The Church in the Culture

When the team was planting The Grove Church started we were considering how we could become a part of the city and how we could build a reputation. In those days we thought mostly about how we could get into the local newspaper. We heard of a church in our denomination, a couple states over, that rented a helicopter and dumped tens of thousands of Easter eggs from it, providing a rush experience for young families and getting in the local paper, because no one had ever done this!

We were literally sad that we were launching our church in a non-Easter month. We thought, what could we drop from a helicopter when we launch in the fall? Could we drop people with jobs for Labor Day? Could we drop live turkeys for Thanksgiving? Can turkeys fly? Do we need to ask PETA if this is OK?

Thankfully, we did not drop anything and we found our better way to define ourselves in our city through service and loving outreach. And in our town getting in the local paper is as easy as calling them and telling them you will do an interview. We scored the cover. Of the B section.

This week I have been seeing loads of churches doing egg hunts for part of their Easter services. There is even a church in our town that is renting a helicopter to drop eggs on a football field. A few years ago when we started The Grove, this wasn’t happening anywhere. An Easter egg hunt was a radical idea because Christians of all kinds would already do Easter egg hunts with family and friends, but it was an unspoken rule that you didn’t talk about that with your church leaders, because you wanted to maintain the idea that Easter was all about Jesus. It was about taking the cover off and letting the Christians all relax and even enjoy the lives that they were living, but felt like they had to hide.

Today the church that I drive by on my way to town every day is advertising an egg hunt immediately after their service on Easter and it’s not considered radical at all. Even though this automatically means there will be people who are not a part of the most amazing service of the year because they are out in the field placing brightly colored plastic eggs in the grass and ignoring the awkwardness of teaching children that a bunny laid these eggs. A bunny. It’s not controversial. Even the local paper is ignoring this story.

And before you think this is going to be a rant about Easter egg hunts and churches, it’s not. If I condemn, then I automatically condemn myself because our church runs a “Trick my Truck” event every year on the Sunday before Halloween and we encourage kids to dress up in their costumes for church. I can only imagine my friends who are ancient-but-cranky-church-loving-saints showing up to visit that week. That would create an awesome conversation.

What I do hope to talk about in this ranty blog post is the way that the church accommodates to culture, and that this is both good and bad. The only thing I would hope to condemn is an unthinking, whatever it takes to reach people, approach to Christianity and expressions of the church. I love reaching people for Jesus and love novel approaches to this end.

This is not about a step forward, or even a step backwards. This is actually a marketing strategy by churches to make the church more appealing to people. It is, frankly, making the church more marketable to people who would already call themselves Christians – people who would not be able to make the distinction between cultural and biblical Christianity.

This strategy is not new. A couple generations ago Christianity in the west attached itself to patriotism. You can look back at the youth rallies of the 40’s-60’s (and even beyond those decades) and see numerous examples of youth ministry events designed to worship God and encourage people to be more patriotic – so being a Christian was also to be patriotic (I am not saying this is good or bad, it just was true). Fast forward a couple generations and we see young church leaders having conversations involving debate about America’s role in the world, or even doing simple things like removing the American flag from the stage in the church building. (As a side note, because The Grove meets in a middle school cafeteria, we have a permanent, and very large, American flag at the front of our space. I would wager it is the largest worship space American flag in our city. We also are the only evangelical church with a Ghandi quote on the wall and have the largest Reggie Bush drinking milk poster.) What is happening in these conversations isn’t what we can automatically call progress – it is deconstruction of previous culturally held gospel-culture connections and a reconstruction of new connections.

So it isn’t new, it’s different. It isn’t good or bad, it’s different.

This leaves us with a knowledge that in a couple generations, perhaps faster because new communications technologies are speeding movements up, church leaders will make the call that having secular religious holidays within the church is a cultural accommodation and they will put a swift, yet controversial, end to these practices. They will find what the culture around their church is like and attracted to, find connection points to the gospel and reach their friends.

It will be awesome, and the current radical generation, who I call radical with full sarcasm, will hold onto their egg hunts and harvest parties and every other secular holiday practice they can get their hands on, and will hate every moment of it… as the older generations mutter in the background, ‘See, I told you this would happen when they got rid of the flags in the sanctuary!’

So what are we to do with this? The correct response would be for the leaders and people of God, the church, to humbly recognize that we naturally (for good and bad) connect our gospel to the culture and acknowledge that we are not God’s gift to church history, but we are God’s tools to reach the world as it stands today. We should consider our practices thoughtfully and move towards those practices that reach people and be more than ready to give up cultural-gospel practices which are not mandatory according to the Scripture. We should embrace a diverse approach to gospel-culture connections and encourage other expressions of evangelism to flourish for the glorification of Jesus (and not of our practices).

Sadly, this may be a pipe dream. Christianity in our culture is not always known for being thoughtful, humble, cooperative and considerate. Often church leaders are reactive and plagaristic so that our local church can gain an effective market share of the already-christian who live within driving distance of our buildings, or can access our online campus. Reaching and showing unbelievers the love and hope of Jesus is significantly more risky, dangerous and difficult – so most churches choose to reach the already-christians. It’s the safe alternative to evangelism.

So, if we are going to be reactive and market-share driven, I would encourage church leaders towards rapid adoption of any and all secular-religious holiday practices. Avoid all thought – think only of attracting a larger market share of already-christians!

Next Halloween cancel the whole Sunday program and do a fun haunted house. Get Santa Claus to preach at the Christmas eve service. Give away awesome presents – Xboxes for all! Do an egg hunt during Easter service, not immediately after. Heck, cancel your Easter services and get the people to do a Disney musical, because who needs Jesus when you have Mickey!

The quicker and more obviously we conjoin our practices to secular-religious institutions, the easier it will be for the deconstructionists that come after us. And, hopefully, the less attachment we will have to them, making gospel movements easier to adopt and reach new generations.

Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel

Of course, this isn’t the first time I have read The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning, but at his recent passing I was motivated to read it again. So, I picked it to read with my church book group, and we read it early this year.

Of course, it’s a great book every time you read it. The simple reminder that God loves people – that God loves you, even though he knows you – is so refreshing to those of us who tend to complicate everything that has to do with God, theology and doctrine. To believe in the theory of God’s grace and to actually experience God’s grace are two very different things – one is tragic and one is beautiful. This book draws me back to Father God with an open embrace over and over again. You just can’t go wrong with Brennan Manning.

Here’s the striking stuff from this time through:

  • p.24, “One day the priest disappeared. It was as if he had vanished into thin air. The townsfolk searched all over and could find no trace of him. But the following month, when the Rotary Club met, he was there as usual sitting in his corner. “Father,” everyone cried, “where have you been?” //”I just served a thirty-day sentence in prison.” //”In prison?” they cried. “Father, you couldn’t hurt a fly. What happened?” //”It’s a long story,” said the priest, “but briefly, this is what happened. I bought myself a train ticket to go into the city. I was standing on the platform waiting for the train to arrive when this stunningly beautiful girl appears on the arm of a policeman. She looked at me, turned to the cop and said, ‘He did it. I’m certain he’s the one who did it.’ Well, to tell you the truth, I was so flattered I pleaded guilty.””
  • p.36, “Yet if we were truly men and women of prayer, our faces set like flint and our hearts laid waste by passion, we would discard our excuses. We would be done with blaming others.”
  • p.46, “As Merton said in the last public address before his death, ‘That is his call to us – simply to be people who are content to live close to him and to renew the kind of life in which the closeness is felt and experienced.”
  • p.86, “When a man or woman is truly honest (not just working at it) it is virtually impossible to insult them personally.”
  • p.151, (on Galatians) “Written in the heat of a moment, the letter is flaming manifesto of Christian freedom. Christ’s call on our lives is a call to liberty.”
  • p.172, (on the women caught in adultery) “Get the picture? Jesus didn’t ask her if she was sorry. He didn’t demand a firm purpose of amendment. He didn’t seem too concerned that she might dash back into the arms of her lover. She just stood there and Jesus gave her absolution before she asked for it. //The nature of God’s love for us is outrageous. Why doesn’t this God of ours display some taste and discretion in dealing with us? Why doesn’t he show more restraint? To be blunt about it, couldn’t God arrange to have a little more dignity? Wow!”

 

2 Days with Rob Bell part 7

This is part seven of a whole series of posts I’m doing on my trip to go hear Rob Bell in February 2014. If you want, you can start at the first post.

 

Apparently every two day event that Rob Bell does has some special guests and late Monday afternoon we had our first, Mike McHargue, who is better known as Science Mike.

Mike grew up as a believer but left the faith to be an atheist and then had a radical conversion experience at a 2 Day event. He speaks quite a bit and did a great presentation for us on the dynamic relationship between our brain and our faith.

Since learning about these things while taking my bachelors and even more in my masters I have been really interested in brain science and it’s impact on our understanding of faith. On the one hand, the brain is just an organ in our bodies. On the other, the brain seems to operate the part of us that is immaterial – our thoughts, our soul, our spirit.

When we have a sick liver and we take liver pills nobody thinks anything of it. Shouldn’t it be the same with our brain? If your brain isn’t working right, people should be able to take the right medicine without shame. The problem arises when we don’t know what ‘working right’ looks like, or what kind of medicines are best for a specific issue in a specific person.

And then we notice that we only use about 10% or our brain.

So, when Science Mike presented on faith and the brain, I was fascinated because I think it’s equally theoretical and practical for faith and ministry.

Mike began be talking about how your conception of God actually affects your brain composition and that reinforces itself creating an asymmetrical brain (which I imagine is true for all sorts of subjects). So, if you think of God as loving, you will see love in the world and in yourself more easily. If you imagine God as angry, you’ll likely be mad.

Mike then talked about spiritual events affecting computers, specifically noticeable through random number generators. This was pretty strange stuff involving quantum operations and global phenomenon. Go ahead and read about Princeton’s research in this area.

He finished his time talking about the actual physically beneficial effects of prayer. Apparently prayer can improve memory, lessen depression and counteract dementia. I wondered if it mattered who you were praying to – because if the same research applies to meditation or to praying to Shango while playing the drums.

McLaren, Cross the Road

I read this Brian McLaren book with my early morning book club – a couple of books ago. Hence, it’s inclusion in my catch-up blog posts from my spring reading.

McLaren writes about what it means to be a Christian in a pluralistic world in “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World”. He again proposes his “third way” of engaging people of other faiths that avoids focusing on condemnation or conversion. His aim is to create relationships between Christians and people of other faiths that are not marked by “rivalry and hostility.”

It’s pretty straight forward McLaren. He seems to want to create a Christianity that has no desire to see others know Jesus in a saving way – mainly because he doesn’t seem to believe in sin or its effects. If nobody is wrong, then nobody has any need for salvation and then Jesus actually becomes one player in a religious landscape – not the Lord, Creator and Savoir for all creation. McLaren tends (as in other books) to set up a false idea to argue against to make his point stronger. His ideas, in my opinion, are not strong enough to stand on their own if he needs a straw man to argue against.

The book does help Christians to stop viewing unbelievers as the enemy. They are not – they are victims of sin and Satan. If Christians view unbelievers – of even believers that they disagree with – as the enemy, then they will struggle to be compassionate, merciful and full of grace towards them. If we can, instead, come alongside people, we will experience what it is to be Jesus in and for the world we live in.

Here’s some fun McLaren quotes:

  • p.19, “Whether we realize it or not, most of us who suffer from [Conflicted Religious Identity Syndrome] are trying to distance ourselves from religious hostility. By hostility I mean opposition, the sense that the other is the enemy.”
  • p.31, “The standard approach to Muslims from my conservative Evangelical upbringing was clear: be nice to them when necessary in order to convert them to Christianity; otherwise, see them as spiritual competitors and potential enemies. In effect, the approach tended to dehumanize the other, turning others into ‘evangelistic targets’… “
  • p.102, “Guided by our new mentors from among the formerly colonized, we discover that the gospel of Jesus Christ can liberate those who have been privileged by imperial systems just as it liberates the oppressed victims of those systems.”
  • p.121, “Abraham’s greatness is for the sake of others: And all nations on earth will be blessed through you.”
  • p.180, “It’s surprising how few Christians realize that John the Baptist didn’t invent baptism. He revolutionized it. He turned it from a sign of submission to the religious status quo into an act of guerrilla theater that protested the religious status quo.”

Driscoll, A Call to Resurgence

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged out any books I’ve been reading – which means I have a stack of about 10 books that I need to process and think about – and what better place to start than with Marky Mark Driscoll. It seems a media storm has been following Driscoll around lately – and by media I mean bloggers and Christian magazines. The actual world doesn’t have any idea how much of a big deal we all think this is. It must suck to be in a position where people you don’t even know have whole blogs to criticize and even condemn you, but it’s not like Driscoll is one to avoid controversy. He has built a church on his pulpit – which has some real liabilities to it (and opens itself for real conversations about how a church should probably be built by Jesus and on Jesus).

For all the Driscoll hate that is out there, I appreciate him. He’s a guy with problems, sure, but he’s also done a lot to help me grow and refine my thinking – and I’m not even a little bit reformed in my theology. His most recent book, A Call to Resurgence: Will Christianity have a Funeral or a Future came out last year, so the big publicity push is done, but I just read it this spring. The premise of the book is pretty silly to me – of course Christianity will have a future – isn’t that the whole idea? But it takes a very American-centric view of Christianity and really is a discussion of whether the church in the USA has a funeral or a future in store.

It has all the regular Driscoll fun in it. Little sentences that make you wonder if his editor was asleep at the wheel. Like when he opens the book by saying Christianity in America ended the day that Louie Giglio was un-asked to pray for the Obama’s inauguration. It was a mess for the Obama administration, and it does have implications for the future, but to say that evangelical Christianity is over because we are no longer cuddly with the political power seems like a line to sell books (by fear).

Thankfully, the rest of the book is a little more robust and gives better treatment to the sociological implications of evangelical Christianity moving from the center to the edges of western culture.

Here’s some money quotes for me later:

  • p.7, “The Associated Press reported on the significance of the whole ordeal” ‘There may be no clearer reflection of this moment in American religious life than the tensions surrounding prayers at President Barack Obama’s inauguration.”
  • p.51, “The plight of the gay population is now commonly compared with the struggles historically faced by ethnic minorities, women, and other marginalized groups. For Christians, racial issues and sexual issues are very different: the same Bible says all races descend from one man and one women and are reconciled together in Christ also says any sex outside of heterosexual marriage – including homosexuality – is wrong.”
  • p.61, “The old view of tolerance assumed that (1) there is objective truth that can be known; (2) various people, groups, and perspectives each think they know what that objective truth is; and (3) as people/groups disagree, dialogue, and debate their conflicting views of the truth, everyone involved will have an opportunity to learn, grow, change, and possibly arrive together at the truth. // The new tolerance is different from the old tolerance. The new view of tolerance assumes that  (1) there is no objective truth that can be known; (2) various people, groups, and perspectives do not have the truth but only what they believe to be the truth; and (3) various people, groups, and perspectives should not argue and debate their disagreements because there is no truth to be discovered and to assume otherwise only leads to needless conflicts and prejudices. // A few things are perhaps most curious about the new tolerance. One, it denies moral absolutes while holding to the moral absolute that there is no moral absolute/”
  • p.115, “It’s important to ask yourself this one final question: Is your tribe a prison or a home? If your tribe is a prison, you rarely get out to meet Christians from other tribes, read anything from anyone not in your tribe, listen to any outside preachers, or sing any songs not created or endorsed by your tribe. If your tribe is a prison, you may not know that your nation is becoming increasingly anti-Christian, because you have been busy working within your tribe and battling against other tribes. If your tribe is a home, you are free to enjoy friendships with Christians from other tribes, read books and sing songs from believers outside your tribe, and pay attention to what is going on in the world.”
  • p.153, “In more fundamental tribes, the Holy Spirit has two primary ministries: to write the Bible and convict us of sin. Basically, you are a nail, the Bible is a hammer, and the Holy Spirit’s job is to pound you.”
  • p.191, “Both homosexuals and Christians are, curiously enough, organized minority groups. If Christians war with homosexuals, what we’re ignoring is the majority – all the people between the two groups at some point on a continuum. And as a general rule, those people in the middle are the very people we’ve been called to evangelize. If they see us as being mean spirited, they will be less likely to want to hear about Jesus from us.”
  • p.197, “‘Single-parent families tend to emerge in places where the men already are a mess,’ says Christopher Jencks, a professor of social policy at Harvard University. ‘You have to ask yourself, ‘Suppose the available men were getting marries to the available women? Would that be an improvement?” Instead of making marriage more attractive, he says, it might be better for society to help make men more attractive.”
  • p.240, “Pastor Doug Wilson once quipped that ‘a great reformation and revival…will happen the same way the early Christians conquered Rome. Their program of conquest consisted largely of two elements – gospel preaching and being eaten by lions – a strategy that has not yet captured the imagination of the contemporary church.'”

5 Questions for The Grove: Make Disciples

At our annual meeting on April 27th, I presented 5 questions that I believe The Grove’s response to will determine the level of influence we have for Jesus in our city and in our world.

Will we make disciples of Jesus according to the Great Commission?

In our city The Grove has a great reputation. Everyone knows someone who goes to The Grove and people constantly say that they feel like they need to try us out on Sunday. They don’t always show up, but sometimes they do.

We don’t take this as a big success though. We see it as an added responsibility. At the end of the day, when I, as The Grove’s pastor, get to stand before Jesus and give account I don’t think he’s going to be interested in how awesome I am. I do think he’s going to want to talk about how we operated with what He blessed us with. And our reputation is just that – a gift – not something we’ve earned. So, if we are going to be making disciples it isn’t as much about “fulfilling the Great Commission” as it is being responsible with opportunities God has given.

To help us create a way for people to move from “i like the grove” to “the grove is my church” we are going to be working to create on ramps for people. If we think of the Grove as a highway – it’s great to be on that highway, but finding ways to get on has been a bit difficult. Being relationally based is a great way to be a church, but we are fooling ourselves if we think we don’t have weaknesses. If you can just see how awesome the highway is, but can’t get on it – it becomes a hindrance to your life – not a blessing.

So at the Grove we need to answer the question of how do people “become grovers” and how can we help them along the way – because it’s an awesome ride and everybody wants to get on the highway!

5 Questions for the Grove: Unprecedented Serving

At our annual meeting on April 27th, I presented 5 questions that I believe The Grove’s response to will determine the level of influence we have for Jesus in our city and in our world. 

 

Will we organize for unprecedented serving in our cities?

 

As The Grove began we built community participation through serving others for the greater good into our culture. We didn’t want it to be something we did as much as it was who we were. This gave us the opportunity to be where God was, to work where He was working and to love our city in practical ways.

We allowed this serving to be grass roots style with lots of people serving in lots of different ways. The highest that the organizing got was when life groups would get together and all serve in a common way or at a common time. It was exciting, fresh, front-line, hard to measure, difficult to evaluate and perfect for who we were becoming.

As our church has grown the percentage of people active in life groups has declined (more actual people, but a lower percentage of the overall church). This isn’t to evaluate if this is good or bad, but it is the truth. So, if our best opportunities to serve outside of our (rented) walls is only open to a select few, then the cultural imperative of being a church that is a benefit to our community begins to be lost. This triggers a need to reorganize in new ways so that we can continue to experience what it is to be God’s hand of blessing towards others.

This is being encouraged in multiple ways (establishing a community life director on staff for the church, June 22nd having our Go Serve Sunday, generating local partnerships with active social services organizations). So the new framework is being built, but success for The Grove is not measured by systems. For us, we will know that we have made a great change when everyone grabs onto the fresh vision and participates.

Our missional mandate is to live for Jesus by loving our city. This cannot just be a catchy phrase that we plaster all over everything. If we fail to put actions to our words, we fail to have integrity and then we fail to be the message of God’s love and hope for our neighbors. This question is more than ‘will we serve'; this question is ‘who will we become’.

 

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