Category Archives: Church
For most of us, the Christmas season is marked by more chaos than peace. No matter how old we are, there’s this time leading up to the “big day” that’s marked by increasing expectation. For some, it’s a happy time, for others it can be closer to panic. It seems like it starts earlier every year. We plan, we travel, we decorate, we bake, we shop, we eat, we worry about how much we spent while shopping and how much holiday-weight we’re gaining while we’re eating. Sometimes it seems like we’re bouncing around like a ping-pong ball in a clothes dryer until we’re flung out into the new year wondering where the holiday went!
I’m not railing against busyness or complaining about losing the spirit of Christmas, I’m saying that no matter what we believe, Christmas is more of a season than an event. In the Christian church, we have a word that encompasses that: “Advent.” For us, Christmas doesn’t come suddenly. Each year, there’s a four week lead-up that reminds us, in the midst of the busyness, of the hope, peace, joy, and love that come with Jesus Christ’s coming into our world. It’s a wonderful time of anticipation and celebration of the beautiful mystery that Christ has come, Christ is here, and Christ is coming again.
I’m a bit of a word nerd, so I like to sink into the meaning of things when I talk about them. “Advent” is the same concept that we get the word “Adventure” from. It’s something new coming. Something expected, but somehow unexpected at the same time. It’s a time of profound change where the old passes away and something different takes its place and nothing can ever be the same afterward. Advent is a time that we eagerly anticipate the coming not of presents and turkey, or even the end of insane busyness, but of Jesus Christ.
Once upon a time, the world was Christless, and it waited with baited breath for the one who would make all things new. Then, like a silent ray of starshine, He was here.
That’s what we celebrate. That’s what we still wait for. The old made new. The broken made whole. The greatest gift the world has been given. He was given when He was least deserved and most needed, and that pattern has been followed in countless lives in the centuries since.
This Christmas season, take some time to ponder what the advent of Jesus Christ means, or could mean, in your own life. Look at the world around you. Look up to the stars. Jesus is coming.
“Mercy triumphs over judgement,” says James. This is not to say that mercy eliminates judgement, or that which is to be judged is no longer worthy of judgement, but that after judgement comes mercy.
Judge. Judge rightly, and with justice. Know the difference between right and wrong — righteousness and disregard. Dig a deep hole, and pour that judgement into it. Dig it deep enough to fill it to the brim! Once you’ve poured it all out, look at that pool of judgement and admire the rightness of it. Feel confident in it.
Then cover it with mercy.
Spread the mercy on thick. If you don’t have any of your own to put on there, pray for it. It should come from the same place your judgement does, or else your judgement isn’t righteous; it’s self-righteous. Keep adding mercy until the judgement stops seeping through. Keep tending it until something new starts to grow from its fertile soil.
In the end, the judgement is still there, but all anyone should see is mercy.
Put in another way, “Love covers over a multitude of sins.”
I’ve been frustrated at people on the Internet lately. I know, that’s shocking and new, but try to contain your surprise and stay with me. Some of them are friends. Some of them are colleagues. Some of them are random strangers that I theoretically share a belief system with. This post
may will probably offend them. They may even call it persecution from within. That would certainly fit with the rhetoric that I see floating around.
There was a great post on cracked.com (home of tremendously well-written and researched articles that people are tricked into reading by dick jokes and cussing) recently about 5 Ways Powerful People Trick You Into Hating Protesters (or Underdogs if you visited before the title was changed). There’s some really interesting stuff about how the majority is made to feel like a threatened and oppressed minority. It really resonated with me because that’s the way a lot of North American Christians are feeling. The rhetoric floating around the Christian Right is calling it persecution.
I have trouble with that, because (to me) it belittles a lot of things. Sure if you really want it to, it may be massaged to fit a dictionary definition of persecution in that treatment of Christians in North America can at some points be annoying or cause someone to suffer, but I believe that’s because North American Christians have a VERY low threshold for suffering. That’s what happens when we’ve lived in coddled privilege for generations, holding the stick for so long we’ve come to feel that it’s part of our hands. Persecution, like suffering, is a loaded word. When I think about persecution, I think about people losing jobs or being beaten or being sent to prison or killed because of what they believe or who they are. Historically in North America, that’s been how many “Christians,” or at least our “Christian society,” has treated people like blacks, gays, and women.
That’s a hard thing to hear, because no one likes to think of themselves as persecutors. That was what used to happen. It’s not us. At least, it can’t be us because we’re not that bad anymore, right?In the face of damning evidence, one of the easiest ways to make ourselves feel better is to simply call ourselves the persecuted. After all, Christians are being persecuted around the world, so how are we any different? It must be true, because we see it in the news. We’re “persecuted” when:
1. People Vote With Their Wallets
There are Christian businesses that are losing money because people choose not to frequent those establishments. Those people don’t want to give their commerce to people who they perceive as being bigoted and intolerant. Forget for a second that this happens infrequently enough on a major scale that it’s major news when it happens, it’s REVERSE BIGOTRY!
2. People Are Jerks on the Internet
Nothing makes a person happier than being superior on the Internet. There are whole websites devoted to the “triumph of reason” and articles shared around about how profoundly dumb it is to believe in God like a bunch of sheeple. Blah blah blah flying teapot spaghetti monster. How dare they poke at our insecurity to make themselves feel better! Of course, it’s not actually directed at YOU, but it’s adjacent to you and that sucks. It’s not like you’d ever make blanket statements about a whole group of people.
3. We Lose Privileges
Did you know that churches may lose their tax-exempt charitable status if they preach against homosexuality or refuse to perform gay marriages!?! It’s all over the Internet. How is that possibly fair? We’re entitled to special treatment! We must be—we’ve had it forever. So what if by doing weddings we’re acting as agents of the state? They have no business changing their policy to something we disagree with. And taking away preferential treatment to reduce us to the same status as any other group? Preferential treatment is our right! What a hateful mess.
4. We Get Made Fun Of
It’s often said in youth group circles that the worst that can happen if you share your faith with someone is that they’ll laugh at you. Really, though, that’s bad enough, isn’t it? Who wants to be mocked or made fun of for their beliefs? Christians never do that.
5. Ezra Levant Rants About Something
The “rebel commander” and his offense du jour give wonderful self-pity breaks for Canadian Christians. I’m sure the US has their own equivalent (Fox News?). There’s nothing like taking isolated incidents and painting a broad brush conspiracy to marginalize or attack all Christians, to make us feel appropriately threatened and justified in defending ourselves. We should be grateful to people like him for pointing out how persecuted we are, when we otherwise might not have noticed.
6. We Are Held Accountable For What The Bible Says
The Bible says things that people disagree with. That is because they are sweaty heathen sinners who don’t know better. Sometimes that means that our beliefs require that say things or we have to live in ways that they find offensive. Since our beliefs are the right ones and their beliefs are wrong, if their beliefs require them to say or do things that make us uncomfortable or feel “attacked,” that shouldn’t be allowed. We’re the only ones who can do that.
Yes, there was a sneer on my face as I wrote those things. And yes, I actually feel bad about that. I struggle with posting this, because I feel like anyone who agrees with me already knows, and anyone who doesn’t agree with me isn’t going to be swayed by it. Sometimes the Internet is great for venting though, so at least there’s that.
If you’re still reading this far and haven’t shut the tab or jumped to the comments, the takeaway I want to leave is this: There is a difference between Christians being persecuted and A Christian being persecuted and YOU being persecuted. Beyond that, I want to say there’s a difference between things being mildly inconvenient and uncomfortable for you in a distant way and being persecuted. However you want to work your own definition, I can tell you that it’s wrong.
The reason that I know that is this: The persecuted Church grows. Always. It can’t be stopped, and when we are “persecuted for righteousness sake,” it witnesses to the world in a way that draws them to Christ. If we’re persecuted for being jerks, that’s not the same thing.
Sometimes my life seems like a constant string of reevaluating opinions and attitudes and stupid things I say. Sometimes they’re things that I’ve been taught and never really thought too hard about. Sometimes they’re things that seem obvious on the surface, but there’s a lot going on underneath that I ignore. Sometimes it’s not that I’m wrong, it’s just that I’m just arrogant and graceless and went too far in what I said.
I’m not sure where this falls on the spectrum, but for the past few days, I’ve been thinking more and more about the Pew Research study (supposedly showing the decline of American Christianity) and the spins that various media outlets are giving it. The popular consensus seems to be the one that Ed Stetzer puts forward: that committed, or “convictional” Christians aren’t going anywhere, while “nominal Christians” (Christians in name only), or Default Christians as I put it in a recent post, aren’t checking the box any more. That’s basically what I said, and I likely wouldn’t have bothered saying it if I’d already known the number of much “larger” names saying the same thing.
In a nutshell, I said that it was a good thing. I said that nominal Christians shouldn’t be called Christians anyway. Then I went another step further to say that there are still a lot of nominal or default Christians in our pews that should basically go home and stop pretending. I said that if they did, then our churches would be more free to follow Jesus. I compared them to the fat of the church. Sometimes I’m an ass.
It’s not that I’m entirely wrong in what I said (I don’t think). Having pews full of marginal and uncommitted people who aren’t willing to commit to following Christ—becoming “real” Christians—does “weigh our churches down” and leave a less effective witness. I’ve been convinced, though, that my attitude towards it is unChristlike.
A big part of that was a reevaluation of Jesus’ “outreach” program, particularly as referenced in Matthew 9:11 —
When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
and, lest there be any confusion about exactly what kind of people these Pharisees meant, Matthew 11:19 —
The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’
Those passages are nothing new to most Christians. I’ve heard them a million times. I’ve quoted them and taught from them. I think about them as I think about the people that to all of the obvious things that we assume people outside of the Church do… those filthy “non-Christians”… the sweaty unchurched. I think about Jesus going into bars and building relationships and teaching them grace. I think of it as an example or a metaphor for us going out into “the world” to “reach people” for Jesus.
The thing is, that’s not what happened.
By simple arrangement of geography and priorities, Jesus rarely, if ever, hung out with the “unchurched.” If we want to look for examples of outreach to the Gentiles, we need to look at Paul and the post-ascension apostles. Jesus, in his own words, came to seek and save the lost sheep of Israel. The tax-collectors, the drunkards, the whores and the sinners, they were Jews. They were people that knew God, born and raised in the synagogues, but lived contradictory lifestyles. They were backsliders. They were the nominals. They were the default Jews.
I don’t know what went on behind closed doors. I don’t know what Jesus looked like at their feasts and parties, and I’m not going to presume to. I do know that Jesus wasn’t rejoicing over them leaving. He certainly wasn’t coming down on them with God’s own thunder for their “sinfulness”. He loved them. He spent time with them. He was Jesus to them.
So much of the time my grace runs out at the door of the church. When I look at nominals as a pastor, especially long-term nominals, I get frustrated. I have a get-in-or-get-out mentality. I want to pour my effort into the people that seem to be “getting it,” and not waste it on the people that don’t. I want them to drop their crap and commit so that I can lead them. I’ll give all sorts of room for non-Christians to be messy. It’s expected. Sinners gonna sin. When it comes to people that have claimed the Savior, though, I have different expectations, and I don’t know what to do when my expectations aren’t met, so most of the time I ignore them. If I don’t ignore them, I want to preach at them so they’ll stop frustrating and embarrassing me.
Because it’s about me. My frustration. My embarrassment on God’s behalf.
Apparently Jesus has a lot more grace for nominals than most of us do. Maybe instead of wanting to clear them out so that the faithful can move forward to reaching the unchurched, we should be “coming to seek and save the lost sheep of Christianity.” Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what that would look like. I do know that it probably looks like something that could get a “good Christian” a bad name or a pastor a reputation for lackadaisical faith.
I know that there are plenty of times that scripture calls out the “lukewarm,” and Jesus calls for extreme commitment, but there’s something else going on too. It’s something I need to learn and explore. I know I’m going to tend to waffle around between extremes, but a pursuit of Christlikeness means continually adjusting my aim. Right now, I feel like God is reminding me of something important.
Jesus, friend of nominals, loves them. I can’t throw them under the bus.
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to mourn the passing of Default Christianity. At least I hope so. It’s been hanging on for so long it’s hard to believe that it can ever die. I want to be at the funeral just so I can take a good, hard look in the casket. Default Christianity showed up at a family reunion one day, ate the food, slept on the couch, and after a while everyone just assumed that it must be someone’s cousin that no one recognized. It showed up year after year until we believed that it was part of the family. It learned the family stories and picked up the family way of talking, but the truth is that it was never part of the family.
Recent news reports have been citing a Pew Research Study that says, among other things, that in America Atheism and Agnosticism are on the rise and Christianity is on the downturn to the tune of 8% over the past seven years. The percentage of people surveyed that identify themselves as Christian has fallen from ~79% to ~71%. “Christianity is in sharp decline,” they say. Christians see this and are running around with their hands in the air—here’s proof positive that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Atheists are rejoicing—people are coming to their senses. Christianity in the West is dying. They’re putting religion to death!
Is it, though? Those numbers are saying something very different to me.
I don’t believe that 8% drop represents the loss of a single point of Christianity. In fact, I think that the 71% is still an incredibly soft number. Look at it this way: If we’re walking around town, and seven out of ten people are actually committed Christians, our world looks pretty good. If seven out of ten people were Christian, I’d be incredibly excited. I’d also wonder what I was doing here as a pastor. Everything I preached would be preaching to the choir.
Honestly, though, I think it’s obvious to everyone that seven years ago, eight out of ten Americans were not Christian. Today, I think it’s pretty clear that seven out of ten Americans aren’t followers of Jesus Christ. In fact, I’d be pretty surprised if seven out of ten people in our churches are Christian. Christianity isn’t dying. If there’s a decline, it’s not anything new. What’s happening is that the number of people who say they’re Christians is declining, and that’s a very different thing. I’d even go so far as to say it’s a good thing.
I’d be pretty surprised if seven out of ten people in our CHURCHES are Christian.
So what’s going on? Shocked, SHOCKED we are to find that gambling is going on here. The dirty little secret of American Christianity is being revealed: Many Christians aren’t Christian. The big numbers were great for making ourselves feel better, or giving weight to our political arguments, or the vague prestige of being the “dominant” religion, but deep down, I think we all knew they weren’t real. At least everyone that didn’t think that coming to church on Christmas Eve and—if pressed—saying that Christmas is about Jesus, and having neither of those things make a tangible impact on your life made you a Christian knew.
The truth is that much of that 79% were Christian by default. They weren’t anything else and they didn’t feel like they weren’t Christian, so they checked the box. It was like a more-true-than-not-true answer that cost them nothing. Their parents said they were Christian. Their neighbors said that they were Christian. Their politicians said they were Christian. They didn’t look any different, so they must be Christian.
They aren’t checking the box anymore, and that scares us.
Where some people once saw prestige and membership in a dominant club, they now see more prestige in being areligious. There’s not the same social pressure to be a “believer”. These are people that are going to jump on the popularity train whichever way it’s going. They’re not “Christian” anymore, but nothing has really changed. I don’t think they’re really atheist, either, just popularist.
Other people are just becoming more and more willing to actually define what they believe. They were default Christians because that was all there was for them. They either weren’t able because they didn’t see a viable alternative, or they hadn’t really thought through what they said they believed. When they dug in, they found that what they said they believed didn’t line up with what they lived out, or what they wanted to believe, and they said so.
I really believe that those are the 8% that have dropped. I also think we need to see at least another 20% go.
We shouldn’t be afraid when we see these numbers drop; we should be rejoicing. There’s three big reasons for this. The first is that, if we’re people of truth, we want to see the numbers reflect reality. Artificially inflated numbers should bother us. In fact, WE should be the first ones calling them out. The second is that, if the numbers keep going the direction they are, it means that the Church might soon be free to be the Church. Without being weighed down by vague cultural expectations, or people that want to be along for the ride without any of the cost, we can follow Christ. Cultural Christianity—Christianity by default—has been an anchor that keeps the church stagnant and uncommitted, even irrelevant.
The transforming power and presence of Jesus Christ isn’t going anywhere, nor are the people who have experienced that transformation. The third reason is wrapped up in that. When the numbers line up with reality, we can see clearly the multitudes who really need to know Christ. There are so many people—Default Christians—that we pass by on the streets and church picnics and ignore. We think they’re “saved” or whatever, in the group. We lament that they aren’t doing their part or that they aren’t living up to our expectations, but we never stop to consider that even though they check the box, they still have yet to know Jesus. These are the unreached people in our pews.
Maybe if they’re out of our pews we might be moved to reach them.
So let’s let Default Christianity die. It was nice while it lasted, and definitely convenient, but its time has passed. Over and over again, the Church has found that convenient Christianity has been cancerous. Maybe we should be looking at those numbers not as a sign of overall health and strength of our faith, but more like BMI. There is a point where the higher number is just showing fat.
In the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to watch a debate that was happening in schools and bars and social media move into governments and courts. Right now, the Supreme Court of the United States is hearing arguments about whether or not individual states should have a right to legislate whether they will allow same-sex couples to get married, or whether it should be a federally protected right. You may have heard about it. Some people have opinions. Many of them are loud.
The popular perception is that Christians want to keep the world firmly ensconced in an idealized version of the 1950s by keeping all the marriage for themselves, while people with functioning brains want to be nice to people. The other (somewhat less popular) popular perception is that Christians want to save the world from a toboggan ride to hell, while sweaty heathens want to steal marriage so that they can have sex with everything and not pay taxes. The unpopular perception is that even within the Christian community, there’s a pretty sharp split between those in support and those against, and they might be even angrier with each other than the rest of the internet is.
My name is Aaron, and I’m a Christian moderate. That’s not an easy thing to be, especially when debates get heated. There’s a lot of hurt flying around on all sides, particularly from people who seem to think there’s only two of them. Once again, as a Christian moderate, I’m catching my fair share because—
1. Some people believe there’s no such thing
In Revelation 3:16, God says that, “because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth,” and a lot of people seem to think that means that if your theology doesn’t go to the logical extreme, you don’t care about God. They see moderate Christians as being wishy-washy or apathetic. They think that if you aren’t at one end of the spectrum or another, you just haven’t bothered to think through your faith. Most of the time, though, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Most Christian moderates and moderate denominations place a very high priority on scripture and applying it passionately to life. The difference is that they see that application in the middle of the two extremes. I am a passionately hot and cold middle-ground believer, because that’s where I see the Bible leading. I have very strong opinions on it, and right now it leads to arguments because—
2. Liberals think that that you hate gay people
I can’t do the exegetical (critical interpretation of religious text) and hermeneutical (art and science that shapes biblical interpretation) back-flips that let them say that God is giving a thumbs-up to same-gender sexual relationships. I’ve dug in and tried, because I want to and it would be much easier for me to hold that position in so many ways, but I can’t. That conviction means that when I’m asked, I have to say that I believe that homosexual practice is sinful. I can’t endorse it because I don’t believe that the creator of sexuality endorses it. As a pastor, I can’t conduct a wedding of a same-sex couple. I also don’t believe that people should be forced to participate in the event under threat of losing their business, either, through everything from flowers to food to photography. If they believe that their participation amounts to support and/or endorsement of something they believe is wrong, they should have the right not to. This position has led to a lot of people on the internet being very angry with me. Despite that—
3. Conservatives think that you throw out the Bible
I believe that same-sex couples should receive equal treatment under secular law, and when I say that, conservative Christians seem to think I’m possessed by the devil. They see it as a betrayal as scripture and a governmental endorsement of sin. The problem is that they can’t separate the moral/religious implications from the legal/secular ones. They also can’t seem to see the way the argument demeans and belittles real people with real feelings who don’t share their beliefs. I’ll talk to Christians about God’s intent for human sexuality, but applying that to people who don’t believe in God is ridiculous. I can’t make a religious argument in a legal debate, and I don’t believe that the state has any compelling interest in discriminating against homosexuals. I’m honestly not sure that Christians have any place entering into the conversation and saying so. When I make that argument—
4. You realize that half the problem is that everyone is speaking different languages with the same words
Everyone looks at me like I have two heads. I feel like whenever I’m talking to someone about it, I’m arguing someone else’s position. I think that it would be a lot easier to come together on this if we could just replace the word marriage with the word sandwich. It’s probably descriptive enough, and is far enough outside the norm that people would actually have to think about what each other was saying rather than slapping their own interpretation on it. Using the word marriage means carrying very different assumptions into the conversation. When a Christian says marriage, they usually mean Holy Matrimony. Christianity is unique (to the best of my knowledge) among the major religions, as it views marriage as a sacramental union, through which God binds a man and a woman together in reflection of his relationship with humanity and not a civil process. When someone outside the church says marriage, they usually mean a legally formalized permanent romantic relationship between two people. Given that, it makes perfect sense that conservative Christians would be utterly confused when someone says that homosexuals can have a marriage and secularists would be baffled by anyone who says they can’t. Sometimes I feel like if everyone could understand that, we could all stop ALL CAPSing at each other, but—
5. You know that’s not the half that matters
It’s really less about faith than it is about fear. I get that. I’m afraid too. Not the way some conservatives seem to be—that everything will turn into a slippery slope that’s slippery because of all the sweaty, hedonistic sex people are having on it, and not in the way that liberals seem to be—that people will be ground beneath the pointy boot of conservative discrimination, but that people are going to come after me and the church I love. I’m afraid that I will be legally penalized for believing what I believe. More than that, though, it’s about pain. Pain and deprecation. On one side, you have people who passionately love God and love the Bible and people are telling them that they’re stupid and ignorant and bigoted—the God they love doesn’t exist and the Bible they love is a fabrication. Of course they’re going to come out with guns blazing. On the other side, you have people who believe their sexual identity is intrinsic to who they are and people are telling them that who they are is evil and they should be relegated to second-class citizenry. Very few people make the arguments in those extreme words, but those are the words that are heard. Most of the arguments on both sides have gone well beyond reason and into stupid, illogical, personal attack, and I’m not sure there’s any coming back from that.
Anyone who’s actually made it this far without jumping straight to the comment section might be wondering what my moderate position is. Here you go: To be honest, I think that the church has absolutely no business legally solemnizing any union, heterosexual or otherwise. Let us handle unions spiritually according to our own beliefs and let the government handle legal unions secularly. If someone wants both, they should do both. My moderate opinion is that same sex couples should absolutely be afforded the same rights under the law as opposite gender couples. Under God is a different story. Nothing the church says is going to change the one, and nothing the court says is going to change the other.
You’re free to disagree.
Almost a year ago, it was announced at Cornerstone Wesleyan Church that my position, Pastor of Youth and Worship, was being terminated, and I was not being moved into the newly created position of Pastor of Servant Life and Community development. There was some fallout. Not as much as there likely would be if a senior pastor left, but there were a lot of opinions in the ring after the announcement. It wasn’t a surprise to me—it had been an ongoing discussion at the leadership level for quite a while, and I was given plenty of opportunity for input. I was left in an odd position, though. I still loved the church, I had nowhere else to go, and I felt called to write for a while instead of going straight into the brutality of the pastoral search process.
After a bunch of praying and thinking and talking with my wife, we decided (with approval of the leadership) to continue attending Cornerstone. I’m not sure what I would have done if they had said no… it was a bit awkward all-round. I’m not sure anyone in leadership ever considered saying no. They’re awesome, supportive people. If it was me in their place, though, I would have been hesitant and worried about issues of transition and disturbance, and wondering if I could trust me in the background of the congregation. In the end, I’m glad we did. I think I may have grown more in the year of transition, out of “active” ministry, than I did in the three years before.
These are some things that I learned in the transition:
1. There are people more upset about it than you are.
“I can’t believe how the church treated you…” … “It’s just not right…” … “This is ridiculous…” … “What are they thinking?”
As hard as it is to step away from the role you’ve poured yourself into for years, there’s a certain peace in it. Let’s face it, if you’re in a place spiritually and emotionally that you can continue to attend a church after they’ve
fired you not renewed your contract, you’ve probably left on fairly decent terms. There will be people in the church, though—your advocates, your friends, and sometimes people completely unexpected—that will take greater offense than you. One of the biggest challenges you face immediately after the announcement is dealing with people who want to badmouth the church you love, or vent anger you don’t feel, or vote with their feet and leave.* It’s hard, when you are dealing with some measure of hurt, to be put in the awkward position of defending the church that’s terminating you. Even worse, the angriest people—the ones most likely to leave—are your closest friends, and you can be left feeling even more alone attending church without them.
*I want to make it clear that not everyone who left CWC at this point left because of feelings about me. For some it was directional over removing the youth specialty. For others it was the culmination of feelings that had been building for quite a while. I don’t want to misrepresent them as leaving in a fit of pique.
2. There are people less upset about it than you are.
Sure, you expect that there are some people happy to see you go. There are always going to be people that you’ve butted heads with; personally, ministerially, or theologically. Some of them might have even been working behind the scenes to get rid of you. It can be hard to see those people week in and week out, wondering if under their smile and handshake lies smug satisfaction at a job well done. I’m not talking about those people, though. I’m talking about the surprising majority of people who really just don’t care that much. These are the people that you shook hands with and exchanged pleasantries after the service. They gave vague compliments on sermons or services and carried on with their lives. They were fans, but not followers. They were the ones who, as Lenny said in season three, episode 24 of The Simpsons, were “well-wishers in that they don’t wish you any specific harm.” The fact is that in any given congregation, most people are more bonded to each other and the church as a whole than they are to you. And that’s healthy for them and hard on your ego. It may also be the part that hurts the most.
3. You’re less important than you think you are.
When you’re going strong (or weak) in church ministry, it’s easy to take the weight of the world on your shoulders. You fret over every message or song or service or event. You comb through numbers and struggle with what you can do differently to improve them. When things are going well, you rejoice and take credit. When they go pear-shaped, you take the blame on yourself. It’s hard not to, because that’s what everyone around you seems to be saying. You pour yourself to the people you minister to, and you pour yourself into the programs you have responsibility for, because what happens with them is on you. And then it’s not. And life goes on. You watch programs go on with out you, and people keep meeting, and growing, and learning about God without you. And the service doesn’t fall apart without your guidance. You start to wonder why you were even there at all.
4. Letting go is harder than you expect.
When leadership changes hands, whether between two paid pastors, or to a volunteer, things change. It’s inevitable. People have different visions and different skill sets. One of the worst things about staying at a church you used to work at is watching things be done differently. It’s one thing to think about not being in charge anymore, it’s another to have to see the reality of it. Programs you set up are dismantled. People make mistakes that you wouldn’t have. New leaders make decisions that you disagree with, and you can’t stop them. You have to learn all over again how to be a follower—a servant. Continuing to serve as a volunteer in a ministry you used to run means swallowing a lot of pride. It’s hard on the digestive system, but good for the soul.
5. Your legacy is not what you think it is.
When you know a transition is coming, you work hard to make sure you’re leaving things healthy and running as smoothly as possible. You may work on polishing tech and leaving a great setup that will serve the church well. You may work to develop the volunteers you had to carry on after you. You may set up program structures and guidelines designed to keep going well after you’re gone. You may do all those things, and find that they’re turned around in weeks. The things that you thought would endure, don’t. At the same time, though, some of the things that you thought wouldn’t, do. Turns of phrase you used, or little bits of lessons you taught will stay in people’s hearts and on their lips. Moments you spent together turn into foundational building blocks of a growing faith. More than that, though, you see that how you deal with leaving becomes your legacy. People remember your actions more than your words. How you leave may have more of a lasting impact that anything you did before.
It’s easy to give lip-service to the idea that it’s God’s church (or program, or ministry), but seeing the truth of it brings a new perspective. It really isn’t about us. Life really does go on. The biggest thing you learn through it though, the secret #6, is that it’s an opportunity to grow in grace. If you can do it, if you can reign in your pride and learn to serve again—if you can stand to be seen by your people as less than you were before, you can be more. I know that I’ve matured more through this process than I ever thought possible, and the church God gives us to next will be blessed through it. They’ll find a pastor that’s less attached to himself and more attached to them. They’ll find a pastor who knows that being humbled isn’t the worst thing in the world. They’ll find a pastor who knows himself better, and knows better the God whose shoulders everything really rests on. He’ll become more because I’ve become less.
Last night a few guys from Cornerstone headed over to the theatre to check out the new blockbuster movie Noah and sat down over some (really excellent) food to talk about it afterwards. It was an interesting discussion. Now that I’ve had a bit of time to process, I’d like to take a minute to share a few thoughts on the movie and provide you with a couple of links if you’d like to dig in deeper.
Thar be spoilers ahead!
Some of the movie was strange and fantastical. The presence of “zohar” as some sort of spiritual mineral. The “watchers,” who are portrayed as angels that came to help mankind but were punished by being trapped in rock-bodies played a much larger role in the movie than I was expecting. Some of the pre-flood animals are just weird.
There are a lot of people out there that are very upset that Noah seems to diverge from or fill in what is given in the Genesis 6-9 account. They feel like the trailer gave a bit of a bait and switch. Where the trailer heavily implies Noah relying on God for help and protection, what he really has is an army of Rock Ents. They feel like there is radical and unjustified departures from the text for the sake of Hollywood film making. The issue is that the Bible’s Genesis account of the Flood isn’t the source material behind the movie.
This movie, for the most part, bypasses Genesis and goes to sources that the Early Church branded Gnostic heresies, or special mystical knowledge from Secret Religions like Kabalah (who’s primary text is called the Zohar, by the way). It reaches into the book of 1st Enoch for information about The Watchers, and even then takes them from being fallen angels who brought war to mankind and are awaiting due punishment to misunderstood benevolent martyrs who long to go back to heaven.
In short, the film makers did everything they could to take a story that Christians would be drawn to and make it about how human will triumphs over everything, and God, if he’s there at all, is silent. God is a monster. The snake is a hero that brings the blessing of wisdom and special knowledge to humanity. It’s a hot mess. The thing is, if you’re not looking for it, it’s easy to miss or dismiss. It’s relatively subtle compared to how BIG the action is.
After having watched it, I can say that I wholeheartedly do not recommend it. If you want to see it as a movie for its own merits, go ahead, but don’t go with any expectation that it’s about the Noah or the God of the Bible.
Continuing my Amplified Hymns (amplified as in expanded and made bigger, not as in plugged in and made louder), I’m digging in to an 18th century exploration of the awe that we hold for the process of God’s work for our redemption. If you missed the first one, it’s here.
1. Is it possible that I can have a part in blood payment my Saviour made?
Did he really chase after me, the one who caused his suffering, to the point of death?
What incredible love! How does it make sense that my God would give his life for me?
2. The greatest mystery of all is how someone immortal can die.
Can anyone fathom how God’s plan works?
Even the oldest of angels try and fail to understand how deep God’s divine love goes.
We’ve just got to accept that it’s pure mercy, everyone, adore him for it!
The angels will just have to watch how it unfolds.
3. Jesus walked away from power in heaven, freely and uncoerced.
His grace knows no limits.
He gave everything, retaining only his great divine love,
And let his blood flow out for a race of people that could never help themselves.
This ultimate mercy is both mind-blowingly huge, and available to all of us…
It must be, because, my God, it was offered to me.
4. It seemed like my soul was stuck in a prison,
It couldn’t get free of the darkness of all the things that break my relationship with You.
Then, a ray of light came from Your own eye and it was like I woke up,
the dungeon I was in lit blazingly bright!
All that held me down fell away, and my heart rejoiced,
I got up, came out, and followed You.
5. Even now, I have a small voice inside of me,
That whispers that my sins are truly taken away;
Even now, that blood price is still effective,
That took away the anger of a God who hates sin.
I feel the life that Jesus’ wounds give to me;
I feel him alive inside me.
6. Now I don’t have to fear being punished for my sin;
Everything that Jesus is has become my nature;
I live in Him, and he is my living guide,
Clothing me in his divine righteousness.
So, I approach the throne of God without hesitation,
And claim an eternal reward, through my Christ.
This one might be harder… I’m not sure. Can you name that tune?
Right now I’m in class (Shhh). I graduated a while back, but as part of joining the “Wesleyan” church, I need to be instructed in the Wesleyan “Doctrine of Holiness”. That really has nothing to do with this post, but for some reason I feel the need to provide context. It’s given me the chance to get together with other people “in the ministry” and talk about things that matter, from the things we face in our chosen ministries, to the questions we have but can’t ask because we’re the people who are supposed to have the answers.
I had the chance to talk to other worship leaders and youth leaders, and we got to talking about hymns. We talked about updating hymns. We talked about changing lyrics to fit theology or to make them more singable, or to make them more understandable to contemporary listeners. We talked about how a lot of the people today didn’t understand what the poets were really saying when they wrote. The meaning is lost in archaic language, and sometimes trying to update it doesn’t help that much because it still has to fit the tune, rhyme scheme and meter (limiting our ability to be precise in adaptation). We also talked about how most of the best of the hymns were musical prayers.
I thought I’d take a crack at rewriting them, or translating them, as modern prayers. I’m throwing out the music, I’m throwing out the meter. Maybe then we can come back and sing the lyrics as the writers intended. I hope I’ll do more than just one.
Here’s the first:
1. Dear God, the source and provider of every good thing,
work in me so that the first inclination of my heart is to honour you for your grace;
You never stop forgiving, never stop offering mercy…
How can I not be constantly praising you at the top of my lungs?
I need a better song, God! Teach me to praise as the angels do!
Your love is like a mountain, Lord, rising above everything in my sight,
and I want to spend my life travelling towards it.
2. With your help, God, I’ve come a long way;
I can look back at my life and say that it’s only by your grace I’ve gotten here.
In fact, I’m raising a monument to testify to that.
By that same strength, I pray you keep me going the rest of the way,
to arrive at the destination you’ve laid before me.
Even when I was a complete stranger from Jesus,
living a life far outside of the life you made me for,
close to falling away from you completely, forever,
Jesus offered his holy blood to save me.
3. Every day I find myself in debt to your grace,
I’m constantly being made more and more aware of how dependant I am on it!
I’m sick of being in such need of it, though… Focus me on you.
Let me love your goodness so much that it keeps me from straying.
God, I love you, but I’m tempted away.
I feel my tendency to let my focus wander onto the things of this world.
I keep drifting away from where I wish I was staying.
I’ve had enough, God. Take my heart. Keep it.
Make my heart’s residence in heaven, make my heart ready for eternity now.
Can you name that tune?