{Many Questions and Few Answers Along the Never-Finished Journey of Faith}

Does Size Really Matter?

Is bigger always better? I would argue that many of our churches find themselves facing this question whether they know it or not. The mainline church is in membership decline. Much time and energy has been spent describing this reality that we’ve known in our churches week in and week out.

Our “powers that be” stress the importance of growth. Actually, this has been stressed for over thirty years now. But for some reason, after 7 months of being in the local church, I’ve noticed that this emphasis can begin to hang around the necks of pastors like a 100lb brick. We give much talk to the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) and how “all the world” means we have to grow numerically. The basic concept boils down to an emphasis that a healthy church will naturally be a growing church.

Before I proceed, I admit that one of my primary areas of ministry is evangelism. I spend a good part of my days and weeks thinking of and carrying out various methods to help grow our local church. So before I risk indigting anyone, know that I’m indigting myself first.

Does every church need to be a large church? Are large churches always our healthiest churches? Why such a push for numbers? These are among the important questions we face in the local church as we address needs and wants in the area of evangelism.

I see pastors of small, dwindling churches killing themselves to be considered among the ranks of fast-growing churches-many of which consist of churches that are recent church plants so it’s like comparing apples and oranges. It’s become sexy to be a church that explodes in membership in a short period of time. We all revere these churches and pastors for the great work they do. And I do admit that this work should be praised for the wonderful impact is has on the local community. But is it the destination we all should strive for?

We’ve become so enamored with fast-growing church plants that we’ve misconstrued their great work into a so-called model of ministry for all churches. What makes a church grow fast in one area often does not translate into another church in a different community. Nonetheless, we look to these churches and their success as the model of how all churches should be doing ministry. If this is how success is measured, then you’re not successful if you don’t measure up to the latest and greatest church model.

Growth based on numbers first is rooted in a church-growth model from the 1970s that is not often applicable when it comes to addressing the needs of a new world. Church-growth does a good job emphasizing the need to recover life in dwindling congregations numerically. But it also ventures into treating people like commodities. The church, then, becomes a factory and our product is people. Increasing product is a sign of healthy business, or so that logic goes. All of this is rooted in a capitalist business model that can eventually reduce us all to numbers on a page.

Growth should mean personal and communal growth. We have to grow in our discipleship and service in mission. We have to grow in our presence in the local community. We have to grow in the richness of our liturgy and worship. And this does not always translate into growth in numbers.

Can a small church be a healthy church and remain a small church? Does success in ministry have to translate into a mega-church model? Are all mega-churches necessarily healthy? The truth is, our American ideals of “bigger always means better” can fail us when it comes to being faithful to the gospel.

Just as with people, churches can come in all shapes and sizes, some large and some small. All of these will attract different people for different reasons. Believe it or not, there are still people out there searching for the vibrant small to medium-size congregation; those that lack flashy lights and Disney World allure. Success should never favor one type of church over the other as long as growing in the love and grace of Christ is found to be at the center of all life within the church.

Does size really matter? I guess it depends on who you ask…

Is Change in the Air?

33 retired United Methodist Bishops have issued a statement calling on the United Methodist Church to remove its ban on homosexual clergy. Now before you get too nervous to excited, this is not a blog post on the “rights” or “wrongs” of homosexual clergy. That, my friends, is a musing for another day. No, today’s quest focuses on a little statement found at the end of the article you can find linked in the text above.

“They stressed that their statement is based on their experience as pastors. Experience? A little United Methodist doctrine for those who care to read on: the United Methodist Book of Discipline charges that our Theological Task is grounded in a methodology for theological reflection known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. The 1988 Book of Discipline recognizes that this understanding is to be seen as “the rule of Scripture within the trilateral hermeneutic of tradition, reason, and experience.” In other words, Scripture is our primary source for faith discernment and it is informed by tradition, reason, and experience.

How do these two items relate, you ask? (Actually, at this point you might be asking to go to another page if I quoted the Book of Discipline any more) The long standing argument in the United Methodist Church is that homosexuality is “not consistent/compatible with Christian teaching/doctrine.” By these Bishops citing experience as their basis for argument they’ve done an interesting thing. They’ve opened the door to the idea that the “rule of Scripture” could be challenged by experience. Now before you get too worked up over this statement, please know that I’m not assuming that they would think experience should ever take the place of Scripture. However, the framework we’re seeing as it forms live and in living color before us is the idea that there is no such thing as “objective” Scripture. To assume a primacy of Scripture would assume that Scripture can and does stand above the other three. We’ve always asked the question as to how or why Scripture informs our reason, tradition, and experience. But we’ve never seemed to ask (or at least not often enough) how these three inform the way we read Scripture. In other words, I cannot come to Scripture empty-handed.

Hot-button issue aside, these Bishops are quietly opening the door for what I feel the next big theological argument will be in the United Methodist Church: how do we view Scripture? If experience can open the door to challenge a particular reading of Scripture like these Bishops have asserted, then how does that effect the way we read Scripture? Is it no longer fair to assert that the Bible “inerrant?” Can we actually view a Wesleyan Quadrilateral that no longer asserts a hierarchy but rather an interdependence? I don’t know. All I do know is that I can’t wait to be a part of this rich and spirited discussion!

Empty Words?

I admit it: I’m a life-long church attendee. There, I said it. It feels better to get that off my chest. One of my greatest blessings in life is that I married someone who was NOT a life-long church attendee. This is a wonderful asset because often times I, like so many others in the church, get caught up using my church lingo and I simply assume everyone knows what I’m talking about. My wife is gracious enough to remind me that not everyone has such a working knowledge of “churchy terms.”

This makes me wonder: how guilty are we all in the Church for doing this? How often do we fail to remember that not everyone who might visit our churches will understand what we’re doing in the context of worship? How often do we use catch phrases and sound bytes to describe the Christian faith to other people? How often do we resort to using our own “churchy terms” as a means of trying to explain very large and complex issues of life?

There are a lot of rhetorical terms we use in the our churches and faith circles that I think we should really consider what they mean sometimes. Sure, we can talk about trials and tribulations in poetic terms by claiming that “we all bear our own crosses.” Besides the fact that such an analogy misses the point of Jesus’ words altogether, what does that even mean? We love talking about things like “transformation” in our preaching and teaching. But what does that even look like? How about being “Christlike” or “a disciple?” My point is not to argue that we shouldn’t use these terms. I would hope we would use them often. But using these terms simply as rhetorical devices in hopes of stirring people’s emotions or in offering simplistic answers is, in the end, a dependence on very empty words.

There’s a poignant scene in an episode of the show The West Wing. The President is preparing to debate a challenger who has built a reputation on 12-word responses. The episode shows the President’s aides racking their brains to find their own 12-word response that he could use during the debate. As the debate unfolds, there is a moment where the President’s challenger uses a great sound byte in reference to tax reform-much to the chagrin of the President’s staffers who could never come up with one of their own. After a moment of reflection, the President begins to tell the truth about the emptiness of sound-byte thinking. “What are the next 12 words? Your taxes are too high? So are mine. Tell me what the next 12 words are. How would you fix it?”

“Saved by grace through faith”-how does that work? “Making disciples for a Christlike world”-how? What exactly does a disciple look like? What does a Christlike world look like? “Following Jesus”-what does that mean? How does it look to follow Jesus? You see, this is the difference between observance and practice. Faith is not faith if it’s something we merely observe and agree with. We have to press that faith and all of the cliches that come with it. Faith must, over time, transform us into something different than we were before we encountered it. Terms like forgiveness, love, sacrifice, justice, and hospitality mean nothing unless we demand nothing less than to experience them in practice. I guess you could say that maybe those of us in the Church should worry a little less about “talking the talk,” and worry a little more about how we actually equip one another to “walk the walk.”

Community: It’s About How We See “the Other”

I recently saw one of my favorite movies on TV the other night-A Time to Kill. It stars Matthew McConaughey as the bright, young attorney who defends Carl Lee Haley, played by Samuel L. Jackson, as he faces trial for killing two men who raped his daughter.

There’s a wonderfully poignant gut-check that happens toward the end of the movie. Just when the bright attorney, Jake, realizes that he’s out of legal options to get Carl Lee acquitted for the crime, and he’s at the jail explaining this to Carl Lee, he gets a good dose of reality from Carl Lee in return. “Don’t you see, Jake? You’re one of them. That’s why I got you to defend me. If I have any chance against all of them I need someone who’s one of them to help me.” Carl Lee goes on to say, “You’re one of the bad guys. You don’t mean to be, it’s just how you were raised. I’ll never be just a man to you. I’ll always be a black man.” Jake tries to protest, “we’re friends Carl Lee.” “We ain’t friends, Jake. You may eat in black restaraunts but I’ve never seen you in my part of town. Our daughters don’t play together.”

And who can forget that gripping closing argument Jake gives after his encounter with Carl Lee? He vividly recounts the rape of Carl Lee’s daughter as the jury and everyone in the courtroom closes their eyes to visualize it. As he goes through the painfullly graphic details you can see the tears begin to flow down the cheeks of many of the listeners. And then, Jake turns it on them, “…can you see her? Now imagine that she’s white.” And with that, mouths fall open. The conscience of the people were exposed live and in living color in that courtroom. All of the supposedly hidden prejudice is just left out in the open for all to see.

The movie ends with Jake’s transformation culminating in his surprising Carl Lee and his wife by bringing his family to a celebration cookout Carl Lee and his family were having in light of his acquittal. The wives greet one another and the two daughters are introuduced. And we’re left with Jake’s words, “I thought out daughters could play together.”

These scenes depict a rich and often overlooked aspect of what it means to live and love in a faith community. So often, our communities of faith are homogenous bodies where everyone looks, talks, acts, and dresses just alike. We’re so good at matching new people up with others who we think would “fit” with them. There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s actually a wildly successful way of growing communities.

What we often fail to recognize is the negative by-product of such a successful community building project. The realities of our world is that homogenous communities can’t sustain themselves. Life requires that we all have to encounter people who are vastly different from us. That’s why truly vibrant communities consist of people who are not always alike. This doesn’t have to simply boil down to race or social class. It can include belief, background, values, or anything else that makes us different. Community building cannot simply seek to build a community of identical clones. It must also go further than merely recognizing that we’re different. What makes a community truly vibrant, is when members of the community can somehow, by the grace of God, see themselves in the faces and lives of those who are strikingly different from them-”the other.” When this happens, we’re able to open our lives and learn to love all people just as God loves us. This the truest test of our humanity. Strike that. It’s actually the truest test of our faithfulness to God.

Words are Windows into the Heart

Like many, I was horrified to learn of the tragedy that happened in Arizona this past weekend when a Congresswoman, along with a handful of others, was shot at a political event. This horrific event seems to have been the work of a man that lacked the cognitive abilities to discern right from wrong. This is a nice way of saying that the man seems to have been mentally/emotionally ill. Nonetheless, his actions were terribly wrong. And now we seek to know why.

It didn’t take long for pundits to seize upon the opportunity to assign blame for such a terrible tragedy. It’s interesting how when political points are up for grabs, blame for tragedy is levied before details can even be sorted out. At the same time, to simply write off this terrible event as “just the work of a crazy person” would shortchange the opportunity we have to look deep within the soul and psyche of the American culture.

When did violence become such an accepted part of our society? I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t find some sort of violence to enjoy in my life. I grew up loving GI Joes and Professional Wrestling. Both of these captivate the imagination by creating story lines of good vs. evil. What we often miss is that it’s just accepted that violence is the only means of behavior in these settings. Children are taught that if someone picks on you, you pick back. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard, “I don’t care if you get in trouble, you don’t let them push you around” from parents. I grew up playing with toy guns and idolized heros in movies whose vigilante violence endeared them to everyone who came in contact with them. I’m of the first true generation to have come up during the video game evolution and one doesn’t have to go very far to find the popularity of violent games.

Our political landscape is riddled with violent rhetoric. In the age of 24-hour cable news, violent rhetoric has now been adopted by personalities who choose not to broadcast news, but would rather build a following of support for whatever cause or agenda they’re pushing.

I don’t blame the Tea Party or Sarah Palin for what happened Saturday. I don’t blame Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh. I don’t even blame CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC. What happened Saturday reveals a condition much deeper than any of these could ever be solely responsible for. At the end of the day, the only people we have to blame for violence erupting, no matter how isolated, is US. We have, for too long, accepted violence as a normal part of our everyday life. Christianity isn’t even absolved from contribution to such a condition. Much of our historical agenda has been centered around a “battle of good and evil.” One could argue that our faith offers the first story as such of substantial impact on the world. For too long we have admired might and power as virtues that exemplify what is considered good in our world.

Saturday is not the fault of one isolated man. It’s not the fault of a few political pundits who wish to score political points. No, it’s the fault of all of us. You see, this man may have been mentally ill-but our society taught him the language and means by which he carried out his insane actions. Only when we stop admiring violence as the only means of justice will we ever have a hope of ridding ourselves of such insane acts. Now is not the time to simply speak out against “them” in response to this tragedy. Now, more than ever, is the time to preach and teach and proclaim the story of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.

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