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.

The Bible’s Greatest Silence . . . and the Church’s Loudest Cry

I don’t know what got me started on this, but something dawned on me the other day. The Bible says absolutely nothing about a topic that, you would think from the amount of ink (and pixels) it receives, is the most important subject in the entire canon. That subject is making the message of the Bible relevant, or “contextualizing” it, to the culture to which it is spoken. You can search from Genesis to the maps in the back of your Bible and you just will not find God telling his prophets (or authors) to make sure they write, and speak, so as not to offend or criticize their audience. Yet, again, you would think that the greatest offense of the church in the twenty-first century is doing just that.

I guess I started thinking about this because in my daily Bible reading I am reading through Isaiah and Jeremiah. Both of these prophets are just brutal when it comes to pillorying their opponents, the idolaters. Or, if you would like, read Ezekiel and see what he thinks of those who say they are married to God and yet sleep with other gods. Keep going and see how Micah, Amos, Hosea, and the other “minor” prophets deal with apostasy, idolatry, and social injustice. I think Amos calling the aristocratic ladies of Israel a bunch of “fat heifers” (in the West Texas translation of the Bible) was a brilliant stroke of political correctness (not!).

Yet, in today’s limp-wristed, namby-pamby world of emotionally insecure snowflakes, such language is just atrocious (see what I did there?). Preachers have to be “culturally sensitive” lest they be accused of being “tone deaf,” “judgmental,” and “unfeeling.” Grrrr. If you remove all the “tone deaf, judgmental, and unfeeling” sections out of the Bible, what are you left with? Remember Jesus called his opponents a bunch of snakes? I am not suggesting we today have the same kind of clairvoyance that Jesus had, but honestly . . . to think that he never offended anyone is just ludicrous.

But, but, but – what about Paul and the Athenians, you ask? Okay – let’s go there. First, Paul was invited to speak at the Areopagus because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection, not because he was espousing Plato and Aristotle. Second, it did not take Paul long at all before he got to the point about God’s judgment and the need for the Athenians to repent. And finally, while he did have some success in Athens, Luke leads us to believe that the majority of Paul’s audience either mocked or just ignored him. The problem was not Paul – it was the Athenian refusal to hear God’s word.

God never berates his spokesmen (and women) because they do not “contextualize” their message. In fact, it is the very opposite. God only blames the hearer, not the preacher, for unbelief. Such audiences have “ears to hear, but do not hear, and eyes to see, but do not see.” If the message is God’s message, then the responsibility is on the hearer, not the preacher, for acceptance. God never ¬†reprimanded Isaiah or Jeremiah or Ezekiel or any other prophet because the people’s ears were plugged up or because their hearts were hard as stone.

I don’t think today’s problem in the church is that we do not contextualize the message.

I think the problem today is we don’t believe the message ourselves – so why should the world think any different?

Lord, Deliver Me From Little Prayers

Have you noticed how prayer has been cheapened, belittled, trivialized? And that from those who should be holding it in the highest honor? I mean, in the Bible when people entered into God’s throne room with a request or a challenge, things happened. Mighty things. The dead were raised, nations fell, the waters parted, and enemies died. Prayer was awesome, and changed individual lives as well as the course of history.

Now, we use prayer to start football games. Really? How many of you have heard the language or the epithets being spewed on the field, or from the sidelines? Or we start some meeting in which God’s will doesn’t stand a chance of being heard – let alone of being obeyed. Or really big things like starting and stopping our “worship services.” I remember the first time someone dismissed a service with a song instead of a prayer. It took a full fifteen or more seconds before it dawned on people that he actually said, “we are dismissed.” It felt like we were cheated. Not that a closing prayer changed anything really, its just that if nobody prayed for God to “guide, guard and direct us until we meet again,” would we really be guided, guarded and protected until we met again?

All of this came flooding into my thoughts this week. I am preaching a series on (of all things) prayer. This week’s lesson crystalized into a topic I titled, “When Prayer Seems to Fail.” When everything was all thought out, I realized that the biggest reason why it seems that prayer fails is that we have utterly and totally gutted what it means to pray.

We pray to a god that is really, in the long run, just too small to do anything about what we are praying for – if he even cared. We mouth the words, but our heart is saying, “I know this is futile, but Christians are told to pray, so here goes.” In my work as a hospice chaplain I heard on many, many occasions the wonderfully faithful saying, “well, we’ve done all we can do – all that’s left is prayer.” How many times have you heard it? How many times have you said it? All we can do is pray – as a form of resignation to the inevitable, not as an entry into the palace of the one who created the world from nothing.

Or, we use prayer as a bully stick. We have no intention of changing our thoughts or actions, but our little god sure needs to straighten out our relative, or friend, or spouse, or child. So we whip out the ol’ “put ’em on the straight and narrow” prayer and then if our relative, friend, spouse, or child doesn’t change – well its that little god’s fault, not mine, because I prayed.

Or we put our little god in a Republican or Democrat or American or conservative or liberal box, and every prayer is viewed as a way for that special interest group to achieve power and prestige. I know many may tire of my Dietrich Bonhoeffer stories, but there is one anecdote that always puts a lump in my throat. He was asked, on at least one, but apparently several occasions, what would happen if the world were to fall into another world war. He said that if that event were to happen, he would pray for Germany to be defeated so that Christianity could survive. I don’t know about you, but I do not know many Americans who could, and would, pray for a foreign nation to defeat us in a war so that Christianity could survive. For many of us, Americanism is Christianity, and we cannot see any difference.

I can’t even begin to identify the irony of that concept.

Or, we pray perhaps what has become my default prayer – the complaint. This year I started keeping a record of my prayers, and after a couple of months I went back and reviewed them. It was the pathetic record of a whiny little toddler. “God, this is not right, fix this, stop this, make that happen, give me this, and give it to me now.” It was nothing but pure, unadulterated narcissism. I had completely rewritten Scripture – “Lord, not thy will, but mine be done.”

I’m sick, I’m tired, I want to be done with little prayers.

In no way do I want to suggest we should not take our cares and concerns to God – he tells us to take our cares and concert to him, and to do so relentlessly. But I just want to be done with the whiny little narcissistic, vindictive prayers that has become the staple of so much of our common culture. I want to have the faith of the psalmists who were so utterly and totally convinced of the righteousness of their position that they could honestly demand God to hear them – and to act on His promises. I want to be a part of a church that when it prays, the walls shake and everyone is empowered by the Holy Spirit to go out and speak the word of God – after having been specifically told by the legal authorities not to do so! (Acts 4:23f)

Have you ever stopped to consider that our prayers could be repugnant to God? Three times in the book of Jeremiah, God specifically tells the prophet not to pray for his people. “Just stop – don’t do it, because I won’t listen anyway.” (see Jeremiah 7:16, 11:14, 14:11) Repeatedly in the other prophetic books God tells his people that their worship – specifically commanded by God – is repugnant to him and he has ceased to pay any attention to their sacrifices or prayers. ¬†(Isa. 1:10-17; Hosea 8:11-13; Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6:6-8; Malachi 2:13-17; by no means a complete list)

I have heard the statement that America needs to turn back to God so many times it has become a cliche. While it would be wonderful if America turned to God (the word “back” is problematic, seeing as how for so much of our history we have rejected his basic ethical requirements), I am more concerned that the church turn to God. And maybe the first step in transforming the church into what Christ intended it is for its members to regain the sense of praying big prayers.

I confess – I am so guilty. But I am just tired of praying and hearing little prayers to a little god that are focused on my petty little wants and temper tantrums.

Lord, deliver me from little prayers!