Tag Archives: The Church

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in the part of the constitution that described what their responsibilities were—-but decided it was hopelessly out of date—-forgotten, and so lengthy no one could quite understand it completely.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.

 

Why Church?……

Everywhere we turn these days we hear the words:   “I’m very spiritual, but not religious.”   this is a polite way of saying:   “I don’t go to church because it does nothing for me, for me, for me, FOR ME!”

This shows a fallacy that Americans have about what “church” is and should be.   To most of us in the U.S. we think of church as a place to go to be entertained.   We “church shop” just like we “entertainment shop.”    Which church has the best preacher—-one that we really like?   Which church has the best music?   Which church has a service that “speaks to me”?   which church offers the best programs for both adults and youth and children?   which church is the friendliest?    Which church has the most comfortable seats?    Which church offers the best hospitality—coffee and donuts, etc.?

Looks pretty shallow when we put it that way, doesn’t it?   Also, it looks very true if we are to be honest enough to admit it!

As long as we are ruled by “FOR ME” then those are the bases for our choice of church or no church.

How many of us look for churches that will help us spiritually transform ourselves?

Paul wrote to the Roman churches:   “Do not be conformed to this 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. 12:2

TRANSFORMATION!   That is the reason for going to church.   It just doesn’t take place outside a body of believers who are striving to make God the center and driving force of their lives.    To be spiritually transformed  is to place God at the center and make God the driving force of your life, rather than yourself being that center.

A family of believers who are striving to make God the center and driving force of their church rather than the needs of their institution is the church we should be seeking.   A transformed church is a transforming church.

All the shallow questions asked at the beginning of this post contribute nothing to what we really need to search for in a church!  What we need to search for are fellow-travelers along the Way of Jesus that will help us deepen our relationship to God.    That will lead us to true worship of the God who created us and who loves us and has called us to be his children.    Amen.

 

The Kingdom of God….on Earth

Most of us think of the Kingdom of God as something happening  in the future.   That was not how Jesus proclaimed it.   He said it was near.   That it was happening now—breaking into the world during his ministry.   The proclamation of the Kingdom of God  was Jesus’ message to the world.  The Kingdom of God as Jesus proclaimed it was not “when we all get to heaven” or “pie in the sky bye-and-bye.   Jesus saw it as “breaking in on earth—-it was now!  He taught his disciples to pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.    The Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed was a new way of living—a very different way of living.    Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God set the business of living in this world in the conventional way on its head.   For example:

  • Blessed are the poor“-—not the rich as conventional wisdom holds.
  • Blessed are the meek“—not the powerful.  The meek will inherit the earth instead of the conventional expectation that the powerful and rich will do so and pass it endlessly on to their heirs.
  • Blessed are the peacemakers—they, and not the army generals, will be called children of God.
  • You have heard ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’, but I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.   If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” 

These and many more are descriptions Jesus gives  of the way life in the Kingdom of God would be different.     The Kingdom of God is what the world would be like if God ruled in everyone’s heart!

We have had many centuries of Christianity and we still seemed not to grasp Jesus’ proclamation.    Our “Christian” societies have not brought us close to the Kingdom of God—far from it.   Society hasn’t changed much since Jesus’ time.    Let’s compare the two eras—-Palestine during the time Jesus walked the hills of Nazareth and the U.S. today.   

Life in Palestine during Jesus earthly life….

  • was organized into political entities that included city officials, territorial governors, and heads of state—-all of whom drew their support from the high taxes levied on the peasants that made up 90% of the population.
  • was organized around the worship of many pagan  gods.
  • was designed to support the political and economic power of those who were rich and powerful and who lived by different rules and standards than the common people.   The rich and powerful included the high priests and the temple organization.
  • was a culture where about 10 percent or less held the wealth and the land  and the 90% were peasants getting by on a subsistance living or below—just enough to barely live on and survive so they could pay the bulk of their income and produce in taxes.   The two constant worries of the peasants were food and freedom from debt.   Without food they starved and if they were in debt they lost their land and livelihood to their creditors.  Note that Jesus recognized this in the prayer he taught his disciples—-“give us this day our daily bread and  forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
  • A culture whose religious structure and leaders worked in concert with the political/governmental power of Rome to maintain their power and influence over the people.
  • It was a land where people were lost and perished every day.

Does it sound familiar.     Let’s look at our country today….

  • We are a country where the rich and powerful live by different rules and standards than the common people and where those with money and power have become status figures.   No one knows who Charles Middle Class Smith is, but they all know who Charles Koch is.
  • a country that has many pagan gods—we call them by different names such as—-   Money….Power…Pleasure…Comfort, etc.
  • A country where 10 % of the people have 60% of the total income, while  the other 40% of the income is divided among the remaining 90% of the population.
  • A country where people with no conscience kill and rob on a daily basis.   Where life is cheap.   A country whose children kill and maim their teachers and fellow classmates.   A country where multiple murders are committed in movie theaters and at marathons.   Everywhere we turn there is violence, in our streets, on our TV’s, causing us to live in fear of each other and carry guns to defend ourselves.
  • A country where the greed and gluttony of huge financial institutions eat up the savings of those most vulnerable who trusted them; and do so in order to enrich their wealthy stockholders who demand a profit at all costs.
  • a country where the wealth of a Beverly Hills exists in stark contrast to the filth and poverty of a Watts in the same city of Los Angeles.
  • A country where the lonely and the aged, the poor and the mentally challenged are neglected.   A country where children have no access to health care and not enough to eat.    A country where the homeless and the misfits of society remain largely unseen and uncared about.   Programs to help them, such as affordable health care and extension of Medicaid benefits are the first ones to be cut from government budgets or discarded for political reasons.    We reduce food stamps and aid for struggling families in order to reduce the federal deficit—-while huge corporations that contribute to the re-election of our legislators continue to receive tax breaks and other benefits as they feed at the public tax trough.
  • We are living in a place where children go to bed hungry, without health care, and are homeless even though both parents work—but for indecently low wages that can’t support their families—and we still support the politicians that have made the lives of the most vulnerable people even worse.
  • This is a country ruled more and more by men and women whose only aim is to do whatever is necessary (whether right or wrong does not matter) to stay in power.

We need a voice crying in the wilderness like that of John the Baptizer saying “Turn around, for there is a better way than this way of Greed and Suffering that you are walking—it is the way of Jesus and the Kingdom of God he proclaimed.

We need this voice because people are still wandering in this wilderness of today, having lost their  moral, emotional and economic way—-yearning for something better and not quite knowing what that something better is.   They are yearinng for a different way of living that leads to a society where all of God’s people are treated equally, fairly and lovingly.    Jesus proclaimed that Way long ago.   He lived the Way.   The Church as Jesus’ body needs to Show the Way today.   

It is the mission of our post-resurrection Christian Community to proclaim the Kingdom of God through what we do and who we are as God’s people.   We’ve messed up for centuries—-let’s strive to get it right!

Follow the Herd…

People are like sheep.    Over a century ago this idea was expressed by German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche—Adolph Hitler was an admirer of his philosophy.    Unfortunately Nietzsche was on to something that I fear was a very insightful view of human beings.  He wrote about the “Herden (the herd) which would always follow a “ubermensch” (superman) wherever they were led.    Nietzsche’s philosophy was that “might makes right” and “whoever has the power and leadership  determines what is right and wrong, good and bad.

I think that this low view of the human condition is still true today.     Let me give a few examples to illustrate why I think so.

  • The Affordable Care Act—an act, that while not perfect, extends health insurance to hundreds of thousands of people not able to afford medical care because they are too sick to be eligible, too poor to pay for it, not mentally capable to work and get it from employers, is rejected still by the majority of the American people based on the lies they are told by their leaders in the Republican Party.    It seems if you tell a lie often enough, loud enough, and broadcast it widely enough the “Herd” will believe it is true.  I have no other explanation for our behavior.  Christians have fallen into this trap along with the rest of the herd too often.   Otherwise, why has the compassion that Jesus showed and taught not caused them to speak up against these lies?     The Herd.    Baa!  Baaa!
  • Kansas Politics.   We live in an agricultural state.   Farming is the basic industry of the state.   Why do we consistently vote for those legislators who are not supportive of our industry?    Those of us who read what our politicians are saying and watch what they are doing, stand in awe of the reality that the very people that are getting the shaft are the ones that are electing these politicians.   For example—-the cuts to education, the refusal to extend federally paid medicare to a large number of our citizens ,  are all caused by the abolition of the income tax for small business.  This abolition of income taxes for small businesses  was based on the Laffer theory—a theory that has been discarded by almost all economists as flawed. The theory says this will create jobs.   Will it?   It has not proven to do so and you can read the statistics.      No—-this tax cut for business  will create wealth for the few and lower the standard of living even more for the majority.   Yet if Kansans are told often enough, loud enough, and widely enough in the media that  abolishing income taxes for business means jobs and a better life for all we will, and have voted, for those who tell us that again and again.    Why?   We are following the herd.   Baa!   Baaa!
  • The Belief in the Conventional Wisdom.   The “Conventional Wisdom” isn’t usually very “wise.”     Just because a lot of people think something is true does not make it true.   Just because our leaders tell us its true doesn’t make it true.   Just because we hear it on CBS or Fox News or read it in the papers doesn’t make it true.   Just because I say it is true doesn’t make it true.   Truth is something that people must seek out for themselves based on their experiences and values.   Truth  comes  after discernment which is hard work and too many of us are just too lazy to take the time and so we let others lead us by the nose and tell us what to think and what is true.    Baa!  Baaa!
  • Let’s look at ourselves as Christians in this present day.  What is the role that we play as Christians in relationship to these problems?  We have joined the herd.   We like to pride ourselves and say we are not “sheepish” or members of a herd.  I’m not so sure.   How many of us think that our purpose in life involves producing and consuming and competing?    That is what our society demands of us—-to be productive, to consume, and always want more and better, and to compete for everything.     Are we following the teachings and example of Jesus of Nazareth  in rejecting this?  We too are following the “Herd”.    “Baa!   Baaa!

But Christians should be different.    We are followers and disciples of Jesus of Nazareth who was killed by “the Herd”  at the instigation of the leaders of his day in politics, economics and especially religion who turned the “Herd” against him.    He was killed because he was a threat to the domination system of his day in the areas of religion, economics and politics.   Jesus  was a radical and his radical approach to life went against the leadership in the religious, economic and political areas and so the leadership killed him.   If Jesus appeared among us today and advocated the same radical way of life and religion that he taught—-Christians today would no doubt be in the midst of the “herd” that would shout “Crucify him!   Crucify him!

Living the American Dream or Nightmare?

Living the “American Dream” is defined these days as to “be rich in material things.”  And our society is blessed with comforts and material things that are  the envy of the world.    However, the “American Dream” may also become the “American Nightmare”!!  These may be the “best of times” but they are also“the worst of times” for our American Culture.

  • Never has a culture experienced such comfort and riches or such massive poverty and lack of opportunity.
  • Never has technology given us so many household conveniences, or such terrible instruments of destruction.
  • Never have we been so able to communicate in so many different ways, and never felt so disconnected from others and so lonely.
  • Never have we been so free and never have our prisons been so full.
  • Never have we been so sophisticated about relationships, or so likely to suffer broken or miserable relationships.
  • Never have we had so much self-knowledge and the desperation to search  for “who we are.”

It  unfortunately has always been true that the church has mirrored the culture and it is true today,.  As a part of the church in this culture, we who are trying to be disciples of Jesus are struggling  to establish our identity as his disciples and as his church.   We are doing so  and searching for “who we are” as Christians and for what is of ultimate importance for us to build our lives upon and meet our needs.   As we search, all around us we are hearing the cultural  message “look out for  Number 1”,  the message to “buy, buy, buy” to fulfill the needs  of “number 1”.      Yet, if we heed those messages we find less satisfaction, less joy, and less happiness than we were told we would have.     People who have based their lives on “bottom-line living”—where the only thing that counts is the bottom-line tally—are finding themselves “bottoming out”.   Gradually their devotion to a “god of more” just doesn’t seem like enough!

The “Me Generation” that leads our culture  needs to discover that it is “not about me”!    As Max Lucado writes:  “We’ve been demanding our way and stamping our feet since infancy.   Aren’t we all born with a default drive set on selfishness?   I want a spouse who makes  me happy and coworkers who always ask my opinion.  I want weather that suits me and traffic that helps me and a government that serves me (but doesn’t cost me any taxes).  It is all about me.”  (Lucado, It’s Not About Me”)   Italics mine.

There are some basic questions we should be asking ourselves:

  • To what should we be committing our life?
  • What is worthwhile and lasting?
  • For what should we strive?
  • What is worth giving our life for?
  • How can the church change the culture rather than reflect it?
  • What is my role in this change as a Christian?

Culture can be compared to a symphony orchestra.    When all of the players play  their parts to perfection, beautiful music is produced under the watchful eye of the Great Conductor—God.  Each of us contributes our part to making that beautiful music and if you’ve ever been a part of a musical group you know what a pleasure that is.   But if the symphony orchestra decides that “it is all about me” then the result is not beautiful music but a monstrous noise!   Can you imagine an orchestra with an “It’s all about me” outlook held by each separate musician?   Tubas blasting nonstop.  Percussionists pounding on their drums to get attention.    The cellist shoving the flutist off of the center stage chair.   The trumpeter standing on top of the conductor’s platform tooting his horn.   Sheet music disregarded.  Conductor ignored.    Would anyone want to be a part of this group?   Who would enjoy contributing to a monstrous noise that makes people wish to hold their ears?

And yet, we as Christians are tempted to buy into the American Dream that is turning nightmarish.   This dream of material success is based on the “Me Principle”.

Do we want to make beautiful music with our lives or just monstrous noise? Much of the American Nightmare is based on the “Me Principle.”    When we buy into materialism  as individuals and churches we help continue the nightmare.   When we elect politicians that refuse to compromise and work for the common good, we help continue the nightmare.   When we turn away from the problems of our society and turn inward for self-protection we help continue the nightmare.   Is that what you want to do?   Is that what I want to do?   

We as individuals and as churches need to ask ourselves this question:  “What kind of orchestra are we playing in—the one making beautiful music or the one making monstrous noise?

Sell the Building, Keep the Church

There are many churches struggling today “to keep their doors open”.    Perhaps they are struggling for the wrong reason.   Perhaps in this post-modern, emergent church environment that we are in today the best thing that could happen  to those churches is to close the doors of their church building so that the Church of Jesus Christ  can survive.

Recently, in Wichita, the Fairview Christian Church (Dsciples of Christ) sold its building.   They are now meeting in a “house church” environment and no longer have the expense  of an old building that needed extensive repairs  that took  their time and money to maintain.   The building is gone, but the Church—-the body of Christ—survives!   They made a painful but Christ-like decision to solve their problem.   Sell the building, keep the Church.  They chose what was important—their relationship to God and to each other over property.

As we read about the “early church” in Acts there is no mention of a “church building“.   Paul doesn’t mention a “church building” either, and  we know that at least one of the churches Paul founded (the church at Philippi)    met in the house of Lydia.   Paul, the earliest writer in the New Testament,  described the churches he founded as” the body of Christ”, with Christ as its head and all the rest of the members being the eyes, toes, legs, arms, feet, etc.—not a building, but a living organism!!

The Gospel of  Luke tells the story of Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler who came to Jesus  and asked “what can I do to inherit eternal life?”    Jesus replied that he should follow all the commandments.   The young man said he had done that from his youth.  “then Jesus looked at him and said “There is still one thing lacking.  Sell all you have and give the money to the poor….and come, follow me.”   (Luke 18:18-25)  Luke tells us that the man went away sorrowful because he had great possessions.   He was unable to do what Jesus asked.

In Wichita I live around the corner from  a huge, beautiful church building.    This megachurch offers  everything from a coffee shop to a book store, to a full sized gymnasium.  The building  features  the most expensive and best sound and projection equipment in order to  entertain those who attend.  It hires professional musicians to provide the music on that sound and projection system.  Expensive electronic signs advertise what is being offered—-all kinds of workshops, support groups, youth clubs, etc.    I wonder what Jesus would think if he saw his name connected to this megachurch? Let me give my answer to that question by re-telling the story of the rich young man in modern terms.

The story might go like this:     The Senior Pastor and the staff of eight from First Megachurch came to Jesus one day and asked him how best they might be His Church.    Jesus looked at them  and said to them: “One thing you lack.  Go, sell your beautiful church building and all its furnishings and give all the money to the poor and come and follow me and help me care for the “least of these, your brothers and sisters –-the homeless, the outcasts, the poor, the sick, the mentally challenged.  Use some of the money to work for fair wages for the poor, and for economic and political and social justice for all.”       And the Senior Pastor and staff went away sorrowfully because they couldn’t give up their beautiful building and its furnishings.  And Jesus shook his head and shed a tear as he watched them leave him!

Sell the building—-Keep the Church!   Is this the way of discipleship?   what do YOU think??