Bigness and blessedness

My constant mantra in ministry to keep me somewhat centered on Christ and not just the stuff we do is this: “It’s a both/and world.”

It’s analog. It’s digital.

It’s huge. It’s small.

It’s “attractional.” It’s “missional.”

There are simply places for both. In the world. In the church.

Yet, in American Christianity, we keep bumping into the same mistake. The cycle gets repeated… and more frequently. We keep equating “bigness” with “blessedness.” We can react too strongly and say, “Well, it’s the quality, not the quantity” and that’s just as bad.

The bigger issue is we think that something “big” is obviously “blessed,” so when the “big” seems to go a bit off track, we don’t want to seem “overly critical.” We think, “They must be doing something right. Look at how many people go there!”

American Pentecostals have paid an awful price over the years for falling into this equation and then watching major ministries collapse. When it happened in the 1980s, the thought was, “We can learn from this.”

And we didn’t.

Now, there are so many “huge” ministries, that it hardly makes a blip on the national media radar when someone “major” has a scandal of some sort. But that doesn’t lessen the impact of lives crushed, ministries torn up, and the setback of hearing an enemy laugh all over again.

We are letting “big” be equated with “blessed” all over again.

We are letting “big” and “attractional” be excuses for being just plain dumb in some of our actions when it doesn’t have to be that way. We can do better. We just don’t insist on it.

Bigness can be blessed. And in that bigness, allow the Spirit to bring humility and power. I think great examples of this in ministry are Brooklyn Tabernacle and Redeemer Presbyterian, both planted in New York City. They are big and influential to their areas of ministry. But they do things well. They teach well. They preach well. They minister to the city with effectiveness, beauty, and humility.

Smallness can be blessed. There are hundreds and thousands of churches in urban, suburban, and rural areas who faithfully minister the gospel and work to impact their areas of influence.

“Smallness” and “relational” also has pitfalls. We can get so “missional” we get overly involved in the social justice side and skip the gospel side of the equation.

It’s pride we must constantly keep an eye on in our lives and ministries.

So, when we fall into the pattern of simply thinking, “They must be right. Look how HUGE they are,” we need to understand there may be something else going on. If we have a hesitation in some area, we need to discern. We need to listen to the voice of the Spirit. We need to understand it may be a call to prayer on our own part. A prayer to ask the Lord to help a minister who is doing some “big” things and keep them in a place of humility and power and reliance on the Holy Spirit.

It is also a time for me, in a “small” place, to pray for my own life. To pray that I keep my own pride in check so I can keep seeing the Spirit open amazing doors and I have a chance to be a person of influence to people who generally give no regard for the church at all.

It’s a both/and world.

And we can walk in this world with power… AND humility.

Whose DNA do I carry?

The Common English Bible really adds some shock value to the thought of living IN the power of the gospel!

Those born from God don’t practice sin because God’s DNA remains in them. They can’t sin because they are born from God. (1 John 3:9)

If I am in Christ, do I reflect the DNA of the Father?

Why I won’t leave the church

For all the angst out there about evangelicals “leaving church,” and there are good reasons to get disappointed (so don’t get me wrong), Scot McKnight hits another home run in an interview regarding his latest book. When asked about evangelicals “leaving the church” he says this:

…as divorce is easy so leaving church is easy. The rugged commitment to one another that ought to shape a person’s commitment to a church has been transcended today by seeing church as a place to go to hear a sermon and get something, and if the sermon isn’t good enough or if the person is not getting enough out of it, they pack up and move on. This denies the fundamental commitment to one another in the New Testament church as a fellowship. Leaving a church needs to be experienced more like a divorce than a change of scenery.

For all the problems of the evangelical church, if I leave and don’t work on being better in my own faith, how can I demand something else “get better?” If I am in it to help things “get better” there are greater opportunities for flourishing again in the Body of Christ. Truth be told, if I leave this “disappointment” for greener pastures… I’ll find disappointment over there as well. To further Scot’s divorce analogy, the first divorce makes it a bit easier to bolt the second marriage as well…

I am committed to the Church. The particular expression I work and worship in is where I have the deepest roots. I also have the deepest problems here as well. But I love the full expression of the Body of Christ as well. I love my city where Lutherans, Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians gather for Good Friday. It’s where each of us as pastors gather monthly and love each other. We learn to love the greater expressions of the Body of Christ.

Let’s resist the temptation to pack up and move on. Let’s work harder and loving one another, challenging one another, and having the opportunity to possibly grow up rather than spin in perpetual toddler cycle.

Let’s at least get to the table to talk

What I long for is the honest conversation in the church. I want to drop my misconceptions and just invite a conversation. It’s incredibly difficult. For one, I can’t get those things completely out of my head. I have to work harder at simple listening.

For another, when people see me, they see my labels. So, because I’m Pentecostal… or “evangelical”… or white… or male… somehow there is not a conversation to be had. Misconceptions run both ways.

I won’t be labeled automatically. Not if I can help it. I know it will happen, but that’s not on me. It’s up to me to make sure I’m not letting labels get quickly in the way so it blocks a conversation with someone else.

But let’s at least get to the table to talk.

Scot McKnight has some powerful questions on the “success” of a church. I like some of these challenging questions!

Asked as a question, Who is invisible in your church?

To the degree folks are invisible, we don’t have the right view of the church or the right view of the Christian life.

Here are some examples:

Ethnically different
Faith strugglers

Then…. BOOM:

What about gays and lesbians? Let’s ignore the debates about what the Bible teaches and ask this question: Are they able to be honest about their sexual orientation? Or do they catch the message the gospel is not for them? Does your church want redemption or exclusion?

For me, I want to at least get to the table to have the conversation. As uncomfortable as it is, I long for those deep moments where something real is possible.

Your worship stinks

Not long after I came to our current church as pastor I had a young man who came to be a part of our church from the local college where I would later teach as an adjunct. I loved that guy. Our services were awful. We didn’t have a solid worship leader at the time and our music was just bad. We had hungry hearts… and bad music.

And that young college student came every service. No matter what the music was like, that guy was having a great time with Jesus. He was lifting his hands, or on his face, but ALWAYS crying out to God.

He represents the BEST of what we don’t have any more in our American worship experience in the evangelical church.

I watch today as people come in, judge the music, and walk out. I watch people stay away from some worship sets because the music is too loud. I watch people do all kinds of things to actually protest not being in the singing part of a service, or be in a church at all just because of the music set. 

We don’t have worshipers any more. We have consumers.

It’s a two-sided problem.

1. As consumers, we want the music to our taste, our volume, our temperature, etc. And if you don’t deliver, I’m outta here.

2. As churches, we’re delivering more and more of a consumer experience. More and more worship is about watching the people on the stage doing phenomenal jobs… but as for falling our faces in worship… not so much.

If it’s a two-sided problem, the solution needs to be a two-way communication. As a church leader, I can’t just tell people, “Grow up.” (Okay… I can. It doesn’t get me far, but I can.)

As a worshiper, I can’t just bail out when I don’t like the worship.

The young college student I had was a worshiper. He would have liked better music, I’m sure. But he was there to seek God and he knew he was free to do it there.

Both sides of the equation need to be worshipers. The music needs to be excellent, to be sure… as much as we can get that under our control. But it needs to be for everyone. Not just the skilled people singing and playing. EVERYONE needs to be in. Our worship has to be for EVERYONE. It means good music people can remember and sing and get a connection to so they can leave the words on the screen from time to time, close their eyes, and go for it in a way THEY want.

For the person in the pew, quit bailing. Stick around. It may be too loud or way out of your range. But stick around. Have conversations. LIKE the worship leader and from time to time start a sentence with, “I like this about your style…” Instead of, “You know what you could do better?”

Let’s get it back to seeking God and get it away from performance. And let’s get away from bailing as consumers. Stick around and be a worshiper. When we all get to the WORSHIP part of “worship”, we may find some good ground to stand on… or kneel.

Praying the Lord’s Prayer… in reverse

NT Wright’s book Simply Good News challenges the reader to look at how we pray. We often pray the Lord’s Prayer in reverse. I will be looking at Wright’s analysis on “praying as good news people”  in my message on Sunday. His contention is the Lord’s Prayer helps us with priorities in prayer. They are sections that can be slapped together in any way. It’s important to note the priority of the order.

This is always a challenge for me, personally. There are several mornings I wake up with thoughts of how to proceed with important issues in our church. I think about the property sale and the move… and budgets… and timing…

And my first tendency is to start with the end of the prayer: HELP!

But the invitation from the Lord is to start with “FATHER!”

What a difference it can make if I can get my mind in gear quickly enough!

Seeing the FATHER first, and adoring him, helps bring order and perspective to my deepest needs. When I spend a few minutes adoring the majesty of our great God, my requests are still there, but I am afforded a different perspective.

May we come into prayer adoring and worshiping the Father FIRST.

Some respect. Who knew?

Nicholas Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times. I have admired his work when he goes to Africa and writes of the horror he witnesses constantly in that area of the world. He focused on the Sudan years ago and brought a lot of awareness to the genocide in that country.

In this column he openly admits he has little time for evangelicals. In fact…

Today, among urban Americans and Europeans, “evangelical Christian” is sometimes a synonym for “rube.” In liberal circles, evangelicals constitute one of the few groups that it’s safe to mock openly.

So, that’s no secret, to be sure.

But what Kristof also admits is he can’t get around liking a few of them every once in awhile. Of course, most of the comments following his column mock him severely for even thinking such a stupid thought. Who can really like evangelicals? Get a brain, Kristof!

Kristof knows so many doctors and nurses doing relief work are not necessarily believers, but here is a huge admission on his part:

But I must say that a disproportionate share of the aid workers I’ve met in the wildest places over the years, long after anyone sensible had evacuated, have been evangelicals, nuns or priests.

Dear God! Evangelicals actually put their faith on the line and do something! Who knew?

Kudos to Kristof for making such bold statements. He will get uninvited to a lot of cocktail parties again. But… that’s the price of a liberal actually thinking and observing every once in awhile. :)

The next time you hear someone at a cocktail party mock evangelicals, think of Dr. Foster and those like him. These are folks who don’t so much proclaim the gospel as live it. They deserve better.

It’s the quiet living out of the power of the Kingdom that simply helps this world be a better place. It’s not the yelling over the blogosphere, or the yelling on a “news” show. It’s the living out of the gospel. It IS good news, and we live it out in so many ways… every day.