What if God is not who we thought?

Excerpt from Easter sermon by Nadia Bolz-Weber:

Once upon a time, the God of the Universe was basically fed up with being on the receiving end of all our human projections, tired of being nothing more to us than what we thought God should be: angry, show-offy, defensive, insecure, in short, the vengeance-seeking tyrant we would be if we were God. So, at that time, over 2,000 years ago, God’s Loving Desire to really be Known overflowed the heavens and was made manifest in the rapidly dividing cells within the womb of an insignificant peasant girl named Mary. And when the time came for her to give birth to God, there was no room in our expectations – no room in any impressive or spiffy or safe place. So this God was born in straw and dirt. He grew up, this Jesus of Nazareth, lefthis home, and found some, let’s be honest,  rather unimpressive characters to follow him.  Fishermen, Tax collectors, prostitutes, homeless women with no teeth, people from Commerce City, Ann Coulter and Charlie Sheen.  If you think I’m kidding…read it for yourselves.  These people were questionable. So, with his little band of misfits Jesus went about the countryside turning water to wine, eating with all the wrong people, angering the religious establishment and insisting that in him the kingdom of God had come near, that through him the world according to God was coming right to us.  He touched the unclean and used spit and dirt to heal the blind and said crazy destabilizing things like the first shall be last and the last shall be first, and sell all you have and give it to the poor.

And the thing that really cooked people’s noodles wasn’t the question “is Jesus like God” it was “what if God is like Jesus”.  What if God is not who we thought?  What if the most reliable way to know God is not through religion, not through a sin and punishment program, but through a person. What if the most reliable way to know God is to look at how God chose to reveal God’s self in Jesus?

 

Unplugging from the Matrix, part 7

This is part 7 of a series of reflections about the journey of starting a church and leaving established, organizational, denominational religion. It’s a lot like unplugging from the matrix. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6)

Well as soon as I say I’m finished with this series of posts on leaving established church, Brian McLaren goes and writes this amazing commentary on the landscape of mainline and evangelical religion in the U.S. (in the context of a counter-criticism of Al Mohler’s criticism of Rob Bell):

From childhood I was taught this liberal-mainline-decline narrative (and its counterpart – the conservative-Evangelical-growth narrative). I’m ashamed to say I never questioned it for years. But the narrative, like all prejudices, turns out to be terribly vulnerable – especially if you actually meet many of the people it purports to describe. Consider these possible rebuttals (some of which are quite popular among mainliners, some not):

  • Perhaps it wasn’t liberalism that killed mainline Protestantism. Perhaps it was institutionalism.
  • Perhaps it wasn’t liberalism that killed mainline Protestantism. Perhaps it was an excessive concern among many mainline Protestant leaders to protect their “mainline” status of privilege and power.
  • Perhaps it wasn’t liberalism that killed mainline Protestantism. Perhaps it was complicity with nationalism, a complicity that was exposed as faulty in the Twentieth Century by two world wars and Vietnam.
  • Perhaps it wasn’t liberalism that killed mainline Protestantism. Perhaps it was liturgical and organizational rigidity.
  • Perhaps the fall of mainline Protestantism had more to do with complacency and a lack of visionary leadership than it did with a willingness to question traditional interpretations of Scripture.
  • Perhaps mainline Protestantism isn’t dead or even dying: perhaps mainline Protestants have entered a latency period from which a new generation of Christian faith is trying to be born. (And perhaps conservative Protestantism is about to enter that latency period too.)
  • Perhaps mainline Protestantism isn’t failing at all, any more than the US Postal Service is failing. (It’s actually doing more work than ever, with proportionately fewer resources than ever.) Perhaps it’s just that the times have changed, and First Class mail isn’t what it used to be, and mainline Protestants think they’re in the stamp-and-envelope business instead of the communication business.
  • Perhaps mainline Protestants are in decline primarily because they haven’t been as good marketers as Evangelicals. Perhaps mainliners haven’t “pandered” to customer demands as well as Evangelicals. They haven’t adopted new technologies – first radio, then TV, then the internet – as savvily as Evangelicals have.
  • Perhaps mainline decline is related to higher college attendance rates – rates that, by the way, Evangelicals are now catching up to. Perhaps conservative Christianity will fare no better in holding young adults who get a college education than mainline Protestants were. Perhaps the graphs will end up in the same place, with just a 30- or 40-year lag.
  • Perhaps mainline Protestants started to decline when they became prophetic – agreeing with Dr. King about the institutional evils of segregation and the Viet Nam war. Perhaps being prophetic, which involves calling people forward to a better future, is inherently more costly and less popular than being conservative, which involves calling people back to a better past.
  • Perhaps Evangelicals started to grow when they filled in the same role mainline Protestants used to occupy: the civil religion of the United States.
  • Perhaps mainline Protestantism collapsed because of hypocrisy and disconnection from real-life issues, and perhaps Evangelicalism is edging ever-closer to a similar collapse.
  • Perhaps mainline Protestantism was the religion of the American countryside and small town, and it declined as rural and small-town populations declined. And perhaps Evangelicalism is the religion of the American suburbs, and its fate will rise and fall with suburban life.

Now I think the reasons for mainline decline are many and complex, and I wouldn’t bet my life on any one of these possible rebuttals alone or even all of them together. But taken together, they show that the “conservatives grow and liberals shrink” formula might give a false sense of superiority to one group, and a false sense of inferiority to the other. (My personal belief is that neither Evangelicals nor mainliners nor Roman Catholics nor Pentecostals nor anybody else is or has the full answer. I think Fr. Vincent Donovan had it right when he said we shouldn’t leave others where they are, nor should we try to bring them to where we are, as beautiful as that place might be. Instead, we should go with others to a place neither we nor they have been before. Where we need to be is not where any of us currently are; we are all being called higher up and further in.

Unplugging from the Matrix, part 6

This is part 6 of a series of reflections about the journey of starting a church and leaving established, organizational, denominational religion. It’s a lot like unplugging from the matrix. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5)

As far as I can tell, this will be the last post in this series about leaving denominational expressions of church. It has been a good way for me to process some of the things I’ve been feeling as we started a new church that was not connected to a denomination or launched out of an established church. But the Church, however, is always connected whether we realize it or not. For there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5). And we all claim the same head – the Lord Jesus Christ.

This series of posts has also been a way for me to catalog quotes from others that confirmed my thinking. Here are a few more that have turned up in recent days.

From Bill Easum:

If we were to rely more on the Holy Spirit than on modern, democratic models, denominational structures would be replaced by church-to-church structures based on what is needed to transform each churches community.

Sadly, I think most denominations started out with this intention in mind. And when they operate effectively, they can achieve this church-to-church, Spirit-infused community transformation. But other times bureaucracy gets in the way.

So what can denoms do to get unstuck? Tony Morgan offers some ideas:

The United Methodist Church has lost about three million members since 1970. The number of people attending at least one Church of England service each month is down by 50% since 1968. Today less than three percent of the population attends services. Denominations are stuck.

I get to work with and communicate with church leaders across the country every day. Here’s what I know to be true — churches are stuck as well. Sometimes they don’t know they’re stuck. But, the symptoms are fairly obvious. Here are some symptoms to identify whether or not your church is stuck. Some of them are more obvious than others:

  • The church has stopped growing.
  • The congregation is aging.
  • Giving has declined.
  • Spiritual growth has stalled. People are just “consuming” ministry.
  • People aren’t serving.
  • People have stopped reaching their neighbors.
  • The church isn’t developing leaders.
  • Communications are confusing and lack purpose.

One of the main reasons I believe churches are stuck is because their systems and strategies are broken. Churches continue to use their same systems, but hope and pray for different results. The only way to get different results is to engage different systems. But, unfortunately, many churches (and denominations) would rather stay stuck and eventually die rather than making changes that might make people (including leaders) feel uncomfortable.

Some people getting uncomfortable might be the answer. Maybe the answer also lies in seeing denominations with different eyes. I’ll admit that this diagram from Steve Collins hurts my brain a little bit. It’s called “Scalability: What are denominations in emergence?”

(HT: Jonny Baker)

Collins adds:

A denomination in emergence:

  • does not have a fixed or necessary hierarchy
  • does not have a large difference between the top and bottom of any hierarchy that may appear
  • does not locate authority in predetermined or fixed positions
  • does not have clear or static boundaries
  • does not have a clear or static centre
  • has constantly varying degrees of membership
  • may dissolve, and reform later somewhere else

Is there hope and a future for denominations? Maybe. There are obviously a lot of positive things they accomplish – things for God’s Kingdom and for the benefit of those suffering. But long term viability may require seeing things with new eyes and pruning back some of the branches that don’t belong. Which is what the Church should always be doing.

Unplugging from the Matrix, part 5

This is part 5 of a series of reflections about the journey of starting a church and leaving established, organizational, denominational religion. It’s a lot like unplugging from the matrix. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)

As I’ve been processing my personal journey and the obvious and continued decline of mainline denominations, I have found this description by Craig Van Gelder very helpful in explaining the current state of denominations. It’s found on p. 17 of The Essence of the Church: A Community Created By the Spirit:

HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT OF DENOMINATIONS

  • Phase 1: Ethnic-Voluntarism Denomination, 1600-1800. This denominational type emerged in the early seventeenth to late eighteenth centuries and functioned as a coalition of ethnic immigrant churches of European parentage.
  • Phase 2: The Purposive-Missionary Denomination, 1800-1850. During the first half of the nineteenth century, this denominational type was formed as a national organizational structure responsible to introduce new churches into the expanding frontier.
  • Phase 3: The Churchly Denomination, 1850-1900. During the last half of the nineteenth century, denominations transitioned to this type as they built extensive institutional systems to serve the needs of their members.
  • Phase 4: The Corporate Denomination, 1900-1965. During the first half of the twentieth century, denominations created multiple agencies within an extensive bureaucratic hierarchy to manage the ministry of member churches.
  • Phase 5: The Regulatory Denomination, 1965 to present. In the last half of the twentieth century, a type of denomination has emerged that increasingly uses rules and policies to secure compliance from member churches.

So can denominations reverse the downward trend? What would it take to see growth happen? Or is the death of denominations inevitable – and the hope/sign of a future centered on Christ and His body (one holy, catholic church)?

Unplugging from the Matrix, part 4

This is part 4 of a series of reflections about the journey of starting a church and leaving established, organizational, denominational religion. It’s a lot like unplugging from the matrix. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

One of the saddest facts for some denominational expressions of church is the ingrained tendency for rivalry. Whether its Missouri Synod vs. Wisconsin Synod, or The Church of God (Charleston, TN) vs. The Church of God (Cleveland, TN), or Church of Christ (instrumental) vs. Church of Christ (non-instrumental). Most denominations come hard-wired with divisiveness, separatistic tendencies, and the need to clearly mark the difference between “us” and “them.” When you leave denominational forms of church, these are things that have to be unlearned.

Some leaders in the Presbyterian Church (USA) recently summarized the current situation in the denomination:

Over the past year, a group of PC(USA) pastors has become convinced that to remain locked in unending controversy will only continue a slow demise, dishonor our calling, and offer a poor legacy to those we hope will follow us. We humbly share responsibility for the failure of our common life, and are no better as pastors nor more righteous than anyone on other sides of tough issues. Our denomination has been in steady decline for 45 years, now literally half the size of a generation ago.  Most congregations see far more funerals than infant baptisms because we are an aging denomination. Only 1,500 of our 5,439 smallest churches have an installed pastor, putting their future viability as congregations in doubt. Even many larger congregations, which grew well for decades, have hit a season of plateau or decline. We are determined to get past rancorous, draining internal disputes that paralyze our common life and ministry.

Now I will say this: I’m not talking about different ethnic or racial churches. Nor am I referring to different styles or expressions of music/worship/liturgy. But I am talking about taking the minute details that make us different and building entirely segregated groups of Christians based on details that don’t matter to a world searching for the living waters of Christ. Hmmmm – maybe “segregations” is a better word for “denominations?”

I can also add this: I have sat in a room with people who serve in about a dozen differing denominational backgrounds and planned the details of a service of worship together. And then executed the service together as a team of servant leaders. There is hope. Ecumenism is a helpful thing. There is beauty in the diversity of Christ’s body. And even in our diversified beliefs that cause the splits, there is still “one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Ephesians 4:5).”

Looking at the ecumenical movement it is noticeable that there is an increased desire for unity in the church today. There is a pulling toward a center, with less emphasis on the extreme outer edges that divide us. A quote from Phyllis Tickle:

American religion had never had a center before, primarily because it was basically Protestant in its Christianity; and Protestantism, with its hallmark characteristic of divisiveness, has never had a center. Now one was emerging, but what was emerging was no longer Protestant. It was no longer any “thing,” actually. It was simply itself, a melange of “things” cherry-picked from each quadrant and put together – some would say cobbled together – without any original intention and certainly with no design beyond that of conversation. (The Great Emergence, p. 134)

And a quote from Bob Roberts, on what he thinks it will take to be a pastor in America in the next 20 years:

The ability to work across “party” lines. No longer will we work in isolation from other tribes, denominations, nations, or even religions for that matter – there will be some things that will be necessary that all of us learn to respect one another and get along. For believers, Jesus makes it clear that “they will know we are his by our love for each other” and we have been called to Unity – how in God’s name that will happen will be the greatest supernatural miracle since the resurrection.

Unplugging from the Matrix, part 3

This is part 3 of a series of reflections about the journey of starting a church and leaving established, organizational, denominational religion. It’s a lot like unplugging from the matrix. (Read Part 1, Read Part 2)

The Church Building. Also known as the sanctuary, worship center, nave, cathedral, auditorium, chapel, worship-torium, etc.

Churches waste money on buildings.

Church buildings aren’t inherently bad. Good things can come from a church having a building. But a church shouldn’t have to waste loads of money on a building – instead of investing in things that better serve the Kingdom of God and alleviate suffering in the world.

Everything that makes the church “the church” can be accomplished without a building. Can the Gospel be proclaimed without a building? Yes. Can you love and serve your neighbor without a building? Yes. Can you care for orphans, widows, and strangers without a building? Yes. Can you learn more about Jesus, the Bible, and discipleship without a building? Yes. Can you baptize people without a permanent baptistry or font? Yes. Can you share God’s meal of bread and wine without permanent furniture? Yes.

Oh, oh, oh, but how will we have a potluck luncheon, if we don’t have a building?!?

Well, the first issue is that you’ve named something a potluck luncheon :-). If anything, not having a physical building enhances our ability to be a community and tribe. Not having a building forces us to build relationships around tables, at bars, and in living rooms, which is where community is meant to happen and really occurs.

Mike quoted David Platt last year:

He makes a pretty good case that traditional churches are not very effective or efficient at helping change the world because they tend to get consumed with their buildings, their campuses and their little empires. (American Christians spend $10 billion a year on their church buildings, and almost a quarter trillion dollars is tied up in church-owned real estate.) In his book, Platt does a good job of challenging Christians to start caring less about building fancy, state-of-the-art church campuses and, instead, to start caring more about impacting the world for good.

One of the biggest cultural shifts for people that leave established/institutional church is getting over the building. The challenge is finding a way to create sacred spaces where people can feel like they’re “at church,” while not sacrificing the money to have an empty building 6 days a week.

Unplugging from the Matrix, part 2

This is part 2 of a series of reflections about the journey of starting a church and leaving established, organizational, denominational religion. It’s a lot like unplugging from the matrix. (Read Part 1)

First, a quote from Dr. Russell D. Moore’s (SBTS) recent article in The Wall Street Journal titled, “Where Have All the Presbyterians Gone? Nondenominational churches are the fastest growing in the country.

Are we witnessing the death of America’s Christian denominations? Studies conducted by secular and Christian organizations indicate that we are. Fewer and fewer American Christians, especially Protestants, strongly identify with a particular religious communion—Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, etc. According to the Baylor Survey on Religion, nondenominational churches now represent the second largest group of Protestant churches in America, and they are also the fastest growing.

More and more Christians choose a church not on the basis of its denomination, but on the basis of more practical matters. Is the nursery easy to find? Do I like the music? Are there support groups for those grappling with addiction?

This trend is a natural extension of the American evangelical experiment. After all, evangelicalism is about the fundamental message of Christianity—the evangel, the gospel, literally the “good news” of God’s kingdom arriving in Jesus Christ—not about denomination building.

The post-World War II generation of evangelicals was responding to congregations filled with what they considered spiritual deadness. People belonged to a church, but they seemed to have no emotional experience of Christianity inside the building. Revivalists watched as denominational bureaucracies grew larger, and churches shifted from sending missionaries to preach around the world to producing white papers on issues like energy policy.

The revivalists wanted to get back to basics, to recover the centrality of a personal relationship with Jesus. “Being a member of a church doesn’t make you a Christian,” the ubiquitous evangelical pulpit cliché went, “any more than living in a garage makes you a car.” Thus these evangelical ministries tended not to talk about those issues that might divide their congregants. They avoided questions like: Who should be baptized and when? What does the Lord’s Supper mean? Should women be ordained? And so on.

Insiders and outsiders. It seems like most of the world can’t get beyond this idea that there are no more “insiders and outsiders.” Paul was trying to convince the church at Ephesus of this a long time ago:

As you read over what I have written to you, you’ll be able to see for yourselves into the mystery of Christ. None of our ancestors understood this. Only in our time has it been made clear by God’s Spirit through his holy apostles and prophets of this new order. The mystery is that people who have never heard of God and those who have heard of him all their lives (what I’ve been calling outsiders and insiders) stand on the same ground before God. They get the same offer, same help, same promises in Christ Jesus. The Message is accessible and welcoming to everyone, across the board. ~Ephesians 3:4-6 (The Message)~

In denominational life there will always be insiders and outsiders. As much as churches try to be open, hospitable, welcoming, and gracious, there is still a point where company policy and nuance creates a boundary. It goes a step beyond merely trying to follow the path of Jesus. You have to subscribe to this brand to be in our group.

Reminds me of my last experience with a denominational/established church the Sunday before I announced my resignation. A member of the congregation was not satisfied with the song selections being made and casually reminded me that I was on the outside by asking me, “You’re not (X denomination) are you?” I guess not.

Unplugging from the Matrix, part 1

The Matrix” is a film from 1999 that “depicts a future in which reality as perceived by most humans is actually a simulated reality created by sentient machines.

If memory serves me correctly, the movie became a natural analogy used by many hip preachers back at the turn of the millennium. It was an easy connection to the “in this world but not of this world” aspect of our faith.

Recently I’ve been reflecting on the journey of starting a church and leaving established, organizational, denominational religion. Its a lot like unplugging from the matrix.

A quote from Will Mancini:

The rise of church planting networks not only validate the entrepreneurial spirit but enable new groupings of ” the small” from the prior trend to exert more influence. As the new learning, new strategies and new relationships cluster in these front line networks, the knowledge, encouragement and accountability of traditional denominations bring less value. It’s no surprise to most readers that the time and resources from most denominations are woefully tied up with ineffective congregations.

When you first make the decision to leave the established/denominational church there is a lot of fear. It’s a scared-of-the-unknown, red pill/blue pill type decision. It’s inherently risky. I’ve spent several nights pondering whether delivering pizzas was in my career path. Or maybe inquiring about a managerial position at the local Half Price Books. But when you step back and look at the world today, that reality is present in every sector of the job market. So while leaving the established may seem risky, was it ever safe to begin with?

If you leave organized/denominational/established religion to find or create the perfect church, you’re doing it for the wrong reason. Because even the cool church with all the best intentions of not repeating the sins of the big brother down the block is doomed for imperfection. Because the church is made of people. And we all suck (see Romans 3:23).

A quote from Morpheus in the movie:

What is real? How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.

The reality is this: God is working in some of the most unlikely places. I think that’s been the point all along, and why the Bible includes liars, adulterers, murderers, and doubters among it’s greatest heroes. When you step outside the matrix of established religion, there is another world. It is the real world and it is filled with people. And God is working in it.