Willow Creek and Human Pride

If you have been following the news in Evangelical church circles, you know all about Bill Hybels and the Willow Creek Church scandal. If you do not follow such news, you can “Google” the name and read all about the sordid details. For the briefest of summaries – Bill Hybels started the Willow Creek Church in Chicago decades ago as a purely humanistic effort to reach the “unchurched” or “seekers.” Willow Creek, and the hundreds of churches it has spawned, is (are) the epitome of “seeker sensitive” churches. Hybels removed every semblance of Christian worship from the Sunday assembly, even moving the observance of the Lord’s Supper to Wednesday night, so as not to offend those who find such Christian observances distasteful. Driven purely by cultural mores, the church is staffed by female ministers and even female “elders.” (Not quite sure how a female can be the husband of one wife, but I digress.) Willow Creek, and Bill Hybels, have become a massive voice in contemporary cultural Christianity.

I have a particularly distasteful experience with Hybels and WC. During one of my graduate classes, the instructor (who was absolutely smitten by Hybels and his phony-baloney schmaltz) showed us a video of a WC service, and asked for our opinions. I totally lost it. It was all hat and no cattle, all wind-up and no pitch. I was furious. I have never been so angry at a instructor in my life (before or since) and to this day I cannot think of that instructor’s name without my heart rate rising. I hope that instructor is aware of Hybels and his escapades – and of the fact that Hybels accumulated a vast fortune including a yacht, a personal jet, and a summer home to validate his humble ministry.

Despite what it might sound like, this post is not to attack Hybels or WC in particular. I think Hybels and WC have pretty much done that themselves. What I DO want to emphasize is that you cannot take a rotten tree and get good fruit from it. The principle that Hybels used is an ancient one – find out what the people want and then give it to them. Hey – anyone remember Aaron and the Golden Calf? Jeroboam and his Golden Calves? It is easy to be a leader when you find out where the mob is moving and just work your way to the front. But that is NOT Christianity, and it is not Christian leadership.

I cannot for the life of me figure out how you can “draw all people” unto Christ if you do not lift Christ up front and center. This obviously begins and ends with making sure the worship assembly is rich with the symbols and language of Christian worship, but extends far beyond that. Why do people want to take the name of Jesus or Christ (his title) off of the church? Why do people want to eliminate the symbols of the cross or the Lord’s Supper from the weekly assembly? In a much broader question, why do people want to define the church from cultural standards?

Moving further, when you use culture to set the parameters for your “church” you have separated yourself from the church of the New Testament. The leadership issues of the WC are evidence of that – no accountability for Hybels, an “eldership” that cannot even begin to shepherd multiple thousands of “worshipers,” and a blatant disregard for scriptural standards for being called to that role of shepherd.

I cannot question Hybels heart when he started his “church,” his desire to reach the “unchurched” was commendable. But the eventual fruit of his labors illustrates the very point Jesus made is virtually every parable and teaching – if you start at the top and use power and prestige as your goal, you will end up with corruption and abuse. If you start at the bottom and use service and humility as your goal and practice, you can allow God to build His church and His kingdom.

Church – let us learn from this example! Let us ascend by climbing lower!

The Danger of False Analogies

It should come as no surprise that in today’s emotionally over-charged world, where every slight or mistake is regarded as an epic outrage, that not only the topics of conversation are dangerously over-wrought, but so are the manners in which those conversations are conducted. This is true in theology as well as politics, but for ease of observation I am going to highlight a couple of analogies that are currently being used that, to my semi-professionally trained eye, do far more harm than good. I want to say at the outset that I am critiquing a process, and I have no-one in mind as a guilty party, so if you have used one of these analogies rest assured I am not picking on you individually, just the bad analogy.

The first one compares what is going on with immigrant families being separated at the southern border with abortion. The line of thinking is this: you cannot be against abortion and support the separation of children from their families at the border. The analogy fails on just so many levels. To begin with, the question of the separation of children from adults in detention centers is muddied by the fact that most of the reporting is done by journalists and media personnel who utterly despise the current president, so their reporting is hardly to be considered fair or equal. On the other hand, no one doubts what happens at an abortion clinic – a pregnancy is terminated. Euphemisms aside, no one is doubting that result. The policy of separating children from adults is done, at least ostensibly, to protect the children from predators housed in adult detention centers. No one can argue that abortion protects the unborn. The policy of separating children from adults may be clumsy, misguided, and poorly administered, or it may be violent and immoral, but no one is suggesting that the end result is the mass extinction of millions of babies. The analogy is simply horrendous.

The second analogy follows along the same lines – you cannot be pro-life and support capital punishment. All life is sacred, so the argument goes, so if you are against abortion, you must be against capital punishment or you are a hypocrite. Once again, the analogy is simply false. Capital punishment is only administered at the end of a long and contested legal proceeding. Theoretically at least, only those who are guilty of certain crimes are executed. [Note: I am aware of the mis-management of the use of capital offense prosecutions. I am not arguing that such prosecutions are always fair or equal – only that the analogy to abortion is a false one.] On the other hand, no one argues that an unborn child is guilty of anything, and the baby has no advocate, no legal system in which to make appeals, no jury trial, no judge to oversee the proceedings. The analogy is actually hideous – all life is not equal, and anyone with a high school education should be able to understand the difference between a murderer or rapist and an unborn child. This argument also completely dismisses the fact that it was a holy and just God who commanded, not just allowed, the execution of murderers, rapists, and kidnappers. To suggest that God equates murderers with unborn children is simply obscene.

The problem with such analogies is that they are tremendously effective – for those who are in complete agreement with the speaker/writer. “Wow, how brilliant!” is the sycophant response. On the other hand, for the opponent, the argument is typically either ignored, or is actively mocked. I know of no one who has had their mind changed about the immigration debate, capital punishment, or abortion, due to such over-strained analogies.

I think what is worse is that, for the person who can see through the emotionalism, the analogy actually makes the speaker/writer appear uneducated and churlish. When I see or hear such analogies (and these two are not the only ones) I don’t immediately reframe my views; I think, “Poor fella, he needs to learn the rudiments of logical argument.” And I think this whether I agree with the writer/speaker 100% or disagree 100%.

One other extreme danger is that the truth of what the writer/speaker is trying to communicate gets lost in the emotionalism of the analogy. To separate a child from his/her parents at the border may indeed by a moral crime. The policy may indeed need to be changed – or just flat discontinued. There can be no debate that the judicial system has grossly mis-administered the capital punishment laws. Innocent men (and perhaps women) have been executed – of that I have no doubt. And there is no recourse when such a mistake is identified. The American system, with all of its checks and balances, has simply not worked in too many cases.

But, the truth of the matter gets lost in crass emotionalism when false analogies are used. The questions surrounding the immigration debate do not need to be clouded by illogical connections to the abortion debate. Likewise with  capital punishment. The issues revolving around the just administration of any penalty (corporal or capital) needs to be separated from the moral tragedy of the murder of unborn babies.

Obviously, the very same is true regarding theological debates. Whether a congregation has a fellowship hall cannot be compared to the role of baptism in salvation. Whether a person has a cup of coffee in a Bible class is not a question equal to the deity of Jesus. Whether or not it is appropriate to raise one’s hands during worship is not a question on par with whether God raised Jesus bodily from the grave. To equate something of mere opinion to that of saving faith is to make a false analogy, and in the final analysis, the entire conversation is corrupted.

Let us debate the serious issues of theology – and politics – but let us conduct those debates intelligently and with respect toward our opponents. False analogies do not build bridges – they are hand grenades tossed into the camp of the enemy. Jesus told his disciples to be wise as serpents, yes, let us be that wise! But – he also said to be as innocent as doves. That, my friends, is the mark of a thoughtful and intelligent debater.

Let us become wiser by descending lower.

Changing Strategies for a Changeless Church

Read no further unless you consider the following texts: Isaiah 1:11, 16-17; Hosea 6:6 (and therefore Matthew 9:13, 12:7); Amos 5:14-15, 21-24; Micah 6:6-8; Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 4:18-19; James 1:27.

As is so often the case, I write one post thinking it will be a stand-alone, one-off post, and then all of a sudden I think (or am reminded by someone) of a tangential point, and then a rabbit pops up that needs to be chased, and all of a sudden I’m up to my armpits in blog posts. So, here is the third in an un-planned series that started with me stating unequivocally that the church does not have to change. I am adamant about that point. The core doctrines and practices of the church do not have to change, and in fact, if we do change them, we cease to be the church. I will not give an inch on that belief.

But that got me to thinking about all the ways in which individual congregations are dying, and what little changes they could make in order to reverse some of the decline. So, yesterday I started with the easiest, and most visible, changes that a congregation can consider – those of the physical building in which they meet. I am just astounded by the the fact that so many people are oblivious to the state of their building, and how much that disrepair communicates an unwillingness to change, or an outright statement of indifference.

In all honesty, I have to say that in today’s culture the building probably accounts for only 10-20% of a guest’s opinion of the church – although it is a critical 10 – 20%. That figure varies depending on region of the country and size of the community. In some locations the physical state of the building may rate higher, in some places it might barely matter. Regardless, there is no excuse for a shoddy building. If you are going to meet in one, make it a priority to have that building as visitor friendly as you can possibly make it.

Today I venture into the 80 – 90% of what our culture views as important, and that is the philosophy or philosophies that drive the work of the congregation. It is popular today to say that the “attraction” model of the church is dead – that the only churches that are growing have moved past an “attraction” model to one of involvement or of being “missional” (whatever that means – all I’ve learned is that it is “insider” lingo that if you use it you are cool, and if you don’t use it you are just so 20th century gauche). I have come to believe that thinking is wrong. Every model of church growth is attraction – the difference is how you are doing the attracting. Are you attracting by saying, “Come to our building and join our little band of Christians because we have everything right” or are you saying, “Come join our assembly; we are trying to change both ourselves and our world and we invite you to join us by changing your life and by helping us in our journey.” Both are attractions models, it is just the methodology that has changed.

So, what drives your congregation? If you cannot say off the top of your head, I have one simple test: how big is your bank account, and by looking at the line items of expenditures, where does most of your money go? That, my friends, will identify whether you are tied to your building, or whether you are actually attempting to move outside the walls and impact your community.

I have a couple of “fer real” stories to illustrate my point. In one congregation where my wife and I attended, the elders had a simple strategy regarding their bank account. Every December they looked at how much money was in the congregational bank account, and they looked at their various ministries. Then, based on the nature of the ministry, they divided that money up and sent it off – to preachers, missionaries, community charities – whatever they supported. They started every January with a $0.00 balance in their account. Silly, you say? Irrational, you argue? Reckless, you harrumph? But what about emergencies, what about crises?

The elders were brilliant men, of that I have no doubt. But beyond that they were men of great faith. They did not trust in the church bank account. If there was an emergency – a flood, a tornado, a fire – they knew that the Smith family had a bank account, and the Joneses had a bank account, and widow Brown had a bank account, and so did every other family in the congregation. They knew that on a moments notice those bank accounts would fly open and every need and every crisis would be overcome. They did not worry about what was in the “church” bank account, because (1) they trusted in the power and love of God and (2) they knew and trusted the hearts of their members. There was no question about the vision of the church. It was present each and every Sunday for everyone to witness and to share.

Second, one of our neighbor families could be described as one of the “nones” that everyone is so worried about. They would attend a church, but they were not really looking for correct doctrine or whether the service was done “decently and in order.” They looked at the bulletin to see what the members were up to. They were especially concerned to note whether the church was open about its finances. They wanted to know if the church was active in the community – feeding the hungry, clothing the cold, housing the homeless. Once those questions were met, then they would consider what most of us would consider the more important issues of doctrine and practice.

You see, many congregations are going to have to change their model of attraction. I still believe in the theory of being an attractional church. Jesus said in John 12:32 that, when he was raised up, he would draw all people unto him. I believe that was both prediction and promise. If we raise Christ, HE will draw people to his church. The question is, are we going to attempt to raise Christ up with philosophies that died decades ago – or are we going to get out into the community, roll up our sleeves, and get our fingers dirty?

Years ago many Churches of Christ shied away from community outreach because they believed (erroneously, I might add) that to do so was to participate in the “social gospel.” I believe that fear has to be firmly and finally eradicated from the mindset of many congregations if they are to stem the exodus of young families, and if they are to ever attract non-Christians to their worship services. Stated bluntly, but to borrow an old adage, people today do not care what you believe, unless and until they see you living what you believe. If we believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ, we are going to have to learn how to live that gospel. I am not saying we have to change our view of the roles of men and women, that we have to turn our worship services into three-ring (or three screen!) circuses, that we have to become “open and affirming” of sinful practices, that we have to change our view of salvation, church leadership, or our worship practices such as the Lord’s Supper. I repeat, the church cannot change certain immutable truths and practices.

But, returning to those texts I listed at the start of this post – can anyone seriously question that community outreach and care for those who cannot care for themselves is not a part of the gospel? That justice and mercy are any less important than baptism and the sanctity of marriage? That false (vain) worship is any less of a sin than homosexuality?

After one of my earlier posts, a good friend suggested that churches need to learn how to church. I know “church” is not a verb, but I like that thought. It’s brilliant, actually, even allowing for the grammatical imprecision. We need to learn how to church – beginning with personal discipleship (blog post #1) and moving through congregational re-alignment and re-dedication to serving their communities with the flesh and blood of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Let us never surrender an inch of what the church is, and should be. But let us always be alert to ways in which the church can be the body of Christ in the community of which it is a part.

A House With No Foundation

I am simultaneously amazed and saddened as I observe what seems to be an inexorable decline in civility and in productivity in both the American political system and in the American church. Although I am not a specialist in either field, I do have my own observations, and for the most part what I see happening in the secular world is being duplicated in the church. I’ve tried to put words to my thoughts, and although the following is preliminary, I sincerely believe my observations to be valid.

In summary, what I see happening is that in both our secular world and in the church we have ceased to be thoughtful and creative, and instead have become perpetually reactive. We do not respond to any issue with reason and deliberation. We view every movement as a threat to our existence and react in both fear and anger. Our response then prompts an equal, or perhaps even exaggerated response from our opponents, and the cycle not only continues, but descends into further chaos.

Part of this condition revolves around our technology. Not only do we have the ability to see and hear everything that occurs the instant it happens, but we also have the ability to comment just as quickly. There was a blessing in only being able to see the nightly news at 6 and 10, and having to wait for the morning paper. There is no buffer time now. It is instant see, instant hear, instant react. We have ceased to be a rational people – reason is quickly becoming extinct.

This development has deeply infected the church as well. A sermon or quote is posted on-line, and within minutes, not even hours, the reaction becomes “viral.” We do not pause to digest lessons or messages – we simply regurgitate what we agree with (or more likely, the musings of the one with whom we agree) or we counter-attack with vitriol. In one of the greatest, and most damning, ironies of our time, we quote Acts 17:11 with the zeal of an evangelist and at the same time we crucify anyone who dares to make us think.

During what had to be one of his most emotionally draining times, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, and preached, and argued with both the German church and the world-wide ecumenical movement that before anything could be done about the deteriorating political situation in Germany, a firm theological foundation had to be built that could withstand what he knew would be a furious Nazi response. In his usual clear and precise thought, he knew the church had to make up its mind whether it was going to be the church or the handmaid of any and every political regime. He resisted making meaningless declarations and mere postulations. He knew that if a conference only resulted in some formal resolution, the conscience of the attendees would be salved but the underlying issues would not be solved, or sometimes barely even addressed.

I fear that so much activity that I see in the church today can only be described as “a blind man searching in a dark room for a black cat that does not exist.” We are wasting valuable time and energy, tilting at every windmill that we see, imagining that they are fire-breathing dragons. What was gallant for Don Quixote is a fools errand for the church. We must do better.

A house with no foundation cannot stand. It will eventually crumble, no matter how impressive it might appear from the outside. If we are to continue to exist as a church we are going to have to stop chasing phantoms and start laying a solid, biblical and theological foundation on which to build a house that cannot be shaken.

Our ultimate foundation, of course, is Jesus the Messiah. I am not suggesting we can lay another, or a better, foundation than that which is already given to us. I am saying, as clearly as I can, that Jesus speaks to this world, this culture, as clearly as he spoke to Jerusalem in the first century. If we do not firmly establish his life and teaching as both the primary and the ultimate meaning for our generation, then the house that we call the “church” will crumble.

Brothers and sisters, let us cease and desist from this mindless and meaningless habit of reacting with knee-jerk responses and shallow epithets. The world has enough of that. What the world does not see are people who are deeply rooted, firmly anchored in both thoughts and actions that are healthy and restorative. We must be that people, or we have no right to tell the world that it is sick.

For my part, I am trying to identify and root out this reactionary tendency in my own life. Looking back I see it only too clearly – and I also see where that tendency has left so much of my work inconsequential. You must know that I am attempting to confront the man in the mirror first before addressing anyone else. I make no claim to perfection here, only what I believe to be an increasing clarity of vision. I pray I am right, and surrender these words to him who judges righteously.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

God Made Her Good, and Holy, and Beautiful

I get inspiration to write from some of the weirdest places. Yesterday at the gym the owner replaced the usual vile, obnoxious, heavy-metal acid rock with a country track. Eeesh. I knew the obnoxious, heavy-metal, acid rock would not be worth listening to (the lyrics, when you can understand them, are vile!), but I guess I have not listened to obnoxious, heavy-metal, acid country in a while. If it were not for red-neck cowboys trying to get into the pants of red-neck cowgirls, there would be no country music today. Which, got me thinking . . .

I am the father of a daughter. I love my daughter more than I can describe. I would sacrifice anything to know that she was safe. When we first got married, I told my wife I wanted a little girl. She wanted several children, and I told her that was okay, as long as she made sure at least one was a little girl (I was not an “A” student in biology). Well, the “several” part did not work out, but we have the sweetest, the most awesome, young lady I could ever hope for.

As she grows, I grow more terrified for her. I cannot even begin to imagine how difficult it is for a young woman to grow up with a healthy, Christian self-image today. Virtually everything is working against her.

On the right hand is the pure, unadulterated misogyny from men – the idea that women are only here for their pleasure, mere objects of sex. This is what bothered me about the country trash music I was forced to deal with while lifting weights. It is bad enough for men to have to hear that garbage – but what is the message for young women? “She thinks my tractor’s sexy!” Really?? Are you kidding me? All she wants to do is crawl up in your pickup with a case of beer? Then you must have a really low view of what “she” wants. The bad thing about country music is you CAN hear and understand the lyrics. Even when you don’t want to. And, seriously, I don’t want my daughter to understand those lyrics.

On the left we have the spewing forth of the radical feminists, those women who hate being women. They despise their gender, they see only weakness and frailty. They are just as misogynistic as the men, but in an entirely different way. They want to be everything that a man is, and they utterly despise the fact that biology has made that impossible. The funny thing is, these radical feminists hate men too. They hate men because they want everything that a man has, and their envy has turned into self-loathing.

This is true even in the church today! We have women telling little girls that they can be everything that a man is, that they can do everything that a man can do – they can be a man! What is a little girl to think? That being a woman is bad? Why do they have to focus on wanting to be like a man, or even worse, to be a man? Is biblical womanhood a disease?

I am obviously a male, so in one sense I am the wrong gender to be writing this. This really needs to come from a woman, and thankfully there are women who are standing up and pushing back against this anti-female tirade. We need many, many, more. We need women who recognize the awesomeness of being female – of the power to conceive, the power to nurture and then to bear new life, the power to nurse that little life, and the power to see, feel, remember and to comprehend all of life in ways that a man cannot even begin to experience. God created females with the most incredible psychological, mental, and physical powers and abilities. God created females with gifts that so far transcend their male counterparts that it defies description. When God created a woman, he created her good, and holy, and beautiful – in the Genesis account she was the last, the pinnacle of God’s creation. Why are we so intent on destroying that image?

I was a flight instructor for approximately 4 years, give or take a couple of months. I witnessed the male/female dichotomy up close and personal in a unique circumstance. I can tell you with no hesitation whatsoever that men and women are gifted in entirely different ways – even in the identical position of flying airplanes. There is an adage in aviation that speaks far more wisdom than is apparent on the surface: men are better at getting themselves out of a bad situation; women are far better at never getting themselves into that situation to begin with. Ponder that for a while.

As I said, I am a male. God has gifted me to do some things that I can do fairly well simply because of my biological “construction.” But, he also tasked me to do some things that I do not do very well at all because of the sin that afflicts every human being. God created my wife, and my daughter, to accomplish some tasks that they do very well because of their biological “construction.” As I mentioned above, women are just light years ahead of men in terms of intuition, feelings, and processing complex issues as a whole. I focus like a laser on one issue – my wife sees the whole picture. I would be so lost without her. But, women were tasked to do some things that they do not accomplish very well because of the sin that afflicts all human beings. That which makes females strong can also be their “Achilles heel.”

I find it interesting, and profoundly instructive, that the apostle Paul speaks of the sin of Eve in contexts where he is discussing the differences between male and female, but when he is speaking theologically – in terms of the nature of sin itself – he puts the fall of mankind squarely on the shoulders of Adam (and, this is clear because he compares the male Adam with the male Jesus). Eve tempted her husband to sin, and Adam’s sin caused the fall of mankind. Cogitate on that for a spell.

One of the ways that our culture, and even our churches, are rebelling against God today is with the rejection of the gifts of being male or female. One way we stand over Scripture, and over against God, is when we place a higher level of authority on science or psychology to define what it means to be a Christian man or woman. When we tell our daughters that she can “do anything a man can do” or that “she can be just like a man” we are giving her the most insidious message – that being a woman is not good enough, that she was created as some lower life being. I cannot think of a more devastating message to give a daughter of God.

I do not want my daughter to be just like me. I do not want my daughter to think that she can do everything a man can do – why would she want to take that step down? God created her as the most precious of all his creations.

Despite what this world is telling her, I want my daughter to know that God made her good, and holy, and beautiful, and no one can ever take that away from her.

Mega-Star, Mega-Preachers – A Pox on Your House Too!

The last couple of posts have allowed me to do a little venting. As I wrote some time back, this blog allows me to “talk to myself” a little, while at the same time hopefully causing others to think. I am certainly not sitting here thinking that I am going to change the world. The extent of my range to change things is limited to the cat boxes.

However, in discussing the issue of entertainment in worship, my mind was inexorably drawn to perhaps the greatest single worship issue confronting Churches of Christ today – and I am not referring to “praise teams” or instrumental music in worship. I am talking about the cult of hero worship that we have created, or are in the process of creating, around “professional” preachers.

Years ago it was said that the Roman Catholic Church had the Pope, and Churches of Christ had editors. There was a great deal of truth to this, as preachers, and even entire congregations, could be identified as “Gospel Advocate” men or “Firm Foundation” men or possibly even “Standard” men. That is not so true anymore, as print publications have waned tremendously in popularity and editors have faded in teaching authority. What has seemingly replaced them is a rising cult of mega-star, mega-preachers. It is not that Churches of Christ have never had what we consider to be 5-star, marquee level preachers, you might even say its in our DNA, dating all the way back to Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, Walter Scott, et. al. What differentiates today from yester-year is that along with those luminaries there was a vast, innumerable army of preachers working in virtual obscurity, laboring in congregations large and small, all knowing that their service was just as vital to the health of the church as the “big boys.” And the “big boys” knew the value of the small town preacher because they were, at one time, all small town preachers.

However, what is occurring now is taking place right in lock-step with the greater world of evangelicalism. What I see happening how is that small town churches (and even some large city churches) are dismissing their located preachers (or are not replacing departed preachers) and are moving to the “multi-site” or “multi-campus” paradigm whereby one hero-preacher preaches via satellite link to a number of congregations, some many miles away.

I would suggest that what follows can best be described as a “chicken or the egg” issue, where the cause or effect is impossible to determine. However, we read left to right and top to bottom, so something has to come first. My first might actually be the second, so read the next sections with that in mind.

Beginning at least in the late 20th century (when I was an undergraduate), young men were encouraged to enter into just about any ministry other than preaching to local congregations, especially smaller congregations. It’s not that “located preaching work” was openly denigrated, its just that it was not actively promoted. The older professors, those who had preached for small congregations, still spoke approvingly of such work, but the younger professors rarely mentioned it, and when they did, it was very often in condescending ways. The model that was promoted was stepping straight from graduation into a large, multi-ministry congregation. The “jack-of-all-trades” preacher who did everything from direct VBS to folding the bulletin was viewed as an anachronism, a relic from a by-gone era. Because we loved the young professors so much, and strove to emulate them,  we all just naturally assumed that we were all destined to serve 500+ member congregations. It was our ministerial birthright.

The result has been nothing short of predictable. When I was a young man, our “hero” preachers were men who started out preaching to very small, mostly rural, congregations and either built them up, or transitioned to larger urban congregations where they once again built them up. They never forgot their roots, however, and their preaching demonstrated it – they praised the work of the multitude of “anonymous” preachers, because they knew what small congregation ministry was like (and they had the bruises to show it). Today, our “hero” preachers have never stood behind the pulpit of a congregation of 25 members. They have never known what it is like to work with a “men’s business meeting.” They simply do not understand, and therefore cannot appreciate, small town ministry or small congregation preaching. It is one thing to preach when you have 15-20 elders to support you, and 4-5 other staff members to do everything from plan the worship service to make sure the waste baskets are cleaned. Put some of our “mega-preachers” in a single-minister congregation and they would become whimpering little puppies within six weeks.

Simultaneous to this shift was a shift that was occurring in congregations as well. It wasn’t good enough to just have a man serve as a preacher. He had to come with star status. He had to have a quiver full of baptisms everywhere he went. He had to be well known on the “preaching circuit.” Young men straight out of college or schools of preaching need not apply. Start out as a youth minister or education minister was the advice – ergo, start out with one of those 500+ member congregations, prove your mettle, and then move on to a preaching gig.

Then, the generation shift hit – and congregations everywhere started to age. Simultaneous to this shift was the rural-to-urban shift, and smaller rural congregations lost members (mostly younger adults) to the growing urban congregations. The 250 member congregations suddenly became 500 member congregations, and the 500 member congregations became 1,000 member congregations. The smaller, rural congregations lost their ability (and sometimes even their desire) to support a full-time minister, and even some urban congregations (in decaying parts of cities) were unable to maintain their full-time staff.

All while this was occurring there was a simultaneous shifting paradigm among (mostly) evangelical churches – take a mega-pastor, video his sermons, link them via satellite to any number of remote “campuses,” and bada, bada, bing, his stature and acclaim grows exponentially, as does the status of the “home” congregation. Instead of being a “pastor” (the term grates on me) of a 5,000 member congregation, he can be referred to as the pastor of a 15,000 or 20,000 member “congregation,” even though that “congregation” is made up of 4, 5, or more distant “campuses.”

Apparently, Churches of Christ have swallowed that model hook, line, and sinker.

Part of the shift is pragmatic – smaller congregations, or congregations that are struggling financially, get the benefit of hearing a sermon broadcast in “real” time. Buildings that would have to be shuttered are kept open. Members can stay in locations where they are comfortable, and sometimes in the only congregations of Churches of Christ for miles around.

But, as with my thoughts on “praise teams,” there is something sinister about this pragmatic shift. There is some serious theology that is utterly missing, and some really dangerous thinking taking its place. For one thing, this is but the first step in the death of the autonomous congregation. It is a veiled introduction to the concept of a bishopric, where one man is viewed to be “chief among equals.” Just as we can see in the evangelical world, when a man is followed by 20,000 or more energetic disciples, under whose authority does he place himself? What eldership can discipline a man when his face is being broadcast to 3, 4, 5 or more distant locations (and, by extension, there is a fiduciary relationship among those congregations)?

Before anyone responds with the inevitable – I know, I get it, it “works.” But if you want to see the ultimate in how this “works,” you need not look any further than the Roman Catholic Church, with its elaborate hierarchal structure. I for one do not want to go there. I also know there are very real, and very serious, issues relating to aging congregations in communities that are themselves dying. I know there are very real, and very serious, issues in urban congregations where shifting demographics have created membership issues.

But, brothers and sisters, can we not approach these issues from a theological perspective instead of a pragmatic one? I know that changes are going to have to be made, but can we not make decisions that will promote the health of individual congregations and provide for local ministers instead of raising the names and faces of just a few “mega-preachers” to idolatrous status?

  • Can we not demand that our colleges and universities return to a model of preparing men to preach, and to minister, to small congregations?
  • Can we not develop a pattern where larger, and more affluent, congregations can “send” men to preach for smaller and financially weaker congregations, and to place those men under the leadership of that local congregation?
  • Can we not raise up a generation of men who see the value of serving the church for whom Christ died, whether he preaches to 25, or 50, or 5,000 members?
  • Can we not devise a system where a man can preach for a small congregation without being forced to live on government assistance? We have created a caste system of ministry – we have those who feast sumptuously on caviar and others who cannot even feed their families without taking a second job.

I will freely admit I do not know all the answers – but I just feel in my bones that the road we are traveling down is the wrong road. I see no lasting solution in selling our spiritual birthright for a mess of evangelical porridge. We can do so much better.

But, I think the solution is to begin by learning what it means to take a towel and start washing some feet.

We will climb higher only by descending lower.

Praise Teams (Again)

I was mildly rebuked following my last post. I knew I would be, and I really don’t mind. “Praise Teams” are a touchy subject. Those who have them, or want them, cannot see any harm or fault in having them. Those that do not want to have a “praise team” in their worship are pretty firm in their convictions. There really is not much of a middle ground.

I am going to make a generalization based on my experience, but it is my belief that those who argue for “praise teams” do so for one simple reason: it makes the song service sound better. There is no biblical or theological reason for the addition of “praise teams.” The issue is either that there is a large, but basically empty, auditorium that kills the sound of the congregational singing, or that the congregation is getting old and feeble and therefore cannot sing as vibrantly as they once did, or that the congregation doesn’t know the new songs and therefore cannot sing them very well. Whatever the specific issue, the argument for “praise teams” revolves around aesthetics. It is all about making the song service sound better for human ears. At the risk of offending – it is all about entertainment.

We are a nation of pragmatists, virtually every decision we make is based on one bottom line – does it work, or does it work better, than what I am currently doing? The church is particularly stricken with this disease. Because of our (I speak as a member of the Churches of Christ) aversion to theology, we have surrendered our commitment to deep theological thinking long, long ago. When a church surrenders its theological foundation, the only thing left for it is pragmatism – what works. So, if a congregation is faced with a problem (poor singing) it does not search for a reason that can be found in the realm of the Spirit, but only what will “work” to fix the problem, ergo, “Let’s form a ‘praise team’ of some really good singers, give them all a microphone, and our singing will improve overnight.” The problem is, it doesn’t. Having a “praise team” is putting a band-aid on a cancer. A “praise team” might make the auditorium singing sound better to human ears, but it does nothing toward engendering a more spiritual worship service. It is all a part of the “Seeker Sensitive” movement that caters to the whims and fancies of the world at the expense of theological content. In a sentence, there is no “there” there.

I pointed out in my last post where I think “praise teams” violate the spirit of Scripture, if not the letter. I will not rehearse those reasons – none of those who took the time (and I thank them!) to converse with me attempted to address those issues. However, I want to add another voice to the conversation, one who speaks with the theological understanding of which I find so abysmally lacking in so many conversations about the church today:

The essence of all congregational singing on this earth is the purity of unison singing – untouched by the unrelated motives of musical excess – the clarity unclouded by the dark desire to lend musicality an autonomy of its own apart from the words; it is the simplicity and unpretentiousness, the humanness and warmth, of this style of singing. Of course, this truth is only gradually and by patient practice disclosed to our oversophisticated ears. Whether or not a community  achieves proper unison singing is a question of its spiritual discernment. This is singing from the heart, singing to the Lord, singing the Word; this is singing in unity. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible, vol. 5 of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English, ed. Geffrey B. Kelly, trans. Daniel W. Bloesch and James H. Burtness, [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996], p. 67. Additional note – these words were written in 1938.

This is thinking theologically. This is looking to the Spirit for answers to questions of the Spirit. This is taking a human, temporal problem and seeking to discern the moving of the Word and Spirit. This is the kind of thinking that is virtually non-existent among Churches of Christ today. We use John 4:24 as a textual battering ram and yet when everything comes down to a point we are all about what works; what looks, sounds, and what feels, “better.” We have attained all the spiritual depth of a thimble.

Bonhoeffer goes on to add words that could have been written yesterday:

There are several elements hostile to unison singing, which in the community ought to be very rigorously weeded out. There is no place in the worship service where vanity and bad taste can so assert themselves as in the singing. First, there is the improvised second part that one encounters almost everywhere people are supposed to sing together. It attempts to give the necessary background, the missing richness to the free-floating unison sound and in the process kills both the words and the sound. There are the bass or alto voices that must call everybody’s attention to their astonishing range and therefore sing every hymn an octave lower. There is the solo voice that drowns out everything else, bellowing and quavering at the top of its lungs, reveling in the glory of it own fine organ. There are the less dangerous foes of congregational singing, the ‘unmusical’ who cannot sing, of whom there are far fewer than we are led to believe. Finally, there are often those who not not join in the singing because they are particularly moody or nursing hurt feelings; and thus they disturb the community.

In case you missed it – Bonhoeffer is arguing for pure unison singing – as in no parts – no soprano, alto, tenor, bass. Unison singing, because it is only in unison singing that we sing in the unity of the Spirit. Unison singing, because if God can take Jew and Gentile and make out of two nations one family, then he can certainly take four vocal ranges and make them into one voice. Unison singing, because it is in unison singing that we all, old and young, male and female, soprano, alto, tenor and bass, can submit our voices to each other and join in one ephemeral voice to lift our praise to God. These are radical words – restoration type words – of which the Restoration Movement should be able to hear. But I doubt that we can.

We are too wrapped up into what works.

To my conversation partners: I get it! What I said about “praise teams” can also be said about single song leaders. What I also did not say, but also firmly believe, is that we have created, or are dangerously close to creating, a “professional” class of preachers who are approaching idolatrous standing. (Maybe my next series of posts?) But this is what I don’t get – if someone points out that driving over the speed limit is dangerous and illegal, and then someone else points out that driving too slow is also dangerous, that does not make driving over the speed limit less dangerous or more legal! If a congregation worships a song leader, that does not make “praise teams” more acceptable. Just because a single song leader can be in love with his voice and dominate a song service, that does not absolve “praise teams” from that very same sin. I still maintain the basic premise of my first post: “praise teams” are inherently divisive, they are elitist, they elevate one member’s position to praise above another’s for the simple reason of their natural singing ability.

I happen to believe that the church has a higher calling than just to have a song service that is aesthetically pleasing and entertaining.

I happen to believe that our song service is supposed to be praise to God, and not to human ears.

And, yes – if that means a total and complete return to unison singing, count me in.

I happen to think that is ascending higher by climbing lower.