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.

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!