SpiritFarmer


Our church sucks 16% less than the sucky church you go to
June 3, 2009, 9:25 pm
Filed under: denomination, media

<unfair rant warning>

I know I’m not alone in having received tons of church marketing pieces in my mailbox over the years.  Sometimes, they’re simple and elegant invitations to their Easter services, sometimes they’re loud and obnoxious and clearly trying too hard to be cool.  There’s a church in my area that sends out full color, 8×10 pieces about once every two months, with a design that looks like a magazine cover.  Pretty predictable stuff, really.  Unfortunately, these marketing pieces are almost always dishonest in some significant ways.  For example, if the marketing piece has pretty people from a number of ethnic backgrounds pictured, you can almost universally guarantee that the church is full of white people, most of whome are not photogenic.

The marketing piece I’ve seen a number of times is the one I love to hate the most.  It’s the one that says, “You should check out our church, even though you think church sucks.  Because we’re not like those other churches you’ve been to.  We don’t suck.  We rock.  You’ll love our <insert musical style>, your kids will love our <insert program name>, and we promise our preacher won’t bore you.  We’re different than the rest!”  A variation on this theme is the ad that says “We’re a church for people that don’t like church.”

There are some real problems with this approach to marketing.  First, it’s lazy.  I’ve been getting the same “Our church doesn’t suck” postcards in my mailbox for a lot of years by now.  Try some originality, some creativity.  Especially the churches that try so stinking hard to convince you they’re relevant through their timely sermon topics.  If you’re creative enough to have a sermon series riffing on the latest reality TV craze, you’re creative enough to say something other than “those guys suck, and we don’t.”

Second, it shows the church’s hand – they know full well that church isn’t working for people.  In fact, that may be the precise reason they started their new church – so it wouldn’t suck.  But they’re trashing the other churches in their area by doing this – in a cowardly, backhanded way.  If they think other churches suck, they should say it straight up, instead of trying to sneak it in the back door by saying “We don’t suck.”  The subtext is there, that they think the other churches do.

Third, like I said above, it’s almost always false advertising.  O.k., I get it, there are boring, stiff, culturally stuck churches out there, and the people in our communities have had negative experiences there.  But if you’re going to be audacious enough to say that you’re different, you’d better deliver the goods.  I’ve been to a number of churches in which they’ve promised that they wouldn’t be what I’m expecting in a church.  You know where I’m going . . . but wait for it . . . Almost universally, I find exactly what I’m expecting: a church that meets in an elementary school auditorium, a band that plays the worship top 40 with skill, PowerPoint lyrics with snazzy video backgrounds, a white dude on stage preaching, and a lot of awesome programs for the kids and youth.  Hear me out, please – I don’t necessarily have a problem with any of those elements.  (In fact, there’s one near my home that has most of those elements, but they’re the real deal, and have their missional heads screwed on pretty darn well).  Just don’t try to convince me that you’re different than the other new churches in town that meet in elementary school auditoriums and do all the same stuff you do.  You’re really all very similar – again, not necessarily a horrible thing . . . just not a different thing.

Finally, a fairly blunt one.  When a church tries so hard to convince me they don’t suck, my instinctive first reaction is to think, “Wow, I bet they suck.”  It may not be true.  It’s just that when they try so hard to convince me of something, I have to wonder if they’re not really just trying to convince themselves.  I have a very similar reaction when I hear someone try to convince me of how “relevant” their ministry/magazine/podcast/worship service is.  It’s o.k., people.  I’m sure you’re warm, welcoming, caring, genuine, and love God.  Feel free to just leave it at that.  Just be who you are . . . and please, if you’re going to have photos of people in your marketing pieces, make sure they actually go to your church.

</rant>



What if we started over?

Last week, in an effort to fool myself into thinking that I’m a tech geek (even though I know zero coding languages, don’t know most of the fancy acronyms, and don’t use the tools I have access to very elegantly), I watched the 80 minute video from Google’s I/O Conference, in which they rolled out their latest brainchild, Wave.  The video demonstrates some pretty cool stuff that will be game changing – like integrating e-mail, instant messaging, blogging, Twitter, wikis, collaborative projects, and entertainment.  If you’d like, you can watch it here.

The video stimulated a lot of questions and thoughts in me, particularly about the implications of these technologies, and how they will be used (both well and poorly) by Christians.  But the statement from the video I keep going back to actually happens very early on (at about 5:00 or so).  The lead developer, who is doing the demonstration, is introducing the mentality behind Wave, and says something like this (very paraphrased):

E-mail is by far the most popular form of communication on the internet today.  That’s very interesting, because e-mail is more than four decades old.  With some relatively minor changes, it still functions in much the same way it always has.  But we decided to ask the question, “What if we were to invent e-mail from scratch today?”

In other words, they want to reimagine communication with today’s tools, rather than continually tweaking yesterday’s templates all the time.  The answers they came up with are very cool – at multiple points in the demonstration, the developers in the audience get all giddy and cheer wildly.  Congratulations Google.  I’ll leave it to others to determine whether they truly reinvented e-mail or not.  Whatever the case, they did succeed in integrating today’s tools and rules, and they certainly got a buzz going among a very important constituency.

I think the reason their question of inventing e-mail from scratch stuck out to me is that it’s very similar to a phrase I’ve heard more times than I could count from pastors and church planters – “What would we get if we just stripped down all of our Christian traditions, and went back to the way the early church did things?”  Tons of books and articles have been written, and a lot of “new” models have been offered up.  But I’m left wondering whether that question doesn’t miss the point a bit.  The fact is, Google didn’t go back 40 years and try to rebuild stuff as though nothing had changed.  No, they used the current technologies available to them to try to accomplish some breakthroughs in electronic communication.

When “we” go back to reinvent church, we go back to Acts and Paul’s epistles to try to distill the simplest expressions of what the first century sisters and brothers did.  We try to rebuild church in very simple forms again, with as few changes as possible to the original systems.  We don’t take our contexts into account nearly enough – for example, we don’t consider that Rome’s big technology was its system of roads, whereas our superhighways are virtual and global and information driven.

I’d like to suggest that this way of approaching things is broken for at least two reasons: First, as we can see from the cranky tones of some of Paul’s writing, the early church wasn’t exactly getting it right all the time.  So when we try so hard to emulate the early church, we’re pursing a broken system.  This may be one of the consequences of letting the inerrancy mentality control so much of our attention – “If it’s in the Bible, it’s got to be literally true, and therefore, should be replicated as closely as possible.”  But if that’s what we’re doing, the very best we can hope for is to build a form of church that gives people the opportunity to be greedy, gossipy, sexually immoral, and power hungry.  (Hmmmm, if that’s our standard of measure, maybe we’ve gotten closer to the first century church than we had thought!)

Second, we’re not being honest about what we’re trying to do.  We’re not even trying very hard to go all the way back.  We take a vast amount of theological, historical, and cultural baggage with us when we look back.  Even people who read authors like N.T. Wright in order to understand the first century Palestinian context stop too short.  When I hear people saying they want to do church the way the early church did it, they don’t really mean they intend to strip down their evangelical systematic theology, their Western wealth and (white) power, their Protestant Reformation, their Christendom power, their Augustinian conceptions . . . they just want the pragmatics of meeting in peoples’ houses and sharing possessions and giving money away to those in need.  The idealism is commendable in some ways, but it’s mostly just that – idealism, and an artificial idealism at that.*

I would like to suggest that if we really want to get back to basics in the way we embody the bride of Christ, we do so more honestly.  When Pentecost took place, and the church was both born and unleashed in a series of radical events, they were creating something truly new, without a template.  They had a religious memory and heritage, which they honored in many ways, but they also knew the rules had changed.  We, too, have a religious memory and heritage – some of which can rightly be honored.  But if we’re going to do/be church the way they did it back then, we’ve got to be creative enough and courageous enough to know when to break the rules of our day, and take some risks.  In our fear of abandoning “orthodoxy,” I think the vast majority of us lack the courage to break those rules.  We’re so beholden to our denominations, our subculture, our seminaries, and (once again) our power that we chicken out.

So what do you think?  Am I wrong that most of us haven’t tried very hard to go all the way back?  Am I unfair in my assessments?  This post if fairly off the cuff (though it’s taken me quite a long time to write it).  Please tell me if you disagree – I’d like to tease out my own thinking on this some more, so I’m not looking for a fight.

*I’ve not read Frank Viola’s Pagan Christianity, but from what I understand, he deals with a lot of the stuff that’s been layered onto “church” over the years.  I also understand that he’s squarely on the idealistic side.  If I’m wrong on this, please let me know – I just felt the need to note that I’m not trying to either plagiarize him or take cheap shots at him.



Inerrancy and Alcohol
May 7, 2009, 11:01 am
Filed under: culture, denomination, theology

I’ve had some conversations lately – some of which have sparked anger in me (not toward my conversation partners, but toward institutions and power brokers in them).  I assure you, dear reader, that I am not angry as I write this – just musing here.  These conversations been around the topic of alcohol and denominations.  The thoughts these conversations have produced go a little something like this:

I work for a denomination that is conservative – very conservative.  The past couple decades have witnessed a “conservative resurgence” within the denomination, which has reacted to a perceived “liberal” shift by a small handful of denominational leaders, seminary professors, and others.  The conservatives “won,” and most of the “liberals” have been driven away.  What we have now is an almost universal insistence on conservative readings of the Bible, including a stand for inerrancy.  “We” say we believe the Bible word for word, and insist on staying pure in our reading of it.

Meanwhile, my denomination has a hard-core stance against the use of alcohol as a beverage.  Our major missions agency for North America bans anyone  who has had even one drink of alcohol in the previous 12 months from applying for missionary funding.  In fact, I have known at least one case in which a person’s denominational position was threatened because he merely condoned the use of alcohol.  Now, I know that mine isn’t the only denomination that has a no-alcohol policy for its employees, or preaches a no-alcohol message from its pulpits.

But I got to thinking – it seems that the denominations and churches most likely to ban alcohol are also the denominations and churches most likely to preach biblical inerrancy.  My question is, if we’re so insistent on the word for word truth of scripture, how are we supposed to deal with verses like Provers 31:6-7:

6 Give beer to those who are perishing,
wine to those who are in anguish;

7 let them drink and forget their poverty

and remember their misery no more.

Or, how are we supposed to understand Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:18-20:

18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and “sinners.”

How exactly does Jesus earn the reputation of being a “glutton and a drunkard” if alcohol is a banned substance?

Look, I understand that in many, many cases, it’s a good idea for pastors and denominational leaders and even everyday Christians to abstain from alcohol.  I work with college students, and I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to go out drinking with them.  But at what point does an absolute stand against it violate an absolute stand for inerrancy?  For this, and other reasons, Jesus himself, along with Paul, Timothy, and a number of other prominent figures in the “inerrant scripture” would be disqualified for service in several denominations.  Do we really even know what we mean when we say we’re into inerrancy?  Really?

Should we really be alarmed that Christian denominations are tanking right now? What we say we believe about scripture isn’t what we live out in our policies.  What we take the most pride in is often the stuff we are the most hypocritical about.

I’ll close with what I would hope to be a couple pretty obvious disclaimers:  First, as I mentioned, I’m not just taking my own denomination to task here – there are several others with similar stands.  Second, this blog and these words are 100% my own – I write only for myself, and don’t claim them for anyone but me, especially the denomination or the churches that are a part of it.

I would LOVE to hear some points of view on what an inerrantist position on these scipture passages would be.  Because I’ve got some depressed friends, and I’m thinking that faithfulness to scripture might require me to buy them a six pack or a bottle of Merlot.  Also, how much alcohol would you recommend I give someone in order that they would “remember their misery no more?”  That sounds like it might require a 12-pack.



Updates and Changes
May 3, 2009, 8:33 am
Filed under: denomination, friends, inter::mission, school, the purple door

At some point in the past couple of weeks, I passed the seven year mark since I started this blog.  As it turns out, I’m pretty sure that this post breaks my longest streak ever for time away from the blog.  I didn’t stop intentionally.  No good, spiritual, profound reason.  Life just got a bit intense for me, and eiter I didn’t have any words or the words I did have weren’t ready to be shared.

I’m writing this post from a hotel room, just outside of Portland, where I’ve spent the past couple of days.  It’s been a very good trip for me – I’ve gotten to celebrate the official part of my completion of a Doctor of Ministry program through George Fox Seminary.  I’ve spent time with the friends who I’ve worked with for the past few years, and the school faculty and staff, who have been so wonderful.  I can’t speak highly enough of my George Fox family – they are creative, energetic, and hopeful servants.  I look forward to a continuing friendship with them.

When I return to Seattle later today (after some bonus time seeing Ryan, Holly, and Pax Sharp), I’ll get back to work at The Purple Door, and my inter::mission students.  We’re about half-way through the Spring quarter at UW, so we’ll be bringing this school year to a close soon.  At that time, I’ll also be bringing my time of service (at least, in an official capacity) there to a close.  I mentioned a while back that my denomination has been going through a time of reorganization and transition.   I will not be a part of the new strategy.  This was a decision that was made for me by others, not by me.  It’s a long, long story, and one I’m not quite ready to get into here.  Basically, I’ll be wrapping up my employment at the end of June.  I’m thankful to say that the denom isn’t killing inter::mission, and I will be able to hand this dream off to the capable hands of a friend.

So what’s next?  That’s a fabulous question!  If you have any ideas, I’d love to hear them.  I really am about as wide open as I could be right now.  I’ll begin circulating my resume soon.

I’m out of time for this post, and I’m sure I’ll tease out some of what I’ve hit on here.  But for the sake of the readers of the blog (whoever is still left!), I wanted to at least get some general info out there on what’s been going on.

Peace, friends.



What to blog about when you haven’t blogged lately
December 19, 2008, 11:13 am
Filed under: Christendom, denomination, evangelism, spiritual formation, theology, twitter

Despite the fact that my paycheck comes from a major Christian denomination, I don’t typically like to blog about them, er, “us.”  Partly because I shudder when using that word – us – because it means I’m complicit in a lot of things I detest.  Partly because it’s embarrassing.  Partly because I think it’s irrelevant to this blog – I’ve been blogging a heckuva lot longer than I’ve worked for the denom, so what’s it to them (er, us)?

Once in a while, even when I do mention the denom, I’ll do it without naming the denom.  All the same reasons as above.

Yesterday, a classmate tossed up a link on Twitter, to a news story that talked about our mutual denomination, and evangelism programs.  I literally laughed out loud at points.  Laughter was inappropriate, though, because a) it wasn’t supposed to be a funny piece, and b) I should have been grieving.

The article is about how poorly we are doing with our evangelism programs.  O.k. STOP, and re-read that last sentence there . . . I’ll wait.  Multiple items to chew on there.  First, “poorly” is an indicator of success/failure . . . which, of course, we measure . . . by number of baptisms.  Not transformation, not community impact, but baptisms. 

Next, evangelism programs.  The apostle Paul instructs Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist.”  Evangelism isn’t a program, it’s the behavior that arises out of an identity.  Programs aren’t automatically bad, but the history of evangelism programs – both in our denom and elsewhere – is that they have to be promoted.  People in our churches apparently do not do evangelism, therefore, they must be convinced to do it and then trained to do it through these programs.  We try to be clever with these programs, and give them catchy campaign names.  Like “EKG” – Empowering Kingdom Growth.  Like “What Now.”  Like “Who Cares.”  I swear to you, I’ve made none of those up – they are actual campaigns. 

If people aren’t doing evangelism according to our programs, that could indicate a few things.  For one thing, it could mean that since we’ve counted previous baptisms, not transformation, we’ve not seen true conversions take place – evangelism is  a natural behavior, driven by the Holy Spirit.  For another, people who have been converted resist these marketed programs because they inherently know they’re cheesy, ineffective, manipulative, or aimed at the wrong result.  For another thing, we’ve turned God into a commodity that needs to be sold.

If we are experiencing God and his Kingdom, Jesus, and the Spirit in a way that changes us deeply, helps us to see the world in a different way, and challenges us to live into a different reality, evangelism will happen all by itself.  Not as a result of a program or a marketing scheme.



Changes afoot
November 20, 2008, 11:20 am
Filed under: college ministry, denomination, inter::mission

When I woke up this morning, and sat down with Americano #1, I looked out my home office window to see a beautiful orange and pink and purple sunrise sky.  It’s a nice way to greet the day.  But now, just a few hours later, I’m looking out at the trees blowing in the wind in front of a dark grey, ominous canopyh, and watching the rain fall.  The speed of change in the weather reminds me of my emotional state lately – I’ve been a moody roller coaster.

But that’s not what this blog post is about. 

I mentioned a few days ago that I spent time at some denominational meetings last week, where some significant changes were being decided upon.  I’ve had several questions about what that means, so I’ll try to describe that briefly – anything more than brief will be boring for you and probably frustrating for me!  Please do yourself a favor and click away from this if it gets boring anyway – I won’t be offended.

The regional denominational body that I work for encompasses all of Washington, Oregon, and Northern Idaho.  The vote last week that was passed is going to rearrange the way we do what we do.  Rather than some of the field staff people like me being distributed into 14 different zones (or associations as we call them), and being given different kinds of job responsibilities – collegiate ministry, church planting, etc. – and other having “departmental” positions at the home office – disaster relief, children’s ministry, evangelism, etc., we’re flattening our structure.  Instead of 14 zones, we’ll now have only six.  And rather than having some staff at the home office, almost all of the staff will be redistributed into the six zones.  And everybody will be given one of two job titles – either Church Planting Strategist or Church Health and Evangelism Strategist.  Just those two things – no more sub-departments.  My denomination has always attempted to focus on the local church, and this shift very heavily attempts to move us in that direction.

There are some things that I really like about this change.  I like flatter organizational structures – there is usually more potential for creativity and collaboration.  I also like that each zone will develop its own set of strategies, based on the culture of that particular region.  Southern Oregon has a very different culture than Seattle, so there’s an ability to develop custom strategies . . . theoretically, anyway.

The down side to the changes, for me anyway, have to do with the fact that collegiate ministry isn’t specifically addressed in the changes.  I will be assigned to one of the six zones – don’t know which one yet, and I’ll get one of the two job titles mentioned above.  It will be my job to advocate for the value of collegiate ministry within the zone I’m assigned to.  Right now there are still way more questions than answers about what that will look like for me, or for any of my colleagues around the Northwest.  Even if we’re allowed/assigned/encouraged to continue with the work we do on college campuses, there are certainly some changes coming to the way we approach that work.

So there it is, the brief version.  As more clarity emerges, maybe I’ll update things along the way.  For the time being, all I can do is wait for more information to be released from above, and keep rockin’ inter::mission the way I know how.  I do know that I’ve got that job assignment at least until the end of the 2008-2009 school year.  For those of you who care, and those of you who pray, thanks for thinking of me.

Oh, and in case you’re really interested (or pathetically bored), you can find a “news” write-up on all this stuff here.



Baptists and Gay Marriage
November 19, 2008, 7:51 am
Filed under: culture, denomination, politics

Juxtaposed on the Baptist Press website yesterday, Nov. 18, were two stories having to do with annual meetings of regional Southern Baptist denominational bodies.  One story had to do with the California Southern Baptist Convention, which adopted a resolution to “affirm and applaud California voters’ affirmation of traditional biblical marriage.”

“[T]he California Southern Baptist Convention expresses its appreciation and heartfelt gratitude to the ProtectMarriage.com coalition that spearheaded the effort to restore and protect biblical, traditional marriage in California and throughout our nation,” the resolution reads. It further states that the convention “strongly encourages its churches and their members to pray for, promote and uphold the biblical model of marriage.”

In contrast to this is a story of the Baptist General Association of Virginia’s annual meeting, at which Tony Campolo was a key speaker.  While he’s not a Southern Baptist himself, and the story mentions nothing of the response to his remarks, Campolo waded in to the gay marriage debate.

Campolo called himself “a conservative on the issue” of homosexuality, but said he opposed Proposition 8. Describing homosexual behavior “contrary to the teaching of God,” he nonetheless questioned what was gained in passing the ballot initiative.

“What did we win? … I’ll tell you what we won,” he said. “We won tens of thousands of gays and lesbians parading up and down the streets of San Francisco and New York and L.A. screaming against the church, seeing the church as enemy.

“I don’t know how we’re going to reach these brothers and sisters,” he said, “but I’m an evangelical and I’m going to win them to Christ…. And we’re not going to win them to Christ if we keep sending them bad messages, and we’ve sent them a bad message. I think the decision in California was in agreement with how I believe, but sometimes you’ve got to consider the person before you bang them over the head with your principles.”

Again, Campolo’s remarks weren’t necessarily endorsed by Virginia Baptists – in fact, I’d be surprised if he had much support in that room.

I’m not going to weigh in on this issue.  Others have been more articulate on the issue than I could be, and there’s a lot of very unhelpful rhetoric on both sides of it.  If anyone cares about pinning me down, I’ll just say that I’m inclined toward Campolo here, but I’m open to sensible, compassionate, respectful dialogue.