Maybe the Message Needs to Change?

I haven’t written for a long time. To be honest, the uncertain and unstable nature of, not only a global pandemic, but political, racial, economic and denominational divisions have often stopped me from using the venue of this blog to share my thoughts and feelings. This is the first time in ministry where I’ve felt insecure and less-than-confident in my leadership and ability to simply be myself. Every single thing one says, does, posts, likes or doesn’t say, do, post or like seems to be held closely under the microscope of scrutiny. But, I’ve had an extra cup of coffee this afternoon and discovered just the right amount of caffeine-infused liquid courage to post the following.

I’ve been serving in fulltime ministry since 1999. It’s an incredible honor and privilege to serve within the Church, attempting to offer Christ’s love and hope to those around me. I am continually in awe that God allows and invites us to play a role in helping reveal the “Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.”

Of course, reality and experience would say that Kingdom work is easier said than done. Throughout the history of the Church, we have had our fair share of triumphs and trials, victories and defeats, successes and scandals.

There have been moments where it appears the Church has lost its way. In those times, faithful reformers have led us back to our foundational core – Jesus and love.

In recent years, the rise of Christian Nationalism and the politicization of American Christianity has distorted the basic teachings of Jesus.

Rather than focusing on the teachings of Jesus that call us to love God, love neighbor and even love our enemies, many vocal Christian leaders who garner the attention of the spotlight have focused on electing the right leader, defending the sanctity of both marriage and life, and most recently – demonstrating that pro-life really only means pro-birth (as many churches have chosen “faith over fear” in their coronavirus response – which really means we don’t care about the “least of these”). Honestly, many faithful people are championing the anti-mask and anti-vaccine movements under the umbrella of “true, strong faith.” I’m all for freedom, but to use our faith to justify these types of actions is harmful. In doing so, I believe a dark stain is being left on the Church.

Unfortunately, we Christians have been doing a much better job of letting people know what we are against, rather than what we are for.

The current collective witness of the Church, more distracted by political agendas than the imperative to “go and make disciples”, is actively turning more and more people away from the faith. To be honest, I have grown tired of having to explain that “I’m not THAT kind of Christian” to friends, family and strangers.

What is becoming all-too-obvious, even for the casual observer, is that change is desperately needed. The Church (across the globe, but especially in the States) is in need of a new generation of reformers.

In roughly 23 years of ministry, when change is needed within the Church, there is an all-too-familiar refrain that may be causing more harm than good.

“The methods may change, but the message remains the same.”

If by the “message”, one means the “Good News of great joy for ALL people,” then “yes”, that should remain.

If by the “message,” one means all the anti, extra junk that distracts from the light and love of Jesus, then that is a firm “no” from me.

In allowing the political agenda to distract us, we’ve lost the true message of love that Jesus embodied. Jesus challenged the kind of religious and political structures that many Christians are trying to create today. The fact that many faithful Christians can support political candidates and agendas who show no moral compass, who fail to demonstrate love for all, whose policies and agendas threaten to reverse to work Jesus was called to do shows their are problems with our methods and messages (see Luke 4, Jesus came to “proclaim good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and set the oppressed free). It’s hard to see the heart of Jesus in political platforms that call for the reduction of affordable housing, healthcare, education and food assistance, that call for bigger, privatized prisons, and that further oppress the already marginalized among us.

If we truly want to vote our Christian values, we would be wise to read the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5-7) before we enter our polling place. It’s hard to take the teachings of Jesus seriously while voting for almost any candidate (regardless of party).

The rise in our evangelical (and mainline too) brothers and sisters who are deconstructing their faith should be a huge warning sign to the Church. Unfortunately, it may be too late for some to consider reconstructing their faith.

You see, in the overly politicized Church, many are hearing messages that are nothing but political campaign rallies for candidates who do not reflect the heart of Jesus or the Gospel of love. We hear sermons that say one thing, then we read those “red letters” of Jesus and conflicts abound.

Maybe the methods weren’t the problem?

I remember being told, “Just start a contemporary service. Just be a little more edgy and relevant (come on, can you get more edgy and relevant than this guy…who makes references to Guns n’ Roses on a regular basis?). Just be a little more casual. That’s the answer.”

But, if the statistics reveal anything, it’s that none of this actually worked. Sure, there are booming megachurches around the nation. But, the rise of the mega church came with the decline of those who identify as Christian. The worship wars created unnecessary tension and division in the Church. Rather than growth, we’ve created generations of Church Hoppers who simply follow the dangling carrot of the cool church. Rather than church growth, we’ve witnessed sheep stealing and the rise of the trendy pastor (folks, after the Mike Todd fiasco, really think through your cool illustrations) and the best band in town. And, let’s be honest, the best worship band rarely holds a candle to the best dive bar band!

Maybe the methods were the problem, but that wasn’t enough?

I wonder if the move towards modern expressions of worship is a necessary part of the equation, but that a shift in style simply isn’t enough. If the church that proclaims, “We aren’t your grandma’s church” just because they have cool lights, a fog machine, a wall of LED lights, a worship leader with a stupid hat (seriously, what’s the deal with worship leaders and wide-brim hats?), pastors in skinny jeans and glasses that weren’t even cool in the 80’s, continues to preach messages that are tweetable but void of the heart of Jesus, maybe we need to spend more time focusing on the message?

Listen, I’ve spent 23 years being caught up in this same trap. There are many times when I’ve tried to be “cool’. There are many times when my messages have been nothing but veiled political propaganda. There are many times when I’ve been tempted to believe that a shift in methodology would be enough.

I believe that what we need is a both/and approach. We need to be paying just as close attention to the message as we do the methods. By spending so much time focused on the methods, we often fail to see the message straying from the Way of Jesus.

At the end of the day, we really need to ask ourselves if we are being our true, authentic selves in both the methods and the message. Are we preaching to promote Jesus or something else? Are we “all in” to a particular method to honor Jesus or to be hip?

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have the answers. I have failed more often than I have succeeded. I strive to honor God in the method and the message, but I easily fall into the trap of “this will be cool…this will be funny…this will attract people away from that church down the street.”

I guess what I’m really saying is that maybe it’s time for the Church itself to do some deconstructing and reconstructing – to eliminate the baggage that is interfering with the message of Jesus – and rediscover the way of love that shares a message of “Good News of great joy for all people.”

The Sin of Busyness

This morning, I head Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Fives “The Message”. The hip hop classic contains the well known lyric, “Don’t push me, ‘cause I’m close to the edge, I’m trying not to lose my head.”

Hearing that line made me think of the number of people I know who are continually pushing themselves to the edge of burnout. And, regardless of their field of employment, the folks around them seem to celebrate their dedication to their work.

In our American culture, we have too often celebrated workaholism. The American Church has also embraced (and often celebrated) the “sin” of busyness. We almost idolize clergy and ministry leaders who push themselves to the edge of burnout (and then ridicule them if they indeed hit the point of burnout).

Remember, busyness does not always equal effectiveness.

Some of the most effective clergy I know model a life of vocation that practices appropriate boundaries and limitations. Some of the least effective clergy I know embrace a pace of work that violates God’s boundaries and limitations. Too often, those who embody an appropriate pace of life and work are referred to as “lazy” or “not dedicated”, while those embodying a life of busyness are celebrated…even if their church is dying, their family is falling apart and their physical health is terrible.

Yes, we have too often equated busyness with effective, dedicated service. Being busy does not mean one is fulfilling “the call”. It could just mean that they are busy…and inefficient.

In the 10 Commandments, God designed patterns of rest and renewal into our way of life. Yet, when was the last time we held another accountable for violating the sabbath? When was the last time we encouraged another to utilize their allotted time off?

What if the Church began to model and encourage healthy patterns of work, play and rest? What if the Church began to treat workaholism as we do other vices?

Let’s be honest, most workaholics utilize this vice as a way to avoid working through other issues. If we stay busy, we won’t have time to deal with pain, anger, relationships, and reality.

So, what if the Church modeled a pattern of work and rest that encourages boundaries and limitations? Would we find our ministry to be more effective and efficient? What if the Church became a place of rest and renewal, rather than a place that adds to the busyness and chaos?

What if we reduced the number of activities we offer and encouraged self-care? I mean, how many times have our churches made people feel stressed, guilty or overextended because they feel it’s necessary to participate in every activity we offer?

The Church is called to be counter-cultural. One of the most counter-cultural things we could do in the US is to reject the sin of busyness.

How can we slow down and honor God’s boundaries and limitations?

Speaking Truth to Power: Did Jesus Die So I Could Own a Gun?

This morning, I woke up to news of a mass shooting in Indianapolis. Reports have said that the shooting lasted no more than 2 minutes and left 8 people dead.

This Sunday, there will be clergy who speak about America’s obsession with guns.

  • Some will speak in favor of stricter gun control.
  • Some will say “They are coming for our guns. Next, they’ll come for our churches. You better go buy some guns this week.”
  • Some will remain silent.

I’m not preaching this week, so I’m typing a blog post! Honestly, it takes a great deal of courage for pastors to speak in favor of stricter gun control from the pulpit. Pastors who speak to this issue (or post blogs or social media posts) will be told they need to “stick to the Bible and stay out of politics.” So, many weigh the risks and ask, “is it worth the amount of pushback to speak truth to power?”

I’ve already started seeing posts on social media saying, “guns aren’t the problem, people are the problem.” However, the gun was the weapon of mass destruction in this and so many other gun-related deaths. So, what do we do with that? Maybe if people are the problem, stricter gun control would make it more difficult for the wrong people to own guns.

Do we have a people problem? Of course, ever sense the creation of human beings there has been a people problem.

Do we have a gun problem? Absolutely.

A CBS new report shared that “Americans are 10 times more likely to be killed by guns than people in other developed countries, a new study finds. Compared to 22 other high-income nations, the United States’ gun-related murder rate is 25 times higher.”

Again, we have a gun problem.

Now, let me be clear, I don’t want to take your guns away. I know plenty of responsible gun owners.

However, I do believe it should be more difficult to purchase a weapon than it is for me to make a withdrawal from my savings account.

It would be easier for me to legally purchase a gun today than it is to renew my drivers license, get health or life insurance, get a library card or purchase my allergy medicine. I’m sorry, but something is wrong with that scenario.

Common sense gun control continues to be opposed by many avid 2nd Amendment supporters. For me, there is a red flag that is immediately raised when people don’t think it should be increasingly difficult to purchase firearms.

If one is a responsible citizen, stricter gun control shouldn’t present a problem.

It’s interesting to me that gun control is a divisive issue in the Church. Jesus didn’t live, die and live again in order to protect our 2nd Amendment rights. Jesus didn’t die in order to provide us with the right to gun ownership. And, yet, the way some people of faith talk about guns and the 2nd Amendment reveal that we have a new idol…guns!

In my denominatioin (the United Methodist Church), congregations are urged to “advocate for laws that prevent or reduce gun violence, such as: universal background checks on all gun purchases; ensuring all guns are sold through licensed gun retailers; prohibiting gun purchases for those under restraining order due to threat of violence and those with serious mental illness who pose a danger to themselves and their communities; ensuring greater access to services for those with mental illness; establishing a minimum age of 21 years for a gun purchase or possession; banning large capacity ammunition magazines and weapons; promoting new technologies to aid law-enforcement agencies to trace crime guns and promote public safety.”

Again, I’m not advocating for the removal of guns. However, I do believe in stricter gun control.

Don’t Be a Stick in the Mud

I’ve heard it said that in any gathering (especially a church gathering), there are most likely people present who have caused you harm. Through their words, actions, silence or inaction, there are people who have either intentionally or unintentionally caused you harm.

When this takes place within the church, it presents an interesting challenge. When the church gathers, we often hear messages about love, grace, mercy, compassion, forgiveness and reconciliation. Yet, because we are human, there are times we fail to live up to the call and cause one another harm.

The question I’ve often wrestled with is, “how do we seek reconciliation in an environment like that?” How do we practice the ministry of reconciliation with those who have caused us harm?

To be honest, I’m often a stick in the mud. I’m set in my ways. I don’t want to change. I don’t want to adjust. I don’t want to seek forgiveness and reconcilation. I want others to change. I want others to adjust. I want others to seek forgiveness and reconciliation.

The more I study Scripture, the more I recognize God’s call to love and grace. The longer I follow in the way of Jesus, the more clearly I hear the call of Jesus…”Don’t be a stick in the mud, Jason!”

I think it was Albert Tate who said, “Stop defending your position and start listening to the heartbeat of God.”

The reason we are sticks in the mud who cause one another harm is because we are spending more time defending our positions than following the lead of Jesus.

My non-believing friends are the first to tell me…”Jesus was all about love, peace and grace. But, you Christians seem to be all about judging others and telling us all how lost we are.” Their critque may be a stereotype, unfortunately it’s all too true.

The church is unfortunately not all that different from the surrounding culture. The body of believers should embody unity (not uniformity, but unity). However, we are known more and more by our division and hostility over issues of race, politics, and economics.

My prayer is that we will stop being sticks in the mud and focus on being people of love, grace, mercy, compassion and empathy.

Do Things Differently OR Do Different Things?

There is a quote often attributed to Albert Einstein that defines insanity as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

If one is familiar with the Church in America, one might assume that Christian leaders have rejected this definition of insanity.

For far too long, Christian leaders and churches have been committed to “doing the same thing over and over” while “expecting different results.” Let’s be honest, some of the rejection of the observation attributed to Einstein would be his position as a theoretical physicist (the rejection of science and common sense is an unfortunate source of pride for many within the Church).

For years, pastors, church staff and volunteers have attended conferences and listened to podcasts that encourage finding new methods to communicate the message. I would argue that our methods really haven’t changed. We continue to do the same things, but dress them up in different clothes. Our gatherings still have music, sermons, Scripture readings, offerings, etc.

So, I wonder, do we need to stop trying to do things differently and just focus on doing different things?

The Church has been so focused on doing things differently that we really haven’t attempted to do different things. And, if we’re being honest, so much of what we refer to as “new” or “different” has already been done.

Or maybe it isn’t that we need to do different things, but we’ve had the wrong idea of what it means to do things differently?

Too often, our ideas of “doing things differently” are narrowly defined as adding a contemporary service, wearing blue jeans, calling our Bible studies by different names (“Life Group” seems to be popular), or embracing whatever the latest fade or gimmick that is being pushed by the so-called experts. Maybe those things work, but are we reaching “new” people or are we just stealing sheep? For some congregations, these minor changes to the methodology of ministry have been seen as major (even causing some churches to split).

Church experts continue to point out the rise of those who claim no religious affiliation while those claiming to be Christian declines. What that reveals to us is that all the things we’ve believed would be the answer were not the answer. While we’re dressing the message up in different clothes, we’re still losing ground.

I doubt those who are currently not interested in our churches will be drawn to our church because we have cool lights, a fog machine, beautiful stained glass, a worship leader with skinny jeans, a pastor with a robe, leaders with lots of product in their hair or our own app.

  • Maybe doing things differently means narrowing down what we do in order to do it better.
  • Maybe instead of trying to “be all things to all people” we could clearly define our ethos and let that guide us.
  • Maybe we should spend less time focusing on Sunday morning and more time focusing on how we live out our beliefs throughout the week.
  • Maybe instead of focusing on Sunday morning gatherings we should be focusing on how we are serving our community in practical and tangible ways.
  • Maybe if those outside the church could actually see the church being the hands and feet of Jesus they would be drawn in…maybe not into the church, but to serve alongside us?
  • Maybe people would be drawn to a church where the pastors are “real” and “authentic” rather than those who appear “polished” and present an image that they don’t really live up to.
  • Maybe they are looking for fellow church goers who are willing to admit that they don’t have it all figured out, that they have doubts, that they fall short, that they yell “damn it” when they hit their thumb with a hammer or “shit” when they fall while shoveling the driveway.
  • Maybe they’ve grown tired of the Christian religious show, but would be open to exploring Christianity with people who are willing to let their guard down.
  • Maybe instead of investing in our buildings we should be investing in our community.
  • Maybe we should focus on what really matters, especially to those we desire to reach.

Too often, what we think matters doesn’t really matter to those we desire to reach. I’ve recently been reminded that some of the issues we get so worked up about inside the walls of the Church are the source of our irrelevance to emerging generations.

In my own denomination, we have been having a conversation (which is really just a polite way of saying “argument”) for decades regarding issues of human sexuality. My own children have asked why that’s even an issue. My youngest recently said, “I don’t know why you all talk about that. Shouldn’t everyone be accepted at church?”

Every single time Franklin Graham has made a comment in the last year, I’ve found myself wanting to post something along the lines of, “Franklin Graham does not speak or me” or “Not all Christians are like Franklin Graham.” Then, I remember that most of my non-Christian friends (the ones I’m most worried will associate me with the likes of Franklin Graham or John Piper or Pat Robertson or Jim Bakker) don’t actually know or care to know who Franklin Graham is.

Now, in totally honest and open transparencey, the majority of my ideas of “doing different things” really just fall into the category of “doing things differently”. I’m so entrenched in the church world that it’s hard to separate myself from “the way we’ve always done it.”

With that, if we really want to reach those we aren’t currently reaching, we need to be having conversations with them. We don’t need to have a room full of the already saved, lifetime members deciding what we need to do to reach those beyond our walls. We need to have a room full of the “I don’t care about the Church” types informing us about what matters to them, what kind of activities they would join, where they are already serving in the community and then show up where God already is at work.

We Christians have a hard time showing up where God is already at work. Too often, we see awesome things happening in our community – but if they aren’t Christian or affiliated with our particular denomination (or our non-denominational theological perspective), we decide that we have to create our own Christianized version.

And, let’s be honest, the Christianized version is usually a cheap knock-off. Just listen to the Christian radio station or look at some Christian art websites and you’ll know what I mean. Could it be that, rather than Christian music, we need Christians in music? Could it be that rather than Christian art, we need Christian artists?

If there is a community group doing great work for justice in the community, we don’t have to start our own Christian version – we could just bring Christians to join the work being done. If there is an awesome urban farm feeding the hungry, we don’t have to start our own Christian version – we could just bring Christians to pull weeds, plant seeds, harvest and distribute the crops. If there is a great trivia night in the community, we don’t have to start our own Christian version – we could just form some Christian teams to join the fun.

So, maybe it’s difficult to determine whether or not we are “doing things differently” or “doing different things.” The bottomline is this, if we truly desire to reach those beyond our walls, we need to start thinking like those we desire to reach.