Thursday, July 30, 2009

What Year is It?

Perhaps it is time for those of us who call ourselves Christians to take a look at the calendar. Although it is 2009, many of us still function as if it were 1955 or even 1980. In American Churches in Crisis, David Olson challenges the American church to engage three significant transitions:

1. Our world used to be Christian, but it is now becoming post-Christian.
2. Our world used to be modern, but now it is becoming postmodern.
3. Our world used to be monoethnic, but it is now becoming multiethnic.

On the first item, I would argue that we are not “becoming post-Christian,” we already ARE post-Christian. Christian values and teachings may have once provided the cultural soil that nourished our society (although the fruit was often unrecognizable as Christian), but this is no longer true. Other voices in the culture have a stronger influence. For example, when Michael Jackson died there was much more discussion of his musical accomplishments and artistic impact than his eccentric lifestyle or bizarre personal behavior.

Although we are becoming postmodern, the average person does not yet understand the impact that this is having not only on literature and the arts, but on philosophy and politics. Postmodernism emphasizes the role of the reader or interpreter in every aspect of life. Even in science, this postmodern idea about the impact of the observer is considered a significant factor in scientific research.

Finally, we are certainly becoming more multiethnic. The New York Times reported last year that the U. S. Census Bureau had “calculated that by 2042, Americans who identify themselves as Hispanic, black, Asian, American Indian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander would together outnumber non-Hispanic whites. Four years ago, officials had projected the shift would come in 2050.” We are becoming a nation of minorities.

The impact of these trends differs according to where you live. These transitions have already become clear in the northeast US, the West Coast, in major cities across the country, and in most university communities. In other places the change is occurring more slowly and may not be apparent for two more generations, Olson notes. My experience in a suburb of Nashville that is home to a major university and numerous small industries (some with home offices overseas) is that it is already here for us.

As the church considers its ministry in the early part of the 21st century, we must recognize these transitions. Any planning or strategy will be incomplete if it does not take into account our post-Christian, postmodern, multiethnic culture.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Why We Need New Churches

When I worked with a state judicatory, we made church planting a priority. Unfortunately, our success was limited. Only two of the churches we helped to launch survived and only one of those is growing. Fifty percent failed despite considerable effort and financial investment. Another twenty-five percent did not launch for various—and valid—reasons. (This doesn’t include at least two groups that I “talked out” of trying.) As a result, I know a great deal about what doesn’t work in starting new churches.

Despite this track record, I am still a proponent of new church starts. Churches and denominations that are not starting new churches will become increasingly irrelevant in the 21st century. We must continue to call out church planters, help them develop relevant ministry models, and equip them to succeed in this role.

There are a number of lists of reasons to start new churches. David T. Olson of the Evangelical Covenant Church provides one in his book The American Church in Crisis. Let me mention just five of his “Top 10 Reasons to Plant Churches” and comment on them.

1. “New churches lower the age profile of the American church, increase its multiethnicity, and better position the whole church for future changes.” Just having the desire for starting new churches exhibits an openness that attracts young leadership, ethnic leaders, and innovative approaches.

2. “New churches provide synergistic benefits to established churches.” There is a feedback loop in church planting that encourages and strengthens established churches that are supporting them. Unfortunately, too many established churches and their leaders fear that new church starts will siphon off present members and deny them potential new members. The first is likely to happen, but the second is not.

3. “New churches provide a channel to express the energy and ideas of passionate, innovative young pastors.” The only way that we will engage “ministry entrepreneurs” is to offer them places of service where they are free to innovate, learn, and serve.

4. “New churches are the research and development unit of God’s kingdom.” Just as new churches engage creative young leaders, they offer the opportunity to try new things that would not be attempted in established churches for fear of failure.

5. “New churches are historically the best method for reaching each emerging new generation.” New churches have a rough, “out on the edge” feel that is attractive to those who desire a fresh approach to the church and the Christian life.

What are the key factors in starting a new church? Here are some that I believe are essential:

First, a visionary leader with a passion for the task who is willing to go the second and third mile to make it happen.

Second, a team of committed leaders with varied gifts who will gather around the visionary leader to grow the church.

Third, a location and/or context that fits the vision for the new church.

Fourth, a teachable spirit and flexibility among the leadership group so that they can learn from their experiences.

Fifth, a commitment to pray and seek God’s leadership in the life of the new fellowship.

Despite the challenges involved, we need to be starting new churches. This is not for everyone and should only be attempted after much prayer and discernment. It is not an easy task, but it is an essential one.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Embracing the Dark Side

My grandson and I were watching Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith last night. About two-thirds through the film, Noah asked, “Why is the Dark Side so much stronger?” As you probably know, in the Star Wars universe, the Force provides powers to its adherents, but there is a “dark side” to the Force that uses these powers for evil rather than good. His comment came about the time that Chancellor Palpatine, a follower of the Dark Side, shot lighting bolts out of his fingertips to attack one of the Jedi Knights!

I finally said, “Perhaps it isn’t that the Dark Side is stronger but it only presents itself as stronger.” This is one of the perversions of evil. It presents itself as stronger (and much more fun) than good, but this is the ultimate lie of evil. Circumstances can tip the scales so that evil seems to have the upper hand, this is an illusion, even in the Star Wars universe.

Although some see theological themes in Star Wars, I struggle with that approach. In Lucas’ Star Wars universe, the only God is humankind (or whatever these people are). The Force is not God and the Force is never presented as a personal entity. The whole universe is based on mythological rather than theological themes. I will admit that the Star Wars films do tell us a lot about the human condition, however.

For example, the particular episode we were watching deals with the fall of Anakin Skywalker and his transformation into the Sith Lord, Darth Vader. Anakin’s actions are a testimony to each person’s desire to control his or her life and protect what is important to that person. In his case, his desire is based on a fear of loss. He does not want to lose his wife as he lost his mother. This film points out that such a desire ultimately leads to frustration, disillusionment, and death.

In the case of Chancellor Palpatine, we are reminded of the saying, “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The character is depicted as the embodiment of evil and heavy-handed authoritarianism. He illustrates the idea that complete power destroys one’s humanity and warps one’s values. The person with absolute power justifies his or her actions by simply saying, “We do it because we can.”

Those who embrace a fundamentalist approach to religion and/or politics commit these two errors. They want to control circumstances because they fear chaos. They want to “protect and defend.” When they gain power, they do not hesitate to use it to pursue their goals. They have power because they are right, and they use the power to pursue their righteous agenda.

I am thankful that I live in a universe where there is a God who provides balance to life. Our God recognizes our fallen state and seeks to deal with it by identifying with God’s creation and God’s creatures. This is much better than an impersonal and uncaring Force.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A New Space Race?

As a child of the 50’s and a young adult of the 60’s, the NASA space program was always front and center for me. The men (no women at that point) of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs pushed the limits of human endurance and skill to engage the challenges of space.

This week we have observed the 40th anniversary of the first manned landing on the moon. Crew members Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins were celebrated at gatherings in Washington this week and urged President Obama to pursue the next great adventure—manned exploration of Mars. At this point, the President appears reluctant to undertake this task.

Manned flight to the moon and Mars offer significant benefits for our nation and humankind. At this point about one cent for every taxpayer dollar goes into the space program, much less than we put into the military. In the face of other pressing needs such as healthcare, why should we spend money on this venture?

First, manned spaceflight offers immediate technological results that can help us as we deal with health, environmental, and lifestyle issues on the earth. The early space program had both commercial and lifestyle consequences for our quality of life over the last five decades. One result is that there is more computing power in one cell phone today than in the computer on the Eagle lunar module of 1969!

Second, humankind needs new challenges. Exploration has always pushed us to stretch ourselves. Although there are places on the earth that are still unknown territory (under the sea, for one), we should not turn our backs on space exploration and the long term implications it has for us.

Third, manned space exploration provides opportunities for international cooperation. Although the “space race” was born out of Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, we now find ourselves cooperating with Russia and other nations in the operation of the International Space Station. This same pattern can be used for new missions the moon and Mars.

Unfortunately, it may take another “space race” to put the United States back into the manned exploration mode. If we continue to see other nations, especially China, expand their manned spaceflight programs, our government may finally see the need to invest in new voyages to the moon and Mars. That’s politics and that may be the only thing that moves us forward in manned space exploration.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Your Approach to the Bible--Static or Dynamic?

As a minister or Sunday school teacher, how many times have you had someone come up to you or speak up in a class and say, “What does this particular scripture passage mean?” I have finally come to the point where I believe the most honest answer I can give is, “Here’s what it means to me, but it may mean something quite different to you.” Does this mean that the teaching of scripture is relative? No, but it does mean that the Bible is more than a guidebook. Rather it is a record of God’s revelation that interacts with the reader to provide meaning.

There are two primary views that one can take of the Bible. On one hand, you may see the Bible as a static piece of literature. Once you properly exegete and interpret a passage, its meaning and application are unchangeable. You have the answer in your notebook and are ready to look it up at any time. On the other hand, you may see the Bible as a dynamic book. In this case, you give the text proper attention, but the Spirit of God continues to work with you—the reader—to make the Word of God alive and relevant to your life today. This means that you may revisit a passage that you read years ago and come away with an entirely new understanding of what it means to you today. Why? Because you are not the same person who read that passage years ago. Hopefully, God has continued to work in your life since that previous exposure to the passage and has opened new possibilities in the text and in your personal understanding of it.

Some may charge that this makes the teachings of the Bible relative to the reader and his/her context. I plead guilty! I value the careful textual, grammatical, and exegetical work of biblical scholars and take advantage of it to gain a deeper understanding of a passage, but the work of Bible study is incomplete until I make a personal application in my own life. This is where my need, my life experience, and my walk with God come into play.

I believe very deeply that the Bible is a dynamic book—a divine/human book—that is not limited by the context in which it was written or the theological interpretations of the past two thousand years. These things can inform me, but I come to Bible study with the expectation that God may have a new insight for my life. I hope that you do, too.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Looking for a Savior

A common statement that the lay leaders of a church in crisis often make is, “If we can just get the right pastor, we can pull out of this slump.” In How the Mighty Fall, Jim Collins points out that it is not unusual for an organization that has started on the road to decline to “grasp for a leader as savior.” The organization “responds to threats and setbacks by searching for a charismatic leader and/or outside savior.”

Certainly the “right” leader can make a difference, but only if he or she does the “right” things. What can a leader do in a situation where the church or organization is already in decline?

First, we need to remember that the basic definition of a leader is “one who has followers.” Key people need to commit to work with the leader to address the situation. If church leadership expects the new pastor to solve all their problems single-handed, they set the pastor up for failure. Those who have a stake in the situation need to make a commitment to make the sacrifices possible for the pastor (and the church) to turn around the situation.

Second, the new leader must consider the context. In a church, a new pastor needs some time to get settled and really understand what is going on. This is where an intentional interim pastor can help a church. Rather than rushing to find a new pastor to “fix” the problem, a competent intentional interim can help the church assess its situation and pass this information on to the new pastor. This may include clarifying the church’s understanding of its context, mission, demographics, history, or community. In fact, this type of information can assist the pastor search process to make a more informed choice of pastoral candidates.

Third, the new leader has to build a team. A leader can fail on his or her own, but a leader needs the support of others to succeed. Leadership is not a task done in isolation. As Collins comments, getting the “right people on the bus” is always important, but in a church the riders may already be there and are not getting off. The riders include both lay leaders and staff members. The new pastor has to deal with both. He or she must build rapport with lay leaders while molding current staff into a team of which the pastor is an integral part. This can be difficult, intentional work.

Fourth, the new leader must build consensus around a renewed vision for the church or organization. Such a vision must be realistic but challenging. A new pastor must help the church see that there is hope for the future but bringing that hope to fruition will require sacrifice and hard work.

Fifth, the new leader must lead the organization to act. Visioning, strategic planning, and other efforts to refocus the church are inspiring, but the church must ultimately take action on these plans. When it comes time to act, the pastor will find out if the situation has been realistically assessed, if the team (lay and staff) is on board, and if there is consensus that will support action.

Collins points out that the leaders of one turnaround company understood that “rebuilding greatness requires a series of intelligent, well-executed actions that add up one on top of another. . . . Most ‘overnight success’ stories are about twenty years in the making.” Maybe “patience” is the sixth step!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Putting Women in Their Place

In an article in last Sunday’s Observer, former President Jimmy Carter wrote, “[The] view that women are somehow inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or belief. It is widespread. Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths.” The remainder of the article calls on the leaders of all religious faiths to reconsider their sacred texts for a fresh word about the role of women in faith and society.
These are good words from President Carter on an important subject. Although it is always encouraging to have a person of his stature speak up for needed change, what can the average Baptist Christian do to empower women to discover and use their gifts in ministry? Let me suggest several things.

First, support organizations that speak for women. Baptist Women in Ministry has taken a bold step in employing Pam Durso as the organization’s first full-time executive director. BWIM has a solid reputation of connecting, resourcing, and advocating for women in Christian ministry. They need our personal and financial support to continue this important work.

Second, discover organizations that challenge women to a world vision of service, especially those that relate to women and family issues—poverty, maternal care, sexual trafficking and similar concerns. One such organization is Global Women. Cindy Dawson, her staff, and board are making remarkable progress in creating global friendships among women for shared learning and service. They are also providing valuable resources for local churches.

Third, encourage women who are seeking to live out their ministry passion. You will find these individuals locally, nationally, and internationally. One of these people is Becky Sumrall, executive director of Christian Women’s Job Corps of Middle Tennessee. She has built an organization that provides women “a hand up, not a hand out.” CWJC helps women to develop skills and embrace values in order to attain a better life for themselves and their families. Another person who comes to mind is Suzanah Raffield, a young woman with a global vision who recently returned from Tanzania where she helped women of the Kidetete Women's Cooperative to develop a microenterprise that will raise the standard of living for their families through their own initiative and diligence. Suzanah is representative of a number of young women who are making a difference in the world by pursuing their calling to serve and minister.

Fourth, find a young woman in your church who has been called to ministry and provide encouragement for her. One way you can do this is to point her toward places of service where she can discern and develop her gifts for ministry. Passport Camps and student.go offer young women the opportunity to serve in settings that respect their calling and giftedness. Introduce her to college and seminary programs that welcome women who are called to ministry.

Fifth, when your church has a staff vacancy, take the initiative to talk to the search committee or seek the resumes of qualified women as well as men for the position. This includes the role of pastor. I have been fortunate to have had a number of qualified men as my pastors over the years. Each ministered to me in a significant way. Not every one is as fortunate. As a male, I think I can say that I would rather have a competent woman than a mediocre man as my pastor any day! Let’s raise our sights and look at the female candidates who are ready to serve in every leadership role in the life of the church.

Thank you, President Carter, for your positive stance; now, it is time for the rest of us to get to work.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Here is the Church . . .Where are the People?

A recent study by Leadership Network and the Hartford Institute for Religion Research looked at the demographics of those who attend megachurches (defined as a congregation attended by 2000 or more each week). The study determined that almost half (44 percent) had come from another local church, 28 percent had transplanted from a distant congregation, and 19 percent had not attended church for awhile. Just six percent had never attended a worship service before arriving at their current church.

We could talk at length that these figures seem to valid the observation that there is a lot more “member swapping” than true evangelism in churches today, but I was most taken by the last finding that six percent of those reporting had never attended a worship service before joining the church where they now belong. When we talk about the “unchurched,” the assumption is that we are actually talking about those who are “dechurched” or who have walked away for the church for some reason. In reality, there are a number of people in our population who have never been inside a church building expect for a wedding or funeral.

This was brought home to me recently when my granddaughter invited a friend to church who said that he had never been to church in his life. Now this is a young man who is from the Bible belt where there is a church within five minutes’ drive of anyone’s home. I don’t know all of the background here, but I am pleased that she invited him to go to a worship service with her and he did attend.

This is a reminder to us that we should reassess our assumptions about those who are not part of the church. Just because we put a sign in front of our church saying “Everyone welcome,” we cannot automatically expect non-churched people to come flooding into our worship services. They may not understand or appreciate what the churches offer to them. Perhaps we have erected barriers that need to be removed. The key, as with most things, is a personal contact. We must develop a level of trust in our relationships so that people will be willing to accompany us to church-related activities. When they do so, we may have to be guides or “docents” interpreting what is going on for them, then spending time with them afterward to debrief.

Is this evangelism? I suppose it is, and this approach will become more important in the coming days as the church continues to be marginalized in our society.

Monday, July 13, 2009

A Learning Place

When I was in seminary, field education consisted of meeting every couple of weeks with the pastor of a local church for an hour for dialogue and observing him lead a funeral and worship a couple of times. He was great man and I enjoyed the time with him and my fellow students, but I learned very little about the ministry of the local church. I had more beneficial experiences from my work at a volunteer at my home church in college and the church we attended as lay members during seminary. When I did pastor a small church an hour’s drive from seminary my final year, there was no formal structure to help me process what I was doing (I thank the Lord that the people there were kind and seminary classmates gave me good advice).

During the past year, I have had the opportunity to teach two Ministry Praxis classes. In these classes, each student has a ministry placement in a local church and works with a pastoral mentor. Each student develops a learning covenant in conversation with her or his pastoral mentor. The classes are structured for personal and peer review of the learning that takes place in the placement settings. Some of these ministry placements have been very helpful for the students involved. In other cases, they fulfilled the requirement and little else.

My experience this past year has reinforced what I have learned from my friends in teacher education. The philosophy now is to get the prospective teacher into a real classroom as soon as possible so that they will understand the context of primary and secondary education. Being in the classroom will either make or break the deal for a prospective teacher!

We need the do the same thing in the preparation of ministers. Although students have traditionally come to their seminary studies with some background as church members or lay leaders, this is not the same as being a minister. A friend commented to me recently, “I remember learning more about ministry in the local church in a few months than anything at seminary. I always wondered if we required students to go out into the local church first and then attend seminary while they were in the church if we would not be better off."

I certainly think we have a “both/and” situation here. Ministry students need to be actively involved in a church while pursuing their studies, but certain standards must be met if the placement is to be a true learning experience.

First, the student should have a clear ministry role. Although termed a “resident” or “intern,” the student should be clearly identified as a called minister of the gospel and given some “symbols of office”—a desk, a nameplate, keys to the church, a role in worship leadership, a supervisory structure, and a specific group with whom to work.

Second, the ministry assignment should be a true ministry and not just “make work.” The student must have something worthwhile to do that, although limited by the student’s experience and maturity, can make a difference in the lives of people. There must be an opportunity for the student to apply what he or she is learning in the classroom in the setting of an actual congregation

Third, a feedback loop is needed in the seminary context. The student needs the opportunity to show how his or her academic understanding has been impacted by interaction with those in the local church. In this way, both the classroom and the placement become integral parts of contextual education.

Fourth, the church must be committed to this relationship. The people need to acknowledge their role as part of the learning community in which this student minister functions. This may involve forming a group of laity who meet with the student on a regular basis for dialogue and insights about the church and his or her work there.

Fifth, the student needs a pastoral mentor who will actually fill that role, providing information and feedback as well as supervision. This person may be the pastor or another staff member, but the mentor must agree to a structure that will benefit both the student and the church and then follow that arrangement faithfully.

I haven’t mentioned compensation for the student. If the church can provide such compensation, it would certainly be appreciated and expense money should be expected, but the ministry formation of the student is the primary purpose of the placement rather than financial compensation.

New partnerships among students, churches, and theological institutions are emerging that will benefit all parties. The sooner we can get all of these players together, the better it will be!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Thinking Globally, Acting Locally

Those of us who give serious consideration to the present state of the Christian church can commit the error of thinking only in global terms. We like to talk and think about the big picture, but we often fail to consider how missional strategy plays out in the real world.

Many who read this posting are working in the real world of the church. You are pastors, church staff members, and lay persons who have to deal with the practical issues of pastoral care, worship, Christian formation, maintenance, and budgets. In dealing with all of this, one may find it difficult to make the time to consider the bigger picture.

I would challenge you not to lose sight of what God is doing and wants to do with your congregation. Take some time each day to consider what small thing might be changed to help your church become more missional, more relevant in your setting.

A person who has helped me with this need is Alan Roxburgh. In the 1990s, Roxburgh turned his doctor of ministry project into the book reaching a New Generation: Strategies for Tomorrow’s Church. From his experience as a pastor of an inner city Toronto church, Roxburgh began to discern what the church must do to reach an emerging generation of believers.

Roxburgh recently filmed a video in this neighborhood that reminds us the importance of rethinking how we do church in the contemporary milieu. I recommend the video to you.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Creative Collaboration

A book that continues to stimulate my thinking about the 21st century church is The Millennium Matrix by Rex Miller. Not only does Miller provide an interesting conceptual framework to understand, interpret, and reenvision the work of the church in these days, but he comes up with generative ideas for action.

For example, he shares this idea about collaboration:

We will see convergence of church, community, commerce, and charity. Greater ecclesiastical integration will extend toward more integration with the community and then further into commerce, providing a latticework for grassroots governance.

Miller’s idea is especially interesting because he has used his training in communications and theology in working with the real estate industry, community service, and charitable organizations. He has immersed himself in all of the areas he mentions above. He is a believer who has engaged all of these areas. As a result, I think he has a unique perspective from which to offer this suggestion.

As the church returns to a most grassroots orientation, we have a special opportunity to engage with our neighbors, local business owners, corporations in our community, and charitable organizations. This will allow us to pool not only resources in a time of economic tightness but to reconceptualize what it means to serve one’s community.

Asset-based community development is based on the idea that we accept responsibility for the situation in which we find ourselves, begin with the resources we have, focus on the doable, and take the initiative. By marshalling the resources of church, community, commerce, and charity, major local needs can be addressed and met with limited outside control or support.

There are examples of churches here and there that are living out Miller’s idea. I would love to learn about more!

Culture Provides Opportunity for Witness

After my second year as a college student, I volunteered to be a student summer missionary with the Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. I was part of a team of four guys that worked with starting and strengthening new churches in northeast Ohio, primarily in the Cleveland area. We spent time with at least 10 of those church “sprouts.” The summer was a transforming experience for me. I met some great people and was impressed by their commitment and calling. They had a great influence on my vocational decision and choice of seminary.

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to return to that part of Ohio and had contact with Southern Baptists in the area. I discovered that only a couple of the churches with whom we worked had served after four decades. As I thought back, I recognized several reasons for this, most related to the strategy involved.

First, they were primarily “Southern” clubs. At least one pastor told our team that he kept an eye out for cars with license plates from Southern states in the hope of recruiting relocated Baptists.

Second, the attitude of the leadership of the churches and the association was that a Christian witness did not really exist in that part of the country. Of course, there were mainline denominations—Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans—in the area and even evangelicals like Christian and Missionary Alliance, but none of those churches were preaching the entire Gospel message. They typically referred to it as a “burned over” area that only exhibited a few remnants of the revivals of the 19th century.

Third, the leadership was (with few exceptions) from outside of that geographic area and, even more important, entrenched in a completely different idea of what American culture should be. They brought their perspective with them and were determined to preserve it.

I thought about this experience when I read a blog entitled “Five Myths Regarding the Great Commission” by Joey Shaw, minister of International Mission at the Austin Stone Community Church.

One of Shaw’s myth is “crossing cultures is a step beyond the general mandate.” He writes,

This myth is that only select missionaries are called to cross cultures in order to make disciples. The rest of us should only focus on people like us, in our culture. The problem with this myth is that the actual Great Commission commands otherwise. Incredibly, Jesus gave a commandment to his mostly Jewish audience to go to a mostly Gentile people and make disciples! Jesus commanded his Jewish followers to go to all people groups (all ethnos, the Greek word for “nations”). In other words, the Great Commission itself is a mandate to cross cultures!

Shaw goes on to comment that Jesus himself modeled this approach: “Jesus was a cross-cultural missionary and he commands us to follow in his steps, cross any boundary, live incarnationally and make disciples.

We not only CAN cross cultural lines with a Christian witness, but it is part of the strategy.

As I think back about my time in Ohio so long ago, I realized that I was given the opportunity to be immersed in another culture for the first time, and I learned something from the experience. I really came to love those with whom I worked, but I especially developed an affinity for those who were part of the “native culture” in which we worked. There was a rich cultural, social, and ethnic heritage in the area. Only now do I see how that culture provided opportunities for witness and engagement that were ignored by the mission strategy under which we operated.

Culture is a tool, not an impediment, to the preaching of the Gospel. We can learn to use it rather than being limited by it.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Looking for a Hero?

We choose our heroes based on who we are. In so doing, we seek out those individuals who seem to embody our best (and sometime worst) aspirations. We seek icons that seem to have achieved what we hope to become.

Steve McNair, former NFL quarterback for the Tennessee Titans and the Baltimore Ravens, was such a figure. McNair never won a Super Bowl, but it was not because he didn’t try. Many fans and fellow players described him as a “warrior” who week after week, despite innumerable injuries, put his body on the line to compete. In an age when most of us don’t even walk across the room to change a television channel, McNair personified determination and perseverance under pressure, working through the pain.

On July 4, McNair was found shot to death in a condominium in Nashville, evidently at the hands of a young woman found dead in the same room. News reports indicate that the couple had been involved in a romantic relationship for several months. In the light of these circumstances, friends remind us of his community service, his work with young athletes, and his commitment to local development. They point out that he was a good man, and I have no doubt that he was.

The expected commentary at this point might be to talk about how our heroes have feet of clay, but such an observation is too easy. Heroes are just people like us, no better and no worse. I rather think in terms of the biblical account of David—shepherd, soldier, rebel, king . . . and murderer. David was the hero of the people of Israel during his life and long after his death. He personified their great longing for faithfulness to God, unity among themselves, and a benevolent leader. But the scriptures point out to us that David was just a man. He could be petty, jealous, greedy, and lustful like any one of us.

So does this mean we should stop looking for heroes? No, I think we should start looking for them closer to home and with more realistic expectations. We can find a hero in the single mother who works two jobs and still tries to keep her children in church. We can find a hero in the retired person who gives his time to Meals on Wheels and visiting shut-ins. We can find a hero in the young woman who goes to Africa to help women develop their basic skills into a profitable cottage industry to support their families. We can find a hero in the person who gets up every morning, says her prayers, and goes off to work as a responsible family member and citizen. Are these persons flawed and lacking in other areas? Certainly they are, but all of these embody heroic values of consistency, faithfulness, vision, and service.

Who are your heroes?

Friday, July 03, 2009

The Blame Game

In his book How the Mighty Fall, Jim Collins identifies Stage Three as “Denial of Risk and Peril.” One of the markers of this stage is externalizing blame. Rather than accept full responsibility for setbacks and failures, leaders point to external factors or other people to affix blame.

Baptists have been good at this. For many years, Southern Baptists blamed externals--the mean old media, the secular society, the government, Disneyland, Hollywood. The “conservative resurgence” completed its task to purify the Southern Baptist Convention and the “liberals” were cast out (or made to feel unwelcome), but the denomination continues to decline in membership. Now there is a scramble to find someone else to blame. Most recently, leadership has turned internally to find someone to carry the burden.

One SBC agency head commented at the meeting in Louisville that the lack of sufficient funding to support missionaries may not be an economic problem but a problem of “hearts that aren’t aligned with the Lord’s passion” for the lost. Others at the SBC blamed the Calvinists, the “bureaucracy”, or the “emergent church.”

Moderates are not completely innocent. How many times have you heard someone say that things really started going down hill when we got rid of Training Union? Some blame the different views in worship styles. Moderate leaders seek collaboration but act unilaterally because they have better view of things than those in the field. Young moderates blame the older generation, the older generation thinks the young folks are too pushy, and there is plenty of blame to go around.

I suggest that we accept the reality of where we are and act responsibly. Things will never be what they were and conditions will continue to change. We are all in transition. Transition is an interesting word. I started thinking recently about the number of people I know who consider themselves in transition. Judicatory staff that are going through a change in senior leadership. Young adults seeking their place of ministry after years of preparation. Median adults who are considering a change in place of service. Friends of all ages who have lost jobs due to the economic situation. People who are seeking to find where they can live out their passion.

The people of Israel often found themselves in awkward situations and strange lands. Their situation changed often. Sometimes it was their fault and other times it was not, but things were rarely settled and unchanging for them. The only unchanging reality was the presence of God with them, and the presence of God with us is our only constant as well. And we can be grateful for that assurance.

A Word about Words

One of the greatest blessings that God gave to humankind was the ability to create. The Creator shared some of Godself in placing a spark in each of us that allows us to examine, mold, and fashion our environment. Those things that we create can be things of beauty or infamy. There is not that much difference between a tool to work the earth to cultivate flowers and food and a weapon to kill and destroy life.

I often hear critiques of the media, art, and the Internet that blame them for the ills of society. Such criticism is misplaced. These are simply tools—perfected, advanced, digital—but still creations of humanity. The only life they have is the life we give them. Unfortunately, our first tendency is to use them for personal gain and selfish motives rather than for the advancement of a good society.

The present case in point is that of the Missouri mother who used a fraudulent MySpace account to emotionally assault and manipulate a 13-year-old girl in such a way that she committed suicide. A decision by a federal judge on Thursday tentatively pretty well ended any legal action against this woman. You can find the details of the case elsewhere, so I won’t bother to recount them here. The bottom line is that through her careless cyber-bulling, this woman’s actions led to the death of a young girl.
My primary reason for commenting on this miscarriage of justice is to remind myself of the great power of words in a digital environment and the need for constraint in the way that we use them. I am a fan of Facebook. I try to avoid some of its excesses. I don’t feel that I have to respond to every request from a friend to take a trivia quiz or join a group, and I limit my time on the site. I see it as a tool that can be used for profit or folly.

Most of all, I attempt to see my Facebook account as a tool for good. I use it keep in touch with friends, renew old acquaintances, share words of encouragement, or ask questions that will advance a discussion. Most of the time, I avoid unloading my bad day on others, “flaming” those I might think at the moment are ignorant or misinformed, and critiquing those who problems may be more intense than I can understand from a short posting. I always find it wise to reread what I am about to post to see if it might be misunderstood in some way. Most of the time this works.

Internet conversation is like any other conversation. If you are angry, upset, and unsure of yourself, the means of communication you adopt reflects those attitudes. Words do have consequences, however, and words in cyberspace remain for a long time and can turn up in unusual and unexpected places.

If you honor others as fellow creatures of God, you will temper your speech or your writing. With apologies to Marshall McLuhan, it’s not just the medium that’s important . . . it’s the messenger AND the message.