Sunday, October 28, 2007


After 30 years of marketing church success, Willow Creek changes its mind.

Will people will pay big bucks to learn how to fail from such successful people? You can bet on it. Can you buy stock in a church?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Subculture or Counterculture: Is Church Relevant?

    ...This raises the missional question as to whether the church exists simply as a subculture or a counterculture or whether it can become truly cross-cultural in the sense of crossing into the broader culture through proclaiming the good news within that cultural context. [From Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures, by Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K Bolger.]
We KNOW that the gospel is relevant. Jesus is still relevant. But are most modern churches relevant to society?

Sometimes we get the two confused. We think Obviously, all our churches are relevant. Because Jesus is still relevant!

Jesus immersed himself in first century Jewish society. He took on the culture and practices -- he became accessible, he became one of us. Yet sometimes we believe that our churches should stand totally apart from the culture. Should they? Should churches really be countercultural?

I haven't read much of the book that I quoted above, honestly. But some of the parts I've skimmed have made me think. Missionaries immerse themselves in the societies in which they live. Yet sometimes we criticize local churches that become too much "like the world." We like our traditions. We think that just because the world is in a constant state of change, the church doesn't necessarily need to change the way it functions.

This book mentions that the church occupied a central position within Western societies for more than 1600 years. But that has recently changed. Within the last 100 years, cultural shifts have created a post-Christian society. "The church as an institution has lost its privileged position and increasingly occupies a place on the margins of society alongside other recreational and non-profit organizations."

Most people don't go to church anymore.

And, though this is a big assumption, I believe that the vast majority of the minority that DOES go to church, does just that. They go to church. They don't go to WORSHIP. They don't consider themselves to really be the church. It's a building to go to on Sunday mornings.

The message of Jesus doesn't need to change. Our need for God doesn't change. But that doesn't mean that what church IS, and how church is done, can't change.

So how should it change?

We use the word community a lot to talk about what we think the church needs to be. Most of us truly believe that people long for relationships -- they long for an intimate community. The thing is, on the surface, that's not always true. People isolate themselves in their suburban homes because they want to. They avoid seeking out those relationships because, sometimes, it can be uncomfortable.

I talked to someone the other day who said she hated when people talked to her that she didn't know. Friendly people bothered her. She just wanted to be left alone, because she thought that any stranger that talked to her was going to be full of fake, insincere bullsh**.

So that takes us to the next set of words we like to use. Honesty. Vulnerability. Transparency. The church needs to rid itself of the faux smiles we automatically put on when we walk in the door. It needs to get real.

Are these things true? I don't know. Probably. An intimate community of honest people is nice. But that's not the gospel. That's not the message of Jesus. That's a self-help group, which is exactly what we're trying to avoid.

Obviously we need to show the love of Jesus. We need to be more outwardly-focused, yet at the same time developing true relationships within. Maybe the church DOES need to be countercultural. Surely, it needs to be different. Yet it still needs to understand our society, and be willing to change.

Once again, I have more questions than answers.

Should the church cross into the broader culture? How? Does the church need to change its "business model"?

Monday, October 15, 2007

"What Must I Do To Be Saved?"

Growing up, I heard the standard, Protestant Christianese from pastors, youth workers, Sunday School teachers and church leaders. Repeat it with me:

You need a personal relationship with Jesus Christ... You need to accept him into your heart. Recite this prayer with me...

As much as this sounds like Standard Operating Procedure for the lifelong protestant evangelical, an unbiased look at scriptures and the words of Jesus might make us rethink that paradigm.

Still, to me, everything in that formula sounds good. A personal relationship with the Son of God. "Accept" him into my life, surrender to him. Sure, sounds fine, maybe even theologically sound. What's not to like? All that is exactly what must be done to become a "Christian," right?

But where do we find any of that language in the Bible?

In Matthew 19, when Jesus was done telling the rich young man that he must sell all of his possessions and give to the poor, the disciples asked, "Who then can be saved?"

Jesus' initial answer was cryptic, but in verse 29, he says,
    And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.
In Mark 16:16 (which, incidentally, was not in the earliest and most reliable manuscripts), Jesus tells the disciples after his resurrection:
    Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.
Of course, this is also the same passage that he said,
    And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.
That could get us into a whole 'nother discussion, but for now, we'll leave it be.

When Peter addressed the crowd at Pentecost, he said,
    ... everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
One would be hard pressed to find the entire notion of a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ" and "accepting him into my heart" in the scriptures. We could say it's inferred, and that it's just current language for the same basic scriptural concepts that have been there all along.

My guess would be that the "accepting him into our heart" and "personal relationship" language is a fairly recept concept, perhaps even a 19th or 20th century evangelical construct.

Am I wrong?

I have no idea. Someone with more knowledge will correct me anyways, so there's no point in me doing the research.

A lot of this goes back to our evangelical eschatological focus -- the Only Important Thing is what we must do to escape the fires of hell, after all. Giving people an easy-to-understand formula to get into heaven is the key. People want a personable God. People want relationships. Matters of the heart are important to people.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not necessarily saying that all of the ideas I've heard my whole life are necessarily wrong. Even if there isn't specific Biblical language to match, I have no doubt that our God IS a God that desires a relationship with us. It's called love.

But really... What must I do to be saved? And were the original people that asked that question using that language in an entirely different way than we do today? When we say "saved," our minds automatically think of fiery pits of hell.

Were first century Jews really thinking along those same lines?

Friday, October 5, 2007

World Religions 101

I went from writing nearly every post on this blog, to writing nearly nothing in the last month. But with all the link-posting we've been doing here lately, I think it's time for a bit of original thought.

If only I *had* any actual original thoughts. Drat!

Since we were talking about different denominations and worship-styles -- like those crazy Pentecostals -- I thought I'd go even farther and talk about some different religions.

As many of you know, I've been rather fascinated with Judaism over the past couple of years. Jewish history (cue the NT Wright theme song) is vastly under taught in our churches, and because of that, we often don't grasp the historical context of Jesus' life and teachings.

But there is one other major world religion -- many say it's the fastest growing religion in the world, in fact -- that has a number of similarities to Christianity and Judaism.


The majority of Americans see Islam as a religion of Middle Easterners, and a religion of terrorists and radicals. People holding AK-47s over their heads or strapping bombs to their chests.

But... We also talk about not judging a religion strictly on the actions of a few followers. After all, people do that with Christianity, and they get turned off right away. So what do Muslims actually believe?

Islam gets lumped in with Judaism and Christianity because in a way, the three religions all believe in the same "God." At least to the point in that they are monotheistic belief-structures that teach submission to that higher power. Islam actually holds the belief that we believe in the same God, but Judaism and Christianity, over time, distorted the messages of the prophets like Moses and Abraham and Jesus.

Since an in-depth discussion of Islam would take years, and more pages of text than I care to write, I'm just going to look at the Five Pillars of Islam:
  • The shahadah, the basic tenet of Islam: "I testify that there is none worthy of worship except God and I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of God." To my ears, that's eerily similar to the "statement of faith" that many Christian churches ask new members to recite: "I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God." It's straightforward, it's simple, it's the religion wrapped up in a nice little package.
  • Salah, or ritual prayer. It's to be performed five times per day. Now this is dedication! In the comments to the last post, the discussion turned to whether some of our worship is "fake," and whether some of it is just performed out of discipline. Being required to do a ritual prayer five times a day? That's discipline.
  • Zakat, or alms-giving. This would be the Muslim equivalent of the tithe. It's obligatory for all Muslims who can afford it. Besides being used to assist the spread of Islam, a fixed portion is spent to help the poor and needy. I wonder how much membership would dwindle in our (Christian) churches if tithing were an obligation, rather than voluntary?
  • Sawm, which is fasting during the month of Ramadan. This is the practice of not eating or drinking (or doing a number of other things) from dawn to dusk during this month. It's to encourage a feeling of nearness to God. How many of our churches are talking about fasting? It seems to be a nearly forgotten practice. I know that I don't do it -- I'm too much of a fan of food. In my own church, it was mentioned in a booklet as a part of a recent stewardship campaign, but I never heard it mentioned anywhere else. I only know one person that made an effort to give up a number of certain foods, and people didn't even understand why she was doing it. (Although yes, technically, if fasting is being done correctly, no one else should really know about it anyway.)
  • The Hajj, or the pilgrimage to Mecca. Every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it must make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once during his or her lifetime. There is really no Christian equivalent to the pilgrimage. I don't see a lot of people using their life savings to get to Jerusalem or Nazareth.
From just looking at these five pillars of Islam, on the surface it appears that the major difference between Islam and Christianity is how disciplined and devoted the followers are expected to be. What is truly expected of Christians? They are supposed to get baptized and follow the teachings of Jesus. Love people. Help the poor. Forgive. But overall, we have fairly low standards for each other. We have churches FULL of people that invest about one hour per week in Christianity.

One could argue that the difference is that we have grace. And maybe that's true, I don't know the Islamic teachings on grace.

We do have grace, but over time, we, as Christians, have just become a people of very low expectations of each other. We ask much, but require very little.

I don't know the answer, but I do know that we've become lukewarm as a result.

*Credit to Wikipedia, where I got most of this info. So who knows how much of it is completely accurate.

**I'm also wondering how many people will read this post and think that I've embraced Islam as my new religion. Insha'Allah!

Wednesday, October 3, 2007


Lacking anything original to say, I decided just to steal the blog post of a young sage. We've scraped this subject before, but I love the way she wrote about it.

I invited her over to chop us all to bits. This is a rough corner of the blogosphere.