Is Your Pastor Holding Your Church Back?

That’s the title of an article I’ve written for Provoketive magazine:

Imagine yourself and a group of people in a meeting with your church’s pastor. The church has been changing and seeing new life as people explore what it means to be a church in the early 21st century. The group presents a concept for a phenomenal new ministry connecting the community and congregation, leading to radically transformed lives. Excitement grips the group as they explain the concept to your pastor. You are elated when she says “yes!” and you start planning the roll out…

You can find the rest of the article here. I would greatly appreciate any comments you have about the topic.

Encountering God on Turtleback Mountain

2013-03-17_13-31-25_514For the last few days I’ve been on Orcas Island off the coast of Washington attending one of Leonard Sweet’s advances. Yesterday (Sunday) we had a break so I decided to go hiking. The hotel front desk people recommended Turtleback mountain and that’s where I went.

After wandering a bit I found the trailhead parking, pulled in, briefly looked at the posted map and started up the trail at my typical pace. At first the slope was easy so I assumed this would be an easy hike to the first couple of overlooks. However, the trail started getting steep. I was thinking to myself, “I’m hoping this is a short stretch.” I’m not as fit as I should be, and I’m carrying around some extra weight. After numerous stops to rest I finally had to admit to myself that I wasn’t going to make very far if I didn’t slow down. I was trying to push past my physical limits, looking at the destination rather than enjoying the journey along the way.

Over the last few days of discussion we examined the church’s and our dismissal of play as a frivolous waste of time. As good Protestants we should be working constantly. After all, isn’t that what God expects us to do? (NOT!) Len asked us about the jobs of Adam and Eve in the garden. Did they even have jobs, or were they just to enjoy God’s creation and handiwork? (See Genesis 2. In verse 15, does “take care of it” imply work or enjoying gardening?)

When I was close to turning around on the hike up Turtleback Mountain, I realized that I was in the midst of a metaphor for the contrast between work and play. I approached the hike as a goal to be reached and conquered rather than as an experience to be savored as it unfolded.

Then I slowed down walking up the mountain and rested when I needed to. I didn’t need to rush the hike. I didn’t have anything to prove to others. I didn’t have anything to prove to myself.

In doing so I started noticing the true beauty of the landscape, the multi-hued greens of the mosses and small plants, the life in the decay of the deadfall trees, the water in swamps and streams along the way, the rustle of small lizards or animals by the trail, the noises of the birds, and the solace of walking alone in the woods without a need to meet any type of schedule.FB_IMG_13635457000564121

2013-03-17_13-21-40_219 2013-03-17_11-30-15_246 (1)I ended up climbing somewhere around 1400-1500 feet in elevation and hiked 5.8 miles. For me that’s a significant workout especially considering the steepness of the trail. Slowing down and just enjoying the hike made all the difference.

 

Why Aren’t We Listening?

livelove_croppedThe church I attend (One Community Church) does something we call “Live Love.” People talk about “random acts of kindness,” and maybe we’ve been the instigator or recipient of such gifts. The Live Love idea goes one step further into intentional acts of kindness, following Jesus into the world around us.

So many times churches view interactions with their surrounding community as a way to obtain new attendees or members. If I offer you financial help, spiritual guidance or friendship, don’t we commonly expect the other person to reciprocate by attending our church? That’s a sales transaction with an offer, acceptance, and implied contract. We let the prospect (er, person) sample the wares and then try to close the deal by suggesting they attend the church. I know we don’t always mean to, but if you look at the presentation of the “help” or the entertainment, the implicit expectation of reciprocity is clear. I believe this is one of the major factors in the apparent lack of success for outreach. The prospects recognize what is occurring and so they shy away.

Live Love is simply loving on the community with no expectation of return. It’s an ambush of help or love with absolutely no strings attached. Some took a roll of quarters and paid people’s cost for filling up drinking water jugs. Others saw neighbors moving and helped them. A recent rainstorm had filled a school parking lot with mud so it ended up being shoveled and swept. Firefighters and deputies received doughnuts, coffee, and cookies. Customers in a few convenience stores were asked their favorite candy bar and it was handed to them. At most we gave the recipients a business size card that said “You’ve just been ambushed by Live Love” with only the church name and web site on the backside.

In Matthew 6:1, Jesus said, “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

Johnny, one of the people who attends the church, posted a story on his Facebook page about a Live Love moment that occurred in an airport restaurant.  A mother was traveling alone with her special needs son who was tired and cranky. He had a meltdown and the mother could not calm him. Meanwhile a customer at another table paid their bill in secret – Live Love in action.

Don’t we help to build the kingdom of God when we remember that Christ sends us into the world to follow him and be a light? Expecting someone to show up at church  after helping or interacting with them seems to me to be the same as announcing giving with trumpets as Jesus condemned in Matthew 6:2. The reward comes from the Father, not from the building of a larger congregation or empire on earth.

Where have you seen this secret giving occur? Have you been the recipient? I’d like to hear your stories, and I’d like to include some in my new book which I’ll be starting work on shortly. You do need to register – sorry but it’s necessary because of the Internet trolls around now.

A Sample from Good Faith Hunting

Today I had lunch with a very good friend of mine, Michael Moore. We hadn’t seen each other for quite a while so we had a long conversation just catching up with what had been happening between thought excursions in which we “solved” the problems of the world. He wrote the forward to Good Faith Hunting which I’ve included in this blog post

 

It had already been a long day, but Henry wanted me to go with him to visit the midweek service of the predominantly Iraqi congregation meeting that evening near the center of downtown Amman, Jordan. So we hailed a cab outside the hotel and soon joined up with our Arabic-speaking brothers and sisters for what we naively imagined to be a one hour service or so. After a couple of hours, though, the singing began to wind down a bit and one of the pastors stood up to introduce “our American guests,” thereby proffering us the opportunity to hand over to them the gift we had brought over from the States—a brand new, state-of-the-art, video projector. Pulling it from the bag, we saw one of the worship leaders jump down from the makeshift stage in the corner of the room and start hugging us. Unable to respond to him in his native tongue, Henry and I just smiled and beamed and drank it all in.

Invited for tea and biscuits afterwards, we meekly protested that we were too tired to stay, but our hosts would have none of that. So, not only did we drink tea with our new friends for another hour or so, we also listened to their stories—some joyous, some routine, some comical, some heartbreaking. Most of the members of this predomi­nantly male congregation, you see, were recent Iraqi refugees forced to flee their families as multinational forces invaded their country. Many didn’t know if they were ever going to see their loved ones again, and they desperately wanted someone to pray with them about it. So Henry and I listened and prayed and drank tea with these members of the Body at this holy moment. It was an unforgettable experience.

Riding back to the hotel in the cab, I still remember the excitement in Henry’s voice as he helped us process what we’d just experienced. How often do two white boys born in the suburbs of the Virginia Tide­water region get to do what we’d just done?

The book you’re about to read is designed to help you process what you’re experiencing, particularly if you’re part of the growing nation of disciples which finds itself increasingly fed up with the “counterfeit community” and “club Christianity” now masquerading as the Body of Christ in North America.

So put the kettle on, put your legs up, and enjoy the ride back to the hotel . . .

Michael S. Moore
Director, Arizona Research Center for the Ancient Near East
Faculty Associate, Arizona State University, Fuller Theological Seminary
Author of The Balaam Traditions (1990), Faith Under Pressure (2003), and WealthWatch (2011)

 

You can read further by clicking on the book picture and buying the paperback or Kindle version from Amazon. You can also obtain the book from the publisher’s website, from other bookstores.

Celebrating and Mourning Richard Twiss

I never met Richard Twiss, co-founder of Wiconi International. I never heard him speak. I never read any of his writings. Yet he profoundly affected my understanding of following Christ.

A few years ago I needed to attend a cross-cultural experience as part of my George Fox coursework. Nothing of the conferences I investigated seemed to fit. Then I thought of Art Brokop, a friend of mine working with Diné/Navajo people in Farmington, NM. He suggested that I come up for the weekend, joining him in a sweat lodge to be held as part of a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program at a Farmington area Brethren in Christ (BIC) mission. Art was one of the counselors for the program.

The sweat lodge sounded cross-cultural to me, an suburban Anglo who had very limited interaction with Native people. I had no idea what to expect from such an experience.

There were approximately 12 of us in the sweat, 7 Diné program participants, the leader and 4 Anglos. It was led by Casey Church, the Wiconi International Southwest area representative, an elder in a branch of the Potawatomi tribe. He heads a group called “Soaring Eagle Ministry” (Albuquerque, NM) which is finding ways to contextualize the Gospel message while still retaining a person’s traditional First Nations identity.

Everything done was consistent with both First Nations and Christian beliefs and presented in a non-syncretistic manner. I had not thought about the wide cultural gulf between many Native practices and what we see in common Christian arenas. Casey and Art helped me see that following Christ did not lead to losing a person’s cultural identity.

That’s why I celebrate Richard Twiss’ Wiconi International ministry and mourn his loss. He had the vision to establish an organization that bridged the gap between many different cultures. He helped to show that western cultural practices were not the only “acceptable” way to follow Christ. I’m sure many people disagreed with him and thought he was mixing cultures that should remain separate. His organization and the people associated with it helped me see how Christ was already at work throughout all the nations. It’s like the Muslim “insider” groups and others who have realized that we have true diversity in culture but unity in following Christ.

Art Brokop said it best on his Facebook page after he learned Richard had passed. I think it’s original with Art but if not, thanks to whomever came up with it. His Facebook post simply started “Dancing with Creator.” May we all celebrate in our dance with God.

Rachel Held Evans and the Evangelical Heart

Rachel Held Evans recently posted a blog entry on her website which is receiving a lot of attention. Entitled The Scandal of the Evangelical Heart, it’s worth reading and pondering I’ve come to a lot of the same places as she has – it’s been by different routes for me.

Many churches, at least in the Western world, resemble a three-legged stool with underpinning legs of faith, culture, and politics. A major shift in any of the three causes the organization to tilt, dumping people off the edge. Yes I know Christ is supposed to be the one foundation of the church yet it’s rarely found. Sometimes (maybe frequently) we emphasize the sameness in culture at the expense of unity in faith.

The major shifts are occurring in culture now that we are at the end of the Enlightenment (or modernist) era. The modernist thinking fed into our theology and the same skeptical eyes questioning how we do things also question what we know about theology. These shifts are redefining how we “know” and understand (epistemology), and tie impact is as great as the shift from Medieval to Enlightenment thought.

Now we’re asking different questions and our Evangelical mindset doesn’t know how to answer them. Maybe there isn’t an answer. Maybe things don’t fit into a systematic approach. Maybe our church leaders respond like the friends of Job, trying to place blame when there isn’t a place for blame.

The mainline denominations don’t have it any better – they tend to be more politically liberal but they’re undergoing the same challenges as Evangelicals. That’s why I don’t think shifting politics doesn’t have a major effect on the issues Rachel explores.

So what should we do? The only meaningful response that I can see is to follow Christ and let him been seen, heard, touched and felt in our lives. Rachel catches the essence in the key passage from her blog post:

The bravest decision I’ll ever make is the decision to follow Jesus with both my head and heart engaged—no checking out, no pretending.

We follow Jesus – no other. How that works out in each of our lives will be different. We’ll be forced to live in ambiguity, there are no solid answers save one – WE FOLLOW JESUS.

If you want more background about the shifts in thinking and culture plus an exploration of ways forward, why don’t you pick up a copy of my new book, Good Faith Hunting. It’s written about baby boomers since they are the cusp generation that is leading us into new territory (whether they like it or not!). It’s applicable to all age groups since all of us undergo faith transitions and we wonder if we are weird or have we “lost our faith” when we ask questions. It’s available from the publisher, Wipf & Stock, now and will be available shortly on Amazon, or for Kindle and Nook.

Doctor Who, Genesis, Daleks and Irony

I am a sometimes Dr. Who fan, and recently I’ve been catching up with the newer series (2005-on). At times I can go overboard – here’s the Tardis bookcase I built for my daughter and son-in-law.

Tardis Bookcase. It's bigger on the inside because it opens up.

Tardis Bookcase. It’s bigger on the inside because it opens up.

I hope what follows makes sense – I’m not sure I’ve thought it through fully yet.

A few days ago I watched the last episode of the 2005 season, The Parting of Ways. The Daleks, the exterminating scourge of the universe, have come back to life from extinction after being re-created by their Emperor. The irony in the episode is the extent to which the writers adapted Biblical themes of creation using the concepts of Genesis 1 to explore, God the creator and how false gods are destroyers.

The doctor questioned the Dalek Emperor about where all the Daleks came from. The Emperor started from Matthew 11:28, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” But the emperor twisted the passage and the meaning in his reply,”Harvesting the waste of humanity, the prisoners, the refugees, the dispossed, they all came to us. The bodies were filleted, pulped, sifted…only one cell in a billion…Everything human has been purged. I cultivated pure and blessed Dalek.”

Now look at Genesis 1:2, “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” The Emperor tells the doctor, “I reached into the dark and made new life. I am the God of all Daleks”

The Daleks plan to destroy the earth and make a new creation, “Purify the earth with fire. The planet will become my temple and we shall rise. This will be our paradise.” Sounds like the Garden of Eden – if you go around holding a plumber’s plunger in front of you!

Again we see the Genesis language “And God saw that it was good” in the Emperor’s comments after half the earth is wiped clean, “This is perfection, I have created heaven on earth.”

Meanwhile Rose (the doctor’s travel companion) returns to rescue him. She has looked into the living vortex and soul of the Tardis and becomes consumed almost to the point of death. The writers suggest that soul has characteristics in common with the creator God, the one true God of the universe. Rose says she must “protect from the false god – (the Emporer)…Everything must come to dust – all things, everything must die.” But because she has absorbed the vortex she becomes God-like. “How can this be wrong – I bring life.” The doctor responds, “This is wrong – you can’t control life and death.” Then Rose replies, “But I can – the sun and the moon, the day and the night. Why do they hurt – I can see everything -all that was all that is, all that ever will be.”

In the end everything works out OK (it’s a TV show, after all). The doctor pulls Rose away from the vortex by taking it himself.

The episode captures several ideas which are Biblically based and deeply ironic:

  1. The ultimate power of creation (which also includes destruction) will be corrupted if it’s in anyone hands but God’s.
  2. Paradise (the Garden) becomes a wasteland unless God creates it. Any other attempt gives rise to corruption and destruction.
  3. False gods look similar to the true God but have some inherent flaw that leads to their own destruction.
  4. False gods and movements downplay our own humanity – We have commonality with God yet there is still an uncrossable gap. Even if we approached the “heart” of God, we still could not withstand the knowledge across time and space.

I Can’t Let You In

I have a fondness for old time country music. If you dig down deep enough, you find my Southern Appalachian redneck roots which is why I guess I like country music. Sometimes I’ll listen to it in the car, which is what I was doing early this morning on the way to the hardware store.

One of the songs I heard was “The Outlaw’s Prayer” by Johnny Paycheck. Released in the late 1970′s he told about the time he finished up a show Saturday night and stayed over through Sunday waiting for a flight. On Sunday morning he went walking to “clear my head” and ended up in front of a large church listening to the music.

Boy, I could hear that singin’ way out in the street, sure was a beautiful sound.
So I just walked up the steps an’ opened the door an’ started to go inside an’ sit down.
But before I could, a young man walked over to me an said: “Excuse me, Sir,
“But I can’t let you in with that big black hat, those jeans, that beard an’ long hair.

Later the song becomes a rant about the excesses of money and privilege, typical of the themes in the outlaw country music of the time.

Still the words of the song jostles something inside me. How many times do we make it clear that some particular type of person is not welcome in church? Are they too over-dressed? Are they too under-dressed? Are they from the wrong tribe? Are they unwelcome because they don’t know the customs of our congregation or tribe? Are they an imposition because if we talk to them, we can’t talk to our friends?

How many times do my own actions say, “But I can’t let you in.”

May we have the heart of Christ to accept people as they are, as God’s precious children, even when really don’t want to accept them.

It’s Out!

My new book, Good Faith Hunting: How Baby Boomers Help Recapture a Biblical View of Faith has just been released by Wipf & Stock.

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Currently you can order it directly from Wipf & Stock. In a few weeks it will be available from Amazon and other book sellers, plus Kindle and Nook e-book formats.

Description:

Church attendance in the United States and other Western nations is rapidly declining, and the losses are not solely because “young people don’t like church.” Baby boomers are also leaving, frequently because the church leadership assumes a believer’s faith and how it plays out is constant over a lifetime. Boomers are a transition generation, undergoing profound faith journeys as they transition through life’s phases. Many churches struggle to connect with people on a journey because the corporate, modernist mindset doesn’t have room for changes and journey.

Good Faith Hunting is a book of hope for church leaders and major influencers who want to celebrate the faith journeys of baby boomers and others through life, allegiance, and experience, as an opportunity to show the love of Christ as they sojourn alongside people in their community.

From the endorsements:

“Here is a book that does more than show us how to think and talk in story. Good Faith Hunting demonstrates the need for the church to become a culture of storytellers, creating stories worth telling. Don’t miss how Henry Stewart has reinvented ‘testimony time’ for the twenty-first century.”
—Leonard Sweet, futurist/semiotician, author of I Am a Follower, Viral, co-author of The Jesus Manifesto & Jesus: A Theography (and many others)

Good Faith Hunting points the way forward for interacting with our fellow journeyers the way the Apostle Peter suggests: as living stones being built into a spiritual house. In contrast, religious institutions often want to cement us into their walls as dead bricks. Smart leaders engage in the power of persuasive listening, attending to the stories and journeys of those committed to Christ but unsure about the church. If you notice this trend and want to be a positive force in it, pick up this book and read it.”
—Todd Hunter, author of Giving Church Another Chance; Bishop, The Anglican Church in North America

“Smart, passionate, and hopeful, Good Faith Hunting affirms that more often than not, and especially for the hippie generation, one’s faith journey is rarely neat and tidy. This generation, like those of us who follow, knows spiritual life as a wandering-through-the-wilderness trek with God beyond the confines of organized church. What are we to do with lagging church attendance and loving our neighbors? Henry Stewart shows us the way.”
—Donna K. Wallace, author of What Good Is God? Finding Hope in Troubled Times, NY Times bestselling author, writer’s guide and spiritual director

“In this book, Henry Stewart takes us on a journey through the community narrative. He asks the question, how did we get here? and ends with the question, where do we go next? But the joy of the journey is found between those questions. Stewart captures the heart of faith, our journey, and the community narrative. Good Faith Hunting is a book I have enjoyed reading, and one I would say needs to be added to every library.
—John C. O’Keefe, author of The Church Creative, boneYard and Misfits

If you’re frustrated with “church as we know it” and don’t know where to turn next, you can find some signposts that give voice and show a way forward in  the pages of Good Faith Hunting. Pick up a copy for yourself and if you  resonate with the themes, give key members of your local congregation their own copy.