Tag Archives: Kingdom of God

Termites in our Churches

Do our churches have “church termites”?   Are you one of them?   Termites eat away the structure of a house from within.   Not until the structure is almost a shell does their work begin to show.   “Church termites” are very similar.   Alert!  Alert!   Their work is beginning to show!    Many of our churches are just shells of what they once were.   They have gone from being vibrant, sturdy, and involved  structures meeting the needs of their congregations, community and world, to just shells of what they once were.

What happened?  Of course to answer that question completely  would require a book, but I want to focus on a very subtle thing that has caused much of the destruction of the church—-the existence of “church termites“.  The question is:   What is a “church termite”.   You may not have to look any further than your own mirror to see one!

Just look for a “comfortable Christian” and you’ve found one!   Most churches are full of them. Here are a few ideas of what to look for to find them:

Look for a church that does not challenge its congregation to its mission of practicing the Great Commandment-–in fact that has lost memory of what it’s real mission is about. ( See Matthew 22:36-39 for the great commandment in case your memory is poor in this area).   Carrying out the Great Commandment is not a comfortable thing to do.   The challenge of “loving your neighbor as yourself”  is not a comfortable challenge.   It is a formidable challenge.

Look for a church members who don’t have time to do Bible Studies because they must do other things they consider more important—-almost anything is more important!  The church usually has lowest priority  among the demands for their time and talent and money instead of highest priority.  Termites at work!

Look for church budgets passed by termites that spend most of the money given to the church upon their congregations and very little  on community outreach, social justice for the homeless, or carrying out their mission of proclaiming the good news Jesus proclaimed.      These budgets  prefer making sure everyone of their congregation is sitting in comfortable pews in air conditioned comfort once a week to going into the community in the name of Jesus every day and showing by their life the Way of Jesus.   They prefer improvements to their buildings.   They spend thousands in maintenance and upkeep of their building   and pennies, in comparison, for Week of Compassion,  community outreach,  the poor, the homeless, the outcasts.   More termites at work!

Look for churches who have no children’s Christian  education program because everyone is too busy with other things to teach children about Jesus.   All those people who are too busy are seeking their own comfort, not following Jesus as a disciple, and  are among the termites chewing away on their church.

Jesus did not call his disciples to a life of comfort sitting in a padded pew with air conditioning  and listening to beautiful music.   He called his disciples to serve, telling them that “the greatest among you will be the servant of all.”  .   He called them to follow him into the world of his day.   To heal.   To help.  To proclaim God’s love for all of his creation and his children.   Jesus did not tell them that to be his disciple they had to make sure they were comfortable.   He said that “if you  would be my disciple, you must take up your cross daily  and follow me.”   Carrying a cross is not comfortable.   Following Jesus is not comfortable as he went a lot of places we would prefer not to go.   Most of the members of our congregations would take this challenge by saying—-well, if that’s what you want—count me out!   They are “church termites”.

This attitude of seeking “my comfort” is destroying our churches.   More and more we see the effect of this attitude as our church buildings remain intact and solid but the congregations dwindle and eventually die within their comfortable buildings as the membership thinks only of their comfort and not their mission as a church.   For the church is not a building—it is a living, breathing body of people who seek to become disciples and followers of Jesus, the Christ.   If that is not their purpose then they have no purpose.

Where are your priorities?    Are you a “comfortable Christian”?     Or are you one of the termites that is destroying the church from within?

 

 

 

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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.

 

Is “Bigger Better” in Churches?

 

In America today we want everything “supersized”—-from our french fries at McDonalds to our huge houses where only two people reside..   We seem to live by the slogan:   “Bigger is Better!”  But is it?    I’d like to examine that question in relation to the size of churches.   Are megachurches more successful than small churches?

Those of us who have  attended  church  conventions know that the featured speakers and most of the workshop leaders will be  pastors from large churches.   Somehow  the “rank and file” seem to think that because they are large megachurch pastors they have all the answers and are personally successful as well as leaders of successful churches, and so we come to see what crumbs of wisdom they might cast our way that will help us and our small churches be”successful” like they are.—meaning having large membership numbers and a campus of buildings.   That these pastors are good administrators is a given here.   That they have a good deal of charisma and are deliver good sermons  is usually true.   That they have answers to the question of how to build a megachurch and manage it is also true.   Their churches offer tons of programs for children and adults—from support groups for people with various problems to children’s ministry and everything in between.   But are a variety of programs offered to attract large numbers of people to their church a measure of success as  Jesus defined success?  I’m not so sure of this—and that is the question we examine today.

I’m leading a Home Fellowship Group in a Bible Study of the Gospel of Mark.   At our last session we discussed this question of “supersize” as Jesus seemed to see it.   He accepted the large crowds he attracted—some so large along the Sea of Galilee that he acquired a boat to get in so he would not be crushed by the crowds seeking to touch him and be healed.   But Jesus tends to see those crowds as no reason for gratification.   He feels that many of them are there for the wrong reason, to be healed of their infirmities and to see the miraculous.   Jesus heals them and has compassion for them, but  proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God is his main mission.   That proclamation is his main mission because it  has the power to transform people’s lives,  and sometimes people who are only seeking physical healing and entertainment  can get in the way of that proclamation.

I think the Parable of the Sower in Chapter 4 of the Gospel of Mark shows the way he feels about the crowds he attracts.   You can read it in Mark 4: 1-9.   Sowing grain in that day was done by throwing it from right to left by hand.   Because of that there was no control over where the actual seeds landed on the ground.   Jesus says some seed fell on pathways and the birds came and ate it.   Some seed fell on rocky ground where there was not enough soil to support it and when it came up it had shallow roots and the sun scorched it and killed it. Some seed fell among thorns and weeds and they choked it the plant out before it could get established.  But some seed fell on good soil  and it brought forth grain that multiplied it one hundredfold.

Jesus saw the crowds to whom he sought to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God in the same way.    Only a small portion of the crowd would actually be transformed by the good news of the Kingdom of God.   The rest would let other things choke it out of their lives and die unchanged.  Thus I feel Jesus was not impressed with numbers but with changes in the lives of people who heard him.

With the above in mind, now we need to look at what makes a church successful today.   I think the answer to my question “Is Bigger Better?” as it pertains to churches  is this:  it is not size alone that leads to success of any church, large or small, but it is  its ability to follow Jesus and in doing so  transform the lives of those who are a part of that church and those who that church reaches out to.   The measure of a church’s success is the number of lives that have been changed and transformed due to its proclamation both in word and in deed of the Kingdom of God.   The successful church  is the “good soil” in the Parable of the Sower” that brings forth transformation  of people’s lives and nurtures their growth in relationship to God and God’s Kingdom..   A successful church, regardless of the names on the roster, changes people into devoted followers of Jesus and his teachings as they live their lives each day.   Small churches can be just as successful as large churches in changing people’s lives as they live the great commandment to love God and neighbor as yourself.”   Sometimes because small churches are more personal, they are able to live this better than those with thousands on their membership roster.

It is not the numbers, but what happens to the lives of the people who are the numbers that indicates success for a church.  The early church was made up of house churches with small numbers—but they changed the world by living their faith every day, even in the face of persecution and death! 

Killing Jesus—-Why??

 

We often are so eager to get to the Easter Lilies and the cries of  “He is Risen”, that we forget the significance of what happened the Friday preceding Easter—the Crucifixion.    Without the crucifixion there is no resurrection!    Early Christians were known as the “people of the Cross”, not the Resurrection.    God sent his Son into the world in the human form we know as  Jesus of Nazareth.   Jesus revealed a God to us who is like a loving Father.   He proclaimed the Kingdom of the God he called “Father”, and by his life and his teachings Jesus revealed what the characteristics of that Kingdom are. These characteristics turned the world upside down in his day.  The Kingdom of God needed no temple system with its sacrifices and wealth for the priests and scribes.   The Kingdom of God advocated for the poor, the outcast, the leper, the sinners and said that the “greatest among you shall be the servant of all.”   That phrase about “servants” caused those who were powerful to be uneasy.   The Kingdom of God, as Jesus proclaimed it, was subversive to the economic, social, religious, and political domination systems of the day.   And so these systems combined to kill him!    The same could happen in our day, and in fact has.

St. Anselm, back in the 11th Century came up with a reason that Jesus died on the cross in his “atonement theory”—-postulating that God’s righteousness had to be satisfied and that to atone for the sins of all humanity, God demanded that Jesus be sacrificed on the cross to “pay” for humanity’s sins.  I find it difficult to believe that the God Jesus came to tell us about—a God of love for humanity and all creation—would demand an innocent human sacrifice to pay for our sins!   No—-I believe that human sin crucified Jesus on that cross.   Human greed, human lust for power, and human fear killed himHuman economic, social, religious and power systems combined to kill Jesus because these systems were threatened by his message of life in the Kingdom of God.

 If Jesus came back today and preached and taught and acted toward the domination systems of our day, the result would be the same—-they would kill him—-perhaps not on a cross, but would do so by refusing to even consider everything that he taught and preached and did.  His cross today would be a cross of indifferencebut the effect today is the same—-it silences Jesus once and for all so that the demands of the kingdom of God will not infringe on our comfort, our wealth, our ambition for power, and our economic domination by the few over the many.  God did not demand Jesus’ death, he was the messenger that human beings killed because of his message that threatened their comfortable way of life.  

“He is Risen!”   we will shout this coming Easter Sunday!   I praise God for the promise of the resurrection and the eternal life through that resurrection which is assured to followers of the Christ due to that resurrection!

Congregational Myopia….

Myopia is a vision problem where close objects are seen clearly, but objects further away are blurred.   It is commonly called “near-sightedness.”   Some congregations show the same symptoms when they are unable to see    no further than themselves.     When this happens, in my opinion,   the congregation stops being church and the congregation begins to die as they turn inward and away from the community in which they are located and to which they are sent to be God’s witnesses.   These congregations  have lost something very important—-their vision.   What do I mean by “vision”?   The church’s vision is what we see as the purpose of  being a church–that is the reason for which we exist.  It is our answer to the question ” Why are we here?”    What is true for congregations  is also true for each  individual Christian.   Why are we Christians ?  What is our purpose?   When we name Jesus as Lord and are baptized to show the world our commitment—-how are we changed and transformed?   What vision do we have to fulfill as a Christian?   Is there a difference between us and other non-Christians ?.     If we have no vision as individual Christians it will result in a collection of Christians (a congregation) also not having a vision!

I have been working with a church to help them evaluate where they are on the congregational life-cycle (See Bullard, Pursuing the Full Kingdom Potential of Your Congregation).   During a recent meeting with 12 to 15  of the “spiritual leaders” of the congregation we noted the place their church was on in the life-cycle.   They decided the  congregation has started on the downward slope (Maturity on the life cycle) where the first thing lost is Vision as the driving force for the congregation.   Sure enough, when I asked if they knew what the vision statement of their congregation  was, not one of these “spiritual leaders” knew  the answer!    They did find a vision statement in the part of the constitution that described what their responsibilities were—-but decided it was hopelessly out of date—-forgotten, and so lengthy no one could quite understand it completely.   They realized they needed to “re-vision” based on their current time and place.

As I pondered the problem of a congregation that does not have a vibrant vision that guides them, I wondered how they could still be a church and not just a nice social organization.    As I searched for why they had lost a vision for their church  my mind led me  to wonder  if I had asked them for a personal vision for themselves as Christians, what their answer might be.   The formula to explain lack of vision may be:    Lack of individual Christian vision = lack of congregational vision.   We have found the problem and it is us!! (to borrow from Pogo)

I believe that the church is should exist  to transform lives.   Congregations should exist to change individual lives, to deepen discipleship to Jesus the Christ, and to thus set about changing the current world to be more like God’s passion, described by Jesus in the Gospels as the Kingdom of God .   Any vision that is does not include the above is myopic.   We are here as individual Christians and as a church to make a difference in people’s lives and in our world.   We are here as a church to carry out Jesus’ ministry and mission that he described in the synagogue in Nazareth:   “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”   (Lk. 4:18-19)  

fWe are sent to do the same.    To bring “good news” to the poor.    To speak in their behalf.   To end the unfairness that our present laws put upon them.  We are to challenge the causes of poverty, not just feed the poor.   We are to speak out for health care for them—not just sit back and let the extension of medicaid in Kansas die because the governor doesn’t like President Obama’s Health Care Act which is the law of the land.   We are sent by God through the example of Jesus to make concrete differences in the lives and well-being of our fellow human beings.    To make sure all are treated fairly as God’s children.   TO DO THIS WE HAVE TO  ACT, NOT JUST SIT QUIETLY IN OUR CHURCH PEWS ON SUNDAY MORNING ONCE A WEEK AND ALLOW INJUSTICE TO REIGN IN OUR COUNTRY UNCHALLENGED.  

It was said of early followers of Jesus, specifically of Paul and Silas, by the citizens of Thessalonica :   “….these people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also…”(See Acts 17: 5-8)

What have the churches done lately to “turn the world upside down.”   What have we done to  carry out Jesus’ Great Commandment?  What have we done to continue the ministry he described?   We as congregations cannot “turn the world upside down” if we stay within our walls and never open the door and go into the world outside and challenge the powers that be to create a world that is fair and good for everyone, not just the chosen few in the name of Jesus the Christ.   To turn the world upside down will mean to take risks.    It will mean that we will dream God’s dream and work for it to become effective in our place and time.

It is a matter of clearly seeing what God wants the world to be like by reading Jesus’ description of the Kingdom of God in the gospels and then setting out to bring  that about.    As stated in the book of Proverbs:    “Without vision the people perish.”     Congregations with myopia who can’t see anything but themselves and their comfort also perish!    They really have no reason to continue existence.   Amen.

 

No “Losers” in God’s Kingdom

We live in a society of “winners” and “losers”.    For every winner there is a loser.  Our sports, our economic system , our educational system , our political system, even our religious system all involve competition at the center of their value systems and produces “winners” and “losers”.

In sports, the reknown coach of the Green Bay Packers football team, Vince Lombardi,  said it all with these words: “Winning isn’t a sometime thing, it is the only thing.”

In our economic system competition is at the center and the businesses that survive are the ones who win, the failures go out of business.

In our educational system, our students go through the entire system competing with each other for grades.   A particularly harsh form of that competition is grading on a curve where there are only a certain percent of the class who can make A’s, B’s, C’s , D’s, and F’s.    Entrance to college is based to a great extent on grades, and therefore the  options for our careers, and thus our standard of living, is a result of competition.

Our political system is based on “winning” or “losing”.    Those who “win” the elections get to help make and execute the laws needed to continue winning.   Those laws, as we see each day, are too often for the purpose of maintaing economic and political power for the winners, and not for the common good of all the people who are governed.   Millions of dollars are spent in order to “win” elections and all decisions while in office are made politically with an eye toward continuing to win and hold power.

Even our churches compete with each other.   Too often to be a “winning” church is to have a huge, beautiful building filled with everything to make the attendees comfortable.   That building must also be  full of people.   People flock to megachurches and we hold them as successful and “winners”  because of the richness of their buildings, their entertainment value, and their large membership —not on the basis of their proclamation of the Kingdom of God and their practice of discipleship to Jesus the Christ.  In my career I have attended many national and state conferences of churches.  Not once were the featured speakers from small churches in Western Kansas.   It was assumed that somehow the pastor’s of megachurches had more to share that was worthwhile than a simple pastor of a church of 70 souls pastoring a flock on the prairie.  We think of small churches as “losers” in comparison with the large churches who are winners.

In all of the above, the emphasis is on “winners” and “losers”.    Most people base their self-esteem on their success in being “winners” in the systems named above.  However, if we are a Christian nation, if we are followers of Jesus the Christ, if we are proclaiming the Kingdom of God that was and is the central part of Jesus’  message, we have a problem, because there are no “winners” or “losers” in the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed was breaking into the world. There are only winners.  In fact, Jesus turned the entire concept of winning and losing  on its head and proclaimed that those who lose are winners. Listen to what Jesus says:   “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.   For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  TO LOSE IS TO WIN—THEREFORE THERE ARE NO LOSERS BUT WE ARE ALL WINNERS  IF WE ARE MEMBERS OF THE KINGDOM OF GOD!!    As Jesus described the Kingdom of God in his parables and in the Beatitudes and the Sermons on the Mount and Plains (seeMatt. 4-7 and Luke 6, 14-16)   he defined, as Marcus Borg puts it “what life would be like on earth if God were king and the rulers of this world were not. The Kingdom of God is about God’s justice in contrast to the systemic injustice of the kingdoms and domination systems of this world. Two of our society’s central values are individualism and competition. They permeate our lives and our culture.” (Borg, The Heart of Christianity)

Individualism stresses that we are individually responsible for our well being.   That often leaves God out of the equation.   It often leads to the feeling that we are “self-made” individuals because we won in the competitions above. It also leads to us “putting down as losers” those who don’t win as well as we do in the competitions listed above.   But we forget that we are  the product of many factors that remain  completely outside our control—-our genetic inheritance that affects our health and intelligence, the family into which we were born,  the geographic place we were born, good and bad breaks in our lives.   As Borg says, “To think we are primarily the product of our own individual effort is to ignore the web of relationships and circumstanes that shape our lives.””(Borg, ibid)

Competition will always be with us, we all realize.  And because of the many  uncontrollable factors some of us will do better in the competition than others are able to do.   However,  if we are citizens of the Kingdom of God, competition should not rule our lives.   It should not define us as individuals.   While everyone will not be equal in education, economic well-being, political power, etc., in God’s eyes everyone is equally a “child of God” and is loved equally. regardless of win, lose or draw in any competition.  We are all “winners” in God’s eyes if we are willing to lose our lives in following in the footsteps of discipleship to Jesus, the Christ.

And, when it is all said and done,  we are all winners only by God’s grace.   There are no losers in the Kingdom of God!