Do The Right Thing

All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be dominated by anything.” (1 Corinthians 6:12)

As we continue to navigate our way through a global pandemic, a new mantra is becoming the rallying battle cry of many.

“It’s a mandate, not a law!”

The reality is, no one can really argue with that. Mandates being issued my governors and other government officials are not law.

I guess my question is, do we really need a law in order to do the right thing? Whether it is wearing a mask, jaywalking, turning the lights off when you leave a room, using a coaster when setting your coffee on a table, there are some actions that should not require laws to motivate appropriate actions. It’s like my mom used to say, “Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.” Just because you don’t have to wear a mask, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.

Now, I realize that wearing masks has become a highly politicized subject. Some view mask mandates as a threat to our freedoms.

Many of the folks I’m connected with on social media who are of the “mandate, not law” persuasion have also been strong advocates for protecting religious freedom. For me, that’s where the hypocrisy becomes most evident.

Some who loudly advocated for protecting the religious freedoms of individuals and businesses are now crying “foul” when businesses are requiring customers to wear masks. So, we would advocate for the freedom of a business owner to refuse to bake a cake for a same-sex couple. But, when that same business asks me to wear a mask, well, that’s a violation of MY freedom. And, let’s be honest, that’s really what it’s about…my freedom, my rights.

While we have the freedom to not wear masks, we must also accept the repercussions. There will be places I cannot enter when I am not wearing a mask. I have the freedom to go somewhere else.

Think about it this way, we have the freedom to smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol (if we are of age, of course). However, we cannot smoke or drink wherever we desire. There are health risks associated with smoking and drinking.

We have the freedom to wear a mask or not. However, there will be places of business and worship we cannot enter if we refuse to “mask up”.

Then, there are the labels that we toss around. Some call those who are being more cautious “fearful, scared, afraid.” Could it be that they are just being cautious?

Some call those who are being less cautions “reckless” and “ignorant”.

We have even started using masks as a way to gauge the faith of others. Those wearing masks have chosen “fear over faith.” Those not wearing masks have chosen “faith over fear.” If only it were that simple.

Some of used masks as a way to gauge the political affiliation of the wearer or non-wearer. No mask…must be a Trump supporter. Mask…must be in Biden’s camp (or still holding out for a Bernie miracle).

Many of us have been praying that God would deliver us and bring healing to our land. What if God has answered that prayer? What if the answer is: wash your hands, don’t touch your face, wear a mask, and keep your distance”?

My friends at Deathwish Coffee have a new t-shirt that sums up how I feel about physical distancing. It’s the mandate I’ve been waiting for my whole life…”When this is over, please continue to stay six feet away from me!”

We shouldn’t need a law or a mandate to motivate us to do the right thing. Of course, that’s part of the argument too. People on every side of this issue can find research that supports their particular point of view.

While there happens to be a seatbelt law, I’d still wear one even if it wasn’t required. Why? Well, 99.9% of the time, I don’t really need the seatbelt. But, for that .1% of the time that I do need it, well, I’m thankful it’s there! It’s the right thing to do, law or not.

What if when all of this is over we find out we didn’t really need the masks? All we’re out is the inconvenience of having to wear a masks.

What if we find out the masks are essential and what have kept many of us healthy? Well, I’m guessing we’ll be pretty thankful we wore masks.

Christianity in America seems to have become highly individualized and politicized. We are more focused on self and blind patriotism than we are on the teachings of Jesus. Some of the loudest voices regarding “MY freedoms” are coming from people of faith.

The teachings of Jesus call us to focus on love, service and embodying an “others first” mentality.

In Matthew 25:40, Jesus reminds those who have been feeding the hungry, providing water and clothing for those without that, “whenever you do it for one of the least of these, you have done it unto me.”

What if the most loving thing we could do today is wear a mask? While it might infringe upon our freedoms, consider it an act of service for the compromised and most vulnerable among us.

“Blessed are the Weird People”

Throughout my ministry, church growth experts have encouraged clergy and congregations to have a narrowly-defined target.

I understand the need to have an idea of who God is calling a particular congregation to reach. When asked, “who is your target audience” or “who is God calling you to reach”, many pastors and congregations will answer with “everyone”!

Most of us can recognize the challenges presented when one attempts to “be all things to all people.” So, congregations are challenged to consider how they can narrow that down.

Several factors play into the narrowing of the target. The physical location of the church should play a role in determining the target. The demographics of the surrounding neighborhood should impact the target. The current make-up of the congregation might influence the target. The current worship style might influence the target. The financial health of the congregation might influence the target. The theological perspective might influence the target.

Ultimately, the main factor in determining the target should be God’s lead. Through a season of prayer, who is God calling the congregation to reach? While some of those other factors might influence the target, God might desire to disrupt us in our places of comfort and strength!

The reality is, when we leave it up to ourselves, our intentional targets look a lot like us (well, most likely a younger version of ourselves).

When we leave it up to God, well, we may be challenged to move well beyond our comfort zone. When we allow God to lead, it might mean that we go through a season of change. God’s target might lead us to restructure our staffing, change our worship times/styles, move from one location to another or any other seemingly major shift that disrupts our comfort.

As I have recently started a new appointment, I have been spending a great deal of time considering the question, “who is God calling us to reach?”

Last night, a friend (who just happens to be a denominational leader) asked the question, “what if the target was less about demographics and more about an ethos?” He continued, “Your church is blessed with a physical location people are willing to drive to. Therefore, geography doesn’t have to be as much of a consideration.”

When I got home, I looked at the print of a poem on one of our walls. When I read through the poem, I found myself having a “eureka” moment! I have a sense that God is calling us to reach the “weird people”! And, yes, I know what some of you are thinking…”Jason, you are the weird people…that’s not much of a stretch!” And, maybe that’s true…but for a congregation to focus on reaching the creatives who are often marginalized and outcast can be a challenge…and it can get messy too!

God, help us reach the “weird people…for they force us to see the world differently!”

Learning from Robert Schuller

I’ve never been a big fan of television pastors. In late college, I grew to appreciate T.D. Jakes, but that was mostly due to his preaching style and delivery. I may not have always agreed with his theology, but I was definitely convinced that he passionately believed in whatever message he was sharing.

Every so often, I would tune into the “Hour of Power” with Robert Schuller. As he aged, his increasingly gentle demeanor came across as sincere and trustworthy. However, I was mostly tuning in to find out what celebrity he would have as a guest on the program.

These days, I tune in from time to time to hear the choir and see what kind of message Schuller’s grandson, Bobby, is sharing.

As many of our churches have transitioned to online ministries, I’ve found myself thinking that maybe we all have something to learn from Schuller. And, as many of our churches begin to consider how to re-enter into the world of in-person gatherings, we also may have something to learn from Schuller.

Schuller (and others like Charles Stanley) always shared a broadcast from an actual church gathering. There was a physical congregation present to engage, respond and participate. For me, the temptation would be to primarily focus on the gathered community and just allow the digital community to peek into what we are doing. This sets the stage for a physical church with an online presence – we do things gathered together and broadcast it for others to observe.

However, Schuller always found ways to engage the virtual audience. He didn’t pretend that they were not recording. He would refer to the televised audience, offer ways they could participate and invite them to be fully involved and present in the gathering. It expresses the importance of those not able to be physically present. This sets the stage for a connected community – both digitally and physically present.

As we return to in-person gatherings, we need to take this lesson from Schuller and not proceed as if the digital congregation is not present. We need to find ways to interact and engage those digitally present. We simply cannot dismiss what has become an essential practice for our congregations.

Schuller also never hesitated to “make the ask.” He always invited the televised audience to fully participate in the ministry of the Crystal Cathedral through their financial gifts and prayers. Now, since the Crystal Cathedral did end up filing for bankruptcy, maybe he needed to ask for more! However, he always extended an invitation to partner in ministry.

Schuller didn’t stop with the ask. He also found ways to express gratitude. Most of the time, it was some kind of cheesy gift. Yet, it was a way to say, “we appreciate your support of the ministry.”

If we have a physical or email address, a note of appreciation goes a long way. Communicating words of gratitude for those physically present and those digitally present are very important. Telling stories of how those gifts are being utilized cannot be underestimated.

Schuller also would share paths for engagement. Whether it was an invitation to join together in prayer and praise, participating in a devotional study or some other way to be engaged beyond the worship gathering, there was always some kind of invitation.

As we begin to relaunch our in-person gatherings, finding ways to offer points of connection will be important. Whether it’s providing avenues to share prayers and praises, paths to connect with others via Zoom or other digital platforms, having weekly all-church studies or reading plans are ways those who cannot be physically present and still be holistically engaged.

So, while I have largely dismissed those TV preachers, they just might have something to teach all of us!

Orange County Register photo by Bruce Chambers – photo taken 1/1/06

Full Of…

Throughout the years, I’ve been accused of being full of many things.

Teachers, friends, family members, random strangers I encounter along the way have commented that I am full of…well, you know where this is going.

One mentor made the sarcastic observation that I am “full of sunshine and rainbows”!

“Warm and fuzzy” is something I’ve never been accused of being.

Typical descriptive words used in reference to me include, “sarcastic, cynical, overly-critical, harsh, cold.”

Yes, folks, I am a ray of hope in a dark world!

One of the things that my “less-than-warm and fuzzy” demeanor has produced is a pretty good BS meter. I can quickly cut through the nonsense. I don’t fall for the manipulative tricks of those in positions of power (political, religious, etc.). So, that’s a good thing, I think?

However, one of the downfalls is that I have a tendency to be an overly-harsh critic. I tend to focus in on the negative and rarely give people the benefit of the doubt. I quickly identify the BS, call it out and dismiss whomever happens to be spewing the BS.

Now, this overly-critical spirit is something I’ve been working on over the years. I’m in a much better place today than I was several years ago. I can thank my counselor, family and friends for that!

One of the things I’ve been working on during this coronavirus pandemic is having an open mind and spirit. Rather than “leaning into” my critical nature, I am trying to be open and look for the best. See, just with that statement, I’m growing. I can’t stand the overuse of that phrase, “leaning into”. It appears to be part of the new Christianese dictionary. But, I used it in my blog – so there you have it!

Each week, I probably watch up to 10 different virtual worship gatherings. I don’t make it through most of them. I fast-forward to catch the parts I want to see. Some are from churches I’ve followed over the years. Some are churches of friends. Some are links others have sent me. Some of it is to try and learn what others are doing and how we might be able to incorporate new things.

But, as I watch these virtual services, my first tendency is to go straight towards the negative.

  • Is that really the music they want to share?
  • Are they standing 6-feet apart?
  • Certainly that pastor doesn’t believe what he/she just said?
  • Do other people actually enjoy this?
  • What were they thinking?
  • How is this person in that position?
  • Do they really think that’s a good representation of their church?
  • Are you kidding me? Am I really watching this?

And, here’s the deal, I know there are plenty of people being just as overly-critical and negative in regard to the virtual offerings I provide. But, being sarcastic and cynical, I “lean into” that and put up my walls and find myself not caring about what others think. That’s helpful, right?

The thing is, I fully recognize my critical spirit is not helpful. It’s not helpful because, even when my assessments are accurate and my observations could be beneficial, it’s not coming from a good place.

So, I’m working on having open heart, mind and spirit. When I am open, I can look for the best. I can realize that, even though the music may not be what I’m looking for, these folks are trying their best. I can realize that, even though I may not agree with the theological perspective of the preaching pastor, I know that he/she is doing their best. When I have an open spirit, I just might learn something. When I have an open mind, I might see the best in others. When I have an open spirit, I just might be able to offer some helpful thoughts rather than hurtful/harmful criticism.

So, if you are like me and have a tendency to walk in (or log in) to a worship service with a negative/critical spirit, stop yourself and ask God for help, wisdom and to “create in me a pure heart”. Try to focus on the positives, the areas of hope, the places of potential. See if there is a way to turn your complaint into a compliment!

You know, there are appropriate, helpful and kind ways to correct, instruct, and share concerns. Then, there are ways that cause more harm than good. I know, as one who at times both shares and receives criticism, there are ways it can be offered that is well received – and ways it can be offered where it is dismissed and damages relationships.

So, if you can say something and maintain a positive relationship with others, go for it! However, if you have something to say but it is going to cause division, maybe find a different way to say it…or don’t say it at all.

It’s like my mother used to caution me, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, maybe keep your mouth shut.”

analog volume meter

“I Like Having my Sundays Free”

My mother will struggle with this blog because I’ll overuse one of her least favorite words!!!

“I like having my Sundays free. If recent polls are a reliable indicator, a lot of people feel that way. Maybe you do too. I know a ton of awesome people who don’t go to church, and there could be a hundred reasons why. We church people have to own that at least for some of them, the reason is that church kind of sucks. Most pastors and churches have to try to do a lot with very little. It isn’t their fault. Maybe they need to do less.” ~ Jerry Herships, “Last Call: From Serving Drinks to Serving Jesus”

The above quote from Jerry Herships appeared in my Facebook Memories feed today. I found the quote to be just as, if not more, relevant today as when I shared it on April 27, 2016.

This brief paragraph stings a little for those of us in ministry. When I pause to consider why more and more people have decided that the Church is not for them, I am tempted to shift the blame. I mean, why would I (a pastor) take any kind of personal responsibility for people not participating in the life of the church? Certainly, my church doesn’t suck, right? (That’s rhetorical…so feel free not to answer that!)

Think of some of the “go to” answers and excuses we offer as a defense for why our church is boring/irrelevant/suck-ish:

  • “Sunday used to be sacred. Now we have soccer, basketball, football, softball, baseball and even lacrosse on Sunday morning.”
  • “Restaurants used to be closed on Sunday. Now we have brunch specials offered at the same time as our worship gathering. I mean, who doesn’t love a Belgian waffle?”
  • “Businesses used to be closed on Sunday. Now the best time to shop for groceries is Sunday morning.”
  • “People are so busy these days, Sunday is their only time to slow down, sleep in and take a break.”
  • “If we just offered ______ style of worship at ______ time, people would show up.”
  • “If we had a better ______ ministry for _______, people would come.”
  • “If our pastor preached better sermons…”
  • “If our pastor did more home visits…”
  • “That big church is light on theology. They may have fancy lights and a great band, but they just have a bunch of ‘feel good’ psycho-babble preaching.”

The reality is, I could go on and on. This a blame shift. If we’re being honest, we generally shift the blame to something for which we are not personally responsible. Rarely, if ever, do we own up and admit that WE might actually be part of the problem.

As long as we keep shifting the blame, rather than owning up to our role and taking personal responsibility, our churches will never improve. We continually see people make the decision to not have the church be part of their lives. And, rather than make appropriate adjustments, we tend to continue “business as usual.”

Herships forces his readers to get to the heart of the matter. Sometimes church just sucks!

Again, if we’re going to be honest, we ARE most likely part of the problem.

Maybe part of the issue is that we expect our ministry leaders to be generalist, rather than specialist. With that, we expect the pastor to excel in a number of areas (preaching, teaching, pastoral care, vision casting, serving in the community, business management, fundraising, etc.). Too often, we have similar expectations for other ministry leaders (the youth director probably needs to be able to play guitar, lead the praise team and specialize in fundraising; the children’s director should also be able to head up the Tuesday night meal and oversee the missions team; the business administrator should also be able to update the website and social media accounts).

Would the church be better served if we allowed people to lead from their areas of giftedness and then staffed to address the areas that are lacking?

For example, if the pastor is an effective and dynamic preacher, but terrible at administration…maybe the church should hire an executive pastor or administrator? If the pastor is a lousy preacher (yes, they do exist, even though most of us think we are better preachers than everyone else!), maybe hire a teaching pastor who can be the primary communicator? Or maybe this is a time to radically reconsider the entire staffing structure of the church?

Many pastors and ministry leaders have a decent working knowledge in the expected areas. Most pastors and ministry leaders only excel in, well, less than a few categories. There are pastors who are excellent communicators and vision casters, however they struggle in areas of business management and community involvement. And vice versa.

It’s been said that members of the congregation and those looking for a place of worship will tolerate subpar music if the preaching is excellent. It has also been said that folks will tolerate subpar preaching if the music is excellent. If both the preaching and music are subpar, you better plan on having out-of-this-world children’s, student and hospitality ministries.

Maybe part of the issue is that we have not focused on what truly matters. Is the Church on the frontlines to address the most pressing issues in our community? Is the Church offering ministries that meet the actual (not assumed) needs of our neighbors? Does church suck, not because we have subpar preaching and music, but because we have lost our way?

Maybe we can use this time of physical distancing and online worship to embrace the old Cubs mantra of “try not to suck.” We have a great opportunity to make some shifts and address some gaps to offer something a bit more appealing to the world around us. I know that I have been thinking about the areas where I need growth, additional training or assistance.

You see, as the Church, we have a call to share the Greatest Hope the world has ever known. If the world around us is writing off the Church, that means that we have lost our way. When I read the book of Acts, I don’t think one would label what was happening as boring (well, maybe Eutychus would have a slightly different opinion).

I hear a lot of talk about how this pandemic might lead us to a time of revival. I hope and pray that’s true.

However, I am far too cynical and believe the harsh reality is that there will be folks who use this time of physical distancing to exit the church. There will be people who grow accustomed to the convenience of not having to leave their dwelling place on Sunday morning to attend church. Many will continue to worship online, many will not.

So, how do we respond?

We have a great responsibility to continually evaluate and consider what we’re doing in order to reach the world for Christ. If what we’re doing isn’t bearing fruit, it’s time to do some pruning.

What better time than now?