Monday, July 28, 2014

Orthodoxy and Adaptability

This blogpost is the culmination of a lot of my thinking lately about the future of Christianity in America.  So, for non-church people, it may seem a bit heavy, but hang with me.  Let me begin with a basic thesis sentence (I told you it might be heavy:-)

Where Christianity has been successful in world history, it has had a combination of two things: 


In other words, where Christianity has flourished, where it has taken root, where it has made it's way effectively into the lives of people of all different types and backgrounds and made a difference, it has both been orthodox (it has clung to the Bible, the confessions and the essential tenants of our faith) and it has been adaptable (it has morphed in subtle ways to meet the needs and particularities of the cultures in which it lives.  Let me offer two quick examples.

In the 5th and 6th centuries, Christianity made it's way into the countries of England, Scotland and Ireland.  It's missionaries are well known to us today; St. Patrick from Briton, St. Columba, St. Ninian are just three examples.  When these missionaries arrived in the British Isles they found a mostly tribal people who clung to paganism and pantheism.  There were literally as many gods for the Celts as there were days in the year.  There was a god for the ocean and a god for the mountains and a god for the trees.  These gods were depicted in huge stone circles like Stonehenge in modern day Bath, England, and the Great Stone Circle on the northern Scottish island of Orkney.  The missionaries brought orthodox theology from Rome.  There was only one problem - it wasn't working.  It wasn't breaking into the paganism of the local people.  Christianity wasn't relevant to the pagan Celts.  How would Christianity connect with these warring tribes?  Patrick, Columba and Ninian had an idea.  They would incorporate the pagan circle of pantheism, redefine what the circle meant, and place it right in the middle of the Christian cross (today this is known as the Celtic cross, seen in the image above).  In other words, in Great Britain, for Christianity to be successful it had to have:


Let's turn quickly to another historic example, before I try to relate why I am writing this post and why it makes so much difference for Christianity in America today.

At about the same time that Christianity was making it's way into the British Isles, it was also making it's way into Germania - the home of the ancient Goths.  The Goths, later exemplified by their great and famous leader, Clovis I, were a warring, tribal people.  A normal day for the Gothic people would begin with a great feast in the morning, where huge amounts of alcohol would be drunk.  That would be followed by huge sex festivals where women, as the saying goes, were "ravaged".  This would be followed by a long afternoon nap.  The evenings would be filled with plans to invade warring tribes.  How would Christianity ever permeate such a foreign culture?  Simple, it would adapt to the Goths in ways that would speak to the Goths.  The Jesus figure in Germania would adapt.  Jesus carried a sword and a shield.  In real life did Jesus ever carry a sword?  Of course not.  Jesus is a God of peace and forgiveness.  However, in order for Christianity to make an inroad into this very foreign culture, it would have to adapt.

So, why have I been thinking about:


Because of this.  If Christianity is to be successful in the growing foreignness of the world today, it must also remain orthodox and it must adapt.  Denominations which aren't orthodox will die (a good example of a denomination which isn't orthodox and which is basically extinct is Christian Scientism).  Denominations which aren't adaptable will also die (a good example of a denomination which wasn't adaptable is "Berean" Christianity).

Of course this formula is overly simplistic.  More time needs to be given to what orthodoxy is exactly.  More attention needs to be devoted to what kind of adaptability is too adaptable, too amorphous, too culturally sensitive.  However, it is this blog-post writer's opinion that if the American Christian church doesn't take this tension and this dichotomy seriously enough, it won't have as bright of a future as it has experienced in the past 4,000 years.

As a way of thinking about this in practical terms think about your own religious denomination (if you have one).  Is it too orthodox or too adaptable, or has it struck the perfect balance and medium to win hearts, minds and souls for the next millennium?

All For Now,

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Digital Intimacy

I recently saw a fascinating interview on CNN of a very smart business woman named Randi Zuckerberg.  Randi is the former Director of Marketing and Development for Facebook.  She is also the sister of Facebook's co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.  In the interview Randi ponders the impact of technology (particularly the internet, but also cell phones, texting, twitter accounts, and Facebook) on modern society.  The fact that Randi's own brother, Mark Zuckerberg, essentially invented the way that modern society interacts through Facebook, made this interview particularly interesting.  The main focus of Randi's thinking is vast bourgeoning divide we are facing in the world today between:

Real Interpersonal Human Connection


Digital Intimacy

Randi talks about how we now have an entire generation of people in, mainly in America, who have most of their interpersonal human connection through technology.  Rather than talking face to face, even in a work setting where people's desks are right next to one another, people will text one another.  Rather than having meetings with groups of people, even who work in the same department of a business, we will conduct internet chat rooms.  Rather than walking into a boss and asking a few questions about a particular issue, we will just email them.

Randi warns, though, that even if technology affords instant connections between people, we shouldn't mistake those instant digital connections for real interpersonal human connection.  "Don't assume that just because your boss and you text each other regularly, that you actually have a close relationship with one another."  (Randi's comment reminded me of the old adage, "Don't assume that though you are at the boss's house for the annual Christmas party, that that gives you license to do the macharana on the dining room table").  Technology connects us in a much quicker way to one another than ever before, and yet it also creates a kind of wall.  It divides us more than ever before.

As a Head of Staff for many years of a church staff, I can relate with this dichotomy.  Very often, if I have had a staff member who was under the age of 30, and I have wanted to relate quick information or an idea that I wanted to share, I would text that employee.  In fact, what I found is that texting an employee who is under the age of 30, has had a much quicker ability to get the information across than having a 1 hour lunch meeting together.  On the other hand, I found that the more email and text messages that were exchanged between employees, the further apart, ironically people could become interpersonally.

Years ago, I saw a live stand up comedy show of Craig Ferguson.  Craig said that he had, in the past few years, received many, many emails from irate audience members who were upset about something Craig had said on his show.   These emails were scathing.  "Craig you are the worst comedian I have ever seen.  I hate you.  Your material is awful and atrocious.  You are not funny."  Craig would then sometimes pick up the phone and call people as a follow-up.  "Really, he would ask, you think I am the worst comedian you have ever seen?"  The person would then pause and said, "Well, you're not actually that bad, actually you are sometimes good."  Craig said that technology provides a false sense that we are very close with a person and can say anything we want to them, when actually it creates a kind of wall.  Craig then came up with a series of questions that he thinks all people who send emails should ask themselves.

1.  Does this need to be said?
2.  Does this need to be said by me?
3.  Does this need to be said by me now, on email?

Usually when we stop to answer these three questions, Craig muses, we realize that we don't need to send the email at all.

Two weeks ago I attended a church worship service in Ventura, California where the sermon was delivered on a large screen up front from another location.  Every other aspect of the worship service was the same as any service I have attended (ushers, worship songs, offering plates) but the sermon was broadcast on a screen.  It was a Digital connection.  The information was related on the screen in a very effective way.  But was there an interpersonal connection between me and the pastor preaching?  Does it even matter?  I am still asking myself these questions.

Every week I write a blogpost and you read it through the internet.  Thank you - by the way!  Through technology we are close to one another, and yet we are miles apart.  Information is conveyed, but is there human connection?  Perhaps there is.  You tell me:-)

Or just send me an email...

All For Now,

Monday, July 14, 2014

Unexpected Preparation

I've been thinking a lot lately about:

Unexpected Preparation

In the past week, I have put together no less than twenty-eight pieces of furniture from IKEA.  After I finish writing this blog-post, I will be driving to my new office space for the new church we are starting (Mission Street Church) and beginning the process of assembling ten more pieces of IKEA furniture.

If you aren't familiar with IKEA, IKEA is a Swedish furniture company (the big blue building with the yellow sign) that specializes in stylish and inexpensive furniture that you have to assemble yourself.  And when I say assemble, I mean assemble.  One box that I unpacked had no less than 120 different screws that had to be ordered and inserted into 120 different pre-cut holes in fiber-board.  What I thought would take me a day or two has now taken over a week.  It is a laborious, methodical, and painstaking process putting this furniture together.  Sometimes it is joyful, sometimes it is frustrating - but always it is laborious and methodical and painstaking.

And so, as I have inserted these screws into these tiny holes I have asked myself - Why?  Why, just prior to launching a new church, where there are zillions of other important tasks to complete, am I having to do this seemingly totally disconnected task of assembling furniture?  And then it occurred to me.  Perhaps, in some strange way, the task of putting furniture together is not entirely a waste.  Perhaps this laborious, methodical, pain staking process is actually a helpful pre-cursor to the laborious, methodical, painstaking  process of putting together a new church.  Perhaps assembling furniture, piece by piece is not so different than assembling a church, piece by piece.  If one screw is missing from a piece of furniture, then the furniture won't hold together.  If one small tiny step in the process of building a new church is missed, the church won't function.

Perhaps building furniture is an - Unexpected Preparation - for building a church!

Not too long ago, I read a book about the great painter Leonardo Da Vinci.  Leonardo's artistic masterpieces are well known to the entire world ("The Last Supper", "The Mona Lisa").  They are  some of the most intricate, beautiful and valuable pieces of art in the entire world.  What are some of the features that set Leonardo's paintings apart from so many others?  It is the medical mastery that Da Vinci brings to his subject work.  Each face that he paints is exactly anatomically correct.  Each eye-ball that he traces reflects a deep understanding of ocular medical understanding.  Now, it is possible that one could view all of the time that Da Vinci spent on medicine as ancillary to the act of painting.   After all, painting and medicine could not seem more distant from one another as specialties.  However, spending time on medicine and the human anatomy was, for Da Vinci, an:

Unexpected Preparation

The world is full of examples of people who applied very different skill sets to particular areas of focus and had incredible results.  Here are a few prominent examples:

*  The apostle Paul was a tent-maker by trade, before he was an evangelist.  Tent-making (the business of putting together tents, piece by piece, the business practice of setting up shop and keeping accounts) is a very valuable skill for an evangelist.  Tent-making was, for Paul, an:

Unexpected Preparation

*  Jesus spent much of his youth in his father Joseph's carpentry shop.  Even though Jesus' line of work wasn't exactly furniture making, and was more of what we would call being a "day-laborer" today, it was integral to his larger ministry later in his life.  Jesus had many stories about building.  The parable of the two builders is but one example.  Carpentry was for Jesus, an:

Unexpected Preparation

*  Franklin Roosevelt is widely considered to be one of our country's best presidents.  About the middle of his life, Roosevelt contracted polio and lost the use of his legs for the rest of his life.  Roosevelt had to dig down deep in his life to overcome the stigma and pain of his paraplegia.  This inner strength would later hold him in good stead as President of the United States during one it's darkest hours.  Polio was for Roosevelt, an:

Unexpected Preparation

*  Abraham Lincoln, another great president, grew up in rural Illinois.  When he was a boy, his home was so rough and small that it actually had a dirt floor.  One of the only things that Lincoln could do to pass the time, since he owned only one book, was to tell stories and tell jokes.  Lincoln was one of the best joke tellers in his entire town.  People would come from miles around to here Lincoln tell stories and jokes.  In a strange way, joke-telling became, for Lincoln, an:

Unexpected Preparation for the Presidency.

And the list goes on.  Try to think of other examples of people who had to face one set of tasks which seemed totally disconnected from another set of tasks, but which were an integral and essential aspect of their ultimate success.

More to the point, perhaps you are in the midst of a particular task this morning which seems completely wasted, annoying and disconnected from what you really want to be doing.  Perhaps you are paying bills, taking out the garbage, cleaning up dog poop in the backyard, driving your kids to soccer practice, appeasing your boss at work, when you would really like to be painting a masterpiece.  Is it possible though, that what you are going through right now is an:

Unexpected Preparation

For something much larger and much more important that God has in store for you?

Back to my furniture building!

All For Now,

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Weekly Miracle

Have you ever been in church on a Sunday morning and somewhere in the midst of listening to a sermon, you felt God speaking to you in the deepest recesses of your soul?  Have you ever listened to a message and wondered how the preacher knew exactly what you needed to hear, without even knowing anything about your particular situation?  Have you ever felt moved to change some aspect of your life just because of the words that were spoken?  Have you ever walked out of church on a Sunday morning and you felt that the world was a different place, that you were a different person?  Have you ever walked into church with a deep sense of discouragement, and an hour later you left with a limitless horizon of potential and possibility?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you have experienced...

The Weekly Miracle

Yes, preaching, when it moves us deeply is...a miracle.

I just took a preaching class for my Doctorate at Fuller Theological Seminary with Dr. Will Willemon. One of the most valuable concepts that I have learned is that the spoken word (the spoken Word), is one of God's most powerful ways to impact our lives.  God brought the universe into creation through words themselves; "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John :1).  The very speaking of words in the book of Genesis is how the earth was formed, how how animals were made, how humans came into being; "And God SAID, 'Let there be light, and there was light", "And God SAID, 'Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky…", "Then God SAID, 'Let us make man in our man in our image."  The Words of God created all that we know.

Not to go too far down the road of comparative religions, but many other faith systems believe that the creation of the world occurred through other means than words.  Zoroastrians, for example, believe that  "In the Beginning", there was an eternal battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil started all of creation.

In the New Testament, Jesus heals people mostly through the power of Words.  "A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, 'If you are willing, you can make me clean.'  Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man, 'I am willing,' he SAID.  'Be clean!'  Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured" (Mark 1:40-41)  Jesus spoke simple words and by words, there was healing.

When Jesus was not healing people, he was spent most of his time teaching and preaching.  Teaching and preaching, when you think about it, is simply the formation of words in a certain way, that by the power of the Holy Spirit, changes reality. The most famous teaching of Jesus' ministry was the Sermon on the Mount; "Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down.  His disciples came to him, and he began to TEACH them, SAYING…Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:1-3).  The mere words of Jesus changed the universe.

Let me fill you in a preaching secret.  No preaching class, or amount of skill, or the "gifts" of a preacher has the ability to change hearts.  No preacher, by his or her rhetorical power, has the ability to transform lives simply through the creative use of words.  Human words fall short.  They do in our personal lives, and they do in our ministerial lives.

For most of my life, I have worked on perfecting words that were spoken in public settings.  When other kids were at football practice, or Future Farmers of America, I was working on public speaking. Every single weekend of my high school career, I competed in speech tournaments (literally the competition of how words are put together).  I won the National Oratory Championship.  Enough people thought that the way I put words together in a speech were compelling enough, that I won the country's highest speaking award.  And then in college I competed in more speech tournaments.  I won countless awards in public speech.  I have been preaching for 15 years.  But the ability to put words together in a creative way is not….

The Weekly Miracle

The Weekly Miracle is:  The power of the Holy Spirit, combined with the openness of an individual to hear a message, combined with a preachers' human WORDS.  Holy Spirit Words change lives.

Not too long ago, a person approached me after a sermon and said, "I like what you said today.  I like the WORDS you said from the Bible.  I just wish that God would be more active in the world today.  I just wish that God were here doing more of the things He did in the New Testament.  I wish God did more miracles today!"  Then, I SAID to them, "Well, have you heard a good sermon lately?  Have you been moved through a message given by a pastor from the front of a church, or on the radio, or on a webcast?"  If so, you have experienced:

The Weekly Miracle

Expect a Miracle This Coming Weekend...Through Words Spoken by a Preacher in Church!

All For Now,