God Bless America

Tomorrow is the 4th of July. For those who love liberty, who appreciate the sacrifices of our American founders and our contemporary patriots, who believe in the ideals for which America stands, it is a day of celebration. It is a day to sing, “God Bless America.”

However, for a growing number of younger Americans (especially younger evangelicals), this statement may be a source of embarrassment.  They point to the many problems which existed at the start of this nation and throughout much of its history and to problems which continue to exist to this day. The treatment of the indigenous Indian tribes (who themselves migrated to North America), the horrific African slave trade, and the onset of greed and crime related to the gold rush are just a few of the tragic situations which developed for a variety of reasons. These are important parts of our history which typically were glossed over in favor of placing America only in a pristine light. The criticism that American historians ignored our collective culpability in these situations is valid, but the critics also risk making the same error by ignoring what is right about America, and ignoring how far we have come in just a short 200+ years. Continue reading

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

Children’s Pastors: What Traits Influence Your Ministry?

Sage and Trendwatcher. Manager and Entreprenuer. Leader and Shepherd. All of these traits have value in ministry. To be sure, there are others I could list, but  the length of this post will already test the patience of my readers. What has God called you to be at this point in your life?

The sage is a person of wisdom earned from study and life experience. Usually the sage is in his or her senior years, although being retirement age does not automatically qualify a person for wisdom any more than being college age makes a young person relevant to his peers. We need sages. We ignore their input into our lives at our own peril. They have a sense of history lived. It is not merely theoretical for them. They have seen things. They have experienced a part of God’s redemptive story in the community. They make wonderful mentors to developing generations of young people.

The trendwatcher is that person who is acutely attuned to new ways of doing things, whether in music or media, communications or entertainment, to name a few. Most of these folks do not create trends, but they observe, adapt and deploy variations of someone else’s creation. A select few, rare indeed, actually design innovative content and methods which gain grassroots appeal and later mainstream acceptance. They are the trendsetters upon whom the trendwatchers focus their attention. Both would be wise to nurture connection to godly sages, just as those same sages value the creativity which God imparts to these young and not-so-young innovators.

The manager has gotten a bad rap in recent years, compared unfavorably to leaders or entreprenuers. This is unfortunate. Without skilled, stable and faithful managers to provide consistency and maturity to our endeavors, chaos would ensue. I call for a truce between the skillsets. Authentic leaders do not have a need to put down their managerial counterparts. They lift them up and encourage them. They recognize their contributions and refrain from harboring unrealistic expectations. Much of the recruiting problems in churches would be resolved if leaders would learn how to treat those who provide high level management with more respect and consideration.

Entreprenuers and leaders often are lumped into the same mold. They can go hand-in-hand, but not necessarily. It seems to me that entreprenuers tend to be designer personality types. Leaders can be that, but also are builders. Managers tend to be maintainers. Design in an organization has a limited time frame, unless of course you are constantly redesigning, in which case it will be the Extreme Organizational Makeover that never quite bore fruit from its design labors. Entreprenuers like to tread new territory, create new endeavors, discover new revenue streams to support their primary passions. Leaders like to cast vision for grand ideas and mobilize large groups of people toward that end, fulfilling therefore, not only the grand vision, but also the dreams of those who participate in the process and its success. Managers love to come alongside leaders and entreprenuers to take care of the many details necessary to fulfill the grand dream. They have caught the vision and want to be part of something larger than themselves, and are willing to labor in relative obscurity to make it happen, within reason.

Shepherds, on the other hand, do not quite fit into any of these molds. Yet that is what God called his overseers to be and do as they minister to the fledgling flocks of congregations scattering the Greco-Roman landscape, from Greece to Israel to Alexandria. Shepherds. Un-21st century. So irrelevant. So relevant. So agrarian. So human. And so apt. Although our methods have changed in multiple respects, we recognize the principle that human nature, at its core, is consistently the same. We are made in God’s image, and we marred that image through sin. Yet God provided a way of redemption through Jesus Christ, whereby our nature may be made righteous again because of his righteousness. Our role as shepherds of people is to guide them as lovingly, protectively, gently and firmly as real shepherds into a life of fruitful faith in Christ Jesus. Call it leading. Call it managing. You can even call it being a trendwatching entreprenuer with postmodern sensitivity. I don’t care.

Package it however you want within the appropriate rubric of biblical fidelity and missional attention to cultural relevance. But between you, me and the one or two other folks who will read this post, what the people really need is a shepherd who will lay his or her life down for them so that they might know Jesus Christ, and him crucified. Is that enough of a risk for you?

Modernism and Postmodernism

Soon I will be posting a lengthy article about postmodernism. For now, let me say this. Both modernism and postmodernism have provided tremendous unique opportunities and, taken to an extreme, significant problems. Secular modernism announced the death of God and the superiority of human reason. Christian moderns tend to be fundamentalist in their beliefs, relying on human reason through evidence and argumentation to refute theological error. This was and is a reaction to the blatant theological attacks on the Bible and God. Also, this is true of modernist liberals and conservatives for different reasons.

Postmodernism ushered in a greater degree of tolerance,  for good or for bad. This is nothing new historically. Consider the Greeks and their pantheon of gods. Also, postmodernism, taken to an extreme, diverts to nihilism and despair. However, there are helpful aspects which paint parts of postmodernity. Reacting against the anti-phenomenology of moderns (consider denominations which argue against charismatic giftings of 1 Corinthians and state that the gifts ceased with the death of the apostles), postmoderns are open to anything spiritual. They are willing to consider the gospel, but not in the confrontive way most Christians in fundamentalist groups have been taught to wield. Emergent folks get a bad rap for not proclaiming the gospel. Yet people come to faith daily through their ministries. Why is that? Maybe it is because many of them live the gospel and over time the lost meet Jesus. Yet their modernist counterparts have a valid point. How will people know the gospel unless they are told? Still, arguing with postmoderns is not helpful. Conversing with them as friends is a better course to take.

Modern, postmodern and premodern worldviews co-exist in the West today. I believe there will come a day when all three exist in a state of growing irrelevance. Just as postmodernism has faded in importance in the UK for the last fifteen years, so also will it fade in the USA. Futurists and publishers would be wise to consider the possibility of an event horizon we cannot yet see, one which strips away unnecessary labels denoting tertiary theological differences, and causes believers to love one another and their enemies despite those differences.

Also, it is important to realize that painting all of postmodernism as evil is inaccurate and uncharitable. Nor is it helpful to ascribe only positive attributes to modernism without acknowledging its pitfalls. The sins of the moderns, to a great degree, unleashed the rise of the postmodern response. Both worldviews have serious risks and present wonderful opportunities. One is not inherently better than the other. They both represent the fallen efforts of humans to make sense of a troubling world.

Relevant Children’s Ministry

Over the past several years I have heard and read much about relevant ministry, both in terms of the entire church and children’s ministry. Missiologists such as Guder and Bosch, to name a couple of seminal thinkers, have introduced missiological ways of thinking into the philosophical framework of contemporary church practitioners. To be missional, the thinking therefore goes, is to be relevant. Innovative practitioners in children’s ministry (many of whom will never write a book or article, or be featured prominently in yearly conferences) have rightly borrowed missional thinking and the need for relevance in developing more effective ways to reach the culture. But, what is relevance? I fear our definition may be at risk of becoming too narrow. Let me explain what I mean.

Typically, relevance is considered from the cultural point-of-view. That is, it is considered in terms of the self-aware perspective of the specific target cultural group. Clear as mud? Let me be even more specific with a precise example. In my ministry setting, my church is targeting a mix of families with a diverse cultural background: Vietnamese; Guatemalen, Mexican, Korean, Russian, Romanian, Anglo-Saxon, African-American, and many others. Most of these families in the apartment complex live below a certain economic standard which qualifies them for Section 8 housing. Over the past several months I have become aware of specific self-reported (by the children and to a lesser extent, the parents) disadvantages and advantages which are a part of their experience. These perspectives reflect what is relevant from their point-of-view. However, they do not entirely reflect what is relevant from God’s point-of-view.

We surely want to understand and become missionally fluent in the cultures to which God has called us. We want to hear their heartbeat, respect their unique cultural identities, and honor them as persons and as cultures. This principle applies also to sub-cultures within our own culture, whether they are generational, or sub-cultures which transcend generations.

It is here that we risk narrowing the definition of relevance. For example, in churches which are self-consciously postmodern (I shy away from the term emergent, because, to my knowledge, not all emergent-type churches have bought into post-modern philosophy), there is a trend to shy away from clear presentations of the gospel that share about the future hope of heaven and the future danger of hell. Instead, there is a tendency to focus on belonging before believing (a valid point of concern from which evangelicals should learn, but one which can cause misunderstanding and also, at its most extreme, espouse salvific  inclusivism).

Thus, for many self-conscious post-modern Christians, relevance is getting to know someone on their terms without an agenda to convert them to Christianity. I am sympathetic to this way of thinking and I think there is value in learning from it. There is only one problem. Jesus told us to go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19-20). The Fourth Evangelist writes, “For God so loved the world, he gave his one and only unique Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). So, cultural relevance says, “Be sensitive to the needs of people in the culture who do not want to be blasted by evangelistic efforts which have no interest in them as a person, except as it pertains to making them a convert.” Biblical relevance, in my view, says, “I agree. Be sensitive to the needs of people who don’t want to be hijacked by aggressive evangelistic efforts which have no interest in real people. At the same time, those real people really will go to hell unless they choose to accept God’s free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. The cross is relevant, even if it offends people. Cultural relevance demands that we be gracious and loving in developing real relationships with people, rather than simply treating them as notches in our theological score cards. Biblical relevance demands that we be so gracious, so loving, so serving, so giving sacrificially of our lives, that those same people will ask of the hope that is within us. We will have become relevant by becoming real and authentic as persons reflecting the character and life of Jesus.”

In children’s ministry we try to discern what makes children tick and how we might better reach them and their families with the Gospel. We use a lot of different metrics to aid us. We consider age-level insights learned from human development literature, cultural trends as learned from the marketing efforts of manufacturers and retailers, or through qualitative research studies by Gallup, Pew, or Barna. We learn from philosophical trends, the writings of those who deem themselves futurists (I only know of one bona-fide futurist; he is God), and the collective wisdom of fellow practitioners, to name a few. We strive to be relevant so that we can garner their interest and plainly make Christ known in their language.

My recommendation? Let’s not let the need for relevance limit our definition of what the word means. Websters is cited in Dictionary.com as saying relevant is the “relation to the matter at hand.” No human being can possibly know all there is to know about the matter at hand in terms of their own needs, both now and in the future. This is why God sent Jesus. This is why Jesus sends us; sends you. You have something to say to the culture in which God has placed you. They might not want to hear it. Your task is to love them, understand them the best you can, and to communicate in ways that they can clearly understand the undiluted message of the cross. That, in my view, is ministry relevance. It will look different ways for different ministries. But that is its essence. Now, off you go. Feed the sheep God has given into your care, and seek those whom he is calling into his fold.

HomePDX: A Church for the Homeless in Portland, Oregon

Occasionally I am asked about the innovative ways in which people do church in Portland. HomePDX is a church which was planted by Ken Lloyd. It is an offshoot of the Bridge Church in North Portland, where his wife continues to pastor. Neither of these churches are self-consciously attempting to get attention via style. They simply are trying to reach distinct communities for which most of us have little understanding or contact. The video below gives you a taste of a typical Sunday morning gathering. You may also visit them on the web at homepdx.net. However, be warned that the website does contain pervasive bad language. I do not personally agree with it, but it is what it is. So if you are easily offended, don’t bother navigating to their site. However, if you want to see authentic ministry in the margins of US American culture, then check it out.

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.