“Be Yourself No Matter What They Say”

In the song, “Englishman in New York,” Sting encourages us to “be yourself no matter what they say.” I believe these are wise and important words.

Yet, too often, we are tempted to shy away from being ourselves.

When God spoke to Joshua, the Lord said, “I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9). In other words, “Be yourself no matter what they say.”

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the importances of churches (as a whole and as the individual clergy and laity making up unique congregations) being themselves.

Churches, much like individuals, get into the comparison game. And, too often, when we compare ourselves to others, the comparisons are apples to oranges, rather than apples to apples.

On a recent Rainer on Leadership podcast, the Rainer’s shared that 92% of churches have 250 people or less. So, most churches are small to mid-sized.

Yet, most churches compare themselves to the megachurch down the street. Are there things to learn from the megachurch down the street? Absolutely. Should the megachurch down the street be the ruler by which we judge our ministry? Absolutely not.

It’s a natural thing to do in the church world. We’ve created the platform for this type of comparison. When pastors and laity go to conferences, the featured speakers are from the “largest” and “fastest growing” churches around the globe. I can’t remember the last time I went to a conference where the featured speaker was from a church experiencing rapid decline, stagnation or mediocrity. The featured speakers have book deals, hundreds of thousands of followers on social media platforms (and probably pay a social media assistant to manage their accounts), personal assistants, stylists, and celebrity status within the Christian bubble. When this is what is being featured, that’s what we’ll be tempted to compare ourselves to.

We tend to compare ourselves to the wrong things.

Of course, I’m convinced that a church of 250 doesn’t need to compare itself to a church of 250. A church of 80 doesn’t need to compare itself to a church of 80. A church of 2-3 doesn’t need to compare itself to a church of 2-3. A church of 3,500 doesn’t need to compare itself to a church of 3,500. Comparison is a game that we were never called to play. We should measure our own fruit. We should measure our effectiveness of fulfilling our mission.

Sure, we can learn some “best practices” from others, but comparison is not a game I’m interested in playing.

I’m fully convinced that comparison is a killer. Comparison has a tendency to produce feelings of inadequacy. When we compare ourselves to the church down the street, we are generally only comparing ourselves to that congregations successes. When we don’t see the rapid growth, the number of people in the pews, the kind of giving or the missional impact within the community, we can be tempted to throw in the towel.

At the same time, comparison can produce pride. When we aren’t comparing ourselves to the success of the congregation down the street, we’re comparing ourselves to their failures. Or we look for the churches that aren’t quite at the same level we are.

Listen, pastors are bad at this…When we gather together, you can hear people ask “how many did you have in the congregation on Sunday?” Again, we are conditioned for this…at least in my denomination…where each week we are asked to fill out a form that doesn’t exactly ask for stories of transformation and missional impact. The form asks for the numbers – how many in worship…how many online…how many in small groups…how many in children’s church…how much money did you bring in. These are important things to be tracking because they can tell you about the missional impact of the congregation. But, it’s also tempting to then compare yourself to those around you. After filling out the form, we can click a button that says “see the reports” and you can see the numbers from churches throughout the district, conference and denomination…well, you can see the numbers from churches that have filled out the form. This can produce competition, pride and feelings of inadequacy.

The majority of small, midsize, large and shrinking congregations are being served by faithful and hardworking clergy and laity (not all- lazy pastors kill congregations faster than scandals; disagreeable and stubborn congregations can stunt growth, stall momentum and kill congregations- in many cases, selfishness that is the problem). When we waste time in the comparison, those faithful and hardworking clergy and laity can feel inadequate, hurt, lonely, and begin to question their call.

Rather than comparing ourselves to the church down the street, we should celebrate the church down the street! Celebrate, don’t compare. God didn’t call you to be like the pastor down the street. God didn’t call your church to be like the church down the street.

Instead of comparing ourselves to others, what if the church simply strives to “be yourself no matter what they say?” What if the church simply works to become a place of true respite and renewal, a place of healing and hope, a place that leaves us feeling better about ourselves, our community, our world…

What if churches were guilt free zones, judgment free zones, comparison free zones…

Pastors of small, mid-sized and large churches, be confident in who you are. Be strong and courageous. Do your best where you’re at, with who you’re with…whether it’s a full stadium or an audience of one. Our call isn’t to be like anyone else…well, we’re striving to become more and more like Jesus…but no one else. Our call is faithful obedience to the way of Jesus.

Laity of small, mid-sized and large churches, be confident in who you are. Be strong and courageous. Do your best where you’re at, with who you’re with…whether you are surrounded by a few or hundreds or thousands. Your call isn’t to be like anyone else…well, do strive to be like Jesus. Your call is faithful obedience to the way of Jesus.

Maybe if we stop comparing ourselves to the church down the street…or the church on the other side of the country or the other side of the world…we will start bearing the fruit God planted us to grow. Maybe it’s when we stop trying to keep up with the latest trends and gimmicks and are confident in who we are that we will see our churches becoming transformed into communities of hope that are loving God and loving people by serving together.

Church, listen to Sting. “Be yourself no matter what we say.”

Church, don’t be like Sting. Drink coffee instead of tea (if you are familiar with the song, you’ll understand that!).

Waiting for the Sunrise

One of my favorite places in the world is Silver Bay, NY. I’ve had the privilege to travel there for gatherings of folks doing Christian ministry in and through the YMCA. The Silver Bay YMCA is a beautiful, sacred space of peace. Nestled on the shore of Lake George in the Adirondack Mountains, the hiking and scenery are awe-inspiring.

One of the regular highlights of my journeys to Silver Bay is a hike to Jabez Pond (or Jabe’s Pond depending on which sign you read and who you are talking to!). You hike to the top of the mountain and there it is…an incredibly beautiful and clear pond!

Jabez (or Jabe’s) Pond

The last time I was there, we took the scenic route back to the lodge. This lead us to a point called Sunrise Mountain. We happened to arrive at Sunrise Mountain about the time the sun was beginning to set. Our group posed for pictures and took in the breathtaking view. Caught up in the splendor, I found myself clapping in awe. It was a strange and unexpected reaction.

Sunrise Mountain at sunset.

While our group made our way from Sunrise Mountain back to the lodge, we talked about the beauty of what we just witnessed. At some point, a member of our team said, “You know, if it was that amazing at sunset, imagine what Sunrise Mountain must look like at, you know, sunrise!” Our group made plans to gather at the flagpole near the lodge at 5am in order to give ourselves time to get back to the top of Sunrise Mountain.

It’s amazing how 8-12 hours can drastically change what we see. As the sun began to appear above the mountains, the darkness quickly shifted to light. Colors that were muted at sunset came to life. Things that were unseen at sunset were illuminated by the sunrise.

Sunrise Mountain as the sun begins to rise!

While we were looking at the same view, the position of the sun revealed different things. The beauty and grandeur of the mountains and lake were the same and yet different. The location of the light greatly impacted our view. As the sun rose, I once again found myself clapping in response. I guess it was my way of saying, “Well done!”

In order to take in the beauty of the sunrise, we had to wait. On our first trip, we arrived at Sunrise Mountain when the sun was behind us.

I believe there are times when we get ahead of the light. When the light is behind us, we might miss some of the beauty hiding in the shadows.

Have you ever found yourself at a point where the sun, the guiding light is behind you? Maybe you need to turn around in order to follow the light? Maybe we just need to wait for the sun to rise?

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light. ~ John 1:5

Sunrise Mountain just after the sunrise.

Like Dung on a Diamond

Warning: The following blog will be a little religious rambling…

I like to think of myself as a student of culture – mostly religious culture – well, mostly Christian culture – because that’s the world I live in. As a student of Christian culture, I’m noticing two interesting shifts.

One of the shifts getting a decent amount of attention within the Christian subculture is deconstruction. Depending on your particular theological perspective, deconstruction is either seen as a positive or negative practice.

From the negative point of view, folks view deconstruction as trading in Christian moral values for secular ideals. In other words, you can’t be involved in deconstruction and be a good Christian. This point of view is built on the foundation of absolute truth – and unchecked authority of fallible human leaders. Questions, doubts and searching for answers outside the approved platforms is seen as a threat to the institution.

From the positive point of view, folks view deconstruction as peeling away those unhelpful things that have been added to the Gospel message of Jesus. Folks find themselves questioning things that have been sold as “absolute truth.” They find themselves questioning the unchecked authority of their leaders. They find themselves questioning, doubting and searching for answers that lead them to resources outside the approved platforms.

I, for one, benefited from deconstruction over 25 years ago. Through a series of questions, doubts and searching for answers, I discovered that the heart of Jesus and the foundation of His message is simple…Love.

To get to that point, I had to weed through a lot of the legalistic values that were drilled into my understanding of faithful religious practice…”don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t chew, don’t go with girls who do, and don’t dance.” While these rules made us well-behaved Christians, they really missed the heart of Jesus – and took some great interpretive liberties with Scripture. You see, I found myself in a spot where the messages I was hearing conflicted with the message of Jesus I was discovering in the Bible.

The process of deconstruction was very lonely. I didn’t feel comfortable talking about my questions and doubts because everyone around me seemed so certain. I didn’t talk about some of conflicts I saw between the Bible and the religious practice of the American Church because everyone seemed to just buy into it. I felt like there was something wrong with me.

Then, in the late nineties, I attended a conference and heard Brian McLaren address some of the very questions, doubts and conflicts I was wrestling with. I felt a certain freedom and immediate community with others who were attempting to scale back a great deal of the unnecessary baggage that had been imposed on Christianity. A couple of years later, I sat in a hotel suite with Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones and Andrew Jones (we were in a suite because the convention center for the conference was maxed out on space…the whole experience was a trip…as Doug Pagitt gave his seminar while relaxing on a king-size bed), and found more kindred spirits. At last, I felt the freedom and permission to pursue Jesus without all of the strings attached.

Today, many evangelicals are working their way through the process of deconstruction. The last 5-8 years, especially within American evangelical Christianity, have revealed the unhealthy joining of political platforms and religion. Many devoted evangelical leaders have convinced their followers that allegiance to a particular political party trumps all other allegiances (including, but not limited to, Jesus).

Pair this with the moral failure of far too many evangelical “celebrity pastors” (which, that whole concept is problematic), the narrow focus on “absolute truth” (which is defined by fallible humans), and the desire to hold positions of power (and control), the movement has unintentionally created the perfect platform for deconstruction.

And, that just scratches the surface of the deep dive many deconstructionists are taking.

There’s a metaphorical story that is often attributed to Thomas Jefferson, and has been retold by countless theologians and missiologists, that compares the Gospel to a diamond on a dung hill. So, the diamond sits on top of the dung hill and begins rolling down. Eventually, there’s more dung than diamond. But, underneath all the filth of the dung, there’s still a diamond. At some point, someone comes along and cleans the dung off the diamond and discovers something beautiful.

Deconstruction should not be feared. Deconstruction is the practice of cleaning the dung off the diamond. Through deconstruction, people are able to get back to the heart of the Gospel and discover that so much of what we’ve added to our religious practice has been more harmful and hurtful than helpful. When the excess is removed, something beautiful can be rediscovered.

The other shift is in response to deconstruction. As American evangelical leaders see folks rejecting what they have created, as they see folks questioning their system, as they see increasing numbers of folks walking away from the faith, they have doubled down.

Rather than using this rise in deconstruction as an opportunity for inward reflection and institutional evaluation and renewal, far too many are simply adding to the legalistic expectations of their folks. They are calling for stronger ties to political platforms, as they believe the long-term sustainability of their institution is directly tied to the success of their preferred political party. In many ways, they are attempting to smear more dung onto the diamond.

For those evangelicals deconstructing, here’s a suggestion from an old dude who began his season of deconstruction over 25 years ago…find a mainline congregation in your neighborhood. Listen, I know that mainliners have been viewed as “wishy washy” Christians, but let this be a place of healing and hope.

You see, while the style of worship will most likely be incredibly different than what you are used to (because, let’s be honest, if there’s one thing the evangelicals do well, it’s offering excellent contemporary worship), the theology, doctrine and commitment to both personal holiness and social justice will be refreshing. The commitment to creating a safe and welcoming place for all people will be refreshing. A focus on love and grace over legalism will be refreshing.

I believe there is hope to be found in Catholic, Evangelical, Orthodox and Mainline churches (and any other churches I failed to mention).

I believe God can and does use all kinds of Christian churches (conservative, moderate and progressive) to reach people with the Good News of Jesus Christ.

But, I just want to be sure that those going through a season of deconstruction know that there are safe and welcoming places for you. Much of what I hear my friends deconstructing their faith say they are looking for can be found in existing congregations. You aren’t alone. You don’t have to start from scratch. Having a supportive community around you while you go through this journey is important. There’s nothing wrong with questions and doubts…that’s often how we grow.

There’s nothing wrong with getting the dung off the diamond.

The Asterisk Christian

Growing up, my parents, teachers, school administrators, pastors, coaches, and generally anyone in a position of leadership, authority or influence taught me that “honesty is the best policy.”

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that for far too many, “honesty” has numerous interpretations and definitions. For many, whether in the Church, the political or business sphere, a commitment to honesty should probably come with an asterisk (*).

“The whole truth and nothing but the truth,” seems to be lacking in our world today. We tell the parts of the truth that we are comfortable telling. We tell the parts of the truth that won’t convict us. We tell the parts of the truth that make us look like the hero…or the victim when that may be advantageous.

We hear leaders, in the Church, in business and politics boldly proclaim, “I didn’t do it.” Then, when it is revealed that they did do it, the defense is, “Well, I did it. But, no one was injured and it wasn’t illegal.” Then, when it is revealed that someone was injured and it was illegal, the defense is, “Well, sure that person was injured and it was illegal, but ‘so-and-so’ did it too!”

As followers in the way of Jesus, I believe an essential characteristic should be a commitment to telling the truth. Being upfront, honest and leading with integrity should be a “no brainer.” However, it’s not always the case.

One of the ways I’ve seen this played out in the Church is the “old bait and switch.”

We present an image of welcome, inclusion and hospitality, but…

And, whatever follows the “but” is generally going to be less than welcoming, inclusive or hospitable.

So, I think churches should just be honest and start adding some asterisks to various statements.

All are welcome.*

We love you.*

Everyone has a place at our table.*

Because, let’s be honest for a moment, so many pastors and congregations proclaim, “all are welcome.” However, do we truly mean “all?” Do we mean the person who we just spent 30-minutes preaching a sermon condemning their lifestyle? Do we mean the person we just avoided in the parking lot because of their outward appearance? Do we mean the person who votes differently than we do? Do we mean the person who makes us uncomfortable? Do we mean the young teenage parents who came looking for assistance?

You see, if we were simply honest and utilized the power of the asterisk, we could eliminate some confusion.

I had a friend who was really engaged in a “hip and trendy” congregation. The music was awesome. The messages were inspiring. But, as my friend started getting more involved, he also started digging deeper. As he began to ask questions and read through the hard to find statements of belief, he discovered that what was being presented on Sunday morning wasn’t quite consistent with the foundational beliefs of the church.

But, he still enjoyed the fellowship of the community. He still enjoyed the music. He still found the messages inspirational. But, he couldn’t shake the whole idea that something was being pulled over on him. He shared with me, “I mean, I started to discover that the messages were inspiring, yet the pastors were saying a lot without saying anything at all. They never just came right out and said, ‘this is what we believe.’ Things were always a little wishy-washy and the leaders were non-committal when asked direct questions. I just wish they would be honest.”

Now, to give some grace, I’m sure they weren’t intentionally being dishonest. They just knew what subjects to avoid. And, to be honest, I’ve been guilty of the exact same thing. I’ve played the, “you need to pray about this and come to your own conclusion” card. I’ve used the non-committal tactic of saying, “well, some people believe this about that,” without revealing what I or my denomination believe about this or that.

My friend shared that the leaders in the church would proclaim, “All are welcome,” but then had a very strong statement on traditional marriage. So, would members of the LGBT community feel welcome if they knew the church leaders didn’t recognize the validity of their relationship? That’s a really difficult one that we are navigating in the United Methodist Church right now. If we say “all people are of sacred worth,” but then follow that statement with clarifications…do we really believe “all people are of sacred worth?”

As another example, my friends church would proclaim, “Everyone has a seat at the table,” but then had a very clear statement limiting the role of women in ministry. So, you are welcome to participate. You can sit next to your husband. But, please, know your role. Hmm…

I believe that asterisk Christianity limits our capacity to love as Jesus calls us to love. While I believe the use of an asterisk could be helpful in communicating what a church really believes, I am one who believes the Church should be looking for ways to erase our asterisks…we should be looking for ways to eliminate our “buts…”

In the continued spirit of honesty, every church, even my church…perfect as it may be…has asterisks and “buts.” We all have to do the deep dive to determine what our asterisks and “buts” happen to be. Then, we need to submit and surrender our asterisks and “buts” to God.

People will argue and say, “We need to show tough love. Those asterisks and ‘buts’ are there for a reason. We have to be strong in our message against sin. We have to be faithful to my preferred interpretation of God’s Word.”

The reality is, we use our asterisks and “buts” as a tool to exclude and divide. We use our asterisks and “buts” as a way to make ourselves feel better about ourselves.

I would suggest that maybe we should be committed to following in the way of Jesus. He was never one to pull the old bait and switch. Jesus was someone who followed the wisdom my grandmother has often shared, “Say what you mean and mean what you say.”

If we compare Jesus to asterisk Christianity…who did Jesus exclude? Who did he include? Who was he harsh with? Who was he gentle with?

Asterisk Christians tend to be harsh with those Jesus showed compassion, patience, grace, mercy and love.

Asterisk Christians tend to be gentle with those Jesus was harsh and critical.

Jesus was direct and a bit harsh with the law and order crowd. His “woe to you statements” were directed at the religious elite. When he said “your hearts are far,” he was addressing those who were most interested in keeping up appearances. He pointed out to the pious religious that they were misguided, they were missing the point, they were out of line. He called them out for imposing legalistic rules and regulations they weren’t willing to follow.

Yes, he addressed sin…but, he did so with love, grace, gentleness and inclusion. Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well was controversial- his disciples were confused and maybe a bit offended when they found him talking to her. When Jesus ate with tax collectors and notorious sinners, it drove the religious crowd nuts. But, he approached those who needed him most with gentleness, love and grace. This, and not the legalistic judgment of the religious elite, is what led to transformation.

These days, asterisk Christian’s are too concerned about not offending those Jesus offended. As a result, we’ve focused on offending those Jesus offered love, grace, peace and comfort. We aren’t bold in prophetic words because it might disrupt the status quo. We don’t address institutional sin because it might negatively impact the offering. So, we direct our attention to “those people” because it’s safe.

We talk about LGBT issues, but are quiet when it comes to adultery and divorce. We talk about abortion, but are quiet about capital punishment and war. We talk about family values, but ignore the care of our creation. We talk about school curriculum and book bans, but are silent about providing food, shelter and affordable healthcare.

Asterisk Christians are too often focused on comfort and the status quo…that reflects very little of the risk-taking nature of the kind of faith Jesus demonstrated. He called us to shoulder our cross…but we’re too busy focusing on the plank in our neighbors eyes.

Maybe the first steps to removing our asterisks involve a radical commitment to loving God, loving our neighbors and even loving our enemies?

I know I have plenty of asterisks and “buts.” But, I plan on doing the hard work of submitting and surrendering those asterisks and “buts” so I can love others well.

They Will Know Us By Our Campaign Slogans???

Warning…this post has political undertones. It will likely offend some. I’m not trying to tell anyone how to vote (or whether or not to vote). I’m just encouraging us to be discerning, as we are “sheep among wolves” and called to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” So, please remember, sometimes wolves wear “church clothes.”

In my local area, many political candidates are running on a “God, Life, Freedom, & Guns” platform. Many are going out of their way to communicate that they are professing Christians…and that is why they are for “God, Life, Freedom, & Guns.”

One candidate has placed a verse on campaign signs. If one takes the time to look up the verse, it’s about the righteous and wicked. In other words, “a vote for me is a vote for the righteous. A vote for my opponent (who is running on a very similar platform) is a vote for the wicked.”

If one takes the time to look at the platforms and agendas of these candidates, it’s difficult to find where the “God/Christian” part comes in. I’m sure they are all wonderful folks, faithful members of their local congregations, and truly believe they are “doing the Lord’s work.”

However, I see very little of Jesus within these faith-professing campaigns.

It almost seems like they are using their “faith in Christ” as a way to manipulate voters.

Running on platforms that instill fear, are based on unproven conspiracies, and diminish the value of the vulnerable and marginalized does not seem in line with the God I’ve encountered in Scripture.

Personal freedom over humble, loving service doesn’t sound very Christ-like.

Gaining easier access to firearms (when Jesus told his followers to “put away” their weapons…and the prophets tell of a day when weapons will be beaten into plowshares) doesn’t sound like the Jesus I’ve spent the majority of my life following and studying.

Pro-life agendas that support capital punishment while also calling for reducing access to affordable healthcare, quality education, food and housing assistance programs doesn’t really reflect the heart of the Gospel or seem all that interested in promoting the wellbeing of all lives (see Matthew 25:31-46 if you want a refresher on the far-reaching Gospel call of what it really means to be pro-life). Seriously, it’s time that we start saying “pro-birth” rather than “pro-life.”

“Freedom” platforms that ban books, place educators on notice, ignore the realities of history and privilege, fuel racism and try to negate the very existence of our LGBTQIA neighbors seems to miss the whole “love God, love neighbor, love enemies” teaching of Jesus.

So, before we jump on the bandwagon of a candidate because they profess faith in Jesus, make sure you look at the fruit (or at least the fruit they propose) they produce.

Now, some quotes from Shane Claiborne’s book “Jesus for President,” to show there’s at least one other crazy radical Christian out there…

“Christianity is at its best when it is peculiar, marginalized, suffering, and it is at its worst when it is popular, credible, triumphal, and powerful…

The greatest sin of political imagination: Thinking there is no other way except the filthy rotten system we have today…

We vote every day for companies, for people, and we put money toward ‘campaigns.’ We need to think of the faces behind the scenes. Who are the masters and Caesars that we pledge allegiance to by the way we live and through the things we put our trust in? We vote every day with our feet, our hands, our lips, and our wallets. We are the vote for the poor. We are to vote for the peacemakers. We are to vote for the marginalized, the oppressed, the most vulnerable of our society. These are the ones Jesus voted for, those whom every empire had left behind, those whom no millionaire politician will represent…

The danger is that we can begin to read the Bible through the eyes of America rather than read America through the eyes of the Bible. We just want Jesus to be a good American…

The church is a people called out of the world to embody a social alternative that the world cannot know on its own terms. We are not simply asking the government to be what God has commissioned the church to be. After all, even the best government can’t legislate love. We can build hundreds of units of affordable housing (a good thing by the way) and people still might not have homes. We can provide universal health care and keep folks breathing longer (another nice move), but people can be breathing and still not truly be alive. We can create laws to enforce good behavior, but no law has ever changed a human heart or reconciled a broken relationship. The church is not simply suggesting political alternatives. The church is embodying one. The idea that the church is to be the body of Christ is not just something to read about in theology books and leave for the scholars to pontificate about. We are literally to be the body of Jesus in the world. Christians are to be little Christs—people who put flesh on Jesus in the world today..”