Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Church You Should Go To Is...

We had an incredible Easter here at Highlands Church, with many people from different backgrounds coming to our Saturday evening Easter worship service and three on Sunday morning. My favorite story of a new person attending Highlands this Easter is the following account:

A young woman just moved to Paso Robles from another city. She has been looking for a new church to attend, and so asked some of her friends about a "good" church to attend. Her friends happened to be LDS (Mormon), and asked, "What type of church are you looking for?" The girl said, "A Christian church, Bible focussed, kind, mission-oriented, non-judgmental, and normal." The friends of the girl, again, who were Mormon said, "You know, I think you should attend Highlands Church. As far as we know, they are all the things you are describing. I think they are the church you are looking for." So, the girl came, and loved it. And gave her life to Christ.

Here's what I love about this true story. The girl's friends, though they come from a faith tradition very different than their own, somehow, associated our church, Highlands Church, with a church that was "kind and non-judgmental place," Here is my question. How did her friends develop this impression?

* Was it the Samaritan financial Assistance we gave to a young man, who happened to be LDS, coming through town, who needed some help, but didn't know where to turn, about a month ago?
* Was it that the dry cleaner that Star and I use is owned by a man who serves as an LDS Bishop in town, and that we give regular business to, and have good relations every time we meet?
* Was it that we really, really strive to be a church where people actually hear the gospel and see the gospel lived out, all in the same place. That we really strive to be a place that is "Christian, Bible focussed, kind, mission-oriented, non-judgmental, and normal?
* Was it the Holy Spirit that was involved from beginning to end?

I don't know the answer to my question. I never will know the answer. I do know this. When people from a church, and religious tradition that you are not apart of, and which is very different from yours, have a positive view of your church, and recommend it to others, there must be something right about what you are doing.

All for Now,

PS, yes, I did just figure out how to embed images into my blogpost, so I will do that with every blog post to come...

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Blogpost of Blogposts

I was reminded yesterday of my favorite speech pattern in Jewish thought. It's the repetitive double phrase. You find this speech pattern sprinkled throughout the entire Bible:

* The temple is the "Holy of Holies"
* Jesus said, "Truly, truly I say to you..." ("Amen and Amen" or "verily verily")
* Revelations warns, "Woe to you, Woe to you"
* Isaiah talks about the "King of Kings, Lord of Lord's, For Ever and Ever"

It was explained to me once that the early Hebrew language didn't have punctuation, per say, or a way to emphasize speech through exclamation marks. The only way to really get your point across, when you wanted to emphasize something, was to repeat it twice. Also, Bible times predated Berringer amplification systems, so you couldn't just turn up the volume when you really wanted people to listen to your talk. Sometimes, in reference to God, the pattern would be repeated three times:

"Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God Almighty..." (Rev. 4:8)

All of this has gotten me to thinking that the Jews were definitely onto something. Why don't we incorporate the same repetitive patterns into our speech and language today? Why don't we say:

"I am angry - angry" (when we are upset), or
"I am hungry - hungry" (when we really want food) or
"I am pissed off - pissed off" (when we're really upset) or
"You are a moron - moron" (when we want to describe someone who bugs us) or
"I love you - love you" (saved for special days like Valentines day, or when we get in trouble) or
"We have budget problems - budget problems" (if you work in government)

This double speech pattern would save us a lot of time and energy from having to come up with elaborate words to describe how we feel, that most likely will go unappreciated anyway. Instead of saying, "You are minimizing me" you can simply say, "Around you, I feel tiny, tiny...". Also, by using this pattern, we may lead others to believe that we have Turrets Syndrome, which will really throw them off (sorry, sorry to my readers who have Turrets)

All for Now,
All for Now,


Monday, April 18, 2011

Heaven and Hell...

Many people have recently asked me for my opinion and comment about the recent popularized conversation regarding the Time magazine cover issue, "Is Hell Dead?" and Rob Bell's recent observations about the passe nature of hell in the modern context. In an attempt to address these questions in the most comprehensive way, I have written a blurb of endorsement for a book that will be coming out and published in June of 2011 written by my friend, Rev. Dr. Foster Shannon.

Find the blurb endorsement enclosed here, and please look forward to upcoming blogposts on this tough issue. Also please listen to my podcast on heaven and hell from the recent series I preached at Highlands called, Creed (April 10, 2011).

Endorsement for: "Why are Some People Eternally Separated from God?"

The topic of “eternal separation from God” - hell - has become popularized once again, with the publication of the latest Time Magazine cover issue, “Is Hell Dead?” (April 2011) by editor in chief John Mecham. Pastor Rob Bell, of Mars Hill Bible Church, with the recent observation that “every person who ever lived could have a place in heaven,” has also “enflamed” the recent conversation about hell, it’s very existence and it’s tenability in the current and modern era. In the midst of this mélange of cacophonic voices on the topic of hell, fortunately, Foster Shannon once again provides some helpful background and clarification on the subject. Foster successfully employs a fair balance of grace and salt (Col 4:6), as he writes this timeless and helpful primer.

Now, I must write my Easter message for 2011, a much more uplifting topic:-)

All For Now,

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Best Things Are From the Sticks

Last night I read an extremely compelling chapter of a book by Bernard Bailyn called, "To Begin the World Anew; The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders." While this book title sounds about as interesting, on it's face, as having sand paper dragged across your knuckles, Bailyn's thesis is incredibly profound. In essence, it is that the most important and culturally significant artists in history (as in the arts - painting, music, sculpture, writing, poetry, science, philosophy...etc) come from more rural places. More excitingly, even still, the most important cultural movements, the most significant achievements in intellectual renewal also do not come from city centers but from more countrified settings. He would go on to assert that the most prophetic voices in the history of civilization, as we know it, have emerged from provincial places, rather than metropolitan city centers.

As Christians, we of course know that the single most important voices in the history of faith and faith understanding in our own religious tradition have come from rural places; Isaiah, John the Baptist, Jeremiah, Abraham, Jacob, Micah, Nehemiah, Paul, all twelve disciples..not to mention - Jesus, hailed from the pastoral and wilderness settings of the Sinai Penninsula and the Holy Land. To Bailyn's point, these prophets (and God with us - Jesus) decidedly did not come from the popular cultural centers of the world at that time.

Here is Bailyn in his own words;

"In a brief but brilliant essay entitled "Provincialism," the art critic Kenneth Clark commented on the differences between metropolitan and provincial art. Through the centuries, he wrote, metropolitan art, emerging from the dominant centers of culture, has set the grand styles that have radiated out into the world, creating standards and forming assumptions that only idiots, Clark wrote, would challenge. But in time metropolitan art, for all its success - and in part because of them - becomes repetitive, overrefined, academic, self absorbed as it elaborates, polishes, and attenuates its initial accomplishments. And a kind of scholasticism sets in, while out on the margins, removed from the metropolitan centers, provincial art develops free of those excesses.

Artists on the periphery introduce simplicity and common sense to a style that has become too embellished, too sophisticated, too self-centered. The provincials are concrete in their visualization, committed to the ordinary facts of life as they know them rather than to an established style that has taken on a life of its own. And they have a visionary intensity, which at times attains a lyrical quality, as they celebrate the world around them...they are immersed in and stimulated by the ordinary reality around them; and they transcend their limited environments by the sheer intensity of their vision, which becomes, at the height of their powers, prophetic!"

Part of the reason I find this excerpt so exciting, is because all of the church call settings that I have always felt called to serve - have existed in rural, sub-rural, suburban, and collegiate suburban settings. More importantly, my greatest desire has always been to continually be a part of a religious movement that is new, that is is real, that is fresh in this world, and that strives in concrete ways for the world beyond:-)

All for now,

Monday, April 11, 2011

Anonymity Is The Key to Growth

Most churches think that the key to church growth is growing friendlier. So, in an attempt to be "super friendly", churches bend over backwards to make their places of worship more interconnected, more intermingled, more "shiny happy people holding hands (to quote the rock band REM)." To this end, churches will build beautifully constructed name tag boards, they will post extra friendly greeters on the street outside the church, they will ask new visitors to stand and introduce themselves, they will offer first time visitors a flower to wear (as if to draw a circular target around the person's heart, for all established members to aim at and to shoot). I have even been to church growth seminars that actually taught people how to be friendlier to one another on Sunday mornings - make sure to smile like this....and not this.

Unfortunately, friendliness (in a clingy, "insiderish", enmeshed kind of way) is actually the opposite feeling that a church wants to engender for outsiders, if growth is the goal.

The key to church growth is actually - Anonymity!

Think about it this way. If you were slightly interested in buying a new car (I don't mean fully interested - as in you have to buy a car this weekend because your Ford Focus just died), what would be your course of action? Would you personally go visit a car dealership and say, "Hi, I'm Joe, I'd love to buy a new car." No way!. You would drive by the car lot 16, maybe 20 times first. You would scan the lot from the safety of your own car, before you stopped to ask for more assistance. You would want the necessary distance to be able to process the decision to buy a new car. You would want to be able to compare the styles, colors, interior designs, price tags in your own way, on your own time, through your own anonymity!

When we first started Highlands Church, way back in the movie theater days, our biggest asset was the darkened room in which we met. Every week when we would begin worship at 8:30, 9:00 or 11:00, there would inevitably be a whole section of chairs (in the darkened section) that would be vacant and empty. You could hardly see these seats or anything around them, they were so dark. Then, sometime before the first and second song, the silhouette of a single individual could be seen, sitting in the darkened section of the movie theater. Before the end of the service, the silhouette was gone, removed from the space as if never to have occupied it at all.

In those early years, more people came to Christ and were baptized in that movie theater than at any time in my entire ministry. I can never be certain, but I could swear there was one man who simply came to sit and cry, in that darkened space. One of the main factors in our ability to grow was the extent to which we allowed people to remain anonymous, for as long as they felt comfortable remaining anonymous.

One of my favorite passages in the Bible is of Jesus' arrest at the garden of Gethsemane. The book of Mark describes the scene of Jesus' arrest in the same ways the other two gospels do. However, in Mark's version there is an extra figure. He is unknown. He isn't given a name. He is anonymous; "A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind." Unfortunately, we will never know for sure who this young man was exactly. Some have said that he was the "rich man" described in the incident of the rich man who came to Jesus to ask what he must do to inherit eternal life. No one will ever know. He seems similar to many of the silhouetted figures that I have encountered. Maybe all he wanted was to remain anonymous for a little while...

All for Now,

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Did Jesus know Jujitsu?

I am working on a Doctor of Ministry degree at Fuller Theological seminary - and just finished an absolutely incredible class by Dr. David Augsburger. In one of the 30 books we had to read, "Getting to Yes:Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In" I read about the ancient East Asian martial arts practice of jujitsu.

Jujitsu - in case you aren't familiar with this form of martial arts - relies on the energy, the blows and the "aggressive moves" of the other person to work against the person who is implementing them. For example, if you were getting into a verbal jujitsu match with someone else:
* When they asserted a position, you would not reject it.
* When they attack your ideas, you don't defend them.
* When they attack you, you don't counterattack.
* Instead of pushing back, you sidestep their attack and deflect it against the problem.
* You break the vicious cycle of violence, by refusing to react.

So, this got me to thinking, did Jesus know jujitsu? Obviously, this is a silly question, on it's face, since nobody in the Jewish culture of Jesus' day really had any concept of East Asian martial arts, or even the existence of the East Orient.

However, many of Jesus' responses to His critics remind me of jujitsu moves:
* When Jesus is asked whether it is lawful to pay taxes, he side steps the question, and uses the question on his opponents. "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and give to God what is God's." In other words, pay Caesar's tax, and remember that you are actually giving it to God, since God owns all things. Hyaa!
* Jesus tells us, "if someone strikes you on the cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic." This phrase has often been interpreted as an instruction to be passive in the face of aggressiveness. Perhaps, Jesus means that we should not be passive, but rather, be aggressive in a more intelligent way - through spiritual jujitsu.

As David Augsburger said on more than one occasion; "Sometimes the role of a spiritual leader is to figure out how to outwit sinners."

Wash on, Wash off

All For Now,

Saturday, April 2, 2011

"Match Lighters" and "Fire Stokers"

This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, entitled; "One Hundred Years of Ministry," to be published by Greenleaf Press in the Fall of 2011. I thought, viewed as a cameo, that it might be of interest as an exclusive preview to my blogreaders. Thank you for your continued prayers for me as I endeavor this writing project...

“With many other words he warned them, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’ Those who accepted his message were baptized, about three thousand were added to their number that day.” (Acts 2:41)

Jesus’ disciple Peter was a person who loved to initiate new things. He was a natural born leader - a person who helped bring about a major change in the way the church related to the world, indeed, the way the church was manifest in the world. Peter was an emotional person, quick tempered, and quick witted. Peter loved the large groups that gathered to see Jesus. He loved the miracles, the healings, the attention that the Roman government gave Jesus. Though Peter was at once repulsed by the last moments of Jesus’ life, he at the same time was strangely attracted to them. Peter did not slink into the desert after Jesus’ arrest, but hovered around the temple courtyard fires, like a groupie at a rock star’s concert. Peter was a “match lighter.”

Thomas, on the other hand, was not a “match lighter.” Thomas was a cautious person. Historians aren’t certain, but Thomas could have been an assistant to Judas as a member of the finance team on the board of the “twelve disciples.” Thomas made sure there was enough money to keep Jesus’ ministry going. Thomas probably helped to arrange accommodations for the disciples when they traveled. It was possibly Thomas who, among a handful of other disciples, warned Jesus that he should probably bring his talk to a close, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.” (Matt. 14:15). Thomas never liked to make decisions unless he had weighed all of the evidence first, and debated all of his options. Thomas’ nickname was the twin – a designation which might have pointed to his tendency to not want to take a position, as much as it might have suggested that he “was a twin.” Thomas wasn’t swayed, necessarily, by big crowds, important people, mass hysteria or group demonstrations of Spiritual outpouring. Thomas, was a “fire stoker.”

My ten years of experience in being a pastor, and the experiences of all three generations of pastors before me, has taught me that every healthy church needs an equal balance of “match lighters” and “fire stokers.” The two designations speak for themselves. Match lighters are people who light the match. They get the fire started, where before, there was no fire burning. They are self-starters. They are usually extremely charming, sometimes even seductive (even to their own detriment). They are more emotional, and more grandiose in their church perspective. They like larger crowds and enjoy the attention that ministry sometimes affords. Match lighters like new projects. They lay awake at night thinking up intricate schemes for the organization of a special worship service or a ministry event that will make people all say, “Wow, that was amazing.”

“Fire stokers” are, of course, the opposite. Fire stokers are the ones who make sure there is enough wood throughout the night, to keep the proverbial “home fires burning.” If you have ever had the job of keeping a fire burning all night long, it is no small effort. It requires diligence, perseverance, planning, and most of all constant care. In general, fire stokers don’t like new ideas, new plans, new projects. Big ideas sometimes scare them. However, they are the ones who keep institutions afloat. They are the ones who figure out how to pay the bills, keep the lights on, manage the calendars, avoid getting in trouble with the law, and just keep a general sense of presence and perspective about life. Fire stokers keep the home fires burning.

Most mainline denominational churches (I am speaking out of a primary understanding of Presbyterianism), suffer from an over abundance of “fire stokers.” For years, they have kept the fires in their churches burning, mostly through austerity efforts to cut budgets, streamline programs, scale down staff, and modify ministry approaches. Because of them, the church still exists. Ironically, also because of them, the church might not survive long term. Too many years of fire stoking simply leads to a depletion of wood and natural resources. Fire stokers are good at working with the commodities that exist, rather than creating new ways to create heat. Interestingly, most Finance committees and Building Committees are comprised of fire stokers. The very nature of their job is to figure out ways to keep the church’s resources from drying up too soon.

When Highlands Church first started, we actually had an overabundance of match lighters, rather than fire stokers. Where most churches don’t have enough match lighters, we were on the verge of having too many. Our church was all propane and no fire retardant. It was all outreach and action and outward expansion, and no inward stability, self reflection or discipleship growth. About the second year of Highlands Church’s existence, I knew we were in trouble. If we didn’t get rid of a few of the “match lighters” on the staff quick, and replace them with some “fire stokers” we were in trouble. Too many “match lighters” and a church goes up in smoke.

One last point on this. It is a fascinating fact, and sometimes a frustrating one, that fire stokers and match lighters, generally don’t like one another. Fire stokers see match lighters as being too spontaneous, too frivolous, too out of the box. Match lighters see fire stokers as being too conservative, too safe, too cautious. The job of a healthy head of staff, pastor, or church leader is to make sure that the balance between the two types of leaders is never out of kilter or out whack. Match lighters will always have something bad to say about fire stokers, and vice versa. The key for a good leader is to see that both are essential to the health and progress of an organization, and to understand whether a church, at a particular juncture, needs to light a match or simply stoke the fire.

Jesus had both match lighters and fire stokers on his leadership team – he had Peter and Thomas. We should too!