Relationships are hard work. Relationships need attention. In order to maintain any relationship, it must be cultivated and nurtured. Are you good in sustaining your relationships? Dunbar tells us that the maximum number of relationships that any one person can sustain is 150. Now for men, that is not a problem. Men have less close relationships than women, by a lot. Men have, on average 1 or 2 close friends while women report having 10-12. Still, if we add in acquaintances, nuclear and extended family members, even men can have up to 50 relationships outside of their work.
Cary Nieuwhef says these are characteristics of a dying church. If you have 3 out of 5, count yourself on the decline. Churches are not the "family of God," churches are "households of God." A household will have people who just came off the street, persons who are strangers, who sometimes act like strangers, but have the same hunger that you have, to feel more connection with God.
We have long been told that a local church is an organization. By that I mean, the church is a community with an organizational structure which allows the local church to do business. Our churches are non profit organizations, our goal is not to make money. Our goal is to proclaim God's love and grace for the world. One thing I was taught is that the church is the only organization that does not exist for the benefit of its members. I like that a lot.
I am sick and tired of being fat. I have tried every diet in the book. I get 1-2 hours exercise every day so it cannot be that. I do not eat the healthy foods I need to, and I eat too much. I did not know just how much until I started keeping a food journal. I vowed to write all the food and drink I consume in one week. I have done this for 5 days with only 2 days to go; conclusion.... With my diet, any family of 6 would be happy. Any family of 6 with two teenage sons. I don't know the precise quantity of food I consume but by 2 in the afternoon, after recording my afternoon snack, I needed a fresh piece of paper for supper.
I was listening to the news. Syria is in deep conflict because they have been ruled by a dictator for years. This was possible because the dominant culture believed in security over personal liberty. The Ukraine is in deep conflict because the dominant culture has valued stability over individual freedoms, security over democratic rule, and economic ties to Russia over economic ties to the west. Middle East experts are telling us that unrest has come not because people want new laws but because people want to live in a new way, inside a new, more diverse, more inclusive culture. How is that different from the religious revolution brought by Jesus? I am convinced Jesus was not saying for us to do new things and try new ways. Jesus was saying it takes a religious revolution to change our culture! Our local churches have not joined the Jesus revolution. We have not challenged the culture of personal convenience discipleship for the revolutionary culture of giving our whole lives to God. We are still operating in a culture of civil religion while Jesus implores us to practice civil disobedience. We are embedded in a pastoral care culture when Jesus calls for us to adopt and adapt to a prophetic word and action culture. We are encapsulated in a culture where local churches celebrate themselves through covered dish dinners while Jesus cries out for the hungry to be fed.
It will do us absolutely no good to incorporate helpful hints for hurtful habits when Christ demands more radical change in our local church culture. We are called to transform the world. How can we transform the world when we are fussing about what hymns we will sing in worship, and how prayer concerns are to be handled? We are overwhelmed by a sensitivity culture that refuses to hurt anyone's feelings. We have yet to adapt to a culture of dignity and respect for the marginalized. We cannot simply adopt new "best practices" in ministry. We must adapt to a new culture that is committed to transforming the world and refusing to let anyone get in the way of that sacred duty. The church for tomorrow must live into a new culture of transformation.
Len Sweet has taught me another valuable lesson. Sweet writes in his latest book, The Well Played Life, (pg 193) Aging is a schizophrenic exercise in going opposite directions at the same time: I mature with age, and I immature with age. I call this simplexity. Simplexity is a systemic combination of both complexity and simplicity. The Holy Spirit reveals the God of simplexity. Simplexity is not lost on this 61 year old fat man. I have graduated from the twenty second grade of good God school. I have worked as a local church pastor for more than 38 years. I have preached untold numbers of sermons, as well as conducted numerous weddings and funerals. I sat at the hospital beds of hundreds of persons scrambling in their last moments for the meaning of life while leaning against the doors of death. I have studied Liberation, Narrative, and Process theology yet my belief is sustained by the simplicity and complexity of Psalm 139 where I learn about the inescapable God. The day after my son's suicide I read Psalm 123 as my prayer of both angst and comfort, and in the spirit of Karl Barth I now sing my statement of faith in those childhood verses "Jesus Loves Me this I Know.. for the Bible tells me so......" Simple messages which are simultaneously complex... simplexity.
Faith is not an either/or, black/white, good/bad, proposition. Faith are gray areas coming to life. Faith is something I love and hate at the same time, in the same moment. I feel wonderful being fully known by the God described in Psalm 139. At the same time, being fully known terrifies me! Both those things are true.
The church for tomorrow will make room for simplexity. The church for tomorrow is more interested in questions than definitive answers. The church for tomorrow is thankful to Len Sweet for reminding us "the older I get, the more complex my theology becomes, but the more simple my faith is."
Karen and I served a church in San Antonio. This church was fed up with "fear based" Christianity. Fed up with the "Get right or get left!" theology. This church was ready to proclaim "Hell and Judgment Not Included." So the church bought billboard time in the center of the city and posted that very message using the traditional circle with a line drawn through it. The billboard drew attention. One fundamentalist pastor called me on the phone to express his disappointment in our advertising. "If you don't preach about hell scripture says you are like an anvil around the neck of others." The implication was, an anvil dragging others into the depths of hell itself. I politely listened as he finished his rant and then asked him "You preach about hell don't you?" He responded "Of course I do!" "Well let me tell you why I do not..... first, I am confident you have the preaching about hell and judgment covered for our geographic area. I don't need to cover ground you are covering so effectively. Second, when I read the scriptures, and do all the things that Jesus tells me to do, I find myself carving out a 60 hour per week workload. If I just do the things Jesus tells me to do then I don't have any time left to preach hell and judgment." Our conversation ended shortly after that.
The purpose of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Is it more effective to transform the world using fear to change behavior or using forgiveness and proclaiming hope to the oppressed? Don't get me wrong, I believe the gospel is meant to afflict the comfortable as well as comfort the afflicted but I know we have done a spectacular job with the first one and have largely missed the boat on the second one.
Organizations will grow with the creation of small groups. Churches grow when small groups multiply. There are plenty of resources to help us create small groups but how will we know if our newly created small groups are healthy? Healthy small groups have 4 roles represented; leader, supportive giver, critic, and clown. Think now about the small groups in which you participate? Are all 4 roles represented? The leader helps name the agenda and directs full, inclusive conversation. The supportive giver provides encouragement. The critic will see and name all the cracks and shortfalls in the plan. The clown's role is to lower anxiety and tension for the group.
The leader needs the critic to ask the questions "Have you thought of this?" "I see some problems with that." and yes, the proverbial "We never have done it that way before." A leader without a critic will not be able to think things through, may not have anticipated every problem. The supportive giver needs a leader just like all workers need a supervisor. The supportive giver cannot survive without a leader anymore than worker bees can survive without a queen. The clown is essential for those times when the tension is thick and conflict is over the top. When folks face off, and will soon come to blows, the clown is the one that says "alright, I propose that instead of a lunch break let's choose up sides and have Bill and Robert lead us in a food fight!"
It is not common, but by necessity or choice, some folks assume different roles for different groups. In my old man's basketball group I am a supportive giver. As a pastor of local churches, I was a leader. In one peer group of mine, I am the clown. We are rarely effective if we try to assume more than one role in any group, and it is the balance of these 4 roles that provide a healthy small group. My question for you today is "What role do you assume in the small groups where you participate?" Are the other roles represented? Pastors are expected to assume the role of leader. What if your pastor is wired to be a supportive giver in every small group where he/she participates? Do you have the laity that will step up and be small group leaders when that is not possible for the pastor?
Something to think about.
Throughout my life in ministry I have heard that the local church is a hospital for sinners. The local church is where sinners go for healing. The local church receives the sick and makes them well. Most church leaders I know speak of the church as a safe place, a place of respite, a place where persons come to experience the healing power of God's grace. Bring your suffering to the hospital church and receive your cure. Return to the hospital, at least weekly and get the continued therapy you need in order to keep up your strength and face our disease riddled world. The church is a hospital for sinners where we bubble wrap sinners in the healing balm of Gilead. Not only is this false but it is destructive. We must not speak of the church as a hospital for sinners. We must now understand that the local church is a medical school that trains us to be healers. Once trained, we are sent out to be healers that transform the world. After modeling the art of healing with his disciples, Jesus sends his followers out, two by two to transform the world through healing practices. We do not need the church to be a hospital for sinners anymore, we need the church to be a medical school where we are trained in the art of healing and a medical supply house where we can receive necessary instruments that allow us to heal others.
Henri J M Nouwen wrote about the wounded healer. Remember that if your wounds are attended to in church, it is for the purpose of leaving the warm confines of that local church, going out into the cold cruel world, and healing others. Once you have received grace, thank God for the healing, then fulfill the desire of Jesus and heal others. When Jesus was transfigured on the mountaintop his disciples wanted to build a church on that spot and hang out. Jesus said "transfiguration are not for building church hospitals but medical schools in my name. no, you cannot hang out here, this experience is a classroom that teaches you how to leave this place, go out and heal others."(paraphrase from the original passage?) Jesus says he did not come for the whole and healthy, Jesus came for the sick, the least, last, and lost.
Now that you have gone to church and received some measure of spiritual, emotional,and physical health, go heal others. Treat your weekly worship experience as continuing education for healing from your favorite medical school.
Got a new Bicycle for Christmas. This bike is sweet. It is a carbon composite road bike which means it is very light. I can lift it with 2 fingers. It goes fast! I can keep a steady 14-15 mph speed on slight inclines, and going downhill, I regularly am traveling 18-20 mph. A 10 mile ride is easy. A 15 mile ride is routine! There is only one problem.... my backside hurts (note to editor; I am using the word "backside" in place of the preferred "a" word to maintain a certain level of decorum in this blog). The bicycle has one of those skinny, hard, elongated seats. The first time I got on the bike my backside hurt. I bought inexpensive riding shorts, the kind with the adult diaper thing in the seat, and my backside still hurt. Then I went back to the store, bought a ridiculously expensive pair of bicycle shorts and my backside STILL hurt. What is a budding Lance Armstrong supposed to do? I called my friend and bicycle consultant and whined "my backside hurts!"
He told me to stop whining and keep riding. "Things will get better" he assured me. He was correct. Things have gotten better. I enjoy my rides now in a way that I was unable to enjoy them before. My goals have changed. No longer is my goal to eliminate pain in my backside. The new goal is to enjoy the sights, feel the wind in my face, ride smooth over the rough places, stop often at Starbucks for a mocha, don't get run over by a truck and keep moving forward. My backside still hurts but now I enjoy my ride because my goals are more realistic.
Not unlike exercising leadership in a local church.... enjoy the possibilities you see, feel the presence of God's Holy Spirit in your face, smooth out the rough places, periodically stop and re-create over a beverage of choice, dodge the trucks that want to run you over and keep moving the vision forward. What I learned in cycling is good to know as a church leader. No matter what kind of pants you wear, every church leader will have someone step up and be a pain in his/her backside. This is a fact. This will not go away. Simply ignore that and keep moving forward for the greater good of the gospel.