Category Archives: Church Culture

The Cult of the Individual

There is a certain kind of story that is I have heard again and again in America. I think it is particularly prevalent in our society, if not unique to it.  There are many variations, but in general it goes like this:

A young man is born to a family of adequate means, although they are far from wealthy.  He has a safe, warm home and good food to eat, thanks to his parents’ work and care for him.  As he grows, he attends tax-payer supported public schools that provide him a good foundation.  His parents often have to leave for work early, but he waits with other neighborhood children at the bus stop, and a reliable school bus, paid for with taxes, picks them up.  The bus-driver, whose salary is paid by everyone’s taxes, takes him to school on smooth roads built and paid for by the government.

The boy is a sharp student and a good learner.  Through a state-mandated gifted and talented program that, by law, must be offered to students with his abilities, he gets specialized instruction that challenges him and helps him reach his academic potential.  Even though his parents have no more than a high school education, the (state-mandated, tax-supported) school counselor begins encouraging him to think about college.

Because of his excellent grades, solid SAT scores and modest financial means, he qualifies for a variety of college scholarships, some which ultimately come from government funds, others of which were provided by wealthy benefactors.  Advanced education is made possible for him because of these funds.  He finds a part-time job that covers his living expenses.  It’s manual labor, nothing glamorous, but the federal minimum wage laws ensure that he gets fair compensation for his work, and laws enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration make it very unlikely that he’ll but put in a situation that could cause him physical harm.  What little financial expense isn’t covered through scholarships and work he pays for with student loans, which are automatically granted to any full-time student, and are backed by the guarantee of the federal government.  No payment is expected and no interest accrues on these loans until after he leaves college.

He lives in a modest studio apartment in a fairly run-down neighborhood, but the police drive through frequently, and the one time he was startled by a fight just a few doors down, he called 911 and a patrol car was there within a few minutes to stabilize the situation.

By his junior and senior years the career center at his college has helped connect him with internships in his chosen field, where kind-hearted mentors show him the ropes of day to day life on the job, volunteering their time to encourage his interests, and even taking him to conferences at company expense and helping him to network with potential employers.

He graduates with a good GPA, applies to work for several of the companies where he has made connections, and is hired by one of them at a good starting salary.  Because of the knowledge and skills he has gained, he works his way up the ladder, learning more about his business and how to manage it.  In his mid-30’s he decides to go to work for himself.  He gets a loan at a good interest rate from the Small Business Administration, hires some talented employees, and is soon CEO of his own successful business.

Now he’s 40 and rich.  Frequently in conversation he tells people that he is a “self-made man.”  He believes that all it takes is skill and hard work and you can get anywhere in life.  You just have to “believe in yourself.”  He gives large contributions to politicians who promise to lower his tax rate, even if it means cutting funds to the schools, structures and programs that he depended on to get where he is.  He loves to quote Ronald Reagan’s line that “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”  And he has no sympathy for the “lazy bums” he encounters sometimes who grew up in poor neighborhoods with dangerous schools and little access to the programs that he was able to utilize.

Asking an American about individualism is like asking a fish about water.  It’s the environment that we live in, and it’s so pervasive that it’s hard to get perspective on it.  There are hundreds of thousands of people in our society like the entrepreneur above. Their entire life was a gift from others who donated to the cause, but they sincerely think of themselves as strong individuals who made their way to success because of their own determination.  They are literally blind to the fact that their life is only possible because of functional community systems–family, school, government, business networks, protective agencies, and so on.  While no doubt part of the entreprenuer’s success is due to personal characteristics, another man with exactly the same set of gifts and personal traits who was born in Rwanda or Nepal or Peru would have had a very different kind of life.

The American church has been enormously affected by the surrounding culture of individualism.  The scriptures are almost invariably focused on communities–kingdoms, clans, tribes, families, households and churches.  When there is a prolonged focus on an individual, it is usually because that individual has a role to play in blessing the larger community.  Abraham is the archetype in this–chosen by God because through him “all peoples on Earth will be blessed.”  The most famous line in scripture is John 3:16, which tells us that “God so loved the world.”  Scriptural images for believers include the household of faith, the kingdom of priests, the chosen nation, the family of Jesus, the people of God. Ephesians depicts the cross as the instrument that has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between warring ethnic factions (Jew and Gentile in this case) and created one united humanity, which is a witness to the cosmos of the power of Christ.  To be saved, in scriptural perspective, is to become part of a larger community.

But the overwhelming scriptural emphasis on community and the communal work of God doesn’t play very well to individually-minded American audiences.  Rather than standing as a healthier alternative to the typical American viewpoint that has elevated the individual to center place, the church–especially the conservative evangelical church–translates the gospel into me-speak.  The primary evangelistic message is not “come join the community of the saved,” but rather, “Jesus died for you,” and “he has a wonderful plan for your life” and he wants you to accept him as “your personal savior” so you can have a “personal relationship with him.”  You might be able to make a case that “Jesus died for you” is a Biblical message, with the proviso that you are one of billions that he died for, but the other phrases are utterly absent from the New Testament.  There is no promise that he has a wonderful plan for your life, and even if that were true, it would only work for definitions of “wonderful” that include the isolation, poverty, torture and death that have been the fate of many believers across the centuries.  There is no scripture that asks you to form a personal relationship with Jesus, but many that ask you to bless Jesus by blessing others.  See, for example, Isaiah 58:

 1 “Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
2 For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?

6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The LORD will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

Much the same sentiment is more famously expressed in Matthew 25:

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Asking someone if they have a personal relationship with their personal savior

I own this book. Jesus died just for me. Sorry the rest of you missed out.

Jesus who has a wonderful, personalized plan for their life is a far cry from asking whether they are willing to take up their cross and join the community of self-sacrificing priests who are pouring out their lives for the sake of the world.  And even if the evangelizer truly means to point to the cruciform life of the disciple when asking those questions (which I doubt) the object of the evangelical efforts certainly won’t read all of that subtext into a pitch that seems to promise that Jesus is standing by to make your life an endless procession of puppies and rainbows if only you will let him.

This evangelical me-speak has carried on to such an extent that it often doesn’t just receive more emphasis than communitarian language, it replaces it entirely–sometimes in ways that can’t be reconciled at all with the scriptures.  I once preached at a church that gave every visitor a complimentary copy of Max Lucado’s little book entitled He Did This Just For You.  (There’s also an “He Did This Just For You” New Testament.)  There’s no way to interpret that title that makes sense–a plain text reading of it sounds like I, precious unique individual that I am, happen to be the only person that Jesus died for.  Even if you can squint really hard and turn the book sideways and somehow find a way to make the title a true statement, it is certainly less clearly true and in need of many more caveats than a scriptural title like “God so loved the world.”  By the time we are saying “He Did This Just for You,” we have moved beyond translating communal language into me-speak and crashed wholly into upending the gospel message to make Christianity one sub-sect in the larger religion of Me and My Best Life Now!

The aspect of American life that is often most in need of repentance is the relentless focus on me, and “what’s in it for me?” and “what have you done for me lately, anyway?”  But rather than call people to something better, richer and deeper, we far too often just cower in the shadow of the temple of self.  Christianity can overturn the worship of Jupiter and Roma, but it is helpless to tackle my steadfast devotion to me and my own well-being.

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Filed under Church Culture, Evangelism, Ministry, Theology

…Or Your Money Back!

Prayer Drop Box, Guaranteed ResultsHere’s a picture that has been making the rounds recently.  I think it started as an “iReport” on CNN.com.  It’s from a church in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

I assume the fine print is on the back.

Results include the following:

What you pray for happens: God said “Yes!”

What you prayer for doesn’t happen: “God said “No!”

What you pray for doesn’t happen, and your house burns down, your girlfriend breaks up with you, and you are paralyzed in a freak diving accident: “God wants you to learn patience, faith and endurance!  He said said No to your request but said Yes to something even better!”

Results are guaranteed.

On a very related note:

A bit of random surfing last night brought me to the blog of Sam Isaacson, who I don’t know at all, but who seems like a nice, thoughtful person.  He writes about Christian living and faith-related topics, including prayer and suffering.

In a post from a couple of weeks ago called, “How God Helps When We’re Suffering,” he writes:

An analogy may help. Imagine that I promised that I would buy you a brand new car in one week’s time. Now, imagine that in one week’s time, instead of buying you a brand new car, I bought you a brand new house. Only a fool would refuse to take the house, saying, ‘but you promised to buy me a car!’ What I gave to you was worth far more, was better, than what I originally promised.

The same is true of God’s promise to answer our prayer. If, for example, I’m really sick and pray to God to heal me, and He does, then that’s a great example of how He has been faithful to His promise to answer my prayer. So…what if He doesn’t? Simples! In His infinite wisdom He has determined that the best thing for me is not to be well right now, He wants to use my sickness for a greater goal, whether or not I understand it.

God will either deliver me from suffering, or give me the strength to bear it – whichever is better. The judgment of which one is better, we have to leave to Him.

Simples!

How exactly this differs from the old Pagan concept of Fate is difficult to see.  But I think this has become the dominant Christian understanding of prayer, especially among American evangelicals.

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Filed under Bad Examples, Bad Theology, Church Culture, This Is Bad

Tsunamis and the Irksomeness of Prayer

This is the continuation of a conversation that began with my frustrated (and none-too-gently worded) outburst on Facebook that I’m not going to pray for Japan because the best thing that God could have done is prevent the tragedy to begin with, and if he’s not interested in doing that, I don’t see the point in trying to talk him into helping with the clean-up.  Yes–shocking, I know.  Please feel free to assign me whatever label seems fitting.

One of my friends wrote something in response which prompted me to write a string of sentences too long for Facebook, so I’m posting it here, with everyone’s names omitted or obscured so I don’t implicate innocents in my own heresy.

Your comparison of the church’s explanations for God’s lack of visible activity to the explanations that allow children to maintain belief in a non-existent Santa Claus—which I denounce as heretical and well beyond the bounds of civil discourse, and for which I label you a heathen and miscreant—gets close to what is troubling me.  Everyone’s belief system is internally consistent.  It might have huge gaps, it might be based on error, it might pointedly fail to notice certain phenomena and it might consign a great deal of important questions to the category of unknowable mystery, but it’s internally consistent.  This is true of Republicans and Democrats, Anarchists and Fascists, Hindus and Buddhists and Christians whether fundamentalist, evangelical or liberal.  I once preached for a church that had two members who were diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.  Their beliefs were irrational, but completely consistent.  One dropped by my office on a pleasant Monday, complaining of having been shot by a spy who had taken over the body of one of our elders.  I was willing to go along with the idea that the elder in question was an enemy agent bent on destroying the church—it explained a lot of what I had experienced, too—but it was obvious that my troubled friend had not actually been shot.  When I asked him to show me the wound so I could help him bandage it (because I’m sneaky that way) he told me that it was a new kind of bullet whose wounds closed immediately, leaving no trace.  Completely internally consistent.  There weren’t in cracks in his worldview; or if there were, they didn’t last long before an explanation was devised.  The human mind is remarkably good at resolving inconsistency.  That’s even true for very troubled minds.  Actually, it’s probably especially true for very troubled minds.  Healthy people can temporarily carry inconsistent conclusions around before they find a way to resolve them, but they will resolve them, eventually.

I’m open to persuasion (maybe too open, some would say) and I’d be happy to reassess this conclusion, but it looks to me like what most Christians say about the work of God in the world is exactly what they would say if there were no God at all.  Well, no, he doesn’t intervene to prevent tragedy because (1) he honors our free will, (2) he wants us to learn from our suffering, (3) he works through the church to love and comfort people, (4) the age of miracles has passed.…etc.  Well, no, there’s no obvious sign of his existence because (1) you have to have the eyes of faith to see it, (2) he doesn’t want to coerce anyone’s faith, (3) faith does mean believing in the unseen, after all….etc.  You ask me how I know he lives?  He lives within my heart.  Several times I’ve been in a situation where a young (under 45) person was dealing with a potentially fatal illness or accident, and, inevitably, every possible sign of good news was taken as evidence that God was healing the beloved person.  Most of the time, the patient eventually died, and when he or she did, the new story was that “God has answered our prayers by healing our friend completely, and taking them into the presence of Jesus.”  No one ever seems to notice that just yesterday, death would have been seen as a complete failure on the part of God to give us what we were asking for, which was full, physical, right-here-on-earth healing.  Once death comes, it’s like we all agree to forget what we really wanted, and act like that’s what we had in mind all along.  No one says (even me, although I’m thinking it) “just two days ago, the consensus was that the new test results meant that God was healing our beloved!  Either God was just toying with us, (in which case, he’s a sadist more deserving of rebellion than worship) or we were interpreting ordinary, natural fluctuations as divine intervention without sufficient cause to do so.  We were prayerfully, honorably, reverently wrong.”

Well, it’s a new kind of bullet, you see.  Not one that you’ve heard of before.  This is the kind of bullet that leaves no wound.  This is the kind of healing that looks just like death.  This is the kind of love that looks just like apathy.  This is the kind of intervention that looks just like stillness.

Once you decide to accept the truth of Christianity, you learn to make these little adjustments.  Nothing can disprove the faith, because either we’ve already got an orthodox reason why it looks (to people who don’t have the eyes of faith!)  like God isn’t doing anything or we announce that we don’t need to try to defend or explain God anyway, and it’s ultimately a mystery.

But if you step outside of the internally consistent Christian worldview (of whichever variety) and ask: what about other ways of viewing the world?  If I adopt the mindset of an atheist—just to try it on for a second and see how things look—it turns out that’s it’s internally consistent, too!  It also accounts for everything I see.  It also explains the world.

And, as everyone now knows, I get a little frustrated on occasion (just a teensy bit, mind you) with pious pronouncements in the wake of horrific tragedy.  This week, I’m even frustrated with prayer.  Not yours or D—’s or anyone else’s, but certainly with mine.  I look at the images coming in from Japan and start to try to form some petition to a God that, if he exists, certainly could have stopped it all from happening, and I don’t even know what to say.  His kind of caring is so different and alien from anything that I know as caring that communication seems impossible.  (Yes, I know, we have an answer for that one too–the Holy Spirit will intercede on my behalf, with groanings I can’t hear.)  What I want to pray is for him to undo the whole mess, and maybe give us that unshakeable Earth that the psalmists are always singing about.  But we all know that that isn’t going to happen, so we’re left praying for things that we can’t see either fulfilled or unfulfilled, or things that are sufficiently vague that we can interpret the evidence to fit our desired outcomes—comfort, peace, healing.  If you’re the kind of person who is calmed and made peaceful by prayer anyway (i.e. the polar opposite of me), then your outcome is sure from the start.

I’m more like the pastor that Annie Dillard describes in Holy the Firm except not so obviously full of Jesus.  She writes:

There is one church here, so I go to it. On Sunday mornings I quit the house and wander down the hill to the white frame church in the firs. On a big Sunday there might be twenty of us there; often I am the only person under sixty, and feel as though I’m on an archaeological tour of Soviet Russia. The members are of mixed denominations; the minister is a Congregationalist, and wears a white shirt. The man knows God. Once, in the middle of the long pastoral prayer of intercession for the whole world–for the gift of wisdom to its leaders, for hope and mercy to the grieving and pained, succor to the oppressed, and God’s grace to all–in the middle of this he stopped, and burst out, “Lord, we bring you these same petitions every week.” After a shocked pause, he continued reading the prayer. Because of this, I like him very much.

I’m having my own outburst at the moment, “Lord we bring you these same petitions every week!”  And yet this week looks like last week, and like the one before that, and the one before that, and on and on and on for as far into the past as we can see.

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Filed under Church Culture, Personal, Rants, Reflections

The Advantages of Having an Uneducated Preacher

My old friend/colleague/mentor/thorn in my side Dan Bouchelle recently wrote a blog post titled “The Danger of an Educated Preacher” in which he says:

I was deeply disturbed when I first saw the studies that indicated that having a preacher/pastor with seminar training (M.Div. or more) was correlated negatively with church growth. Since I had finished my M.Div. nearly a decade before and was finishing up my D.Min. this was not good news. Of course, that was based on large trends that did not predict the outcome for any individual or church. Still, it was not encouraging.

I asked myself why advanced training in ministry would not be correlated with church growth. It seemed counter-intuitive. Wouldn’t the most educated be the most skilled? Wouldn’t the most skilled be the most successful?

Dan’s going to offer up his own hypotheses in future posts, but I’m going to offer a few of my own here (and then have fun seeing how similar or different they are from what Dan comes up with.)

Here’s why churches that want to grow are better off with a less-well-trained pastor:

1) Educated pastors will be less comfortable delivering popular messages that depend on simplistic readings of scripture.

At the last church we visited, we received a welcome letter from the pastor in which he told us that his favorite verse is Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”  He went on to say that he believed that God had brought us to that church for a reason, and that it was all part of the wonderful plan that God had for our life.  At no point did he bother to mention that his favorite verse is from a letter that Jeremiah wrote to exiles in Babylon who had seen their county overrun by the enemy army, their leaders killed or shackled, their temple ransacked, their palace burned and their friends and loved one die from starvation or sword.  They are now going to live the rest of their lives in a ghetto in enemy territory.  When God says he has plans for them that include hope and a future: (a) that’s a message specifically for the Babylonian exiles, not for any random person who reads the letter in the future, (b) it basically means that things won’t get worse than they already are, that they’ll continue to eat and live, and someday their descendants will be able to go home to the ruins, (c) it was sent to them by a prophet who was repeatedly abused and left for dead, and was eventually carted off to Egypt against his will.

Now, I happen to really like Jeremiah 29 and think it is a passage with deep significance, but when I preach it, I preach it in context and talk about what it means for people of faith who find themselves in a society hostile to their values.  At one point, pre-seminary maybe I could have said that “God has a wonderful plan for your life!” but that just isn’t the case (and even if it is the case, Jeremiah is certainly not the book that you would lean on to support that message.) But the truth is, a lot of people want to hear the happy-clappy God-just-wants-to-bless-you stuff and Pastor Prooftexter is going to have an easier time getting an audience for his pronouncements than Pastor Professor.  That goes for a lot of super-popular stuff that depends on a willingness to ignore context: the immediate literary context, the greater canonical context, and the lived context of our actual messy lives.  Like, say, “The Prayer of Jabez.”  (A little part of my soul still dies whenever a friend of mine who would never dream of reciting the Lord’s Prayer–too Catholic!–goes on a month-long Jabez kick.)

People want to be told that it’s all simple, and the their life will be good (in the way that they understand goodness).  A real theological education won’t let a pastor say those things anymore.

2) For a lot of educated pastors, church growth just isn’t that big of a priority.

Part of what a good seminary will do is help you to understand how different faith traditions developed, and why they do things they way they do.  If you entered seminary thinking that your denomination was the One True Church with all the answers, and that all real Christians would join it, hopefully you’ll be well on your way to getting over than in second semester Church History.  (Obviously, some seminaries just reinforce the party line, but I’ll set that aside for now.)  When you come to think that folks are going to be in pretty decent shape whether they come to your church or the church across the street, or just worship at home, growing your particular congregation looks like a pretty narrow and maybe selfish goal.  I used to chat with visitors and give them a list of other healthy churches they might want to visit that could be a better fit for them than we were.  That probably didn’t always make my elders happy, but it seemed like the really Christian thing to do.

Dan points out that the denominations that require an M.Div. tend to be those that have been in decline for a long time, but there’s a chicken-egg problem there.  Is the reason that educated pastors don’t grow churches because most of the educated pastors are in declining denominations, or is the reason those denomination are declining because they require their leaders to be theologically literate?

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Finding a New Church Home

At age 38, I am looking for a new church home for only the second time in my life.

Up to this point, almost every time I have moved–about nine times as an adult–I’ve either had personal connections at a congregation in my new town, or I was moving to join a church staff. The only previous time I’ve had to look for a congregation to join was when I left to attend seminary. I found it a surprisingly frustrating experience. I had no idea how easy it was to visit a church, attend worship, and leave without making any sort of a connection with anyone else. Eventually someone from one of my courses invited me to visit her Sunday School class, and I settled into that congregation simply because I finally had some connection to another person, and once I had that, my base of friends grew pretty quickly.

On one hand, visiting churches is easier now. Families of four aren’t as easy to overlook as a single introverted man, and since my children are ridiculously cute, they tend to attract a crowd. And after all my years in ministry, it’s easier than it used to be to find the preacher and chat him or her up after worship. I’m less inhibited about that than I once was.

One the other hand, the field has broadened significantly. Until now, I was emotionally tied to a particular denomination, and now I’m open to almost anything. I even visited a Southern Baptist church last week, which quickly confirmed for me that although I love my dear SBC friends, I’m not going to join them anytime soon. I don’t resonate with the theological impulses or the cultural mores there.

We’ve visited two Disciples of Christ congregations. I’m drawn to them because I know their history well and I think I’m picking up on the culture. One was a disaster, but the other was a real possibility, except that there just really aren’t any other folks our age. I’m not one of those people who won’t talk to someone more than five years away from my own age–I really have strong inter-generational tendencies. But I do want some other 30-somethings (soon, 40-somethings) around, and, more than that, I want a group of preschoolers for my kids to befriend.

We’ve also visited two Methodist churches now, and both of those are real possibilities, if I can get over my antipathy toward pedobaptism. One of them, a church of around 100 in a town of around 1300, I really loved visiting. It had one of the strongest senses of community I’ve experienced, and although the music was fine and the sermon was quite good (and a little daring in ways that I appreciated), what really stuck with me was the laughter. Not from silly jokes or dramatic sketches, but spontaneous moments of real human connection–just people enjoying being with each other, and feeling free enough to let out a chuckle at one another’s foibles and idiosyncrasies. It felt as much like home as anything we’ve tried in months. At first I was tempted to just land there, and I’m pretty comfortable with Methodistism theologically, so I think we will go back there again.

One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is how hard it is to look for a congregational home in a theologically responsible way. I’ve typed and then deleted the phrase “church shopping” a dozen times just writing this out, because I don’t like the consumer-driven mentality it implies and I sure hate church marketing. One of the quickest ways to make sure I never come back to your congregation is to try to sell me on it–how wonderful the children’s program is, how upbeat the music, how relevant the sermon. The last thing I need in my spiritual development is to be pandered to. But still, there is a choice to be made and it needs to be made somehow. No one ever trains people in how to find a Christian community that fits them.

I’m certainly open to learning more, and but here’s what I think I’m looking for:

1) authentic community
2) sacramental centrality
3) healthy balance of involved laity and respect for clerical authority
4) a sense of grounding in the ancient Christian tradition
5) a missional impulse that sends the church into the world, rather than inviting the world inside the cloister
6) a willingness to challenge visitors with a hard calling rather than woo them with the soft sell
7) a group within the church that will join and support me in my pursuit of spiritual disciplines (or, better yet, invite me to join them)
8) emotionally and intellectually engaging worship

I don’t know where that church is. Maybe nowhere near me. But I’m looking….

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Congregations Gone Wild

This editorial hits the nail right on the head. I don’t think I have a single quibble. Here’s a taste:

THE American clergy is suffering from burnout, several new studies show. And part of the problem, as researchers have observed, is that pastors work too much. Many of them need vacations, it’s true. But there’s a more fundamental problem that no amount of rest and relaxation can help solve: congregational pressure to forsake one’s highest calling.

The pastoral vocation is to help people grow spiritually, resist their lowest impulses and adopt higher, more compassionate ways. But churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them. It’s apparent in the theater-style seating and giant projection screens in churches and in mission trips that involve more sightseeing than listening to the local people.

As a result, pastors are constantly forced to choose, as they work through congregants’ daily wish lists in their e-mail and voice mail, between paths of personal integrity and those that portend greater job security. As religion becomes a consumer experience, the clergy become more unhappy and unhealthy.

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Experiencing God

Having said (probably at too much length) that the phenomenon of “hearing God’s voice” is problematic because there is no scriptural precedent or teaching to support it, I do want to mention that I’m not completely closed to arguments from experience. If the people who tell me they are hearing God’s voice were getting messages that, in retrospect, were obviously true and beyond human capabilities, then I think I’d be the first (well, maybe the third or fourth) to say that there’s really something divine at work. But I’ve never seen a clear example of that and I’ve seen lots of examples of messages that turned out to be completely false–sometimes in very damaging ways.

In my single days, two different girlfriends told me that God had revealed to them during prayer that his will was for us to get married. Neither of those marriages happened. I broke off the first relationship, and my girlfriend at the time broke off the second one. I guess according to Susan, I stubbornly resisted God’s will for our lives, but I’ve always wondered what Melissa thinks about that situation now? If God told her in June that we should get married, but she dumps me in December, how does she process that? Does she think God changed his mind? I doubt it. Does she believe that she has disobeyed the revealed will of God for her life–that marrying me is a worse fate than being outside of God’s will for her? Probably not. I suspect that she probably decided that, upon further reflection and longer experience in the relationship, she must have misunderstood what God was saying to her. After all, he speaks in such subtle ways that one could think that he is saying “marry this guy!” when he is actually saying “DON’T marry this guy!” Since he speaks through inner impressions in one’s heart, important words like the emphatic “DON’T” can get lost along the way.

If Melissa, a devout Christian woman who sincerely believes in the importance of obeying God’s voice, can completely misunderstand him on a matter as important as whom to marry, it seems to me that we need to look pretty skeptically on these “messages.” It also seems pretty clear to me that in the vast majority of instances, what God seems to tell someone is more or less exactly what that person wanted to hear at the time. In June, she wanted to marry me; in December she didn’t. God’s words in her heart tracked along with that pretty conveniently.

In the greater scheme of things, no harm done, I suppose. But there are instances where the belief that God is speaking and working in imperceptible ways does cause harm. In two situations that I have been close to, a young woman (one in her forties, one just past thirty) fell ill and died after a protracted stay in the hospital (one week; one month.) Both times, friends and family rallied around to “lift the woman up in prayer” and both times, every tiny improvement was taken as a sign that God was responding to prayer and healing the woman. The people close to her went for days or weeks trusting and proclaiming that God was gradually working a healing miracle, right up until the day that the final breath came.

I can tell you, it’s pretty awkward being the only one in the waiting room who doesn’t break out into applause and amens when some dear brother or sister proclaims that God is healing our friend–especially when you are the preacher! But on both occasions, the situation was pretty much what I thought it was–a beloved person was almost certain to die, and the collective response of the church was to ignore reality, clinging to the slim hope of a very unlikely recovery and calling their wishes “God.”

I’m not going to be critical of those people’s reaction in the moment. The were heartbroken and hesitant to accept reality, and I understand that, even though I’m not wired that way. But I am going to be critical of a modern church culture that, rather than emphasizing that because of the coming resurrection, we can face death–our own and that of our friends–with the genuine biblical hope of renewal and restoration, leaves families grasping for signs that God has given their friend a reprieve. And I am not happy when I interact with ministers who encourage such superstition rather than balance it. To me, that’s theological malpractice, if there is such a thing.

I could go on and on, but those examples illustrate them phenomenon well enough. In every case, sincere, devout, prayerful people were completely wrong when they claimed that God was saying or doing a certain thing, and in every case, they assumed he was doing just what they wanted him to do. They put their own hopes on display and called them God. That’s not really idolatry, but it is on the same supermarket aisle.

If I had any countervailing examples–some occasion where a bit of knowledge was given far beyond human wisdom that turned out to be true–I would say so. But I don’t. And I’ve been down this road a lot, as a lifetime church-goer and a minister. People tell me a lot of stories. Whenever someone says “God told me…” it winds up being either irrelevant or harmful.

It is usually regarded as either cruel or unspiritual to try to try to burst to bubble of the God-listeners in this way, which is part of why I’m blogging about it in such clear terms. Church folks who resist the tide are looked down upon or subtly disregarded, so maybe it’s worth it to know that there is at least one random blogger out there who is troubled by this, too. It’s not good for church communities to let the last word go to whoever claims most emphatically to have heard from God. Theological reflection is harder–but more firmly grounded–than that.

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