concerning holy grails and church marketing

In the church world, there are trend setters and trend watchers, opinion leaders and early (and late) adapters, marketing gurus and viral media mavens. Love em or hate em, they are out there. From every denominational stripe or the lack thereof, they make their preferences known as evidenced by the behavior of those whom they influence. Often this is good; equally often it probably is not. Why do I dare say that? Continue reading

an open letter to disenchanted evangelicals

It hurts when people walk away from fellowship with a local church (or house church, or circle of friends) without saying anything. Or worse, when they plant seeds of falsehood in the minds of a few so as to sow doubt based on innuendo. Either way, one day they are present; the next day they fade away. Bewilderment abounds. Yet, who knows the reasoning of the human heart? Who knows, but God?

Maybe they think it is easier this way. But is it really? Do they think they are that unloved and forgotten? Or is it that they wish to be chased, like Lassie who would run back and forth until someone followed him? Indeed, who knows the reasoning of a heart colored with false beliefs or selfish motives? The belief that God is out to get them, or doesn’t even care if they exist. The belief that the church should help justify sinful behavior, rather than recognize that grace and truth operate hand-in-hand to deliver from the bondage to sin. Sometimes it is simply the belief that there is something (anything) else out there better able to meet their needs, not taking into account that God is the only one who can satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts. Wherever we are.

The exodus of disenchanted evangelicals from local expressions of the church is well-documented in the Western hemisphere. Maybe you are one of those who has given up on the “institutional” church. Or maybe you are thinking about it long and hard. I understand the frustration with some of the things that can happen in a church family, which I would hasten to add are no different than what could happen in a house church, a blood-related family, a multi-site church, or some other form of missional church. We are human. Humans sin because of the first sin of Adam. If you find the perfect expression of fellowship or church, don’t go. It’s an illusion. Your presence will burst the bubble. So will mine. With you and others like me present, it is flawed due to our sinfulness, so long as that is the basis of our evaluation.

I implore us all to remember our Redeemer, Jesus Christ. He is the Head of the church. He is the Great High Priest. In him there is no sin. In him we are made righteous. We are saints. Not some quaint notion of do-gooders who follow long lists of culturally expedient rules, but saints whose righteousness is imputed to them based on the righteousness of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God. Indeed, we are saints who are called to live as God originally intended for us before the foundation of the world. Together, not apart. Whole, not broken. Reconciled, not estranged. Authentically pure, not secretively sinful and outwardly self-righteous.

I know. Church stuff can hurt. And sometimes God does move people out of one situation and into others. I get that. But it will remain an endless cycle until we all commit to this ministry of reconciliation with God and each other through Jesus Christ. Hard stuff. Heart stuff. But necessary if we are really to grow up and become mature disciples of Jesus.

Is the Western Church Irrelevant to the Culture?

Has the western church become irrelevant to the culture? In one sense, when we consider God’s purpose for the church and the fact it was He who established it, we would have to say, “Of course not.” In another more easily ignored sense, when we think about how far adrift so many of our congregations have strayed in terms of understanding, much less relating to, the culture redemptively, we are forced to admit that absolutely, we have become irrelevant to a large degree. I want to point out that there are others who are doing a wonderful job of connecting with the culture in missional ways in their local settings. Yet I get the sense that they are the minority, rather than the norm.

Consider the following and see how they apply to your church.

1. Take a look at the demographics of census.gov in relation to your city and county and neighborhood. Are these the people your church is reaching? If not, why not? If yes, what are you doing to make that happen? And if they were never reached, would your church notice the difference? Would anyone even care?

2. Take a look at your church’s financials, specifically the budget allocations for missions and local outreach, compared to allocations related to property management and staff salaries. Based on these numbers, what are the ministry priorities of your church? Do they line up with the stated mission and core values of your church? Is there an overbalance of priority placed on facilities as opposed to helping the poor, feeding the hungry, providing shelter for the homeless, and meeting the needs of children and widows?

3. Consider your church’s strategy for outreach. Is it primarily devoted to marketing which drives people to the church campus for special events and regular services? To what degree are parishioners encouraged to be the presence of Christ in their local neighborhoods? What does this look like practically on a daily basis? Is outreach seasonal or lifestyle oriented within the normal flow of daily living in the community? In short, is outreach a leader-led program with a definite beginning and end or a culturally infused ethos which is part of everyday life?

4. Consider your church’s philosophy of volunteerism. Are parishioners primarily asked to volunteer for positions which the church needs to have filled in order for ministries to run smoothly on campus? This question is especially relevant for children’s ministries. Is there any substantive encouragement for people to volunteer their time in creative expressions of ministry which do not necessarily have corollary benefits to campus ministry? Do parents have permission to say no on occasion? If yes, are you sure?

5. Consider your church’s attitude toward the world. Is there an us vs them mentality? Is there a kind of evangelistic militancy with a turn or burn twist if a person does not respond according to a prescribed theological script? Or is there a sense of conversation in which intelligent believers dialogue with those outside the faith respectively and redemptively? Are non-believers allowed to belong to the community before they believe? Or must they first believe before they belong in any real sense?

6. Consider your church’s vocabulary. If a non-believer walked into your congregation’s worship, would they easily be able to understand the vocabulary? Or is there a large specialized vocabularly which they first would need to understand?

7. Does your church primarily cater to a consumer mentality, offering goods and services to congregants which they can pick and choose based on their perceived needs? Or does it primarily encourage them to offer themselves to the community to meet its needs, understanding that their needs will be met as they love God and each other in creative, unselfish ways which defy predictable market driven forces?

8. Consider your church’s reputation in the community. What are locals saying about your church? Is it the church which drives tinted window SUV’s into a neighborhood whose inhabitants can barely afford the bus, as if to hint at the disparity of the two worlds? Is it the church who finds ways to help their neighbors with small unheralded acts of kindness? Is it the church which seems to shrug at the need for rigorous financial and moral accountability? Is it the church which secretly finds ways to help the poor and homeless around them? What is the prevailing theme in their conversations? From the perspective of the locals, is your church’s message relevant because of the caliber of your kindness which permeates all you do? Or is the message lost because of a lack of real relationships due to a greater priority of focusing on what happens on campus, rather than what could happen in the community? Is your church and integral part of the community, or is it simply located there as an isolated anomaly with no real relevance to the community’s ebb and flow?

9. Does your church operate on the cultural assumptions of the 50’s and 60’s, believing that the people will come if there is a good program for them to enjoy? Or is there a bunker mentality which suggests that the church should insulate its members from the world? Or is there a missional attitude emerging in the conversations taking place in your midst, compelling your people to takes risks and being the presence of Christ even in the dark places; you know, the places Jesus would go and for which he was criticized: bars, homes of the culturally depised, in public places with those who have been culturally shunned, and so on.

Is the western church irrelevant to the culture? I am afraid that to a large degree it is. Yet I see many hopeful signs. I observe the significant ministry happening here in Portland in the heart of the city through various churches who fuse social justice and biblical teaching cooperatively, rather than as an either/or practice. I consider the exciting things beginning to happen at teaching churches such as Willow Creek and I am greatly encouraged. May their tribe increase all the more through conversion growth as their people capture the shared vision of missional connective living in their local communities. I rejoice concerning the churches around the world who set admirable examples for us in the West, challenging us to set aside our addiction to consumerism and put our neighbors first in love and kindness so that the message of Christ can bear fruit in their hearts on account of our witness. Irrelevance is a difficult malady to overcome. No amount of typical marketing will accomplish the task. However, people in the world will be moved by the narratives of kindness, sacrifice, humility and giving which are beginning to emerge in the stories we share; they may even be moved to believe, so long as we share with authenticity the life of Christ, rather than revert to second and third tier theological priorities which usually only distract, rather than instruct.

Unique Approach to Children’s Ministry Leadership

Ken Bussell of Our Place Christian Church in Hillsboro, Oregon shares his thoughts on how his church is developing their children’s ministry. It is a different approach from what I have seen elsewhere. Apparently it is working well for them. I am more interested in the underlying reasons behind the paradigm shift they have engaged than in the outward manifestation of dropping the position of children’s director in favor of hiring five part-time teachers. You may read more thoroughly about their shift here in his article entitled An Emerging Approach to Children’s Ministry.

Blessings,

Glen Woods

Day 4, Evangelism and Discipleship in the Contemporary Context

Thursday 8 february 2007

These are the notes from my final day of class with Todd Hunter. I will write more in the next couple of days.

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Main things I have learned today

  1. Evangelism is a process, usually taking a long time. Hence the need for invitation into incarnational community which is contextually sensitive while also not compromising faithfulness to Christ’s character.
  2. Discipleship is a mosaic, non-linear but no less intentional. It functions best in the liminal spaces of life where teachable moments appear in varying degrees of crisis or pain. Spiritual direction then becomes needed and wanted. The spiritual disciplines become opportunities to provide training wheels for incarnational living for Christ.
  3. Incarnational living can only happen in community. Some people may need to practive the discipline of solitude and silence. Others, those few like me who are quiet thinkers and listeners, may need to practice the discipline of community. Incarnation does not come nearly so easily to someone like me, as it does for the majority who seem to gravitate naturally to some form of community.

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Nooma video rhythm

Jesus came to show us how to live in tune with the song. God’s song spans continents, cultures and ages. People may deny it exists but it keeps playing. The question isn’t whether you are playing the song, the question is, are you in tune?

God reaches into the margins, the dark places, where people feel abandoned by those they love and by God. God invites them into His story, His song.

We are completed in Jesus

The kingdom of God as a basis for contemporary ministry

Every legitimate advance has the seeds of weakness to it.

One of the unintended consequences of newton’s ideas and the enlightenment is deism. The founding fathers of usa were functional deists, yet they were sincere Christians in the sense of how they operated within their worldview.

Our challenge as orthodox Christians is to be in tune with the “other” without losing sight of others. It provides a check from irrationalism.

Bosch: alert people to the reign of God; announce, embody, and demonstrate its reality.
Do not establish a Christian society: “Christians make exemplary citizens, capitalists, etc. Herodians.

Not: withdraw from society all together. “religion is a private affair” Qumran sect.

Post-modern opportunity: people are also post-secular. People don’t want to go to church but they also don’t want to be secular. They want to be spiritual.

Inherent within the church growth movement are seeds of problems (don mcgavran) marketing, find a need and meet it, church as a product. –schuller, hybels, warren.

Have a good hypothesis and act on it, but protect from the powers that be. You can trim a hedge. Sometimes you have to let it grow a bit. Create a green house for it somewhere on the side.

Always talk missiologically. We never expect missionaries to get it right. We do expect pastors to get it right.

Ask for permission to experiment missionally.

Take on the identity of a missionary to this culture. Ask for the blessing to create a greenhouse.
Hunter: the kingdom of God creates the church. The kingdom of God is global. Lay people are best equipped to lead a secular life as ambassadors of the kingdom. We must ask how we can given them an imagination that their real life counts. It is their mission field and the soil for their discipleship.

GOCN: Gospel and our Community Network.

Roxburgh: liminality

Leaving one reality and entering another but not quite there yet. It is the threshold with all of its disorientation. Kobyashi maru, star trek.

Who are we in reference to God’s story? We cannot do mission from the basis of a private faith; only embodying our roles in the story of will do. It is not merely a doctrinal problem. It also speaks to how we live practically.

Professionalism increasingly is not going to work. That worked in the combination of modernity and Christendom, but not now.

Liminality as a model for contemporary engagement in mission: separation->liminal->reaggregation: through this process a group is changed both inside and in their engagement with those outside the group.

The church is not the only human institution in a liminal state; all human systems are. Old institutions don’t seem anchored anymore and the new realities are not yet built. Example: two docks on either side of the river as we try to cross from one to the other. The old dock is moving, the new dock is not yet totally built and the river is moving with us in it.
1. Prophetic: OT prophets, calling people back to God’s story.
2. Teaching: trying to explain what is going on. Explaining history, story and telos.
3. Evangelism: asking or inviting people to be faithful in the story/decision.

Alpha presentation
Sage on the stage (you come to me in the church) vs guy on the side (I come to you on the margins, layered, mulit-tasked, looking and talking off camera), just my opinion, non-threatening, real. There is an attempt to create layers within the physical space itself, eg candles, art, structure. Layeredness is normative. How do we communicate with them? Physicality of space is one thing to consider.

Hunter would get rid of the talking head and have a conversation within a multi-ethnic and mulit-gender group who say the same things as the talking head.
What is not working:
1. there is a tension re. intention. A lot of people are really squeamish about making relationships with an agenda (evangelism). For young people leadership is a loaded gun. They do not see it as benign.
2. for most emerging people see intentionality as manipulative. They have not constructed a positive alternative yet. But they are deconstructing intention. Emerging church types place out a smorgasboard of activities and invite you to participate. There is intent but they leave the person in control as to whether they participate. They would say, lets just have community. They intended the absence of something.
Hunter says manipulation is not the same as intentionality. Manipulation means to control someone. To play on them through insidious means, especially if it is to your advantage. Give an appearance of, but not a real choice in a matter, forcing them into a corner.
Take your best thought approaches to leadership and evangelism and emerse them, baptize them in the golden rule. Problem is, they are not doing great evangelism. Most of their growth is through transfer growth. Most of their growth is from disenfranchised children of evangelicals. Perhaps the reason is that evangelism takes so long now so maybe our criticism is unfair.

Evangelism gets harder to measure since it is slower and not as focused on conversion. Degrees of separation from God’s story.
Three streams re salvation:
1. exclusivists
2. inclusivists
3. universalist
Mission is more than just evangelism. It is helping the poor, healing the sick, feeding the hungry.

Traditional liberals were trying to find ways not to believe because of scientific foundationalism. Emergent post-moderns are trying to find ways to believe and to make sense of being Christian..
Billy graham banner: anchored to the rock, geared to the times.
That is the fundamental problem with contextualism. Theological inclined missiologists are the most helpful with this.

There are post-liberals who also do not want to be evangelicals. They want to find another way. George Lindeck British theologian

Dmin is applied research. It takes the existing body of literature and applies it to ministry context.

Leading others into discipleship spiritual growth begins with assessment. Find out where they are. If you are in silence you can only hear your voice or God’s. Jesus voice will not be heard amongst the clatter and clamor of street noise.

Ask person to be present with yourself and God. Be silent for at least 20 minutes.
Locate themselves. Silence and solitude. However some people are total loners and they need the discipline of community, or going out to lunch with someone else.
Then locate themselves within God’s story. Change their map.
God will not snuff out a smoldering wick.

We al only have one vocation. Vocation does not mean job. It means calling (latin: vocare). Our spiritual transformation. Discipleship is the human cooperation it takes with the authoritative story of God. My calling in life is to be a follower of Jesus Christ. We need to help them answer the question of purpose.

Church of the savior Washington dc. Journey inward, journey outward

The sense of journey inward must be intimately connected to the journey outward. We are on this journey of spiritual transformation not for mere piety but so that we can faithfully be Christ followers in the world.

Metaphors of spiritual transformation. Out of the abundance of your heart, the mouth speaks. Apple trees do not produce pumpkins (biological chaos). We come to Christ with all kinds of hurt. As we cooperate with the means of grace we become essentially different as a result. Whitewashed tombs. The Pharisees’ approach to spirituality was essentially outward which did nothing for their hearts. Jesus was not angry, he was being rabbi, he was teaching.

When we use Jesus as a way to explain discipleship it connects. People like Jesus.

Dallas Willard: renovation of the heart.
Vision: We can still ask people to decide whether or not to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Are they ready to press through the crowd like the woman with the issue of blood or cry out like blind bartimaues.

intention: try to invade Jesus teaching. Be observant at your points of failure, especially how and why you fail. Be present to your life. Peter’s legs ran away before his heart. We are prepared to do wrong even when our intention is to do right.

means: Do in reliance on the spirit and grace what will remove the causes of failure. Why are you not doing that? What are you afraid of? It becomes more embodied for them to do what is right. We teach our legs to do what we told Jesus we would do.

Think about these bible stories humanly. We think theologically, but what about the underlying teachable moments and humanity?

Discipleship is not linear. It does not unfold like a table of contents. People become teachable when they actually have a crisis. Like a mosaic there are teachable moments at varying points. Spiritual direction at their point of need.

Our selfishness has consequences. We all leave a trail of destruction from our actions.

Returning the Church to its Rightful Place

Many cultural observers maintain that there is a paradigm shift in process in large swaths of USAmerican culture. A worldview which has long been developing is finding new popularity within the margins of Christendom via the emerging church movement. Postmodernity (probably more accurately late modernity), in all its angst ridden glory, is raising substantial questions about the assumptions of modernity. Many of these critiques are helpful. Some, not so much. Nevertheless it is sparking an escalating discontent within academia and popular culture concerning the status quo, the way things have always been. And now it is directly affecting the church with potent force.

While my own questions concerning the church and discipleship reflect some element of introspective critique, I do not consider myself a postmodern in the sense of relativistic nihilism. However, I am also not an entrenched radical fundamentalist who is bound by oath to a rubric of modernistic or even pre-modern idealism without regard to authentic discipleship (This sort of person may be found in any religion, any denomination of Christianity and in any era of history; cf. the Pharisees, radical islamists, radical evangelical fundamentalists, et al–and no, I am not equating any of these groups with each other). Somewhere in the tangle of philosophical and theological bramble there is a better way forward. Somehow we ought to be able to discern and apply to our lives the principles given by God in his Word to help us mature more faithfully in the life of Jesus Christ.

What I am calling for in my church is a focus on a better way forward for discipleship which spans the age levels and impacts entire families. This implies a need for God to impact our internal life so that our thinking, our words, our actions represent a worldview indicative of Christ’s life being lived out through ours. Thus our thoughts will become more consistently like his. Our words, likewise. Our actions, a tangible expression of the heart of God to the world and our families. In essence, a fresh wind of authentic discipleship will return as a priority within the homes of families, starting with parents. And the church will return to its rightful place as a community of sacrament, word, equipping discipleship, and mission.

Missional Restlessness, Take Two

For several years I have been asking why we do children’s ministry the way we do it. I am starting to recognize I should have been asking why we do church the way we do it. I know now that I suspected something was out of synch. This is not an indictment against my church or the church in general, but simply an acknowledgement of my growing awareness that the church as it popularly exists in Western culture is at risk of becoming largely irrelevant, a relic of an era which will eventually pass. It is a healthy thing to ask questions within a culturally contextual framework which is informed first and foremost by faithfulness to the biblical text.

Despite some of the eloquent literature coming out of the emerging church circles, I am not so sure all of their innovations offer preferred alternatives. I am especially concerned about some of the theological innovations I am seeing come to the fore within the emerging church movement, which really aren’t innovations in substance, but in popularized form. However they have been helpful in pointing out the extent to which many evangelical churches have been beholden to modernity, with its rubric of consumerism, colonialism, Manifest Destiny, and systemic mechanization.

On the other hand, I would gently encourage my friends in the emerging church movement to take care of the specks in their own eyes and evaluate whether their forms of ecclesiology and expressions of theological distinctives might bear scrutiny and refinement through a biblical lens–not a modern lens, a biblical one–so that rather than using their wit, charm and humor to beguile their audiences with what seems to be innovative doublespeak in the form of complex biblical, theological and ecclesial deconstructions, they might attempt to write and speak plainly, in ways that those whom they are critiquing might better understand. In other words I encourage them to be conversational with the very people they are critiquing. Notice that I did not use the word “nice.” Emerging church people are reknowned for their “niceness.” Being conversational, however, implies recognizing that while we may disagree on issues, we can still talk respectfully and plainly and learn in the process. And just once, I would love to see one of their books or articles navigate a topic area with no mention of post this or that, or pre this or that. Now that would be refreshing.

At the same time, I would encourage evangelicals to show a lot more grace and maturity in their dealings with emerging church leaders. For example, there have been a lot of harsh rebukes and slams on Brian McLaren in recent months. I wonder, have these people taken time to get to know Brian? I spent one week in a class with him for my doctoral studies. I shared lunch with him along with a group of other students. I found him to be as evangelical as they come. Yes, I have specific issues with some of the things he has written. I don’t always agree with him. Likewise, I don’t always agree with certain evangelical leaders when they make some of their statements.

In reference to our ecclesial framework, Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, in their perceptive book, “The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission in the 21st-Century Church,” highlight the differences between an attractional approach to doing church and a missional approach. They recognize the importance of becoming students of the host culture, ethnographers with a view toward practical mission. Specifically they coach their church planting interns to:

  • Observe the organic social rhythms of the host or target community.
  • Watch for social patterning.
  • Ask where the social centers in your community are. Or as Brian Ollman at the Millenia Co-op in Los Angeles says, “Where are the ant trails? And where are they leading?”
  • Ask “What is church for this group of people?” and “What will a Jesus-centered faith community look like among this people with their particular culture?”
  • Do not import and alien or artificial model of church. Try to develop one that is truly indigenous to that culture or subculture.
  • Keep asking “What is good news for this community?” (Frost and Hirsch, 213)

In my church we connect minimally with the local culture, but not for lack of trying. Yes, we have made attempts to connect by giving food and clothing, befriending leaders from the local grade school and getting to know folks from the section 8 housing across the street. Most of our outreach attempts have been attractional in nature. Easter, Christmas and VBS each year are good examples of this. Our theory has been, and with some proof of results, that if we can get people to come to church four times in a row, they will have developed a habit. However, do we really know them? Do we understand their world? Their culture?

Although my church is small, roughly 250-300 people (down from 450 several years ago), it is a commuter church. Most people, including me, have to drive over five miles to get to the church campus. The number is eight miles for me. I used to live closer, about four miles, but still I was not indigenous to the immediate neighborhood. Even now, after over ten years of serving there, the neighborhood’s rythms and and patterns are foreign to me, more so now that I have moved to a nearby city.

So when we interact missionally with folks in our local communities and lead them to Jesus what are we to do? Invite them to embrace the commuter lifestyle of worship as well? Get them into a local church where they will be able to continue to grow in discipleship but at the possible cost of cutting short shared fellowship with us? Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem recommending a church other than my own to a new believer. I recognize that my denomination is not the final arbiter of God’s purposes in the world. But I do not believe that leading someone to faith is the final step in their discipleship process. It is only the beginning.

To be honest, most folks in my church would think twice about living near it. It is a rough neighborhood. Gangs. Drugs, especially Meth. Prostitution. Car theft. Home break-ins. ID theft. One of the most violent urban high schools in the entire city. Yet that is where the need is. It is as if we go to the neighborhood only because that is where the church building is and then we go back to our relatively safe neighborhoods with our alarm systems and gated communities. Yes, I am speaking to myself. I moved to my current neighborhood becuase I got tired of my home being invaded, my car being broken into and having to watch my back for acts of violence. Months after I left my former home, a murder occurred in that complex. So I totally understand the desire people have to protect their families. I grew up experiencing my family being targeted by criminals because my father was a police officer. I am intimately aware of the dangers posed by living in certain areas.

But having said all that, what about mission? What about living out the character and mission of the Lord Jesus Christ among those who so desparately need him? What about having the courage of Mother Teresa to go among the outcasts of society? For her, like Jesus, it was the lepers. For us it might be the homosexuals or meth addicts, the prostitutes or drunkards. How can we reach these and others in and among our culture if we do not understand the rythms of our local society? How can we know them if we are locked behind gated communities or in properly lit middle class suburbs, distant from the city and even our immediate neighbors? Even those within the gated communities and suburbs need Jesus, arguably more than the poor since they likely do not recognize their own need quite as readily. Do we know them? Do we interact with them? Does mission and purpose flow through our veins and inform our every waking thought so that as easily as we breath, we also are interacting with the culture as salt and light with the loving character of Jesus?

How should this inform the way we do church? Children’s ministry? Life?

Think on these things while walking slowly through your neighborhood, accessible to those who would share a greeting or strike up a conversation. Think on these things while sharing hobbies or civic responsibilities, while working in your job or sharing public transportation. Live out the heart of Jesus Christ among your culture as you seek to stir up your own missional restlessness.

Blessings,

Glen Woods