Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Big and the Small (About Church)

A few weeks ago, a friend on FB reported that a church he and his wife had been attending for several weeks had a Sunday morning announcement that the church qualified for a 3.9 million dollar loan. My friend was baffled and asking if this was normal--do churches this size need loans this large? What ensued in the comments section of his post was perspective from all sides—from the eschewing of large churches in favor of smaller house-church-sized communities to those arguing for the possibility that such a loan was reasonable depending on the size of the church and its yearly income.  Others quoted popular authors who were mega-church-pastors-turned-house-church-planters and now criticize the industrial machine of the American mega-church and how it is so different from Jesus’ model—Jesus who disciple a small bunch of men and often turned away crowds.

It’d be easy to roll on the waves of this debate, tossing to and fro with each theoretical argument that doesn’t actually take into account the workings of the Spirit at my church in North Liberty, Iowa, in 2014. Instead of taking sides on the debate, I find myself wanting to throw away categories, to resist the temptation to classify one model as better than another and, rather, classify our own motivations, classify our own leadings as Spirit-led or not.

Here I am, on staff at a 500-some-member church that is only 8 years old. And we seem to keep growing as we show and tell people about Jesus. And if we keep showing and telling people about Jesus in the way we’re doing, it seems it would stand to reason that LIFEchurch will grow larger. And if so, how could we not keep making room for more people? (Note: this will likely involve leases and building mortgages.) 

The Spirit seems to be doing something in response to our telling people about Jesus, and we don't have the sense that we should start closing the doors and turning people away. More people come every week. More people return every week. And people report that their lives are changing. That their prayers are being answered. That they've found new hope in Jesus. How could I dream of turning them away because the Big-Church Model isn’t perfect? 

It isn’t perfect, I'll admit. It’s hard to organize good follow-up systems. It's hard to keep track of who's actually coming and what their needs are. It’s hard to get people plugged into meaningful relationships with smaller groups of believers (as opposed to all 500 that attend on Sunday) and it's hard to connect the right people with the class they are most in need of. And it's not the right model for everyone in every season of life, but we are sure trying to make it work for all the people who walk through the doors. And what’s the alternative? “Good luck finding a church where there’s an open seat for you”?

I'm happy to think that the formerly big-church pastors had good reason for resignation and for shifting gears, reasons that made sense for their own lives and callings and purposes. But we don’t. Not now. Not yet when it seems like we’re doing exactly what we should be doing, which is growing a church. 

Thursday, April 24, 2014

TODAY: Amazon Promotion for Dear Boy,

Hey readers! Amazon is promoting the Kindle version of my book. You can pick it up for only $0.99 today, April 24!  It will stay on sale through May 1, but the price will incrementally rise on the 26th and the 28th. It's a great week to pick this up for a great price!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Good Works and Confusing Packaging (About Church)

A few weeks ago, much of the evangelical world watched as World Vision, an organization that describes itself as a Christian humanitarian organization dedicated to working with children, families, and their communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice,” released a statement saying it had changed its hiring policy to be inclusive of Christians in same-sex marriage. What happened next was that many evangelicals canceled their sponsorships of WV children in protest of the new hiring policy.

I was hardly an expert on World Vision. The day before this debacle, I couldn’t have told you what WV’s hiring policies were, but I was so dismayed at the idea of so many children waking up one morning to the news that they no longer had access to their school, food, education and health care, that I put my stake in the ground (on Facebook, no less), announcing that I would be sponsoring a child through World Vision to make up the losses. 

Wouldn’t you know it, by the end of the week, World Vision had reversed it’s hiring policy change, declaring that they “stand firmly on the biblical view of marriage, [yet] strongly affirm that all people, regardless of sexual orientation, are created by God and are to be loved and treated with dignity and respect”?

I was baffled, and did not feel that they had accomplished their mission of “bear[ing] witness to the good news of the kingdom of God” that week.  If anything, I had little confidence in this board, which I felt lacked the courage of its convictions (wherever those stood). Also, what a way to alienate a group of people that the Church so desperately needs to love well and love better. Oh, hey, we’re going to include you. Oh, on second thought, we changed our minds.

I had just promised to support a WV child. But, now that sponsorships were being reinstated again by those who initially cancelled them; the critical need was not so critical. So, I decided to keep my eyes out for another organization doing similar work.

And it just so happened that Sarah Bessey (author of Jesus Feminist, a book I highly recommend) was traveling in Haiti last week for the sole purpose of documenting the work of Help One Now in remote places where children fall prey to trafficking and malnourishment. Help One Now is focused not only on orphans, but on vulnerable children whose families of origin remain somewhat in tact. They also work through the initiatives of local, native leaders who understand the needs and social dynamics of he culture.  

I chose to sponsor Clervoir, a 17 year old boy, and my hope is that he will be able to fulfill his dream of becoming a teacher by advancing his (fifth-grade level) education.

One thing Help One Now asks is for its sponsors to spread the word about what they're doing around the world. So here I am, spreading the word. If you're looking for a cause or just looking to sponsor a kiddo, this is as good a place as any to start.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Frustrating Things (About Church)

There is minutiae. The stuff that, if we didn't know better could derail a person, a ministry, a team, an entire church.  The minutiae in a growing church in a too-small building can look like things gone missing for weeks or months. Like my class supply box frequently disappearing. Like snacks for Sunday morning disappearing. Like holes in communication: the wrong person getting the right information and vice versa. Like our functioning women's toilets in the building have decreased to 50% for a short time and are now back up to 75% of prior capacity. Like we have no personal offices and no great meeting spaces on Sunday mornings, and I'm about to commandeer the out-of-service women's bathroom for strategy sessions. Like my "stuff" is divided between four different closets and rooms in the building. Whatev. Like I said, these little things are easily overcome with a dose patience and sense of humor. 

Others things are harder. Like learning to be comfortable and respectful with disagreement and different temperaments. Like gender and racial stereotypes that linger, spoken or silently present. Like how church systems and governments don't always seem to adequately reflect or express the Kingdom-come. (Oh, we're trying to get there, we are). Harder still: People scare easy and run away--right about the time I want to coax them to “come toward, come toward.” There are misunderstandings that could get resolved speedily through brave communication, but brave communication sometimes takes a while to work up to. Weeks, months. Years. I have been guilty of this. Also, feelings get hurt. Things are said that shouldn't be said, and there are consequences.

Most profoundly difficult: With church (and the Gospel), there aren’t provable answers for everything. We have to live in this liminal space of not-proving and not-being-scientifically-sure of certain things in an age when so many want to form beliefs upon the foundation of empirical truths. But the Bible is not an almanac, an encyclopedia, a dictionary, a science book, a rulebook, a treatise, a constitution, a manual. It’s more like a traveler’s map. With hundreds of important landmarks—places where important things happened to people and people groups and where God happened to people and their groups. And somehow these landmarks are all connected. There was a journey from one place to another, from Adam to Christ and from Genesis to Revelation, and the journey was messy and complicated and filled with confusion and people running here, there and everywhere and worshiping the wrong gods and killing and oppressing other people groups and making rules that ultimately didn’t do any earthly or heavenly good. And one has to look at all that and work at deciphering truth out of the relationships between historical events, between narratives, between the story God wanted to write and the story of human action and history and the way in which God entered history, anyway, and did something good. And, oh boy, relationships are complicated (just ask anyone who's ever been in love); they are subject to interpretation; they are sentences eluding grammar, impossible to diagram.

Sure, some things are fairly self-evident when we look at the Bible's big picture, and we preach those things, we teach those things, we celebrate those things. We teach Jesus as God. As light in the darkness. As hope for the hopeless. And a bunch of other foundational assertions about this thing Jesus called the Kingdom of God. These assertions are like little pins on the map. Places of [unprovable, faith-filled] certainty. On one hand, this faith-infused surety about the pins on the map is oddly satisfying: I've lived with faith long enough to see it as the substance that keeps me connected to God, that keeps my eyes open for the ways in which prayer is answered, in which provision is offered, in which hope shouts louder than the sick child, the broken marriage, the mother's tragic death.

But, all of those things (the child, the marriage, the death) speak of mystery. Frustrating mystery. Disappointment. Oh, elusive answers! Oh, suffering in the midst of eternal hope. And we can only walk alongside and ask the questions together, digging for answers we may never unearth. 

All of this--the map, the pins on the map, the questions, the interpretations--is what we have to give away, to hand to believers and seekers. There is no manual when we want one. There is no cosmic Google search or when it comes to the ways of the Kingdom. No mechanism for generating tidy answers and step-by-step instructions. Ultimately, what is frustrating about Church is also what is so beautiful: We have only this invitation from living words and a living God and a living Church. Listen. Pay attention. Come close. 

**If you missed it last week, catch up on the first post in this (About Church) series

Monday, April 07, 2014

Beautiful Things (About Church)

So many things have me thinking about church and church stories lately, especially Rachel Held Evans, who recently solicited readers' stories about church. I love her questions and I love her idea of swapping stories, so here's me daring to say that this is just one in a beginning of posts about church. And, if you're wondering, I did submit RHE a little something. If she doesn't end up using it on her blog, I'll share it here.

But for now, I'm drawn to her question: Tell me a story that encapsulates everything that is beautiful about your church.

I have too many stories.

Church is a constant reminder to me that God loves people better and more capably than I ever could. That I am a privileged witness, a pray-er and an exhorter who sometimes doesn't even have faith or hope on par with whatever healing or restoration that God eventually weaves into a mess--my own or anyone else's.  In other words, I can't even imagine the amazing God-fix that he applies to the seemingly hopeless situations and mindsets and people. And so, it's a delight every time to see him do it.

As a I work with other church staff to create atmosphere where people can become followers of Christ, it's beautiful to me when people show up and say, I'm here! in every aspect of those words. I'm here to give, I'm here to love. I'm here as a brother/sister/mother/father to anyone who needs one, I'm here in need of healing, I'm here to receive. 

Beautiful when someone moves from the shadows of destructive choices and behaviors to living in the light, to using their voice, to telling their story, to helping others heal.

Beautiful when a woman whose been accepted in no other community of faith turns to me and says, "I love this place. This is home." Beautiful that she fell in love with the real Jesus because real people loved her with real, unconditional love. Beautiful that she gave up the old life, the running, the throwing-herself-away so that she could drink of this community, of the strength of its relationships and of the water Jesus has to offer.

Beautiful, too, that I/you/we don't need to own everyone else's problems. We can love. We can pray. We can help. But we're not responsible or in charge. Except for ourselves. But that's another story.

Beautiful to let people live free this way. Without us reminding them of rules and shoulds and shouldn'ts.  Beautiful, instead, to ask questions, to point them to Jesus and let them follow his Way.

And beautiful is the relief of knowing I/you/we don’t have to have all the “right” answers, that we can embrace the mystery and tensions in the Bible and in the ways of the kingdom, that we can live in the middle-ground of the now and not-Heaven-yet with promise here and promise coming. That we can say “I know some things...I don't know everything...I don't know that." But most important: "I just know Jesus."

What's beautiful to you about church?