Character Matters

In a recent sermon, I referred to the following statement made by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Character matters.

If you want to know what a world that fails to evaluate others through the lens of character, just look around.

I am fully convinced that the failure to expect our leaders to hold the highest levels of moral and ethical character reveals that we have lost our way.

In an effort to gain power and control, many have forsaken the litmus test of character and integrity.

The rise of leaders who lack integrity and character has been evenly paced with the rise of lies, misinformation, conspiracy theories and disunity. And, because the office of leadership is generally one that can be trusted, many buy into the lies. The ability to identify truth, through the crafty deception of intentional misinformation, is lacking in this type of environment.

As followers in the way of Jesus, we are to judge one another through the lens of fruit. Are we producing good or bad fruit? Our fruit is part of our character and integrity.

We may recall that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). This should be our litmus test. If these things are lacking, there’s a good chance character will also be absent.

Of course, no one is perfect. Therefore, we begin to justify character flaws in ourselves and others.

Around election time, we hear, “We’re not electing America’s pastor.” Honestly, if someone’s lack of character or integrity would disqualify him/her from leadership in a local church, I’m not sure we should attempt to justify his/her leadership in any elected office.

The amount of things we are willing to overlook and excuse in order to get our candidate elected is alarming.

Again, no one is perfect. But, character still matters.

A refusal to accept truth is dangerous. A refusal to accept reality is dangerous. A refusal to humbly admit that we are wrong is dangerous. A refusal to tell the truth is dangerous.

And, it all stems from a lack of character and integrity.

Yes, character matters.

Extremists Cannot Define Us

Warning: This is a post some will disagree with. You are probably thinking, “How is that any different than anything else you post?” Just remember, I am a firm believer that we can disagree and still be friends!

As I watched the news of the protests that quickly esclatated into a riotous coup, I wrestled with a number of emotions. Bewilderment. Anger. Fear. Hopelessness. Deep concern. At the same time, I unfortunately expected this type of reaction. I was disheartened by my lack of surprise.

In moments like these, it is important to accurately remember things that surrounded the escalation of these events.

It’s also important to remember that polarized extremists do not and cannot define us.

The extremists who stormed the Capitol do not define the majority of Republicans or Trump supporters.

The extremists who committed acts of violence during Black Lives Matter protests do not define the majority of BLM supporters and sympathizers.

We cannot vilify the whole based on the actions of a few. At the same time, we cannot excuse the actions of the few.

We must remember that the majority of the 70+million people who voted for President Trump did not vote for what took place yesterday.

We also cannot shift the blame.

Over the summer, some supporters of the BLM movement blamed Trump supporters for some of the violence as an attempt to discredit that movement (some of that did prove factual, but not all the violence can be traced back to those extremists).

Within hours of the Capitol coup, supporters of the current administration began shifting the blame to Antifa (we do not yet know whether or not this is accurate – however, in watching Fox News as they were identifying some of those captured in now infamous pictures, it appears unlikely that Antifa was directly involved).

In all of theses cases, the acts were committed by people who believed they had no other options. To feel so disenfranchised to resort to these types of actions is something I hope none of us ever experience.

We must remember that, for some, silence is not necessarily complicity. Some are simply at a loss of words. Some feel like posting on social media or writing a blog doesn’t actually do much good. However, for some, silence is complicity. Just remember, if your friends are silent on this matter, do not assume that they somehow support, condone or are excusing what took place on Janurary 6, 2021.

We must remember the reality of the events that led to these actions. In the case of yesterday’s events, we must remember that many of these protestors and rioters were conditioned for this reaction.

We must remember that an intentional agenda of misinformation was used to fuel the fire. A campaign of conspiracy theories has led to the mistrust of elected officials, journalists, mainstream (and not-so-mainstream) media, the judicial system (including Trump appointed justices), certified and audited state elections. We seem to live in a world where we have the freedom to choose our own version of reality.

We must remember that these protesters marched to the Capitol building shortly after they were urged to do so by the President.

We must remember that these protesters turned into rioters shortly after their anger was stoked by a tweet that read, “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify. USA demands the truth!”

While some want to excuse the President from taking any responsibility for the events of January 6, some of those who stood closely by his side have made it clear that he bears some of the blame.

Former Attorny General William Barr issued the following statement: “Orchestrating a mob to pressure Congress is inexcusable. The President’s conduct yesterday was a betrayal of his office and supporters.”

John Boehner (yes, that John Boehner) wrote, “I once said the party of Lincoln and Reagan is off taking a nap. The nap has become a nightmare for our nation. The GOP must awaken. The invasion of our Capitol by a mob, incited by lies from some entrusted with power, is a disgrace to all who sacrificed to build our Republic.”

We must remember that after the rioters forced their way into the Capitol, they were asked to “remain peaceful.” I don’t know about you, but the aggressive takeover of the Capitol does not conjure up an image of peace to me.

We must remember that as law enforcement began to reestablish control, the video message from our nation’s leader referred to the rioters (some may call them treasonists or domestic terrorists) as being “very special” and told “we love you” while also continuing the mantra of a “stolen election.” That video was taken down by Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. The President’s accounts were suspended indefinitely. That is not something we should take lightly.

We must remember that not all Trump supporters condone this action. Many supporters of the current administration have called upon the President to accept and admit defeat. Many supporters of the President are disgusted by the events at the Capitol on the day of Epiphany.

We must remember so that we can be aware of these signs and conditions. We must remember so that we do not allow this kind of thing to happen again.

The extremists do not and cannot define us. I pray that we will also not allow them to further divide us.

I’m Not Sure They Care

Throughout my years in ministry, the one constant question I hear is, “how do we reach unchurched people?” Often, what is truly being asked is, “how do we reach young people?”

To be honest, I don’t know! I’ve been in ministry since 1999. I’ve served several congregations. Each congregation has faithfully attempted to answer this question.

From adding “contemporary” worship services, to starting coffee shops, replacing pews with chairs, shifting the vision beyond the walls, beginning ministries in alternative locations, and having a “do whatever it takes” attitude, I’ve seen it all.

So, if I’m being honest, the results of the various attempts to reach unchurched folks did not produce rapid growth. In some cases, it slowed the rate of decline and led to a plateau (which, in many ways is a success). In some cases, it sped up the rate of decline (which, in some ways is also a success).

For years, the “experts” stressed starting contemporary services. (I’m putting “experts” in quotes because I’ve yet to see widespread success) While this has proven successful in some cases, it is not a foolproof fix. Depending on the research one reads, 70-84% of churches are plateaued or declining. So, maybe that’s not the answer?

The latest fad being pushed by the “experts” within my denominational structure is the launching of “fresh expressions”. What’s a “fresh expression”? Well, from what I can tell, it’s a new name for old stuff. Examples of fresh expressions are really just affinity groups (which was a fad in the 90’s). Dinner church, running church, knitting church, pub theology are all expressions being referred as “fresh”. Yet, let’s be honest, these things have been happening for a long time. We used to call them “small groups, discipleship groups, bands”. Now, we throw the tag “church” on it and it’s “fresh”. Seriously, I’ve yet to hear of a truly unique and new “fresh expression.” I always think of the South Park episode “The Simpson’s Already Did It” whenever I hear about this “new” program. Look, if it works for your congregation, awesome! But, to me, it’s just a new name on an ancient (and often great) product.

It reminds me of the trend in the early 2000’s when pastors started wearing jeans and untucked shirts. They promoted their gatherings as “not your grandma’s church.” However, they did all the same things my grandma’s church does.

If I were to suggest ways to reach unchurched people, here are some tips no one asked for:

1. In the words of Joe Maddon, “Try not to suck”! Whatever you do, do it well.

Part of the reason some worship gatherings don’t reach new people is because they stink. Unchurched folks will walk out of a bar or coffee shop if the band is awful. The same is true for church music. If your choir struggles or your band is less-than-stellar, don’t be surprised by a low rate of return. While church people will tolerate (and often celebrate) mediocrity, those we are trying to reach will not.

As more churches are offering online services, I find myself cringing. I try to be gracious and say, “Well, it’s probably the best they can do.” However, some of it only provides evidence as to why the Church is failing to connect with emerging generations.

Here’s a pro tip for worship leaders: develop a strong relationship with your sound tech. Once you have built a trusted relationship, you can ask the sound engineer to turn down (or even mute) certain voices or instruments. Or just do the hard work of redirecting folks to other areas of service. Not everyone should be given a microphone!

This is not just about the music either. Those of us who are preaching and leading in other aspects of worship need to be prepared and striving towards excellence. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing it well.

2. Stop thinking like church people. Surprisingly enough, those outside the church are not really concerned with churchy things! What if I told you that unchurched folks don’t care as much about style as church people? What if I told you worship style is simply a preference and no one style is greater than another?

If an unchurched person becomes curious and decides to check out a church…1) they will check you out online first; 2) they won’t be hoping you’ll sing “How Great Thou Art” or “What a Beautiful Name”. If they are truly unchurched, they won’t be familiar with our hymns or praise songs. Also, let’s think about unchurched folks experience with churches…it’s most likely limited to funerals and weddings.

3. Be real. I believe this is more than being relevant. While cultural relevancy is important, some do so without authenticity. I saw a church doing a series playing off “Stranger Things”. In the first two minutes of the sermon, the pastor admitted that he had never watched the show. Now, that’s wrong on so many levels! But, at least he admitted it. I attended a church service where the pastor kept trying to drop hip references, but continually mispronounced names.

Being real means being true to yourself. Don’t try to be something you’re not. If you are a traditional church, own that! If you are a contemporary church, own that. Then, lead with honesty, integrity, authenticity and transparency. The lack of these characteristics (accompanied by a lack of accountable leadership) has led to the downfall of many ministries.

4. Create a welcoming environment. This has to become part of the ethos of our churches. Every church considers itself to be friendly. In most cases, what that really means is, “we’re friendly with one another.” Do those walking through the doors for the first time feel safe, welcome, and more importantly, wanted. Let’s be honest, some churches are content to keep things “as is”. They don’t really want new people. A welcoming environment goes beyond friendliness and focuses on openness and inclusion. This is also something that has to go beyond the pastors, staff and hospitality team. A welcoming environment must permeate throughout the congregation.

So, no one asked…but, hey, this is my blog! Whatever you are doing, do it well!

Be Kind

The other day, I saw a t-shirt that contained a message that is desperately needed in our world today. No, it wasn’t another Wu-Tang Clan t-shirt that I feel needs to be added to my wardrobe! It was a simple shirt with a simple message…”Be Kind.”

When I read the paper, watch the news and venture out into the community, one of the characteristics I fear is lacking in our world today is kindness. I fear we need continual reminders to “be kind” because too many of us seem to gravitate towards unkind characteristics.

Rather than more videos of Walmart fights or “news” regarding the latest drama on “The Bachelor” or “Real Housewives of Wherever”, we need more stories of kindness.

But, rather than stories of random acts of kindness, we need to embrace an ethos of kindness. We need regular, sustained kindness. I get pretty cynical when I see people livestream their acts of kindness (while the acts are often kind, the motivation is a but suspect), but I would prefer that over learning that some “social media influencer” (what is that, anyway?) has challenged a UFC fighter to a dual.

So. Let’s be kind…and not just for a brief moment.

Mixed Message

The coronavirus pandemic has forced individuals, families, schools, businesses and churches to shift gears. We all have made adjustments to do our best to make it through these challenging days.

There are organizations that have been clear in regard to their response.

Some businesses have stated they will not enforce masks mandates, social distancing and other Covid-related restrictions. They have found a market with those who are comfortable with that policy. Those who are not on board with their response can take their business elsewhere.

Some organizations have been clear in stating strictly enforced guidelines. They have found a market with those comfortable with that approach. Those who disagree can take their business elsewhere.

What I find challenging are the businesses and churches who say they are taking a certain course of action, but fail to demonstrate it in practice.

For example, I visited a restaurant that had a “masks required, no exceptions” sign posted on the front door. When I walked in to pick up my order, 3 out of 4 employees were not wearing masks. So, what was the point of the sign?

Each week, I see churches posting pictures and videos of their staff and volunteers standing side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder, indoors, unmasked…even though they say they are doing everything they can to keep their congregation and community safe. That’s hard to believe when you don’t do the simple things to keep your staff and volunteers safe. It’s hard to believe that you are doing all you can to keep others safe when you fail to lead by example. The inconsistency in messaging is not only lazy, it’s dangerous. If you’re not going to lead by example (especially when posting on the internet), stop saying you’re taking every precaution and start doing the “name it, claim it, faith over fear” approach.

I would prefer businesses and churches be upfront and honest, rather than offer confusing, mixed messages. I have more respect for those being clear and upfront about not following the guidelines than I do for those sending mixed messages. At least I know where they stand. There’s no room for confusion.

Integrity matters. It’s like the old saying, “if you’re going to talk the talk, you better walk the walk.”

So, here’s my pro-tip that no one asked for: churches who are only offering online worship or are limiting numbers and requiring social distancing and masks…stop posting pictures and videos of your staff members huddled together unmasked. Lead by example.