Monthly Archives: May 2015

Churches Stuck in a Rut, or Transformed?

 

I once preached a sermon called “Stuck in Schadenfreude”   Schadenfreude?    What does that mean?   It’s a German word that says in one word that “we find satisfaction and pleasure in the troubles of others”!   For mainline churches today who are dwindling in number Schadenfreude is found in such statements as this one that we often hear in our churches:   “Well, our membership may be shrinking but the same is true for all mainline churches and evangelicals and Catholics and Jews and megachurches.   Our numbers are down but their membership numbers are worse!   Schadenfreude.   Instead of seeking to get out of the rut, we just say, well others are in the same rut. It can’t be us, because they are worse than we are in numbers  and we take some pleasure that other churches are suffering like our church and argue that it is not our fault and that it must be attributed to this “new generation” of millenials who have no sense of dedication or commitment.  Our refusal to get out of the rut we’re in as churches is what the new generation is seeing.

Yes, it IS due to the new generation.  They see institutional religion as hypocritical, negative, uncaring, focused on membership and not reaching out to others in the community,  not spiritual,   anti-homosexual,  anti-abortion, but not really pro-anything except supporting right-wing Republicans;  and therefore irrelevant to their generation and to our society in general.  .    We may disagree with their definition of us as a church, but poll after poll after survey shows that is the thinking of our new generation.

We see this thinking also  in a rising majority of other than young  people who say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.”   They are really saying that the present institutional church does not offer what they feel they really need—-a connection with God and with other people that we would call a spiritual connection to God and neighbor.    Most surveys show that what people are longing for is “community”  and “spirituality“.   They have heard that the church is supposed to be made up of followers of Jesus Christ who model their lives and actions after his love for people, for the outcasts.  for the sick and lame, for the poor.   Instead they see an institution that sits on soft cushions in air conditioned sanctuaries once a week and say they are disciples of Jesus.

These people are telling the churches something and churches need to listen carefully to what they are saying.   What they are saying is that churches need to be transformed into the image of the Christ, whose name we bear.

Looking back at recent history of the Christian Churches in the U.S. we see that in the middle of the 20th century Christianity boomed  and the churches were full after World War II.  Mainline churches, out of necessity, needed to become better organized institutions to deal with the large numbers.  We chose to   pattern our churches in a similar way that the business model of General Motors was patterned.   Our churches grew corporate headquarters with program divisions, church development, professional marketing departments, professional development and career paths, executive guidance,  and layers of staff and committees to make decisions all reporting to a Board of Directors. The same patterns were copied by local churches with Boards of Directors, a complicated committee system, professional leaders of worship and music and Christian Education, etc. etc. that reported to the committees who were responsible to the  Board.   We still try to maintain this pattern even though it no longer works.

And just like General Motors became bloated with all its organizational structure, local and national churches became bloated with committees that stifled creativity and began to focus on maintaining the institution, building large churches, expanding, expanding—-and in the midst of all of this, the churches forgot what their mission was.   The mission of being disciples of Jesus was lost.   As Diana Butler Bass says in her book Christianity after Religion      ” the business of the church replaced he mission of the church.”

When customers of General Motors began to become discontented with the high-priced and poorly engineered  gas hogs being produced at the time of the first gasoline crisis, they quit buying General Motors Cars and went in droves to Japanese  car-makers.   General Motors over-organization caused them to not be able to keep up with the creativity of competing auto manufacturers because of all the layers of organization  they had to go through before changes could be made—-and GM lost much of their market share, so that they were teetering on the edge of bankruptcy by the time the Great Recession hit in 2007.  They had to transform themselves in order to become competitive.

When the first decade of the 21st century hit, religious institutions found themselves with the same problem.   After 9/11 people flocked to churches in droves, but they did not find what they sought and quickly became disillusioned.  Because the business of the church had  replaced the mission of the church, people began leaving and numbers dwindled and the big business model of GM was no longer what was needed.   There was rising discontent with what the institutional churches were offering people.  People registered that discontent by walking away from the institutional church in ever larger numbers or went church shopping and found no improvements, so were in and out of churches, looking for what they needed but not finding it.   The discontent is reflected in the summary of many surveys found in  the first and second paragraphs of this post,  and resulted in the decline of the institutional church—all institutional churches.

What to do?    Churches must get out of their rut and  transform themselves.   They  must redefine their mission as not being that of maintaining church buildings but of working for social and economic justice for the poor and the outcasts of society.   They  must seek and provide ways of connecting people to God in spiritual  communities that are not over-organized institutions but are communities of faith where people can find God and can seek to help each other live in a spiritual community that seeks to carry out the mission that Jesus carried out in his ministry.   As the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome:  Do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—-what is good and acceptable and perfect”.  (Rom. 12:1-2)

If  the institutional church remains stuck in the rut of “but we have always done it this way” (the seven deadly words of the church) , it will slowly  die.

Diana Butler Bass tells of receiving a New Year’s greeting in 2010 from a friend, with the greeting wishing her “the gift of discontent”.  Enclosed with the greeting was this prayer:

O God, make me discontented with things the way they are in the world and in my own life.   Make me noticed the stains when people get spilled on.   Make me care about the slum child downtown, the misfit at work, the people crammed into the mental hospital, the men, women and youth behind bars.  Jar my complacency, expose my excuses, get me involved in the life of my city and world.  Give me integrity once more, O God, as we seek to be changed and transformed, with a new understanding and awareness of our common humanity.”

Perhaps we need as a church to pray often this prayer of discontent.

 

Throw-away People

 

On the northwest side of Wichita, just as you are leaving the city is a site known by the natives as “Mount Wichita”.     It has several “peaks” and on one side of the highway it is covered with grass, with pipes sticking out in various places to vent the gas.   On the other side it is a “work in progress” as daily it continues to grow higher and wider as trash trucks make their way to the top of it and discard our “throw-aways.”.

We are a “throw-away culture” in America.    Our landfills expand almost exponentially and our factories put out items that are meant to wear out in a few years so we will buy new ones.    A sign of this is the offer of an extended warranty when we buy such things as dish washers and clothes washers.   If the items were made as we know how to make them they would not need such warranties.

If our present equipment does not wear out soon enough, then advertisers are always there, on billboards, in newspapers and magazines, on TV and the internet,  to convince us that we must have the newest and the latest gizmo—whether it be a new iPhone or a kitchen gadget.  We feed this highly productive machine with the lives of people who are paid low or sub-minimum wages, part time, and with no benefits.   They are essential to the production, either here or abroad, but they reap none of the benefits.   When they wear out they have no healthcare available and so we discard them just like the products and services they help produce.     

In increasing numbers these “throw-away people ” can be seen on the streets of our cities, under the bridges of our metropolitan areas.   They are carrying everything they own on their backs.  Their eyes are dulled by alcohol or drugs or just by loss of hope and the resulting despair.   They trudge from one place to another in our cities because they have no real place to go—-to call home.     Thus we let them hide from us on the streets and under bridges, because really seeing them makes us feel guilty—-we throw away more food in a day than they may have had to eat in a week.  We try to feed them and care for them, but we don’t address the real reason they are there.  Increasingly we let our government and our economy discard them by not addressing the problems in our government and economic system that keep them on the rubbish pile of our civilization.  Problems such as much higher minimum wages, health care, education, etc.    These people are “throw-aways“.   We say that they are just trying to “use the system“, but in reality they are victims of a system that keeps them in poverty in so many different ways.   Until we do something and address the ways that they are kept in poverty by our government and our economic system working in concert against them, they will remain “throw-aways.”

Pope Francis said it well in these words:   “I can say, we can all say, that the main cause of poverty is an economic system that has canceled the person from the center and set money in its place; an economic system that excludes, always excludes:   excludes children, the elderly, young people, the unemployed…and that creates the throw-away culture we live in.   We are becoming accustomed to seeing people discarded.”

In Kansas we also have a state legislature and governor who work together with businesses to make sure these people stay where they are—-that they remain “throw-aways”.    God forgive us!  Christians have forgotten that it was to the “throw-aways” of his culture that Jesus ministered  to on a daily basis. 

Schools are not Factories

The big word in the vocabulary of legislators, school boards,  and even Presidents as far as Education goes is “accountability”.    Teachers and schools must be held accountable for the “product” they produce.    In that word “product” is the fallacy of this entire approach.    I call it the Factory Approach to Education.   It is based on several false assumptions.

First,the Factory Approach to Education assumes that students (human beings) are the raw material that are fed into the factory (schools) and out of that should come a product (graduate) that meets quality standards of production (learning).  One of the problems with this approach that immediately becomes manifest to teachers, but few others it seems, is that each item of this raw material (student) is uniquely different.   There is no quality control on the raw materials—-public schools must take whoever is in their district that shows up at their door.   Among those are homeless children;  children from abusive homes;  children from education-friendly homes who have been to pre-school and early learning programs and children whose first exposure to learning is when they enter Kindergarten or First Grade;  children who have books and magazines in their homes and those who do not;  children who have traveled extensively and those who have never been away from their home town; children who have moved frequently  from school to school and children who have always attended the same schools in their district from K-12;  children who have learning disabilities and children who are academically gifted.  The list could go on and on….

You get the idea—-each child in the list above has differing needs.    To take all these different children and somehow come out with the same quality product (i.e. student)  is equivalent to a factory owner trying to use all kinds of different quality raw material over which they have no control,   and still being able to produce a  quality product each and every time.    That doesn’t happen!   There is no machinery that can be built that would be able to do this and produce a quality product with every run, without control of the quality and kind of material to be used.  It cannot be done!    The saying goes that  “it is difficult to produce silk cloth out  of a sows ear” remains true for factories.    In schools,  teachers are asked to produce silk cloth each and every time out of all kinds of ears, not just sows’ ears!   And we tell them we will hold them accountable for each student.   We even try to base their evaluation on meeting this quality control standard as defined b y standardized tests.  It seems laughable when portrayed in the above words, but truly it is sad, ignorant, and dangerous to our public schools, our teachers who are excellent and and the children they labor with each day to help them learn and achieve.  We should be praising our teachers and schools for dealing with what they deal with each day instead of criticizing them for not meeting some external quality control standard.  Thomas Jefferson, one of our”founding fathers’ held that democracy is impossible without a well-educated populace.   Have we forgotten this?   When he said “well–educated” he was asking for more than students being able to pass standardized tests in reading, writing, and arithematic.

I would  also mention to lawmakers and school boards and our Kansas governor that “accountability” is a two-sided coin.   Our Kansas lawmakers and governor  want to hold teachers and schools “accountable” but they themselves  remain “unaccountable”  for the lack of funding of these schools and the low salaries of the teachers.   Indeed Kansas is even taking away the tenure that protects good teachers as much or more than bad ones.    Yet, this year in Kansas  with block funding, school and teachers are being  told to be accountable but legislators are lacking accountability in providing money to educate children as teachers and school districts know how to do.

Children are human beings.   They are all unique.   Our schools teach them much more than reading, writing, and arithematic.  These extra learnings outside of academic learnings  are not testable by multiple choice tests designed to hold teachers and schools “accountable”.  

Schools teach children values.   They teach them how to get along with each other.   They teach them how to learn for a lifetime.   They socialize chiildren by teaching them our culture and school them in our democracy and democratic society and government.   They teach patriotism and also the way to criticize  our country—something  which a true patriot will do.   Schools teach human beings—-human beings are not products to be shaped all in the same way  in a factory system but are to be cared for and nurtured so that they develop to the greatest extent their own unique potential!

A Mother’s Love….

I am reposting this for Mother’s Day from last year and will do so each year.  Hope you enjoy reading it as a reminder.

There is a common answer given by most people who have performed an heroic, life-threatening deed in order to save another human being.   In response to the inevitable question by a TV report asking “What did you feel when you were doing that?” the answer is usually “I really felt nothing.”

For example, a stranger who helped pull three children from a burning car answered the question about how he felt with the words:   “I didn’t even think about it.  It was happening so fast, and I knew I just had to get them out of there.”   Another example is the mother who lifted a tree that had pinned her son’s leg:   “I didn’t even feel how heavy it was—-until I put it down.”

You see, when love, care, and compassion for another take over completely, it is expressed in actions, not feelings.   Love is action!  Genuine love always leaps before it looks!    

That is exactly the love we celebrate on Mother’s Day this coming weekend—love in action.   Love is the force behind all the meals Mom prepares and prepared for us;  love is behind the chauffered trips to soccer, baseball, ballet, piano lesson, etc.   Love is behind all of those good-night books read to sleepy children by a tired mom at the end of a long day; love is behind all the walks and talks—-and all the other things that Mom’s do today and did in the past.    Our mothers may have not told us they loved us very often, but we knew from their actions as we look back on them how much they did love and care for us and still do if we are blessed enough to still have them with us.

So—on Mother’s Day try to do something that shows how much you love and appreciate your mother.   Don’t just tell her we love her, but DO SOMETHING TO SHOW YOUR LOVE.!

Shortly before Jesus’ death he gave his disciples a new commandment  (See John 13:31-35)     He told them to “show your love”.   He said “Love one another as I have loved you.”   He said, “By your love for each other they will know you are my disciples.”   And the love Jesus recommended was action oriented.   Jesus showed people his care for them by healing, teaching, and showing them his compassion—not just talking about it!  

How do we measure up to this commandment of love—-by our actions—not our words.   

Let me give you an example from my own life.   One Christmas, not too long after our daughter Lisa was married, my wife (now deceased) and I received a frame letter from her.   It says, in part…

“THANK YOU….

for staying together.   there are so few children today who have two parents.   Through your commitment to each other in good times and bad times you have taught me that love does not give up and it does not leave.   I saw modeled in you that love is a choice, not always a feeling.

thank you for lots of hugs and love.   You taught me that showing affection is a good thing and that I should never be embarrassed to say “I love you”.   Your affection shown to one another assured me that all was well in the world…

Thank you, Mom and Dad, for patiently persevering and loving me unconditionally even when I was the most stubborn and difficult to be around.   The love, sacrifice, and commitment you have shown me has not gone unnoticed.

You have laid a foundation in my life of security, confidence and love that has enabled me to love and be loved.   I am seeing the value of this foundation in my marriage and also in my most important relationship with God….”

This framed letter is one of my most important possessions.  It shows how love for each other influences those around us, including our children.

ARE WE DOING THIS?   Not always!   As this story indicates:

The story is told about a Los Angeles police officer who pulled a driver over to the side of the freeway and asked for his license and registration.

“What’s wrong officer?” the driver asked, “I didn’t go through any red lights, and I certainly wasn’t speeding.”

“No you weren’t speeding or breaking any laws, the officer said:   “but I saw you flashing the one-fingered salute as you swerved around the lady who was driving too slow in the center lane, and I further observed your flushed and angry face as you shouted unprintable things at the driver of the Hummer who cut you off, and I saw how you pounded your steering wheel when the freeway traffic ground to a halt.”

“Is that a crime, officer?”

“No, but when I saw the “JESUS LOVES YOU AND SO DO I” bumper sticker on your car, I figured, “This car has go to be stolen!”

LOVE IS LESS WHAT YOU SAY AND FEEL THAN IT IS WHAT YOU DO!   Amen.

 

 

 

Crazy Churches!!

One of the things that Jesus was accused of was being crazy. Here was a homeless, self-made rabbi from Nazareth, with no authentic credentials from a Rabbinic school, who  was challenging the religious leaders by his actions that flaunted the laws of the Torah by reaping on the Sabbath and healing the sick on the Sabbath.   This man was  advocating for the poor by speaking against the economic domination of the poor by the rich in his society.      He was touching the “untouchable lepers” and healing them.  He was restoring sight to the blind. He was referring to himself as Son of God, which was one of the specific titles of the Roman Emperor.   He was healing people and casting out demons and talking about a Kingdom of God that he taught and modeled in his life.  That Kingdom of God  was completely different from the present conditions—it was  ruled by God and not by the emperor or king.  And the Kingdom of God was one of justice and fairness to all.    I really believe if Jesus came and  said and did similar things today in our world we would think he was crazy also.   You see, when anyone is truly filled with the Spirit of God as Jesus was, they will always disturb and disrupt our sane and structured world by their words and actions.   Jesus was filled with the Spirit and he did exactly that!

By what he said and by his actions Jesus was drawing an uncomfortable amount of attention to himself.   As a result,  two groups —those closest to him (his family) — and those most threatened by him (scribes and Pharisees)  began to ask the same question:   “Is this guy crazy?”  “Has he lost his mind?”   In the third chapter of Mark we read  that  Jesus’ family showed up while he was teaching large crowds and asked to see him.   They had come seeking “to restrain him, for people were saying ‘he’s gone out of his mind!'”   (Mark 3:21)

The other group, the scribes and Pharisees accused him of being demon-possessed and doing his work through the prince of demons—Beelzebul.   In their minds he was crazy and dangerous and should be put away.

It makes me wonder what would happen if the church, referred to as the “body of Christ”  by the Apostle Paul would go “crazy” like the one who is their head—Jesus the Christ?    And then I ask myself—-what would that “crazy church look like?”    What if the church today embraced the craziness of the gospel as shown in the life and teachings of Jesus?   What if,  rather than worrying about fitting in with the society they are apart of, the church didn’t care what society thought of them and instead were bearers of the message that Jesus brought through their actions?   What would that church look like?

What if some of the churches sold their beautiful buildings and sound and projection equipment, their comfortable air conditioning and heat, and their padded pews and utilized  the money to aid the poor, to minister to the sick and outcasts of society,  as Jesus did to his own society.   What if churches began to meet in   old buildings downtown that were vacant so that they could encourage each other and spend their time serving the homeless, the poor, etc instead of spending their time keeping up their building and paying huge utility bills?    Crazy!!!

What if the church started ministries that did more than entertain the children and educate the adults, but that pursued the prostitutes and help them out of their business by working with them to rid themselves of their addictions.  What if the church focused on rescuing addicts with no regard for their own church’s reputation?    Crazy!!!!

What if the church used their buildings and moneys to feed and house the homeless,  to offer clothing to the poor,  to provide dental and medical care to those who can’t afford it?      Crazy!!!

What if the church became politically active and demanded changes in the economic and political domination systems of our day, where the few dominate the many economically and politically.   What if churches descended on legislatures en masse  at state and national levels and demanded specific justice and fairness for all and not just for the privileged few?   What if the church demanded new laws that paid workers a living wage as a minimum wage?   What if the churches demanded that laws  treat the indigent with respect?     Crazy!!!

What if the church sent its members out into the community to pick up and bring to the church for worship those wandering the streets in their city on Sunday morning?  What if they gave them a special place down front, and then  invited them to their individual homes for dinner after church? Or to a fellowship dinner at their church?    Crazy!!!

If churches started doing the above, our society would think they were “out of their minds”, “crazy”  and just plain nuts!    May God give the church the will to be as crazy as Christ!!   Amen