Sunday, August 20, 2006

Hard Words to Hear

A gracious responder to my last blog raised the question as to whether or not airing critical concerns about the state of the church does anything but "tear down the church and our Lord has asked us to build it up." But here's where my spirit is as we think about the "church" today. I'm not so certain that what we often think of as church is really church anymore... at least not the Church that Jesus called into existence in the early chapters of Acts.

Here's what I see in our churches that's not church as Jesus designed it.

1. Today, buildings are the church; in Acts, people were the church. The Church of Jesus Christ managed to go for three centuries without purchasing or building one single structure. The church was the people living life as Jesus called them to live it. We talk a good talk about the church not being buildings (I hear it all the time from good people), but our actions betray our words. "Let's go to church" really means, "Let's get in our car and drive to the church facility where all the member activities occur." Until there is a radical retraining of our thoughts related to what the church really is, buildings and budgets will always be more important than people, and we aren't the church.

2. Today, the church is gathered; in Acts, the church was scattered. We've hunkered into our institutions and inadvertently isolated ourselves from the world Christ called us to change. Just think about it. We have our own Christian schools, Christian music, Christian books, Christian movies, Christian coffee shops, Christian retreat centers, Christian retirement centers, Christian television stations, Christian concerts, Christian cruises, Christian weight lifting, Christian soap operas (I've seen it!), and (my favorite) Christian breath mints! It seems that whatever the world has, we have our own version of it. I'd love to see someone develop a Christian car that was fueled by the Spirit. It would sure save me some money on gas! Okay, that was mean. But my point is, it's possible to be a sterling Christian in the eyes of our peers and NEVER engage the world (except maybe with a protest sign in our hands). We can go day to day, moment to moment, hour to hour seeped in a Christian sub-culture, and never get our hands dirty in the world. Anything with "Christian" on the front of it becomes an invitation to withdraw from the world. Or worse, it's an attempt to be "of the world" by copying what the world has and sanitizing it, while NOT being "in the world" - isolating ourselves from the highways and byways of life. In the past 100 years that the Christian subculture has grown in America, the number of lost people in our society has grown incredibly. Imagine if for the past 100 years we had been pouring our talents into society at large rather than our own Christian clubs.

3. Today, Pharisees are cool; in Acts, Pharisees were out. It's hip to remind congregations that we can occassionaly find hints of Phariseeism in our midst, but it's far more blatant than we give credit for. The Pharisees of Jesus' day managed to take 10 commandments and turn them into over 600 rules. These rules were buffers to make sure that you didn't come close to violating God's law. Isn't it the same today? We're debating, judging and fighting one another about things that are hardly essentials of the faith. Here's a few extra rules that jump to mind... "Thou shalt vote Republican if you are a true believer." Or "Thou shalt be considered super spiritual if you use pious and spiritual words at the end of every sentence." Or "Thou shalt not go to Disney World." Or "Thou shalt allow a woman to sing in church, teach kids 18 or under, subtitute or coteach male adults only if working with another male, work as a youth minister, but not as elder, associate pastor, and you must never allow them to preach, only to lecture behind a potium." Or, "Thou shalt be authentic, so long as you don't say anything that offends me in the slightest." Or "Thou shalt not drink wine just because Jesus did." Or my favorite contrived commandment in modern day Phariseeism: "Thou shalt not say anything critical of the church in a blog!" Decorum, dress, musical volume, political positions, trite moralisms, obscure interpretations of the Scriptures... these have become points of division in our churches, or worse, they have become benchmarks for true spirituality. I thought it was rather clear that Jesus condemned adding anything to his gospel. "Love God and love others." Jesus reduced the 10 commandments down to two while we're multiplying them a hundred fold. Where's the condemnation in our churches of these added rules that push people to the margins who Jesus accepts and elevates spiritual holiness in a way that is completely artificial?

So let me ask, is it right for us to sit quietly by and allow the church to become even more and more like the Catholic church was when Martin Luther announced his protests? How can we "build up" the church unless we "tear down" what is not the church? Just wondering.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

A View from the Back Row

Well, it's been a while since I've blogged in, but it's time. I've got a lot to say. Consider this the brainstorming sessions that will prepare me for my eventual book!

So here goes...

One of my last Sundays as pastor of Temple Baptist Church, I spent some time on the back row. Why? Not sure really, except that I was told that our worship music was landing with a giant thud with most of the congregation. And I guess that it occurred to me that because I usually sat on the front row of the church Sunday after Sunday, perhaps I had failed to see things as they really were.

I had an idea of what I'd find, but unfortunately it was worse. "Thud" would be way too optimistic. Few lips parted. Most squinted at the flashy screen like they were searching for shooting stars in the night sky. Some had arms crossed, and some genuinely were making an effort to sing songs that they really could do without. What was silly about the whole thing is how the worship team on stage (important word for them) pretended they were on stage at a giant rock concert with thousands of cheering fans awaiting their every move. If they had opened their eyes from their "spiritual" squinting, they might have seen that few were getting it. Knowing that I was at the end of my ministry there at Temple, I was secretly relieved that I was getting out. But more importantly, I wondered if I should have visited the back row a little sooner.

Now I live on the back row, and the view is only getting worse. As we await the opening of our coffee shop, and as we live in limbo between Temple and the next congregation we call home, Tara and I have been spending Sunday after Sunday joining various congregations in worship. And it hasn't been easy. What I see startles me. Here are a few of my findings:

1. The church is nothing but a club for most people. Church services resemble a VFW meeting, most of the time.
2. Pastors make their living scaring the crap out of their members about the outside world so they'll spend more time (and money) supporting the club activities.
3. Visitors (I are one now) are seen as fresh meat - potential NEW club members to help boost the numbers and the balance sheet. Most greetings are deeply inauthentic. I'm tired of been greeted by someone with a "Greeter" tag and ignored by the rest.
4. Even the best churches we have visited are terribly uninvolved with the community. I'm surprised that it takes 1.5 million dollars a year, a staff of dozens, and a mass crowd of several thousands just to donate a few pints of blood and send 10 people on a mission trip. If it took the Red Cross thousands of dollars and tons of man hours to do little more than that, would we give at all? And we wonder why giving is down in churches.
5. God is so tiny in our churches. He's no bigger than our little theological labels, in most circles. We've created God in our image. I'm amazed at how "certain" we are that the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel is so clearly spelled out in the Bible that we can know EXACTLY what political position to take and who is right and who is wrong. Talk about confidence in Scriptural interpretation! The mystery of God and awe for the Scripture are just plain gone from our churches. The pews are way too full of people who know everything there is to know about God.
6. Most people are going through the motions. I'm afraid many Christians are going to church Sunday after Sunday and have forgotten why they are really there.
7. Community is little more than the greetings people give one another while entering and exiting the worship service. I wonder these days just how much biblical community is really happening outside the walls of the church?
8. "Spirituality" is gone from most churches. Preachers preach to the head (usually trying to get folks to think the right things about God and this terrible world of ours). Few preach to the heart and help renew the spirit. No wonder most people feel worse after they leave church.

So, I've decided I must go and design my own church. This time it's going to be perfect! I'll create the perfect community with perfect patience with a perfect love for the community and a perfect infrastructure and design. Hehe... I know. Someday, some brat kid with some new fangled ideas will visit my church and then write a blog about how wrong it all went. It will all come back on me someday, I know. But for now, I can't shake these sinking feelings I'm getting from the "institutional" church. God wants me to do something positive about it. I can't go on being a typical "pessimistic" Gen-Xer. God is planning something good from it. And the rumblings are coming from hundreds, if not thousands, of other Christ-followers throughout this country. A revolution is brewing. I now get a chance to join the front lines.

Pray for me. Pray that God will fill me with a spiritual energy that will enable me to create the kind of community that will be a fresh spirit for those this community will touch.

Prayer praise of the day: God led some wonderful people to open the Casa Sanchez Mexican Restaurant nearby. It's almost better than Plaza Azteca! We've eaten there three times in four days. There is a God!