Archive for July 2015

It’s the End of Church (As We Know It)

So we’re in this situation:

For hundreds of years, the Christian community has gathered together on Sunday mornings. Bright and early, we come together for service at a designated building. We hear a sermon. We sing songs. We show up to be seen, to connect.

These days, though, fewer and fewer of us are showing up.

I’ll spare you the statistics. You’ve heard them before. More importantly,  you’ve witnessed the change yourself. In the last fifty years, most of our congregations have hollowed out.

Maybe you’ve become a statistic yourself. At a certain point, coming to a building on Sunday morning no longer felt like an authentic, sustaining ritual for you. The draw of the community was overwhelmed by the demands of the week – of family and friends and work. Choosing between another weekend activity and a chance to rest, you chose sanity.

Or perhaps it was worse than that. Rather than withdrawing out of exhaustion, maybe you felt pushed out. Church politics and infighting added nothing to your life, just bitterness. The church’s rejection of gays, its embrace of nationalism and war, the suppression of women, and our apparent concern for individual prosperity over care for the poor. Stuff like that adds up.

There have been so many reasons to check out. So many reasons to find something better to do on Sunday mornings, even if it’s just to rest up for another work week.

Maybe you’re one of those who have been left sitting in the pews. So many others have dropped out, one by one, but you’ve hung in there. Sure, the church has its problems, but you still believe. You’re still committed to this group of people. You hold out hope that the Holy Spirit can still do something incredible with us, as short-sighted as we can be.

Broken as we are, all things are possible with God.

Still. Something has to change. The church as we’ve known it for the last several hundred years is less relevant every day. The Sunday morning show is dying. A new generation is emerging that demands something deeper. We long for a faith that can speak to the struggles and pain, joy and hope that we find in our everyday lives. We’re waiting, hungry for a Christianity that speaks to the mystery we find in the streets and the schools, the office and the coffee shop.

There is so much yearning in our culture for exactly the life and power that the gospel offers. There is an openness to a movement of the Holy Spirit, the real abundant life that we find in community around the dinner table with Jesus. We can emerge together with power, like those first Christians we read about in the book of Acts.

Or, we can choose to believe that the world is going to hell in a hand basket. 

Many of us are still so identified with the dying forms of the 20th century church that we are convinced that the church is moribund. We fail to see the reality that is right in front of our faces: The harvest is plentiful! We are ready for a re-imagined community, to become friends of Jesus in our post-modern world!

Which story will we choose to live in?

As long as we measure ourselves by 20th-century standards of how the church is supposed to look and behave, our story will be one of defensiveness and decline. We’ll just keep building our walls higher, digger our trenches deeper, wondering why no one wants to come join our Sunday-morning club. This is a sad, disheartening path, and I’ve walked it far too long. I’m ready for a more life-giving vision of what we could be as followers of Jesus.

It’s risky, of course, to push away from the shores of the known, out into the open waters of possibility. Who knows? Maybe we’ll sail over the edge of the world!

But from where I’m sitting, the risk of discovery seems like a better bet than the sad certainty of decline by attrition. It certainly sounds like more fun!

The call to discipleship is more beautiful than the story of church growth that has so captivated us in recent decades. What is it that really inspires us? Is it growing church membership? Planning the Sunday morning show? Bigger buildings, larger parking lots? Does the 20th-century model of church growth set your heart on fire?

For me and my partners in the Friends of Jesus Fellowship, Jesus’ invitation is to something far more meaningful than promoting the Sunday club and building it bigger. What would it look like to respond like the apostles did? What would it be like to truly make disciples in the way of Jesus? How will our lives need to change in order to respond to the radical demands of the in-breaking reign of God?

One thing is for sure: It won’t look like church as usual. 

Related Posts:

How to Survive the Church-pocalypse

Burn Down the Meeting House

Be the Light

I’m pretty good at fooling myself. I don’t want to grow or change in ways that hurt. More often than I’d care to admit, I prefer a happy lie to the sorrowful truth.

And that’s understandable. Reality can be tough to deal with.

Sometimes, I look around me and all I see is darkness. I see the ways we hurt one another, our selfishness and pride. I don’t just see it in other people; it’s me too. I’m no different.

I’m seeing that ocean of darkness George Fox talked about. Sometimes, I feel like the world around me is flooded by it. It can be hard to breathe. I’m drowning in it.

When the darkness is so thick, it’s difficult to believe that there’s anything else.

As tough as it is to look at my own fallen condition, and that of others, I can’t look away. I can’t pretend that I don’t see. I can’t settle for the happy lies anymore.

This is really happening. This is who we are.

And there’s hope in that. Because though we’re standing in a dark place right now, we’re not without a flashlight. The darkness does not have to be our fate. The very yearning of my heart tells me that we were made for more.

As hard as this is, as much as it hurts, I want to embrace the struggle. I want to come into the light, even if it burns. And I want to bring others with me.

I know I can’t do this on my own. But there is a power at work in me – in all of us – that can and will do this thing. As broken as our world is, I know that Jesus can heal it. Not because I said so, not because it’s written in a book, but because he’s alive and at work in the world today. He’s being the light in this darkness.

I want to be light, too.

When all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could I tell what to do, then, oh, then, I heard a voice which said, “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition”; and when I heard it, my heart did leap for joy. – George Fox, Journal

Related Posts:

Letting the Light In

Giving Birth to the Light

Don’t Pity the Fool

Don't Pity the Fool

I like to think I know what’s going on. I enjoy pretending that I’m in charge. But the fact is, I’m a fool.

I have no idea what’s coming next. No matter how I strategize and plan things out, the future remains a mystery to me. I don’t really know what’s going on from moment to moment, much less from month to month.

Has there ever been a time when someone looked back, ten years later, and said: That’s exactly what I expected would happen?

I’ve often wished I knew what the future would bring. Countless times, I’ve tried to make my visions reality. But the fact is, every moment brings a surprise. The universe is mostly unplannable. 

I think it’s designed that way. After all, what fun would it be if we could really control what’s coming next? Where would we find joy in a world where human beings could see everything coming, could account for everything?

Talk about tyranny!

It’s easy to look down on fools, on people who have no idea where they’re going or where they’ve been. But I’m starting to realize that this might be the healthiest place to be. There’s a certain kind of foolishness that’s stronger than this world’s wisdom.

So often, I’ve pretended I know something. But what if I just accepted I have no idea how any of this is going to turn out?

What if I trusted in the one who makes all things work together for those who love him? What if I embraced the fact that I’m just a fool – but a blessed fool, who is cared for by God, in spite of my own not-knowing?

What would it mean to know that God really is in control, even when I’d prefer otherwise? 

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Becoming Nobody

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Get Your Hand Out of that Pickle Jar!

Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins

There’s a children’s book I really love, called Hertzel and the Hanukkah Goblins. It’s about a Jewish village that is plagued by meddlesome goblins, who show up every year and prevent residents from celebrating Hanukkah. Every year, that is, until Hertzel of Ostropol shows up and agrees to beat the goblins at their own game.

As Hertzel hunkers down to celebrate Hanukkah, he is visited every night by a different goblin. Each one is intent on disrupting Hertzel’s celebration in its own way. And each night, Hertzel manages to outwit the disruptive creature.

One evening, Hertzel is visited by a particularly silly-looking goblin, who is very hungry. He immediately notices the large jar of pickles that Hertzel has left out on the table. The goblin ravenously descends on the pickle jar, thrusting his hand inside and grasping all of the pickles.

Suddenly, the goblin realizes his hand is stuck! He struggles to free himself from the jar, but his hand won’t budge. He screams at Hertzel, What did you do to this jar? What enchantment did you put on it that you’ve trapped me like this? The goblin stands there, struggling to extract his hand from the briney mess, while Hershel lights the menorah candles and celebrates Hanukkah.

After he’s finished, Hertzel puts the poor goblin out of his misery. He tells him, You know, the only enchantment keeping your hand inside that jar is the power of your own greed. If you’ll let go of the pickles, removing your hand is easy!

Releasing the pickles, the goblin is finally able to pull his hand out of the jar. He runs screaming into the night. The goblin wants no more to do with Hershel and his magic tricks!

This story resonates with me, because I’ve found myself with my hand stuck in the pickle jar more times than I’d like to admit. I have all sorts of hopes and dreams that I’m unwilling to let go of. I get so caught up in my own sense of should and ought. I forget that my life is so much bigger than any of the tasks I occupy myself with. I am free to let go of the pickles any time I want. Why is it so hard for me to see this?

What’s the pickle jar in your life? Where have you given away your freedom and joy? What are those things that you cling to so tightly that you lose your sense of imagination? What will it take to get your hand out of that jar? What will you need to surrender?

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Can You Hear the Song of Freedom?

I woke up this morning with a song in my heart: I am a free man. 

I know this, not through any strength of my own. I don’t command armies, govern cities, or direct corporations. My freedom does not come from the power to tell others what to do.

This freedom is not liberty to do whatever I want, whenever I want. It’s not a release from responsibility and restraint. It’s not about me at all.

The liberty burning in my bones comes from the Spirit who breathes in me. It’s not about what I have or accomplish; it’s knowing who I am.

Whose I am.

I am free because I belong. I am that bloody, bleeding, beating heart. I breathe the cosmic symphony that the preexistent Word calls into being in each and every moment. I am free to move to the beat of that drummer, to respond to the stirrings of truth and love in my heart.

I’m free to make the hidden things seen. I can shine light in the darkness, regardless of whether the darkness comprehends it.

It’s about being free from fear. Free from all the fakery that passes for intelligence, but which just masks my own insecurity and the struggle to look sharp.

I woke up this morning with a song of freedom in my soul, and by God I intend to sing it. 

Can you hear the melody? Can you feel this freedom inside you? Will you sing along with me?

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How Bad Could It Be?

How Bad Could It Be?

When I was in college, I sang opera. For most of my life, I had sung in choirs of various sizes. I had trained with voice teachers. But nothing could prepare me for the unique experience of performing as a soloist.

With choirs, there had always been a certain level of anonymity. An individual voice shouldn’t stand out from the chorus. If the choir sounded great, I got to share in that glory. And if we didn’t do so well, it wasn’t a personal humiliation.

Solos and duets are totally different. As a soloist, you’re exposed. If you nail it, everyone is going to applaud. And if you blow it… well, that’s embarrassing. I can still remember with crystal clarity a performance when I went for a high note and my voice cracked. I just wanted to go and hide under a rock!

When I performed opera, I learned about more than just singing. I discovered that stress and anxiety can actually be a good thing. The rush of adrenaline, elevated heart rate and respiration, and the hyper-alertness that comes just before a performance is exactly what I needed to be totally focused and on-target. I relied on a healthy amount of pre-game anxiety to maximize my performance.

The trouble came when that healthy anxiety started creeping into the rest of my life. I would start worrying about performances that were weeks or even months in the future. I carried a low level of stress with me each day, anticipating everything that could go wrong when I got up in front of people.

Eventually, I learned that I can control how far into the future my anxiety extends. All of these big, scary events that I worried about in advance actually weren’t that big of a deal when they actually happened. I got up on stage, and I either did well, or didn’t. But I always survived. Usually, I enjoyed myself!

When I’m feeling stressed out about the future, I’ve learned to ask myself this question: How bad could it be? I can overcome anxiety when I realize that the answer is, almost always: Not so bad, really. And even if the worst case scenario could be really bad, why worry in advance? It won’t change anything!

By the end of my college career, I got pretty good at putting off anxiety until mere hours or minutes before a performance. When the worry did finally overtake me, I used it as fuel to focus my awareness and bring out the best in myself. How bad could it be? My answer has become, I have no idea, but it could be really amazing if I buckle down and do what I’ve trained to do!

What’s your experience with anxiety? Do you psyche yourself up before doing work that scares you? Where’s the line between the creative tension that makes you stronger and the worry that can cripple your efforts?

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Know When You’ve Won, and Stop

Know When You've Won, and Stop

It’s easy to miss it when you’ve won. The road to victory can be so painstaking and difficult that when you finally arrive, all you can think about is taking the next step, going further. Battle has become a habit.

Before, the goal was X. But now that you have it, you realize that it would be nice to have Y and Z, too. And what’s stopping you?

Pushing onward, it’s easy to forget what the goal was in the first place. Intoxicated by victory, you forget to celebrate at all. Moving from battle to battle, all that exists now is the struggle for more.

It’s is a form of ingratitude, this failure to acknowledge when you’ve won. When you fail to pause in victory, you condition yourself to expect only an endless struggle for more, never an enjoyment of that which has been accomplished. In a world without victory, we live with only hunger, never fulfillment.

It’s a path to brutality. When we are never satisfied, never allowing ourselves to feel that we have reached the goal, we become bullies. Nothing is ever enough, and we become willing to grind others into the ground in order to get what we want. Never celebrating, we see only the battle – only enemies to be conquered.

It’s important to know when we’ve won, and to stop. Stop and give thanks. Stop and forgive. Stop and show kindness to those who disagree with you. The moment you’ve won should be the safest time to do that. Be gracious in victory.

Can you think of a time recently that you’ve won? What did it look like to celebrate that victory? Where did you experience the temptation to keep going, to win another victory without practicing gratitude first? What does it mean to show honor and respect to those who had to lose so that you could win?

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