some student leadership going, but it needs to be special.  Not run-of-the-mill.  A new approach that melds the college’s Christian philosophies, my own scripture-moored take, and my penchant for heading off the beaten paths and ruts, making sure what was did was meaningful.

We would not have a president per se.  Nor would we call someone a VP.  A secretary of sorts was possibly indicated, but there was no need for a treasurer.  The very word “chaplain,” in use with the other groups, brought to mind the military, law enforcement organizations, and hospitals, and I wanted no association with those.  Further, and on the positive side, I did want to capitalize on connections to scripture and my own philosophy of leadership in groups (including church congregations), so I added the following as a footnote on the poster I prepared:

It is interesting to note that the single Koiné Greek (the New Testament language) word diakonos is alternately translated deacon, minister, and servant in our English versions of the New Testament scriptures.  Biblically, there is no conceptual distinction between deacons, ministers, and servants.  In all these word-concepts, service to the group is implied.  The British government terminology (Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Housing, etc.) might originally have had this fact in view, and we are following this nomenclature with the Philharmonia officer/servant roles.  You may also note the non-hierarchical order in which the offices are listed.  Ministry is service, and our officers will serve.

Below is a list of the roles I presented for student elections.  Each one was tied to another in partnership in at least one way.  These were not to be “offices” as such (note that they are not listed hierarchically) but would be roles for service:

Coordinator of Devotional Activities (replacing “chaplain”)

Ministers of Hospitality (plural, primarily to coordinate post-concert receptions and friendly interaction when prospective students visited)

Lead Organizational Minister (communication among orchestra members, problem solving with director, etc.)

Minister of Organizational Promotion (working closely with the LOM and giving special attention to development and growth)

Advisory Ministers (appointed, not elected, at the discretion of the Director)²

I note now that the only overtly “spiritual” role is the only one that didn’t have the word “minister” in it.  That was probably subconscious on my part, but perhaps not.  I might have intentionally avoided the perception that a devotional coordinator was an institutional staff minister-in-training.

As a student ensemble and college entity, the Philharmonia was hurting because of events that occurred during the prior two years.  It was depressed when I arrived; it had bought into a kind of step-child syndrome, playing third fiddle (to mix metaphors) to the Sym Winds and College Choir.  Those ensembles had little to no trouble gaining members and feeling good about their rehearsals and performances, but that was not the case in Philharmonia.  The ensemble needed promotion, energy, and a better self-image.  The group stayed depressed for a year and a half or so, but it began to experience growth in terms of musical achievement and esprit de corps after that.  I would not say that this particular approach to “officers” or student leadership had too much to do with the growth, but it might have contributed a little.  It did provide opportunities for students to lead and to serve—even as it showed my commitment to meaningful organizational roles and an egalitarian philosophy.


¹ Each of those appellations seemed somewhat uncommon, as well.  At Houghton, they did not seem old or “out of touch.”

² I tend to use the designation “Conductor” as opposed to “Director.”  The former goes to musical leadership.  “Director,” by contrast, while it can be used to refer to musical direction, tends to refer more often to organizational leadership.

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.

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.

The crisis of introversion

Bible study, score study, thought and planning—all these are done with a view toward helping groups of people later.  I prepare for the purpose of helping others.  The helping activities appear inherently somewhat extroverted, but the preparation activities are mostly rather introverted.  I often do my clearest-headed thinking while walking or driving alone.  Even work-related memos sometimes need quiescent thought before dissemination, so I’ve been known to repair to a different chair or to ponder important writings in the quiet hour before anyone else arises, before such things are finalized.

What if I have so few opportunities that the introverted, energized time ends with no purpose in sight—or with frustrating roadblocks?  If the introverted activities do not have an outlet, they are forced back into themselves, and the whole enterprise become preparation for nothing, really.  This, at times, is my crisis.

I know a woman who seems even more introverted by nature than I am.  This woman is my mother.  She has seasons of rather intense lesson preparation for a class full of women.  Her need for silence and focus is like my own.  Can she, and can I, be pleasing to God even in our introverted times of preparation, of thinking, of dreaming and wondering?  Or do the times of sharing in groups present the only fulfillment?

In the next post, I’ll discuss—in some detail with respect to church groups where I feel no real opportunity—what I experience as a “crisis of “ministry.”

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.

MLK, Jr. Day: A Tribute to Will Campbell

This blogpost was conceived a week or two ago and has been created and produced entirely on this day, the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  If you are short on time, perhaps you can at least mine a few nuggets from the quotes below.

Serendipitously, today, my son and I listened to an old cassette tape while driving in a truck of about the same age.  The recorded music was from Walt Disney World’s EPCOT Center, and the lead song was what I’d call a differently patriotic one:  “America, Spread Your Golden Wings.”[1]  Sometime before the song’s final chorus, three significant America quotes of American history are included as an interlude:

  1. The moon landing
  2. JFK’s “Ask not …”
  3. The quintessential Martin Luther King “ have a dream …” quote

I myself have never had much interest in Martin Luther King, Jr.  For one thing, I have been conditioned to be biased against just about anyone in the limelight.  That aside, I must admit that the lyrics and music of the above-mentioned song, along with the interweaving of these often-heard, spoken moments in American history, combined to inspire even me.  King’s words are without doubt memorable, influential, and inspirational.  To date, his now-50-year-old attempts to influence this country toward breaking down racial walls has not had enough impact.  The Civil Rights causes that King so ardently championed have been left with unfinished work.  Another voice along these same lines was that of Will D. Campbell.

Image result for will campbell
Will D. Campbell (1924-2013)

In my reading on topics related to the two kingdoms, political and eternal, I have hung on an item in my possession (thanks to noted author Lee Camp)—a compilation of selected Campbell writings, edited by Richard Goode.  I had not heard of Campbell before 2016, and perhaps you haven’t, either.  Allow me to introduce you to him.

Will Campbell was a preacher in Louisiana for two years before taking a “religious life” post at the University of Mississippi from 1954 to 1956.  He was forced to leave that position because of his participation in the Civil Rights Movement.  He later served as a race relations consultant for the National Council of Churches in New York, and he is said to have worked closely with Martin Luther King, Jr.  Following are excerpts from blurbs found on the back cover of the book:

Campbell still has much to teach us all.  Quirky and courageous, Christian and contrarian, his life of love and labor on behalf of civil rights—and plain civility to those in need—deserves a wider hearing…

In this remarkable collection, Will Campbell unmasks the powers-that-be, envisions on alternative order, and calls Christians to radical practices of resistance and reconciliation.  The witness and these pages will call forth many adjectives:  “Unrealistic!”  “Outrageous!” “Scandalous!”  . . .  Most often, however, another word is best:  Gospel.  Unsettling and essential reading for contemporary Christians.

If I myself had said the above, I would hope that most of my readers would respect the opinions somewhat.  The fact that the blurb writers hail from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Duke Divinity School, respectively, will give the comments added weight.

Particularly appropriate on this day, the following words would perhaps encapsulate Campbell’s indictment of Christian whites in the South:

The pattern we have seen develop in the Civil Rights struggle has been somewhat as follows:  Negroes have grown tired of unfreedom.  They have done something about it.  In not one case has the leadership in the significant developments been furnished by whites.  In Montgomery, Birmingham, Philadelphia, always it has been Negroes who have initiated the action.  That, in the Christian understanding, is not as it should have been (bear another’s burdens)….  Neither individual man nor society has been redeemed to the point where we are our brother’s keeper or advocate very much of the time.  (177)

It seems to me that the voice of Will Campbell is one that should be heard not only on this particular day but also, more generally and broadly, by all Christians in our age.  Editor-compiler Goode comments, “Campbell incarnates the radical iconoclastic vocation of standing in contraposition to society, naming and smashing the racial, economic, and political idols that seduce and delude.”  (back cover)   “Professing disciples,” says Campbell, “must live an irrepressible conflict against the principalities and powers …  that divide and dehumanize.” (vii)  “Rather than crafting savvy strategies and public policies, . . . Campbell counsels, ‘”Be reconciled!'” (back cover)   I don’t trust that “social” problems can really be solved in this life, but in their spiritual aspects, such problems as racism will be eased, in small corners, by individuals acting like Jesus rather than through political solutions.

Campbell was at times what might today be called an “advocate for the African-American,” yet his notion of reconciliation was so radical that he even went so far, on a humanitarian basis, to champion whites who perpetrated deeply violent, terroristic acts on blacks.  He advocated, for instance, for one KKK member and for a law enforcement officer who was wrongly acquitted of a crime against blacks in the Deep South.  After certain civil rights were legally obtained for black Americans, Campbell “came to believe that American society was substituting rednecks as the new, preferred ‘least of these’ group.  Campbell cast his lot with them, seeking to illustrate reconciliation with these ostracized sisters and brothers.” (31)  I wonder what Campbell would perceive of the last decade or so.  I suspect it would not be one group that would receive his attention.

Truly, at least based on my cursory reading of Campbell in the last year, he would have been an advocate for any [insert group name here] Lives Matter movement, including the All Lives Matter one.  Each life is important, he would say, and all may be reconciled in Christ.  Yet he was tough on the Christian establishment.  For instance, he referred to Nashville, near which he lived in later life, as a very religious city.  “Seven hundred and eighty church houses.  But religion is a dangerous thing.”  (77)  “Campbell calls for disciples to give their lives in irrepressible resistance against all principalities and powers that would impede or deny our reconciliation in Christ—an unrelenting prophetic challenge leveled especially at institutional churches, as well as Christian colleges and universities.”  (back cover)

In my view, Campbell correctly calls out the religious establishment, endowing its collective identity with a tongue-in-cheek label, the “Steeples.”  He sometimes worked under a Steeple himself, but rarely did he appear to be most effective there.  Insofar as Goode has accurately represented Campbell (and I have every reason to believe the depiction is on the money), I would affiliate with his characterization of Campbell here:

He opposes the presumption that the only way the church can effectively suppress racism is either to align itself with humanitarian agencies and more stringently apply the wisdom of social science, or to acquire political power and more rigorously enforce U.S. constitutional law.  Both approaches, he says, are pagan insofar as they trust politics and or social science rather than the gospel.  (89)

The next quotation does not necessarily support MLK Jr day, but it serves to set up the succeeding one.

I agree that the Christian faith can be changed at many points that would make it more to my liking, more easily acceptable, more in keeping with my culture and my way of life; but the question we must always ask is “Is it Christian when we have finished with it?”  (93)

It is in that vein of deep challenge to the church Steeples (establishment groups) that Campbell pins white racist churchmen’s ears to the wall—those who in certain Deep South white churches of the 50s and beyond are blind to their racism.  The problem is not with those who would say, “We don’t care what God thinks, we want segregation and will have it forever.”  In that event, there would be some hope.  Instead, what Campbell suggests racist Christians actually said was, “We want segregation because it is God’s will.”  His stinging rejoinder:  “to deny God in the name of God is heresy.”  (93)

My growing affinity for Campbell has to do with his iconoclasm and his transparent honesty, no matter what.  He is rough around the edges and offensive at points, but I love when he says things like this (from a 1987 address titled “Values and Hazards of Theological Preaching”):

I don’t like the word ministry.  It is arrogant, presumptuous, condescending, maybe even imperialistic.  I don’t have a ministry.  I have a life.  (123)

In the course of reflections on the Lord’s Prayer, Campbell had queried whether we (meaning Christians in general) assume the kingdom of God would be pretty much like the kingdom of Caesar.  (xi)  Philosophical challenges to the Religious Right and fundamentalist-Christian America do tend to draw me in, so I am all ears when Campbell calls out Christians for mixing God and political goals.  In a late chapter in the book, editor Goode aptly called 1968 “a pivotal year in US political history.”  That year, which was of course the year of King’s assassination, Campbell and the editor of the journal Katallagete dedicated an issue to assessing the faith many Christians place in the democratic process.  Although it would have been appropriate for me to review and or analyze that essay on this day, I will have to defer that until another time.  I will be intently interested in what this courageous man said 40 years ago about the failings of the political system in attaining to the brotherhood of man.

For more on Will Campbell, you might begin at his the Wikipedia page here.  Another interesting read would be found in the transcript of an “oral history” interview here.


[1] On both the first and tenth anniversaries of 9/11, in Kansas and western New York, respectively, I redeployed that very song in music ceremonies.

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