Daniel Cui and Why the Church Exists

A reminder for the church:

Three things happened in this video:

  1. One person noticed someone struggling and decided to do something.
  2. They asked people that they knew to help.
  3. Their community saw something good and joined in.

I’ve seen this happen time and time again in the churches I’ve served. The struggles are different, but the care and support has been the same. It may be divorce, death of a loved one, addiction, sickness, or job loss, but each time there’s been one person who has taken the first step to notice someone struggling and decided that they needed to be the one who would do something to help.  Unfortunately, I’ve also seen times in the church where someone’s struggles go unnoticed, or if they are noticed no one is quite sure what to do, so they don’t do anything.

As I’m beginning as Co-Pastor of my new church, I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about why the church exists. I’m currently resonating with three purposes articulated well by Bill Easum.

  • Show and share with others the way of life that Jesus modeled (Matthew 28:16-20)
  • Equip congregation members to be developed in their faith and active in service to the church and the world (Ephesians 4:12)
  • Support and care for one another in a Christ-like way (John 21:15-17)

The last purpose is what the video above illustrates. The church should be a community where members take direct responsibility for the well-being and care of other members. Easum uses Jesus’ directive to Peter in John 21 as a model. In response to Peter’s declaration of love for Jesus, Jesus tells him three times to, “Feed my sheep.” Easum points out that it wasn’t the shepherd’s job to directly feed the sheep in 1st century Israel, instead the shepherd guided them in such a way that the flock could feed and take care of themselves.

If any church is to live into our call to care and support one another, it’s going to take the whole flock. Each member needs to be responsible for noticing the struggles of others and doing something about it. The Pastor cannot be the only person, or even the primary person, who can offer care and support to members in need. Members need to be making hospital visits, bringing communion to those who are homebound, asking others to become involved in caring, and making contact (in and outside of church) with visitors.

If you are part of a church I encourage you to be responsible for the care of those you around you, and create (or continue) a community like the one that Daniel Cui had.

 

I’ve got a feeling

“Religion is the outcome neither of the fear of death, nor of the fear of God. It answers a deep need in man. It is neither a metaphysic, nor a morality, but above all and essentially an intuition and a feeling. … Dogmas are not, properly speaking, part of religion: rather it is that they are derived from it. Religion is the miracle of direct relationship with the infinite; and dogmas are the reflection of this miracle. Similarly belief in God, and in personal immortality, are not necessarily a part of religion; one can conceive of a religion without God, and it would be pure contemplation of the universe; the desire for personal immortality seems rather to show a lack of religion, since religion assumes a desire to lose oneself in the infinite, rather than to preserve one’s own finite self.” Friedrich Schleiermacher

I didn’t read any Schleiermacher in seminary, but maybe I should have. When I read this quote of his in Diana Butler Bass’s Christianity After Religion (which is a must-read for anyone who care about the future of churches), I felt like I had found someone who “gets” me.

I’ve never had a burning bush encounter with God. Many people can point to a moment in their life when they had a tangible feeling of God’s presence with them, but that’s not me. I’m a pretty Enlightenment-minded, rationale, logical kind of guy. I don’t believe in ghosts, Atlantis, Bigfoot, government conspiracies to hide aliens, or honest politicians. I like empirical evidence.

There are times when logically, I don’t understand how I became and remain a Christian, let alone a Christian minister. The Vulcan part of me realizes that I have no evidence or proof of God. The practical side of me says that my life could be easier without my faith – I would have more money, time and energy to spend on myself and my family rather than on pesky stuff like ‘loving your neighbor’ and taking care of ‘the least of these.’

By several different standards that I use in my life Christianity just doesn’t make sense to me.

Yet, here I am.

This is where the Schleiermacher quote comes in, because when you press me to tell you why I’m a Christian, then I will say that at some deep level inside me it just feels right. Not in an emotional, touchy-feely sort of way, but in an intuitive “this is how the world is” sort of way. And even in the face of some pretty deep theological and existential crises, that intuitive feeling has not left me.

This is how my faith happens. Thanks for helping me articulate it, Freddy.

The More You Do, the Less You Accomplish

I wasn’t around when “I Love Lucy” originally aired but I’m still familiar with this scene:

I wonder if this feels familiar to many ministers and church volunteers?

My wife and I are finishing our second month as co-pastors at our new church, and we are realizing that the people of our church are an ambitious group! They’ve planned and organized to do many different programs, worship services, classes, and other events. There are so many good ideas and traditions here.

In fact, there are too many good ideas and traditions here.

At least too many for the amount of people that we have ready and willing to make them happen.  Our current organizational structure takes about ninety people to run. That also happens to be the number of people we have in church on a typical Sunday.  In a church of our size we aren’t going to get ninety people to commit to be elders, deacons or committee members.

So if we don’t make adjustments, then we are going to be like Lucy and her friend and we aren’t going to be able to do the job we’ve been asked to do. We might be able to keep up appearances for a while, but in the end nobody is going to want the box of chocolates that went through our line.

So how do we improve? How do we make a better box of chocolates?

We slow down. We do less, but we do it better.  We decide what are the most important things that we do, and we commit to doing them with a high level of quality. Even if that means we have to stop doing some of the things we do now.

We won’t be able to pack as many boxes of chocolate, but the ones we do pack, will be ones that we will be proud to offer to anyone and everyone.

Squish. Just Like Grape

Sometimes as I try to articulate my faith, I feel like the proverbial grape that Mr. Miyagi is talking about.

My first deep experience with Christianity was through the youth group in my home church in Iowa. My years there as a participant and a volunteer leader were the most formational ones of my Christian faith, especially the friendship and mentoring I received from my youth director, Randy Hausler. A solid foundation for my faith was built in my teens and early 20s. This foundation was also solidly evangelical and conservative.

After volunteering as a youth leader for almost a decade, I decided that I wanted to go pro and I went to seminary at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, VA. I received a very “Presbyterian” education and the pendulum of my faith life swung far to the progressive mainline Protestant side of the spectrum. This too was an incredibly formational time in my life for my faith and vocation.

I have been extremely fortunate to have so many positive Christian experiences, friends, and communities in my life. I feel doubly blessed to have had such a wide variety of faithful Christians in my life with all sorts of beliefs and theologies.  To this day, as I try to live out and articulate my faith I am influenced by all these people.
Sometimes I envision my faith like the Grand Canyon, which consists of a number of layers built up over a long period of time. My youth group, my college Bible study, my seminary experience, each church I’ve served – these are the layers of my faith. And each one remains as a part of the person I am today.

Which leads me to the heart of this post (and back to the grape). Sometimes I feel caught in the middle between a more traditional expression of faith, and a more postmodern or progressive one. I want to embrace a more inclusive, intelligent, less dogmatic expression of Christianity, but I’m not ready to go towards the Spiritual But Not Religious crowd, or join the Unitarians.

And I wonder how many others out there are like me.

Here are some of the layers of my faith:

  • I believe that Jesus was more than just a nice guy who taught some really cool things…but I also believe that the church has traditionally embraced a misleading picture of Jesus that sacrifices the humanity of Jesus for divinity.
  • I believe that the Bible is more than just a book of good ideas, that it has authority because of the window it provides to God and God’s will, and it can and should be used to guide and correct how I live my life…but I also believe that God did not dictate the Bible word for word. The words were created by people of faith who were inspired by God to share their real experiences of God, but like me, they were sinful, imperfect people, and they inserted their own thoughts, biases, mistakes, and opinions into their stories about God.
  • I believe that through prayer, the community of faith, and the Bible, God shows me what is just and loving, and I cannot rely on my own conscience or judgment alone to determine right from wrong. I believe that there will be a time when I am called to account for my beliefs and actions before God…but I also believe that the traditional idea of Hell for those who do not follow Christ in belief or action is extremely problematic. It seems to fly in the face of God’s unconditional grace and never-ending love as witnessed to in Scripture.
  • I believe that Christianity has unique and particular things to offer that other religions do not, and it is the only path to God that has been revealed to me…but I also believe that Christianity cannot know or say all there is to know about God.  Other religions may provide other windows to God and it is possible to be Christ-like without ever knowing who Jesus is.

What about you? Do you ever feel caught in the middle? What layers would a faith archaeologist find within your life?

Welcome to Church vs. Welcome to Gen Con

books, box and other stuff

Members of our church have been incredibly gracious and welcoming as my wife and I get settled as the new Co-Pastors of Fairview Presbyterian Church. When we arrived in Indianapolis a different church member brought us dinner every night for a week. The meals were so good that just yesterday our daughter asked when more people  would be bringing us food.  We received recommendations for doctors, babysitters, repair services, restaurants, etc.  A church member even loaned us a metal detector and an auger for a few projects (don’t ask).

Our welcome in the office, at worship and in meetings has been great. So many people coming up to us, introducing themselves and saying how excited they are to see us. It has meant a lot to our family to feel so well received and appreciated.

Compare this to my experience at Gen Con. Gen Con is a huge gaming convention right here in my new hometown of Indianapolis. Tens of thousands of gamer geeks congregate for four days and nights of gaming. I eagerly headed downtown last weekend to experience it for myself, not really sure what to expect.

I first had to figure out where to park, where the entrance to the convention center was, and where I was supposed to pick up my badge. That was the easy part, because then I had to figure out what to do. There were thousands of people around, hundreds of different games happening, and I was given a giant catalog of the thousands of things I could participate in. But I didn’t have the first clue where to start.

When I would approach someone and ask them for advice they were always nice and willing to answer a few questions, but they usually had their own game they were going to and didn’t have the time to lead me by the hand.  I did figure out how to sign up and participate in a few things, but I was still reluctant since I was on my own and brand new to the experience.

I can’t help but compare what it is like to being a newcomer at Gen Con vs. being a first -time visitor at a church. I’m willing to bet that for most visitors who aren’t the new pastor, my Gen Con experience is like their church experience.

  • How often do we expect visitors to know where to park and where to enter the building?
  • How do people feel when we give them a bunch of papers about the church and then just let them find their own way to participate?
  • Do we spend just a few minutes with a newcomer before we move on to where we want to be or who we want to talk with?
  • How many people in the church are standing on the sidelines because they feel too new or reluctant to jump right in and get involved?

As I think about these questions I realize that I will definitely give Gen Con another try, but I don’t know if most visitors to churches will do the same.

Africa is not a country

Say the word ‘Africa’ and many people will either think of this:

 

or possibly something along these lines:

Stereotypes

 

Well, this weekend I was reminded again of how monolithically many people in our society view Africa.  I was speaking with a representative from a private company whose business is sending students from around the world to other countries for educational purposes. This person was specifically looking for families to host students from abroad in their homes for several weeks during the summer. 

 So I was asking the representative some questions about the program, and one of the questions I asked was if they had any students who come from countries in Africa. Here is the reply I received:

“No. We only have students whose families can afford it.”

After I picked my jaw up off the floor here’s how I responded,

“Really? You don’t think that there are any families out of the one billion people in Africa who might be able to afford your program? Do you honestly believe that every single student on the second largest continent in the world comes from a family that lives in poverty? Are you telling me that every one of the fifty different countries in Africa is devoid of anyone other than the people you see on the latest ‘Save the Children’ commercial?”

Ok, that’s not really what I said. It was more along the lines of:

“I’m sure there are plenty of families in Africa that could afford it.”

Several days later I still can’t let go of this conversation. Now, I have no desire to single out this person or this company, because versions of this conversation happen all the time. Statements that demonstrate stereotypes, prejudices and gross misunderstandings of “those poor Africans” are commonplace and routine in our society and in our media.

But just because they are commonplace doesn’t mean they aren’t damaging. 

10 ways being a geek prepared me for ministry

Critical_hit

Landon and Jan posted in the “10 ways being a <blank> prepared me for ministry” meme. So I thought I’d do the same. Here are ten ways that being a geek prepared me for ministry.

1. Imagining new realities is second nature to geeks. Some days it’s hard to envision a world where we all treat each other as God intended. Fortunately, geeks have +3 to imagination. We spend part of our time in the real world and the rest of it envisioning new worlds. My imaginary passport has stamps in it from Perth, Azeroth, Middle Earth, Pliocene Earth, Barsoom, Federation Space, Tatooine, and numerous parralel and alternate universes.

2. Even if you do everything right, things may not go your way. We can make the best plans for a new program, a sermon, or a Session meeting and still have things go wrong.  Just like your plate-armored Paladin should be able to take that low-level skeleton but rolling a d20 saving throw and getting a 1 says otherwise.

3. Don’t feed the trolls. The church, just like everywhere else, has people who have no interest in anything other than taking your time and making you angry. Don’t try to “win” against them. Smile, nod and tell them Jesus loves ’em.

4. Trekkies are like fundamentalists. Hardcore Trekkies Fundamentalist Christians have pieced together an alternate universe from bits and pieces of Star Trek Biblical canon. This universe goes far beyond what the creator ever intended.

5. Geek conventions are like Reformation Sunday. People dress up in funny costumes and celebrate a niche identity that outsiders scratch their heads at.

6. Geeks realized the impact of the internet a long time ago. Connecting with congregation members and ministry colleagues online feels a lot like hanging out on BBSs and Usenet groups 20 years ago.

7. Geeks can wear one of their many black t-shirts to an emerging/hipster worship service.

8. Geeks realize that differences are good, even if someone is really different. Geeks, by definition, are different and somewhat on the margins.  But World of Warcraft geek and Magic the Gathering geek have no business making fun of the other for being different. This is exactly how church should be. We don’t have to see eye to eye on everything (like homosexuality or whether Picard>Kirk) to be in ministry together.

9. Role playing comes easy. In various role-playing games I’ve been a: magic user, druid, lorekeeper, starship captain, jedi, mutant racoon, post-apocalytpic car driver, and giant robot pilot. In ministry I’ve been a: preacher, caregiver, plumber, computer tech, peacemaker, lawbringer, administrator, and rebel.

10. Your worth is not determined by others. Geeks have long endured scorn from those who would like to label them as ‘less than’ because of their passions and dedications. Eventually (hopefully) geeks learn to value themselves as pretty darn great regardless of what anyone else tells them. Likewise, the church spreads a message the no one’s worth should be the product of societal norms and pressures, but that each person is pretty darn great because they are a child of God.

The Reality of Parenting

Adam Walker Cleaveland wrote on his blog about trying to adjust to a new job and a new son at the same time. Either one of these is a huge change that would throw most of us for a loop, but trying to do them both at the same time is huge. 

In this post he asked some good questions that sound real familair to me:

How do I find time for myself when coming home now means that Sarah is more than willing to relinquish the baby into my care so she can nap, get some work done or just relax? How do I spend the time I feel is necessary to read, study and reflect deeply on my ministry when I need to find more Sunday School teachers, continue to learn how this church does things from potlucks, to expense reports, and pastoral care visits? Where do Sarah and I find the time to sit with each other, catch each other up on our days, and cultivate our marriage when we’re both exhausted at the end of the day and she’s ready for bed, and I’m ready to get in some “Adam time” by doing things like writing this blog post?

Here is my answer:

You don’t.

At least not anywhere close to as much as you used to and not in many of the ways that you used to. That time for yourself is gone. I’ve been looking for it for the last seven years since my son was born and haven’t found it yet. I haven’t found it as he’s got older, or in a different job, or when our daughter came into our family.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t miss it. That doesn’t mean that I don’t ask the exact same questions on a regular basis that you are asking. But good parents sacrifice a huge part of themselves, their life and their time when they have children.  More than they ever imagined.

IMO, that’s the dirty little secret of parenting.

But here’s the other secret that I am still discovering…

…it’s worth it.

What do Netflix, GoDaddy, and the church have in common?

Nodaddy

Earlier this year Netflix made a number of business decisions and reversals of those business decisions that made a lot of its customers mad. Many were so mad that they stopped doing business with Netflix.  In the past week GoDaddy announced it’s support for the Stop Online Privacy Act. Their statement of support led to tens of thousands of GoDaddy’s customers taking their business to GoDaddy’s competitors. GoDaddy later reversed its position on SOPA (somewhat), but it apparently was too little too late and the exodus continues.

Both of these companies made decisions that they knew would make a significant number of their customers mad. 

Both of these companies thought that the fallout wouldn’t be too bad.

Both of these companies were wrong.

And it remains to be seen to what extent each company will recover. 

What I find interesting is that neither one of these companies changed it’s core service or product. At the end of the day you could still get movies from Netflix and you could still get web hosting from GoDaddy. What did change was how those services were provided and just as important, a message was sent as to how much each company valued its customers. I’d also be willing to bet that the demographics of these lost customers tended to be from younger generations.

I believe that the church has gone the Netflix/GoDaddy route and made a number of decisions that have caused millions of customers* (especially younger generations) to bring their business elsewhere.  If you want some numbers to back this statement up, take a look at Carol Howard Merritt’s recent Christian Century post.

Like Netflix and GoDaddy, it’s not that these lost customers don’t want what the church has to offer. Millions of young adults and others want spirituality, to be in touch with the divine, a deeper meaning to life, to give themselves to something great and worth dying for. But for decades the church has been making a number of bad decisions about how we provide our services and what we think of younger generations that have made many people mad and driven them away from the church.

And like GoDaddy and Netflix it remains to be seen to what extent the church can and will recover. 

*I know that there are all sorts of problems with making analogies between the business world and the church. Every analogy is imperfect and flawed, some more than others. But even imperfect analogies can be helpful. There was a man once who compared the kingdom of God to all sorts of things that it wasn’t, and some people have found that guy’s teachings of value.