jasonbwatson

February 10, 2017

Deep Preaching

Christianity Today published some months ago a 64-page booklet entitled “The State of Church Ministry in America, 2017.” The note from the managing editor indicated that it was a special guide from CT‘s new resource, CTPastors.com.Now, I am not a pastor but for the past five years I have filled that role on many Sunday mornings for a number of churches. In addition to that, I have been a faithful church attendee just about my entire life and I have heard literally thousands of sermons preached. So, while I found a number of the articles in the booklet insightful, one that struck me as compelling was entitled “Deep Preaching in a Distracted Age” and was written by Matt Woodley, a missions pastor in Illinois and editor of PreachingToday.com.

Woodley’s thrust was how pastors can stay focused themselves and “capture people’s attention and keep it long enough for God to do his work”. I am going to take some of what he shared in the article as background, though, and focus instead on why deep preaching is so incredibly important.

Woodley writes that he sometimes has the spiritual attention span of a minnow after quoting poet Denise Levertov who wrote in one of her poems, “I stop to think of you [Lord], and my mind at once like a minnow darts away into the shadows.” Levertov and Woodley are not alone. A May 2015 article in TIME was entitled, “You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish,” and focused on a Microsoft study that revealed that most people lose focus after eight seconds. The world we live in feeds this rapid-fire, short-attention phenomenon. We communicate in text messages that we keep so short we cannot even use proper grammar or punctuation, quick status updates on Facebook, tweets on Twitter and scrolling headlines along the bottom of the news or sports channel.

According to a Smithsonian.com article in September 2016 approximately 27% of Americans had not read a single book in the previous twelve months. That is despite the fact that, according to Woodley’s article, an American on social media is exposed to 54,000 words every day. That is the equivalent of a 180-220 page book depending on font and margin sizes.Think about that: the average American on social media is exposed to the equivalent of a short book every day but more than a quarter of them do not read one complete book over the course of a year!

Woodley determined that the best way to counter this distractability is to go deep. I agree. He writes, “In a distracted, outraged, shallow culture, people begin to hunger for something rare: the focused, balanced, deep. Because we chronically distract ourselves, we crave depth. Deep preaching is our best chance to change lives.” I could not agree more.

I have no problem with a short devotional thought or even an occasional brief sermon. In general, however, it is clear that far too many Americans are spending far too little time going deep with God on their own–meaning we need to take them there while they are at church. An April 2015 post on the Preachers and Preaching blog from The Master’s Seminary cited a poll that indicated that the most common sermon length is between 20 and 28 minutes. I find that alarming–especially given that so many American Christians now go only to Sunday morning services. When I grew up we were in church Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday night. Now I will grant you that I cannot identify anywhere is Scripture that it says three services a week are required–or that Sunday school is. I do not think it is coincidental, however, that as Americans have become busier and more distracted the number of churches with Sunday evening and mid-week services has decreased and the depth of spiritual knowledge has declined. Even the interest in spiritual things has declined I dare say.

I think churches that are serious about the spiritual maturity of their members need to take seriously the importance of longer, more meaningful services–and sermons in particular. Of course there does come a point at which attention spans can diminish even when the speaker is engaging and the topic is exciting, but that point should easily be well beyond the 25 minute mark. College courses are typically taught in 50 or 75-minute blocks. Movies tend to be about two hours in length. There is no reason a pastor should not be able to command the attention of a congregation for 40-50 minutes easily. After all, there is nothing more important in the world than the subject he is teaching about, nothing more important the congregation could be doing than growing in their knowledge and understanding of God.

As I said, I preach regularly. The church where I have preached most consistently over the past five years has made it clear that I need not worry about time, and I have appreciated that. They take seriously the privilege of learning God’s Word. Not only do I tend to preach longer than the average (40 to 50 minutes is probably my typical sermon) but I usually address very small portions of Scripture when I preach. Once in a while I will do a topical message but my preference is certainly verse-by-verse expository preaching. An August 2013 article on The Christian Post cited a seminary student who argued for “shorter, more viral sermons,” around 18-minutes long. The individual claimed that if pastors would follow the example of Jesus’ own teaching, such as the Sermon on the Mount, they would keep their messages shorter and tighter. That struck me as ironic because I spent eighteen messages going through just Matthew 5–which represents only the first of three chapters that include the Sermon on the Mount. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, which is basically a written version of his own teaching on Matthew 5-7, runs nearly 600 pages long!

The Bible is practical and relevant to our lives. It is also deep, profound and at times difficult. It cannot be learned well in twenty-six hours a year (fifty-two thirty-minute sermons).

Pastors should not be long just for the sake of being long. No one wants fluff or space-filler or jokes or meaningless stories. But the Word of God is rich, powerful, deep and practical. Good churches should seek–dare I say demand–good preachers who spend the time necessary to understand and teach the Bible deeply, powerfully and practically. It can be done. I suspect pastors will even find that once people get past the initial unfamiliarity of deeper preaching that they will long for it. Just a couple of weeks ago I was teaching a Sunday evening class that was scheduled to go for 45 minutes. At the end of the allotted time I had not finished what I wanted to teach–partly because of questions and partly because there was so much to teach–and I asked if we should wrap it up or keep going. The consensus was keep going and not one person left. We went another thirty minutes. Now that was a one-time thing, but it proves the point that people do want meaningful teaching. They want to understand God’s Word and to know Him better.

Let this be a plea for deep preaching!

October 1, 2015

Managing Time (Part 2)

So what are the standards against each of us should evaluate how we use our time? I believe they are as follows.

1. Do I have my priorities in order? Fishing or golfing or collecting stamps may be perfectly fine activities, but doing any of them when I am supposed to be working would not go over well with the boss and we all know that. That is why we do not pursue these activities while we are on the clock–at least not as long as we want to stay employed. That is because we know that our hobbies cannot take priority over our work. Why, though, do we sometimes allow our hobbies to take priority over our relationships with our family members or with the Lord? If I spend every Sunday morning fishing instead of going to church I am not going to get fired by God but my priorities are quite skewed. The same would be true, by the way, if I spent every Sunday morning sleeping in. Sleep is important, but not at the expense of my relationship with the Lord–and Scripture makes it clear that being an active member of a church is an important part of that.

2. Am I giving my best to whatever I am doing? If I apply myself fully to my work only when the boss is watching then I am not working as unto the Lord. If I put halfhearted effort into my job, my lawn, my laundry, my relationships or anything else then I must not be surprised when I get halfhearted results. Nor, by the way, should I be surprised if (1) I do not get satisfaction out of what I am doing and (2) I will not be doing it long if the “what I am doing” is paid employment. I worked for a while in a setting in which employees were eligible for bonuses based on their annual performance evaluations. It boggled my mind that some people thought they were entitled to a just for doing exactly what they had been hired to do. If you’re one of these delusional individuals then I need to let you know: “bonus” means extra. Beyond the minimum. More than required. In other words, expect not a bonus for doing only what thou hast been hired to do. If you are not doing the best that you can in whatever it is you are doing then you are not maximizing your time. Notice, by the way, that I did not say “if you are not the best at whatever you are doing.” By definition there can only be one “best.” But each of us can do our best at whatever it is we do.

3. Do I have a realistic understanding of “my” time? When you are not at work, when you’re “off the clock”, your time is yours, right? Well, not really. Not completely anyway. I would suggest that if what you are doing with your time is having a negative impact on what you are doing on your employer’s time then you are shortchanging your employer. If you are busy all weekend doing whatever it is you may doing, and thus you are worn out and sluggish on Monday morning, you’re not giving your best. If you stay up late watching a movie, reading a book, chatting with a friend or doing anything else, and do not get the sleep you need to perform at your peak at work the next day, you’re not giving your best. By the way, if you do any of that on Saturday night and thus can barely keep your eyes open in church Sunday morning, you’re not giving God your best. And if you give all of your energy and effort at work and get home zapped with nothing left to give your family, you’re not giving them you’re best either. In any of these scenarios what you are really saying to your boss, to God or to your spouse is that they are not as important as whatever it is you were doing before that has left you unable to give them your all. In other words, your time is only your time insofar as what you do with that time does not interfere with giving your best when you are on someone else’s time.

4. Am I content? If whatever you are doing, whether it is work, play, relationship or whatever, is causing you to be discontent then you need to do one of two things: do something else or get your heart right. If you hate your job and you’re just putting in your time and collecting a paycheck then you need to find a job that will give you fulfillment or you need to correct whatever is wrong with your heart, your brain or your attitude in order to find that contentment. Sometimes, by the way, doing something else is not even one of the options, leaving only the heart adjustment. When your marriage is not bringing you contentment, quitting it is not an option except in a very, very few specific situations. When effectively, meaningfully, lovingly parenting your children is not bringing you contentment, you need to get your heart right, because you cannot quit being a parent. I would suggest you as well that if you are not content in whatever it is you are doing the answer to at least one of the three questions above will be no. You might answer no to two or even all three of them. Inversely, I would suggest as well that if you can answer yes to questions one, two and three, you will almost certainly answer yes to question four.

There are plenty of other places to find tips about the effective management of your time and I am not really sharing anything new here. For whatever reason I have had multiple conversations within the past week about wise use of time and proper time management, so the subject is on my mind. My hope is that these four principles will be helpful reminders to you if (when) you find yourself struggling with time management. We all have the same number of hours in a day but none of us knows how many days we have. May we each manage our time well and make the most of each and every day.

February 11, 2015

Discernment and caution

In the last post, I described why it so important for churches to exercise discernment and caution when deciding who will become a member. Though not referenced explicitly in that post, it is just as crucial for individual believers to exercise discernment and caution when selecting a church to join, or when weighing a decision to stay in a church.

The extreme dangers of both are exemplified in an article in the January 26 issue of TIME entitled “A Change of Heart.” The article provides an overview of the varying positions on homosexual marriage within evangelicalism. The church that is spotlighted in the story is Seattle-area EastLake Community Church. The article’s lead paragraph describes all of the ways that the church “looks like a lot of other evangelical megachurches,” but is really praising the trendiness of the church. And before I address that church’s stance on homosexual marriage let me address this trendiness issue. The TIME article says that EastLake “boasts 13 weekly services at six locations…; the head pastor is a bearded hipster; and the main campus is a warehouse turned sanctuary where greeters serve coffee, a tattooed band rocks out beneath colored lights and attendance swells whenever the Seahawks are not playing.”

That these are the characteristics considered common among evangelical megachurches does not speak well for evangelical megachurches! None of those descriptors amount to a thing when it comes to faithfulness to Scripture. God is far more concerned that a pastor is a Bible-proclaimer than a bearded hipster. His desire is that church members actually serve each other and their communities; I suspect He could not care less whether or not the greeters serve coffee. (Actually, if the coffee becomes a focal point or a distraction, I suspect He does care, and He is not in favor). I feel equally confident that God is far more concerned with the lyrics of the songs and the hearts of the singers than He is with the bodily adornment or the colored lights. And if the church’s attendance fluctuates considerably (which “swells” would imply) based on whether or not the local NFL team is playing, I think God would have a question or two about the level of commitment to Him that would be found in the members/attendees of the church. See, I may be wrong, but the notion of church attendance swelling when the Seahawks are not playing makes me think that going to church is the next-best thing to do on a Sunday morning in Seattle for those whose presence “swells” the attendance at EastLake. If the church is a trendy, fun or “hip” place to hang out when there’s no football, there is a problem. (See also: my many previous references to the need for church to be uncomfortable).

All of that aside, the real point of the introductory paragraph of the TIME article is this conclusion: “It [all of the happenings of the church described above] is almost enough to make you miss what is really going on at EastLake this winter: the congregation is quietly coming out as one of the first openly LGBT-affirming evangelical churches in the U.S.”

I will go ahead and say it, and the fact that many will disagree with me or call me intolerant, biased, opinionated or discriminatory matters to me not one bit: “LGBT-affirming evangelical church” is a contradiction. It is something that cannot be. Once a church becomes “LGBT-affirming” it ceases to be evangelical. If “evangelical” means affirming the teachings of the gospels and the authority of Scripture, as I believe most definitions suggest, then affirming homosexuality is simultaneously ceasing to be evangelical, since the Bible is quite clear on the fact that homosexuality is a sin. In other words, one cannot both affirm homosexuality and affirm Scripture. One cannot be both LGBT-affirming and evangelical. That is, of course, unless and until one embraces the relativism of our age, when there is no real meaning to anything and one can pick and choose any combination of things and put them together, ignoring the fact that they are mutually exclusive. We are not talking about toe-may-toe versus toe-mah-toe here; these are not matters of preference or opinion.

TIME goes on to explain that the transition to being “LGBT-affirming” happened slowly for EastLake. “For the past six months, the church has played a short welcome video at the start of every service that includes the line “Gay or straight here, there’s no hate here.” Ignoring the fact that the line is incredibly cheesy, I would agree that there should not be any hate found within the church toward people. The sinful choices of people, however, should be of concern. No church can be faithfully teaching Scripture and be making homosexuals feel welcome at the same time. Beyond the saccharine tag line, the church’s other efforts at welcoming and affirming homosexuals include the facts that the church’s first gay wedding took place in December, and that “one of the pastors now sends a wedding gift on behalf of the church every time she hears that gay congregants are getting married.” (Therein, too, the TIME author unwittingly provided further evidence of the fact that the church is not really evangelical; just as clear as the Scripture’s teaching that homosexuality is a sin and marriage is between a man and a woman is the teaching that women are not to be pastors).

Ryan Meeks, the pastor of EastLake, says that a “turning-point” for him came when he learned that “one of his staffers had been afraid to tell him she was dating a woman.” Says Meeks, “I refuse to go to a church where my friends who are gay are excluded from Communion or a marriage covenant or the beauty of Christian community. It is a move of integrity for me–the message of Jesus was a message of wide inclusivity.” Sadly, there is no integrity in the “move” at all, since it denies the authority and teaching of the very Scripture it purports to support and uphold. The message of Jesus was widely inclusive in one way–that salvation is a free gift for anyone who believes. At the same time it is incredibly narrow and intolerant in all other ways. After all, Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father but by Me.” There are five resounding statements of intolerance there; Jesus said He is the only way.

I could say plenty more about the contents of the TIME article, and at some point I may. (I have, after all, addressed only the article’s first two paragraphs!). I believe, however, that I have made my point: churches need to be careful about who can become a member, because the members determine the direction of the church. Believers need to be careful about the churches they join, too, so that they do not unknowingly join themselves with a body that does not affirm and teach the Bible. (Encouragingly, the TIME article does point out that EastLake has lost 22% of its income and 800 attendees in the last year and a half, signaling that at least some of its members were unwilling to remain part of a church that no longer taught the Bible). Discernment and caution are imperative.

February 6, 2015

Be churchy

At the beginning of this year a fellow WordPress blogger named Samuel Kee wrote a post entitled “The Church Is Called To Be Churchy, So Deal With It.” He clearly and cleverly explained how ridiculous it is for anyone to complain about a church being “too churchy.” Sam began his post, “I’m sitting in a donut shop. I’ve been here many times and nobody has ever complained about this place, saying, ‘This donut shop is too donutty.’ It’s a donut shop; so you expect it to be donutty. No one ever said that a sporting event was too sporty, a library too booky, a concert too musicy, an airport too planey, a home too homey, a college too schooly, or a hospital too hospitally. Yet, I hear all the time, ‘That church was too churchy.'”

Sam has a point there. After all, with just about any other situation in life, we expect something to be exactly what it purports to be, and if it were anything less we would be concerned, possibly enough to even stop going there. Yet, like Sam, I have heard complaints about churches being too churchy, too. What does that even mean? Presumably it means that churches staying true to their calling tend to make people uncomfortable. “Why do we condemn the church for being about Jesus, your soul, God, spirituality, conviction of sin, heaven, hell, salvation, righteousness, and judgment?” Sam asks. Why indeed. That, after all, is exactly what the church is supposed to be.

God instituted the church to teach His Truth to His people. Church is supposed to be a place where believers gather to learn more about God, the Bible, and the application of biblical principles to everyday life. Church is supposed to be a place where unbelievers go to learn more about God and, hopefully, to meet Him personally. Church is supposed to be a place where those who are hurting can find healing, where those who are searching can find answers, where those who have sinned can find forgiveness and where those who are sinning can find conviction. None of that can truly happen if the church strays from its God-intended purpose. By that, I mean that none of that can happen if the church tries to be a social hub, a community playground, a philosophical society or a self-esteem seminar. All four of those things may become aspects of the church when the church is fulfilling its purpose, but if any of those things become the purpose then all hope is lost.

Frankly, no one should be able to attend church for very long without feeling uncomfortable. I am not talking about the seating, the lighting or the decor; I mean the “you’re stepping on my toes and getting a little too personal now” kind of uncomfortable. That is because the Bible is to be a mirror, and the church is to faithfully preach and teach the Bible. If I can look into a mirror everyday and think I look (physically) just fine, either the mirror is broken, my eyes need to be examined or I’m a little sick in the head. The same goes for the church, spiritually. I have blogged before about why the church should be “uncomfortable.”

“Since some churches actually believe that they should not be churchy, they try to hide their spiritual donuts, if you know what I mean,” Sam writes. “Participants can attend, be fairly comfortable and entertained, without being confronted with too many spiritual matters. Then, right at the end, a little ‘Jesus’ is slipped in.” There are no shortage of churches like that in America, and probably around the world. One of the side effects of living in a country with religious freedom is that we do not have to take our faith seriously in order to dabble in it. If attending church or naming the name of Christ was an offense that could result in persecution, imprisonment or even death, none of us would do it lightly or casually. I am not asking for persecution, because I surely do not want it. But persecution does serve as a purifying fire, separating those who are playing around from those who are serious.

“The church does nobody any favors when it refuses to be churchy. The church needs to be churchy and it must stop apologizing for doing so,” says Sam. “Amen,” says me. If you are attending a church that is not doing what it is supposed to do (see above if you forgot what that is) then you need to have a serious talk with your church leadership and find out why not. If the church leadership is intentionally not doing church the way it needs to be done, and has no intention of changing that, you need to leave and go to a real church. Expect your church to be churchy. Demand it, in fact.

If “churchy” means doing what God called the church to be and do, and not doing whatever seems most likely to attract people and make them feel comfortable, “churchy” is exactly what the church is supposed to be.

February 5, 2015

Belonging

It seems I have been reading a lot recently–and not even because of any intention on my part–about the Church. Some of what I have read is good, some of it not so good. All of it has served to generate at least five blog posts-worth of thoughts, ideas and comments in my head. I have scribbled myself a 24-word note outlining what I hope to address in those five posts, so hopefully I will be able to stick with it and crank out all five by the end of next week at the latest.

This first one will on the topic of belonging to a church. Everyone who has accepted Christ belongs to the Church–the universal body of Christ. But what is it about belonging to a local body of believers? Why does that matter–or does it matter?

On January 29, christianitytoday.com posted an interview between Laura Turner and Erin Lane. Lane is a divinity school graduate, pastor’s wife and a program director at the Center for Courage & Renewal. She is also the author of Lessons in Belonging from a Church-Going Commitment Phobe (IVP, 2014).

When asked why the concept of belonging is so important to the church, Lane said, “We have so many options for connecting with one another and all this pressure to make the most of them. But it’s often the case that the institutions that used to broker these connections—institutions like the church—are losing their influence.” While the church struggles sometimes in handling it, Lane says that one of the major premises of her book (which I have not read), is that “we need to recover some basic practices that remind us of our interdependence.”

That is a crucial point right there–that we are interdependent. That certainly is not what our culture likes to portray, and the idea of needing each other–of needing anyone–is not an overly popular idea. The reality, though, is that God created us for relationships. (Even a relative introvert like myself, who can be perfectly content spending a day alone or driving a thousand miles with someone else in the car without saying a word needs other people!) Try as some of us might, there is simply no denying that need. We may be able to exist without other people, and we may even do it happily for a while, but the long run we would not thrive.

Commenting on this search for belonging, Lane says, “There’s a huge desire to experience belonging in an embodied way. We search for shared interests, like exercise groups—Crossfit, yoga, and Pure Barre. A great deal of belonging is created over food culture and being connoisseurs of things like coffee or beer—for me, it’s cupcakes.” There is nothing wrong with any of that, of course. Lane continues, though: “I worry, though, about whether we’re doing enough to interact with people who don’t inhabit our particular lifestyle enclaves. I don’t see many examples of rich involvement in public spaces that are open to strangers and friends alike. … I think we’re losing some of those rich public spaces where anyone can show up, regardless of fitness or food preferences or economic status and ability to work.” This is what, in Lane’s opinion, makes the church unique. People from all walks of life, all racial and ethnic backgrounds, with diverse hobbies and interests, can come together at church because of their love for God, His Truth and His Church. Nancy Ortberg, in her book Looking for God, describes sitting between two individuals in a church service whose paths would otherwise never cross. One was a high powered attorney and the other a lowly grocery store bagger. If their paths did cross it would have been brief and inconsequential. At church, however, they were on the same playing field; the ground, after all, is level at the foot of the cross.

Lane explains that there are very little things that can be done to encourage and promote a sense of belonging–even as simple as wearing name tags. At a relatively small church where most people know each other than may not be necessary, but it does provide some leveling and it does invite personal interaction. I can remember watching sermons by Michael Youssef at Church of the Apostles in Atlanta and seeing everyone in the (large) congregation wearing name tags. That actually never appealed to me, but that may be because (1) I don’t really like sticking things on my clothes anyway, and (2) sometimes I kinda like being anonymous. As Lane says, though, “There’s something powerful about hearing your name and seeing other people’s names….” I have to agree. I actually make a point to use people’s names often, whether simply saying hello in the hallway or when sending an e-mail. I don’t always do it, but I think I do more often than not. I notice when someone uses my name–and when they don’t. In fact, I remember once being asked, about a church I began attending when I moved to a new town, “what did you like about our church?” I do not know if I had really thought about it before I was asked, but the greeter at the door introduced himself on that first visit and also asked my name. When I went back the next week, he remembered my name–and used it. That struck me.

Lane offers other insights about the importance of church and belonging, including the need to let people be themselves, let people speak freely and a lack of earnestness. Her insights are good. I want to read her book. The bottom line, though, is that we need each other. When we are together with other believers at church we are encouraged. We are challenged. We are sharpened. We may even be convicted. The Bible tells us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together. In other words, we are supposed to go to church! Not because it’s a rule, and not because we will get any bonus points or extra rewards, but because we need each other.

I do not remember where I read or heard this illustration, but it has stuck with me and may be one of the best illustrations of the importance of belonging: charcoal. Yes, charcoal. As in the squarish-looking hunks of black stuff that we bar-b-que enthusiasts squirt with lighter fluid and then set aflame. When they are together, pieces of charcoal generate considerable heat–enough to cook hamburgers, hot dogs, ribs, chicken, fish, whatever. (They look pretty too, with their orange-y glow). Next time you’re around a pile of burning charcoal, though, see what happens if you remove one piece and set it off somewhere by itself. Actually, I suspect you know exactly what will happen. That’s what is likely to happen to us, too, if we stay away from church.

September 11, 2014

“Sloppy Sabbath”

Interestingly, on the same day in which there was an extensive discussion in an online professional networking community of which I am a member regarding the manner in which so many Christians dress today for church or chapel, I also stumbled upon, quite by accident, an article on CNN from this past April entitled “Stop dressing so tacky for church.” The article, by John Blake and appearing on CNN’s Belief Blog, includes a picture to lead the article with the caption “Remember when people used to dress up for church? Casual Friday has now morphed into Sloppy Sabbath.”

Blake introduces his readers to Rev. John DeBonville, rector at the Church of the Good Shepard in Massachusetts, who has a real concern about the overly casual approach being taken by so many today when it comes to church attire. “It’s like some people decided to stop mowing the lawn and then decided to come to church,” he said. “No one dresses up for church anymore.” Blake’s description of the matter goes like this: “They saunter into church in baggy shorts, flip-flop sandals, tennis shoes and grubby T-shirts. Some even slide into the pews carrying coffee in plastic foam containers as if they’re going to Starbucks.”

This is all part of Blake’s introduction, designed to set the stage for the question of what really is appropriate to wear to church, or does it even matter? “The answers to these questions are not as easy as they may seem. The Bible sends mixed messages about the concept of wearing your Sunday best. And when pastors, parishioners and religious scholars were asked the same questions, they couldn’t agree, either,” Blake writes. Where they did find agreement, though, was in the fact that American culture has become more comfortable with sloppy dress in just about every area of life, from the workplace to the grocery store.

Blake allows Jennifer Fulwiler to introduce one reason for this change, one that I find entirely convincing. Reflecting on the fact that her great-grandfather would put on a coat and tie to go to the grocery store and that her grandparents–and many of their generation–would wear their very best clothes to fly on an airplane, Fulwiler comments, “We dress up for what we’re grateful for. We’re such a wealthy, spoiled culture that we feel like we have a right to fly on airplanes.” This mind shift has carried over into church: “Church is like air travel now – it’s no longer a big deal because people have lost their sense of awe before God.” Fulwiler offers the same approach I have used when having this conversation; if someone were invited to meet the Queen of England (her example), it is highly unlikely they would show up in jeans and a T-shirt. Several years ago there was a mild uproar over the fact that some college athletes had attended their meeting with the President of the United States wearing flip-flops for the same reason.

Yet, Blake writes, the idea that the importance one attaches to an occasion is reflected in his or her wardrobe choice is an idea that is “hopelessly old school” in many places in the United States, including many megachurches. Interestingly, though, Blake–whether intentionally or not–proceeds to provide a reason for that that supports the point Fulwiler is making above. “[M]any of the popular megachurch pastors are middle-aged men who bound onto the stage each Sunday dressed in skinny jeans, untucked Banana Republic shirts, and backed by in-house Christian rock bands,” he writes. “They’ve perfected a ‘seeker-friendly’ approach to church that gets rid of the old formal worship style with its stuffy dress codes.” In other words, those who recognize the importance, significance and meaning for coming into the House of the Lord to worship Him have consciously decided to “dress down” so that those who do not recognize that will not fell uncomfortable. I am wholeheartedly opposed to the notion–once common in some churches–that individuals who do not arrive at church dressed in “Sunday best” should be turned away, shunned or chastised in any way. Ones attire cannot be permitted to become a stumbling block that would prevent that person from coming to know the truth of the gospel or the love of God.

Blake next turns back to the other side of the argument, quoting Constance M. Cherry, “an international lecturer on worship and a hymn writer.” She says, “Many young people and boomers judge the value of worship service based on personal satisfaction. If I get to wear flip-flops to Wal-Mart, then I get to wear flip-flops to church. If I get to carry coffee to work, I get to carry coffee to church. They’re being told that come as you are means that God wants you to be comfortable.” Therein lies the real heart of the matter, I believe; a worship service is not about “personal satisfaction.” It is also not about what anyone is wearing, of course, but the external reflects the internal, and those who approach church attendance with a casual “whatever works for me” attitude are quite possible going to approach the Bible and their relationship with God with the same attitude.

Much to my satisfaction, Blake includes in his article this statement regarding the notion that “God wants you to be comfortable”: “The Bible says that’s not true – people had to prepare themselves internally and externally for worship.” Citing Cherry again, Blake points out that in the Old Testament Jews had to be ceremonially clean before entering the temple and that both the Old and New Testaments teach that God should not be approached casually.

Blake also cites Carl Raschke, though, a professor at the University of Denver, who says that the early church did adopt a come-as-you-are approach to attend church and who points to Mark 12:38 where Jesus reproached the Pharisees for their fine clothes. The reality, though, is that Jesus was not mocking or criticizing the Pharisees’ attire. Rather, He was chastising them for focusing so much on the external and ignoring the internal. The Pharisees were masters of looking good without actually being good or doing good. They were all about the show, all about appearing impressive and above others. Jesus took them to task for that and He would do the same today if someone were to show up in church dressed to the nines but completely focused on themselves and impressing others.

Blake points out that others who espouse the come-as-you-are approach to worship point to James 2 in which James instructs the first century church not to show favoritism to those who are well-dressed, giving them preferential treatment over those who are poor or poorly dressed. Again though, James was not condemning dressing up for church; his letter cannot be interpreted to mean that God does not want us to dress well when we gather to worship Him when we are able to do so. Rather, James was condemning the practice of treating those who were well-dressed in a better or preferential manner out of a desire to impress and please the wealthy attendees. There is absolutely no place in Christianity for treating anyone different based solely on their clothing.

Therein lies the root of the issue. What anyone wears to church is not about, should not be about, what anyone else thinks. I dress up for church every Sunday. The only nod I have made to being more casual is that I seldom wear a suit jacket anymore, but it’s always dress pants, dress shirt and tie for me. I am in a very small minority in my church that dresses that way–it is not even unusual for me to be better dressed than the pastor. I often speak in other churches, and it is the exception rather than the rule for there to be anyone else in those churches wearing a tie when I am there. I do not think those in jeans and t-shirts or in khakis and polo shirts are any less holy than me or that I am any more mature in my faith than they are simply because of the difference in our dress, and I certainly hope others do not think I think that or think that I am in any way better because of my attire. I dress up to go to church because I think it’s the right thing to do. If I can wear a tie to work every day there is absolutely no reason I cannot and should not wear one to church. If I will put on my best to attend a wedding or a funeral there is absolutely no reason I should not put on my best to worship Almighty God.

The bottom line is this–I do not think that one’s attire has anything to do with their ability to worship God and I certainly do not think any church should have a dress code. I am sure that there are Sundays when those in t-shirts are more in tune with the Lord or receive more from the service than I do in my tie. So please do not interpret anything I am saying here to mean that I think you better get your act together and start dressing for church. What I do think is that you should take time to ask yourself why you dress the way you do when you go to church. If you dress up, is it because you are doing so as an act of worship and as a reflection of your attitude toward the Lord, or is it so that you can impress others? If you dress casually, is it so that you can be comfortable or because you don’t think God cares what you wear anyway, or is it because church is just one more place to go, no different than any other activity?

I’m not judging you and I hope you’re not judging me…but we should all take the time to judge ourselves and take a look at why we dress the way we do. God doesn’t really care about the clothes themselves, but He does care about the why.

November 15, 2013

A budding star?

Last week the Washington Post ran a story on Nadia Bolz-Weber entitled “Bolz-Weber’s liberal, foulmouthed articulation of Christianity speaks to fed-up believers.” You may have heard of Bolz-Weber; she wrote a New York Times bestseller entitled Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint. I actually had not heard of her until a colleague showed by the Washington Post article. Unfortunately, what I learned from reading that article and then exploring a bit more online has left me no choice but to comment on Bolz-Weber’s–shall we say, unique–approach to Christianity. No doubt the title of the article mentioned above is enough to clue you in to the attitude she takes.

The Post article calls Bolz-Weber a “budding star for the liberal Christian set.” It describes her appearance this way: “Her 6-foot-1 frame is plastered with tattoos, her arms are sculpted by competitive weightlifting and, to show it all off, this pastor is wearing a tight tank top and jeans.” That is a unique appearance indeed for any pastor, male or female. And while I may not be a fan of a black tank top with clerical collar, Bolz-Weber’s appearance in and of itself probably would not have prompted me to blog about her.

The Post article provides a very quick recap of Bolz-Weber’s life thus far: “A quick tour through her 44 years doesn’t seem likely to wind up here. It includes teen rebellion against her family’s fundamentalist Christianity, a nose dive into drug and alcohol addiction, a lifestyle of sleeping around and a stint doing stand-up in a grungy Denver comedy club.” Going from that kind of life experience to graduating from seminary and pastoring a church would make a dynamic testimony to be sure. And apparently Bolz-Weber has that. Interestingly enough, the Post article also includes several statements that I found encouraging. For example: “The type of social liberals who typically fill the pews of mainline churches sometimes feel like outsiders among fellow liberals in their lives if they are truly believing Christians; if they are people who really experience Jesus and his resurrection, even if they can’t explain it scientifically; if they are people who want to hear words from the Apostles in church, not Thich Nhat Hanh or Barack Obama.” While I personally struggle to reconcile biblical Christianity with many of the positions espoused by social liberals, the point that church should be a place for people who are truly believing Christians and who actually want to hear the Bible preached, not some pop psychology drivel, encourages me.

The article goes on to state this: “In her body and her theology, Bolz-Weber represents a new, muscular form of liberal Christianity, one that merges the passion and life-changing fervor of evangelicalism with the commitment to inclusiveness and social justice of mainline Protestantism.” That is, for the most part, exactly the kind of merging I think is needed in the church today. The “life-changing fervor of evangelicalism” is what the Gospel is all about, and it must not be abandoned or ignored. At the same time, there is a very real need for Christians to work for social justice and serve the poor and live out their faith. I cannot embrace the statement above in its entirety since “inclusiveness” is a not-so-subtle reference to accepting homosexuality, and while homosexuals need to be loved and treated with dignity, the homosexual lifestyle cannot be accepted by anyone who believes that the Bible is the Word of God and means what it says.

But the article follows the statement above with this one: “She’s a tatted-up, foul-mouthed champion to people sick of being belittled as not Christian enough for the right or too Jesus-y for the left.” Even putting the tattoos aside, the idea that someone can effectively represent and present the Gospel with a foul mouth is dumbfounding to me. Of her use of language generally not heard until late hours on television, let alone in church, Bolz-Weber says, “I don’t think church leaders should pretend to be something they’re not.” I would agree with that. I would also suggest, however, that deciding that being foul-mouthed is simply who she is instead of working to change that part of her life is not only inconsistent with Scripture but demonstrates a contradiction to what she also claims to believe–that the Gospel has life-changing power. God accepts and loves us as we are, but He does not expect us to stay that way. As we grow in relationship with Him, as we progress in sanctification, we should become less and less like the world and more and more like Christ. There is a reason that the language Bolz-Weber is known for using is called profanity–and that is because it is profane! That which is profane has no place in the life of a believer, much less in church.

The Post says Bolz-Weber’s message is this: “Forget what you’ve been told about the golden rule — God doesn’t love you more if you do good things, or if you believe certain things. God, she argues, offers you grace regardless of who you are or what you do.” Yes, God does offer grace, and no, God does not love anyone more for doing good things. But forget the golden rule? The golden rule, as it is commonly known, is a commandment from Jesus. This is exactly the way in which Christians are supposed to live. Living this way is how people will know we are Christians! When Jesus gave the golden rule he was turning the way the religious leaders of His day had taught completely upside down. Prior to Jesus, the teaching was not to do to others what you would not want them to do to you. That’s a good idea, of course, but it is a negative command, not a positive one. You could go through life never doing anything to anyone else that you would not want them to do to you and at the same time never doing anything nice, never performing any act of service, never demonstrating love to another person. I can go through life and never hit you upside the head, for example, but that is and of itself is not enough–that is not what Jesus has called us to do.

Continuing on through the Post article I again find moments of encouragement and times when I think “Right on!” Shortly thereafter, though, I am again confronted with times that make me think, “Are you serious?” For example: “Bolz-Weber says she abhors ‘spirituality,’ which she sees as a limp kind of self-improvement plan. She prefers a cranky, troublemaking and real God who at times of loss and pain doesn’t have the answers either.” Whoa! Hold on now… The God of the Bible is not cranky. Cranky implies moodiness, instability, emotions based on fluctuating feelings. God is none of those things. Yes, God gets angry, but He is angered by sin. He does not get angry because He did not get enough sleep or because He spilled His coffee or because he is stuck in traffic. And the God of the Bible is never without answers. Scripture makes it clear that He is omniscient–all knowing. If He knows all things than there can never be an answer He does not know. Surely there are times when He does not give us all the answers, but that is entirely different from Him not having them.

In a September’s issue of USC’s Religion Dispatches magazine Bolz-Weber was interviewed by Candace Chellew-Hodge, the founder/editor of an online magazine for GLBT Christians, pastor of a church in South Carolina, and author of a “Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians.” In the interview Bolz-Weber says that she was “allowed not to die in exchange for working for God. I’d have to become God’s bitch.” That word refers by definition, of course, to a female dog, but it is a slang word for a variety of things, including “a person who performs demeaning tasks for another; servant.” While being a servant of God is a good thing, the connotation of the word is entirely different from what the Bible has in mind when it describes serving God. Bolz-Weber, no doubt, uses the word for shock value. Later in the same interview, when discussing how God used worked through flawed people in the Bible, Bolz-Weber said, “All God’s favorite people are f_____d up.” Again, the word is slang, and even if Bolz-Weber’s basic message is on target the way in which she presents it is a turn off–it’s offensive. Dictionary.com says of that word, “For many people, the word is extremely vulgar, considered improper and taboo in all of its senses.” In other words, it is certainly not the way to present the Gospel!

Nadia Bolz-Weber has some valuable insights into Christianity and, at times, she is right on. Unfortunately, her desire to be “real” means that she is in many instances actually offensive herself. The message of the Gospel is an offense to the world; the Bible promises us that. Accordingly, there will be times when the messengers of the Gospel are offensive to the world, too. We must be careful, however, to limit our offense to the message, not to our careless handling of it. We must be careful not to confuse God’s acceptance of us for who we are with His acceptance of us staying there. And we must be extremely careful not to present the God of the Bible as someone that He is not.

February 10, 2012

Making Church Uncomfortable

I’ll just come right out and say it: I don’t think churches should be trying to make people comfortable.

It crossed my mind to end today’s entry right there, but I suppose I should explain. Attempts to make church more user-friendly or seeker-sensitive has been going on for quite a while, and has been getting considerable attention for more than a decade now. And despite the bestselling books and megachurches that would contradict me, I have long been of the conviction that if I can sit in church Sunday after Sunday and never feel uncomfortable then there is a serious problem. Specifically, either the church is not preaching the whole Word of God or I am not listening to what is being preached.

Why do I say that? Well, for one, the Bible makes it pretty clear that the cross and the message of the gospel are an offense to the world. Have you ever felt comfortable being offended? I didn’t think so. If the church is preaching the gospel message, sinners will be convicted, offended, and uncomfortable. Second, even believers continue to sin and to have areas of their lives where improvement and spiritual growth is needed, so even individuals who are no longer offended by the cross should feel conviction in church from time to time. Quite frankly, we shouldn’t be able to read the Bible without getting uncomfortable once in a while, so why should I expect to be able to sit in church and be comfy?

Now, there are arguments–many of them–in favor of reaching out to people. Jesus did not just sit in the temple and wait for people to come to Him; rather, He went out into the streets and villages and sought out those who needed to hear His message. We need to meet people where they are, right? Right. I agree. But that is an incomplete idea. Jesus did go find people where they were, but He showed them their need and He did not leave them there. There may well be times when churches as corporate bodies and believers as individuals need to go to the world, or design events to draw in the world, but those should be limited strategies designed to expose the unbelievers to the Truth. I simply cannot find evidence in Scripture for the notion that we should become more and more like the world in an effort to reach the world.

Yet, that is exactly what many churches are doing. There was an article on USATODAY.com yesterday called “Churches go less formal to make people comfortable.” Right off the bat the article quotes Ron Williams, pastor of Church at the GYM in Sanford, FL: he says the goal of their church is to “remove the ‘stained-glass barriers’ for people who might not be comfortable in traditional church settings. ‘I think all the trappings of traditional religion can make it difficult for people to start coming. You can invite someone, and they will say, “I don’t have any clothes to wear to church.”‘” There is some truth in that, and I firmly believe that no church should turn someone away or look down on someone for coming to church in attire that may not measure up to what others in the church usually wear. There is no room for that kind of judgmental attitude in the church. On the other hand, to intentionally dress in an overly casual manner just because (1) it makes you comfortable, or (2) you want to avoid making someone else feel uncomfortable is not appropriate. My personal conviction is that I go to the Lord’s house to worship Him, and He is worthy of my best, so I will dress accordingly. To me, to dress better for work or a family reunion that I will to go to church just doesn’t make sense. However, I have learned to respect others’ convictions on this, too, and since I cannot show you chapter and verse that “thou shalt wear thy Sunday best” every time you go to church I don’t make a big deal about it. But please keep in mind that while you might be uncomfortable coming to church in dress pants and a tie, I might be equally uncomfortable coming in jeans and a t-shirt!

The USA Today article goes on to discuss the number of churches popping up in “non-traditional spaces” around the U.S., such as “movie theaters, skating rinks, strip malls and old warehouses, among others.” I don’t have a big issue with where churches meet. I think what the church believes and preaches and does is far more important than where the church meets. So this is a non-issue to me.

But the article goes on to discuss a church called The Bridge in Flint, Michigan that is in a strip mall. The church’s latest example of “want[ing] to be relevant to people’s lives” was to open a tattoo parlor. It likely won’t surprise you to know that I think that goes too far. Regardless of whether or not you or I personally have tattoos and/or have strong opinions on the increasing popularity of them, there is no denying that tattoos have traditionally been associated predominantly with people and behaviors who are not consistent with a Christian message. Maybe the church’s tattoo parlor has a policy of only providing Christian or unoffensive tattoos, I don’t know, but I don’t think that’s the point. Why does the Church feel the need to take what the world has to offer and “Christianize it” in an effort to reach the world?

I think there is plenty of evidence to support my assertion that more often than not, when the world tries to get more of the world by becoming more like the world it is the world that gets more of the church. More often than not the message of the gospel is compromised and watered down so as not to be offensive. (We want people to be comfortable, remember?)

I believe that you will find the strongest believers and the most effective churches are ones that are easily and clearly differentiated from the world. (Of course, we will have to define what it means to be an effective church in order to have that discussion, but that will have to wait for another day). And I think you will find that, generally speaking, the world is looking for something that is genuine and real, not something that has to disguise itself or adopt worldly methods in order to attract people.

So, think what you want, but my original statement stands–I don’t think churches should be trying to make people comfortable.

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