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The New Church Members: The Harvest or the Seeds? – Part 3

The Entry into Jerusalem

(Photo credit: Fergal of Claddagh)

The New Church Members:  The Harvest or the Seeds? – Part 3

Luke 10:23-24 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)23 He turned to his disciples in private and said to them, “How blessed you are to see what you’ve seen. 24 I can guarantee that many prophets and kings wanted to see and hear what you’ve seen and heard, but they didn’t.”

What did these people do to hear this?  What had these disciples seen that would have been something that everyone had wanted t see and were not able.  The obvious answer is Jesus and while that is absolutely true, that is not the context of this verse.

Luke 10:17-21 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)  –  17 The 70 disciples came back very happy. They said, “Lord, even demons obey us when we use the power and authority of your name!”  18 Jesus said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like lightning. 19 I have given you the authority to trample snakes and scorpions and to destroy the enemy’s power. Nothing will hurt you. 20 However, don’t be happy that evil spirits obey you. Be happy that your names are written in heaven.”  21 In that hour the Holy Spirit filled Jesus with joy. Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for hiding these things from wise and intelligent people and revealing them to little children. Yes, Father, this is what pleased you.

The disciples had returned from ministry with an amazing testimony of the power that had been unleashed through the ministry work that Jesus ha sent them to do.  The ministry they had all been engaged in was so powerful and amazing that that Jesus goes on to tell them that even prophets and kings wished they could see what they saw in ministry.

Whatever these missionaries and evangelists did, I want to try and do because it obviously worked at least for them.

Why am I talking about this and what does it have to do with the starting of this new church?  It has to do with a couple of verses the speaker referenced during the first service.  These passages happen to be passages that had been used repeatedly in trainings and discussions I have had over the past ten years about how the New Testament church planters did ministry.  These passages happen to be the ministry instructions of Jesus to these disciples that led to such a powerful outcome.  These passages also give us a completely different idea of what it means to go into a city, area or culture to do ministry.

Luke 9:1-5 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) –  1 Jesus called the twelve apostles together and gave them power and authority over every demon and power and authority to cure diseases. He sent them to spread the message about the kingdom of God and to cure the sick.  He told them, “Don’t take anything along on the trip. Don’t take a walking stick, traveling bag, any food, money, or a change of clothes. When you go into a home, stay there until you’re ready to leave. If people don’t welcome you, leave that city, and shake its dust off your feet as a warning to them.”

Luke 10:1-11 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)  –  After this, the Lord appointed 70[a] other disciples to go ahead of him to every city and place that he intended to go. They were to travel in pairs.  He told them, “The harvest is large, but the workers are few. So ask the Lord who gives this harvest to send workers to harvest his crops. Go! I’m sending you out like lambs among wolves. Don’t carry a wallet, a traveling bag, or sandals, and don’t stop to greet anyone on the way. Whenever you go into a house, greet the family right away with the words, ‘May there be peace in this house.’ If a peaceful person lives there, your greeting will be accepted. But if that’s not the case, your greeting will be rejected. Stay with the family that accepts you. Eat and drink whatever they offer you. After all, the worker deserves his pay. Do not move around from one house to another. Whenever you go into a city and the people welcome you, eat whatever they serve you. Heal the sick that are there, and tell the people, ‘The kingdom of God is near you!’  10 “But whenever you go into a city and people don’t welcome you, leave. Announce in its streets, 11 ‘We are wiping your city’s dust from our feet in protest against you! But realize that the kingdom of God is near you!’

These are key verses for many of the things God has been showing me as the “new wineskin” that he is going to reach the next generation that repeatedly come up in completely unrelated contexts.  This context included.

As I thought of the fundamental concepts that underlie the way Jesus sent these first missionaries and evangelists out every thought seemed to confirm the idea that the format I was sitting in was structured in a way that had to be at least one generation away from the ministry that they wanted to do.

The church I was in is the model seen in the book of Luke all the way up to this point.  The basic model for reaching a new area up to chapter nine was that Jesus would go to a place and all of the disciples would congregate together in a crowd around Him.

In chapters nine and ten the equation is changed by Jesus.  Jesus sends out the people that had been congregating around Him “…to every city and place that he intended to go.”  The follows of Christ precede Him into the area looking for the people who were already prepared for Jesus to come.

The people who were prepared for Jesus’ arrival were described as incredibly hospitable people who would go so far as to support the ministry and provide the center for the ministry (in a literal sense, their homes).

If such people were found, then the town would experience God to the level of the miraculous.  If such a person was found then not only were they not going to experience the miraculous, but the arrival of Jesus (or the arrival of the kingdom of God) would be an evidence of their unbelief resulting in miraculously bad consequences.  The kind of consequences that the ones being sent were sent to these places to help the people avoid.  The kind of consequences that Jesus was going to these places to help the people there avoid.

The implication is that in every place that Jesus was getting ready to go that there was a person who was already being prepared for the arrival of those Jesus was sending.  For there to be the expectation of that level of hospitality, God would have offered that person in each place opportunity to know it needed to be done.  The expectation that refusal to be hospitable (by a nonbeliever) was a turning of ones back on God implies that somehow that person had a more than reasonable call from God to be hospitable, yet that person’s heart was so cold that it could not be done.  That person also apparently had a call from God to represent the entire area and somehow must have been given more than the normal opportunity to respond in a receptive way, yet refused.  In other words, this was the person God had picked and called to represent the area and this person’s response to God’s tug on his/her heart was representative of the receptiveness of the entire area.

He new church that I was standing in was made up of more mature Christians, who saw where Jesus was going, pooled their resources and congregated around Him.  This is how church has been done in the western world for a few centuries now.  The challenge is that it is reactive and not proactive.  The focus is on starting with a group where He is already glorified and doing things and not on going to places where He is not glorified to prepare the way.

Here is what I am getting at.  This church apparently is part of a larger organization that is an offshoot of an even larger organization.  These organizations have been sending people regularly for years to this metropolis to minister (apparently to the poor and needy of the city in its more impoverished areas) yet the people that they have been ministering to were not present in the service.  They were either not present, or had been completely changed to look and sound like the Christianese culture they were in to the point where they were no longer anything like the people they were from.  (Sort of like teaching a church in China to have a complete service in English because that is the way we do it – that’s great, but they are highly unlikely to reach many people in china by building and English speaking church)

They had imported an entirely different culture than the culture they had felt that Christ was leading them to.  It is as if they had been to the town where this person let them stay and took care of them was, but went and did ministry in the town next door instead.

That means that instead of being in the place where Jesus intends to go like the twelve and the seventy that Jesus sent out, they are clustered together in a place where Jesus is hoping that someone else who Jesus has sent out will bring those people to where they are at in a way that they are comfortable with.  The Way Jesus traveled with crowds who watched various people com to him for miracles.

Please do not understand me to be saying that this new church was doing some great evil.  As a matter of fact, from what I saw in the two weeks the church has existed, they are leaps and bounds ahead of just about every church I have encountered.  The challenges I am describing that I was observing are more of a global, church-wide problem that I am processing that in fact they have been able to break much of the bondage of.

This is a cutting edge group and I honestly think that a study of the things that remain of the old wineskin that a group like this could not seem to get rid of or notice is an incredibly important study as it shows how strong of a grip on us these things really have.

I am left wondering why there are not more seekers and new converts instead of a new congregation of old believers.  I suppose if this is just a training ground for those that will be sent to the unreached places that Jesus is about to go to, then it is exactly what it is supposed to be.  The problem is that what the are doing now will either have to change completely at some point or the harvest will have to come from another entirely new church in the same city that is more of a new wineskin.  At some point this training church would have to decrease to allow for the less nineteenth century modeled church to begin flourishing.

A key question that I have yet to ask is how the vision of the new wineskin looks in the end to the people who carry the vision.  I wonder if it is based on a large building with the same Christianese cultural context or if it is one or more churches in that metropolis that express how God is working through and communicating with the various groups in that city.

Are they looking for the people that God has been calling and preparing in that city in its various groups or are they importing culturally Christianese trainees to communicate the old wineskin.

I am a big fan of the passages the speaker quoted from Luke 9 and 10.  These are the first missionaries, evangelists and church planters that Jesus sent and this is the way He did it.  This is also reflected in Paul’s ministry of going to places, training the people in a download of as much as he had time to (which could range from days to years) and then left them to figure it out by coming together and seeking God.

Paul trusted God so much that he would leave them the opportunity to mess the whole thing up completely and listen to God for correction.  Then if they really got way, way out there, he merely sent them a letter outlining the problem.  These letter are available for you reference if you would like:  They are a large chunk of what we call the New Testament.

I wonder if we are so worried about doing things right and not allowing for error to slip in that we have stopped trusting God and began leaning on the crutch of systems and legalism.

What will it take for this church or any “new wineskin” church to really be able to be all things to all people?

This church, as it has been is clearly the seed planting phase of a much bigger picture.  The question then becomes, do they understand it to be that way.

Do they realize that to go from being the seed to being the harvesters means being sent away from the Jesus environment to prepare new places and groups of people to become new Jesus environments that may not look anything like their current Jesus environment (all the churches Paul planted, for example, did not look and act the same way).

Overall this is an awesome group of people doing an awesome thing that is a step beyond most of the church planting I have seen in an American context.  They have done such a great job of following the new direction that God seems to be calling so many people in, I could not help but look at the few things that they still have as things that even the best of us will have deep struggles breaking free of.

Thanks for patiently walking along this road with me as I process through the details what I feel God is revealing to me and my thinking out loud.  I hope and pray that this sparks deep introspective thought, deep prayerful conversation with God, deep conversation with others, and even heated debate all in a passionate desire to do the will of God.

1 Corinthians 9:19-23 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)  –  19 Although I’m free from all people, I have made myself a slave for all people to win more of them. 20 I became Jewish for Jewish people. I became subject to Moses’ Teachings for those who are subject to those laws. I did this to win them even though I’m not subject to Moses’ Teachings. 21 I became like a person who does not have Moses’ Teachings for those who don’t have those teachings. I did this to win them even though I have God’s teachings. I’m really subject to Christ’s teachings. 22 I became like a person weak in faith to win those who are weak in faith. I have become everything to everyone in order to save at least some of them. 23 I do all this for the sake of the Good News in order to share what it offers.

I hope and I ask God to make your life really cool all the time (non-Christianese for “May God bless you”);

W. Lawrence Hess

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The New Church Members: The Harvest or the Seeds? – Part 2

These oranges have seeds

These oranges have seeds (Photo credit: toastforbrekkie)

Matthew 9:14-17 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)  –  14 Then John’s disciples came to Jesus. They said, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often but your disciples never do?”  15 Jesus replied, “Can wedding guests be sad while the groom is still with them? The time will come when the groom will be taken away from them. Then they will fast.  16 “No one patches an old coat with a new piece of cloth that will shrink. When the patch shrinks, it will rip away from the coat, and the tear will become worse. 17 Nor do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins burst, the wine runs out, and the skins are ruined. Rather, people pour new wine into fresh skins, and both are saved.”

As I really listened to the vision of the speaker at this new and fresh church, I realized that I was not wrong to like what was occurring at this church as it was in fact awesome, was well planned and was definitely God blessed, but as it is it is at least one generation removed from the desired outcome.  As it is, it is an excellent preparation ground for those that will be sent out to do the truly different church. They like myself feel that God is calling the American Church to change. The new wineskin kind of change.

The obstacle for the church is that it is still noticeably specific to one specific style of Christian culture.  It may be a newer version of Christian culture, but it is still an extremely noticeable version of Christian culture.  It is in effect not all things to all people.  It is one thing that all people must change to or at least learn to be comfortable with.

The current oranges are from the neighbors garden and there has really not been any crops grown in that soil yet.  The question is not if crops can grow, the big questions are:

  1. What is the best way to grow crops in that ground that do not require using the neighbors fruit to call it a harvest
  2. How will the people doing the farming learn how to farm in that ground if their experience is taking fruit from the neighbors and calling it a harvest

The next generation, the one that this model will be a wonderful training ground for, will still be tasked with the challenge of learning to deculturalize all of the habits and tendencies that will become a part of who they are from being in that environment.

It is quite possible; the big question for them is where will this next generation learn this skill if the environment they learn in is not conducive to it?

The reality is, that the church has only been there two weeks and I have been to both services, yet I am quite sure that nobody could really know how God is going to change that church over the next few weeks, next few months, next few years etc. nor what role that church will play in the bigger picture of transforming that major metropolis.  It does seem that God has been pushing me as an individual to look at what He is moving us to as something completely different so I am a bit hypersensitive to things that are the same.  The old wineskin verses the new wineskin thing.

The real conflict is not even what this particular church is doing.  In fact, as I have stated repeatedly, what they are doing is incredible and is just emanating newness and fresh vision.  The real conflict for me is with myself.  I know that God is talking to me about this next deculturalized church He wishes to build, but I am still deeply drawn to the more Christianese models that sound like Christians I have been around speak and that does things the way Christians I have been around do things.  “This is not being all things to all people” I hear God telling me, but this model still has a powerful pull on me.

Lots of clichés and quotes come to mind:

“Sometimes the good is not good enough to God”,

“The good is often the enemy of the great”,

“What we consider good and what is actually God are not always the same thing and even though good has more letters than God the good is not greater”,

“On the road to greatness there are many good places you could stop, but on the road to greatness the good spots are not the destination; the good is a distraction.”

“Those who settle for the good can never know the great”

It may be that the people of this new and exciting church are suffering from what I am hindered by or it may in fact be just something God is showing me for my next level; to that end I am not clear.  What I do know however is that God is showing me the struggles that I have in breaking the old Church culture I have been nurtured into adopting so I can process the struggle and start conversation about that aspect of the change I feel God is making.

My struggle to get rid of my old, favorite wineskin, and accept that God is giving me a brand new one (really He has been giving it to the whole world).  The key is that I have to let go of the old one to take hold of the new one.

Part 3 to follow –

Blessings…

Related articles

The New Church Members: The Harvest or the Seeds? – Part 1

These oranges have seeds

These oranges have seeds (Photo credit: toastforbrekkie)

The New Church Members:  The Harvest or the Seeds? – Part 1

Matthew 9:14-17 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)  –  14 Then John’s disciples came to Jesus. They said, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often but your disciples never do?”  15 Jesus replied, “Can wedding guests be sad while the groom is still with them? The time will come when the groom will be taken away from them. Then they will fast.  16 “No one patches an old coat with a new piece of cloth that will shrink. When the patch shrinks, it will rip away from the coat, and the tear will become worse. 17 Nor do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins burst, the wine runs out, and the skins are ruined. Rather, people pour new wine into fresh skins, and both are saved.”

I recently went to the birth of a new church in a major metropolis and found what I encountered quite interesting.  The church is a plant from an organization that shares some of the same ideas about the challenges of the American church that many of us do and they are looking at following God in new ways.

The environment of the church was exciting, incredibly friendly and incredibly inviting.  Each person there; which I think was about a hundred people the first week, was interacting with each other in deeply real and personal ways.  It was as if every greeter from every church in San Francisco had come together to start a church.

There was worship and prayer from the outset and the environment was electric.  The room that the service was held in was beautiful to the point of even having a large fireplace that made the environment warm in comfort as well as being part of the heating of the room.

As I settled in, I was astonished at the feel of the worship and how God was being glorified.  Then, suddenly it hit me, these are clearly mature believers doing a wonderful thing, but not a soul in the place was new to an atmosphere of worship.

The feeling of spirituality and the sense of God being there with us was unimaginable yet I have had trainings, read books, had debates and conversations on the topic of cross-pollination verses seeking the lost and found myself conflicted.

If you are not familiar with the term cross-pollination, lets start with the dictionary definition (the botanical definition):

cross-pollination  = Botany the transfer of pollen from the flower of one plant to the flower of a plant having a different genetic constitution. Compare self-pollination.

So in this definition the term is used to describe taking the pollen from one plant to another different plant for that plant’s betterment.  In a church context it means the taking of the people from one church to another different church for that churches betterment.  The church is growing but it is growing because of believers that are coming from other churches and not because the lost are being led to Christ.

We will get back to that concept, but lets get back to that church:

Everyone there was awesome and the service was going awesome and I was experiencing a sense of God in the place, why even consider changing anything when God was being glorified so amazingly in the place exactly as it was.  I remained conflicted through the worship and looking to God for clarity throughout the service.

As the worship drew to a close there were a series of people who apparently are in training to do ministry that came and spoke with exhortation and excitement.  Every word that was spoken was powerful and uplifting for each individual in attendance, for the group as a whole, for this new church and for those having the faith to step out and walk out the vision of God that is that church.

There were the usual responses of praise to God in “halleluiahs”, and “amen’s” etc.  It was a mighty thing to experience.

In the middle of being moved and touched mightily, I was suddenly struck by the thought that if I was not used to Christian environments and our special insider language (Christianese) I would be lost by all of this.  Then I thought that I might not be put off necessarily, but I would definitely feel like an absolute outsider.

It would be like being at a show where everyone gets the punch line of the joke but you.  They cannot stop laughing and enjoying themselves and you just sit there staring or pretending to get it too.

I began to wonder if the conflict was me being crazy or some evil trying to keep me from simply enjoying the presence of God in this place.

Then came the speaker who at the time I had concluded was the pastor, but turned out to be a guest who had a hand in training some of the people who started this church.  He had a good personality and was an excellent speaker without fitting too neatly into any denominational stereotypes.

Then like a ton of bricks bouncing off of my hard head, God cleared up the question of if I was resisting this mighty move of God or actually hearing something that God was trying to tell me.  The message delivered was about a vision for churches that impact the unchurched and otherwise lost.  He described churches that were not going to be like other churches and represented the new kind of move that God is trying to get the Western Church to make.  He talked about how the church is using a nineteenth century model to reach twenty-first century people.  Basically, he taught all of the same things that were brought to my attention that have been driving my quest for the new things that God is doing.

As I was pondering how universal this message has become (the message that God is looking to do a different kind of church) I realized something:  This looked an awful lot like a next step, but not exactly like the vision.  The heart and the fundamental ideas of the new church that God seems to want to be establishing were there, but a lot of the culture of what we are used to as church was being imported as well.

First of all, there was that cross-pollination thing.  This church is starting based on people from other churches.  I think of it this way:  if my goal is to grow fruit in my back yard.  I plant a tree.  I may be able to get seeds from my neighbors, but if I just get a whole lot of oranges from my neighbors, put them in a basket and show everyone how many oranges I have in my garden in that basket, it is artificial.

The oranges from my neighbors can be a part of the process of growing the tree, but they are really meaningless until I have some fruit of my own.  Everything else is just for show.

I suppose the difference lies in the degree to which one considers the people there now the seed and not the harvest.  If they are the seed, then the only question left is how to best plant them in this environment to produce the most fruit.

If they are the harvest or even evidence of the harvest, then up to this point the harvest is actually from somewhere else and to get more harvests they will all have to come from somewhere else (which statistically is how quite a few churches operate).

Then there is this wineskin thing.  A wineskin is a leather (usually goat skin) bag used to hold wine.  It is a good container for wine when it is new, but they do wear out.  When you get a valuable new wine, you don’t put it in an old wineskin.  One the old, worn out wineskin cannot keep the wine fresh. The old wineskin is no longer soft and loses its elasticity and if you put your valuable new wine in the old wineskin, it is apt to explode because it is in no condition to hold the valuable new wine.  It is past its usefulness and it is time for a new wineskin.

There is a growing feeling amongst, pastors, Christian leaders and believers that the Western Church model (specifically the North American Church model) is an old wineskin and that God is preparing the people of Christ for a new wineskin that is different than the old one.

This church has new vision, new ideas and many new ways of doing things.  There were however, some old wineskin that I noticed and troubled by.  The language, some denomination specific ways of doing things, even the setting, although prettier and more inviting than most was a stage and rows of chairs.

This group is definitely a huge step in the right direction, but I also was observing how hard it is to separate yourself from a culture that you have been programmed with.  They were trying hard, but as an “kinda” outsider I could see how much they still had that was the same.

I suppose what I am saying is that to the normal churchgoer this church would seem vastly different than most things that one would have seen.  On the other hand, to a person who had left the church for some reason (particularly if hurt or angry) this would look about the same as any other church.  To a total outsider, they would feel like a very accepted outsider, but clearly an outsider.

To people who have something against the concept of church I imagine this would have many of the things they suspected accept for the people being considerably nicer than they would have guessed.

Then I put all of this into perspective.  I realized that I have been reading books, going to trainings and classes, having discussions and debates, writing and praying etc. on this idea of doing a deculturalized church and may just be being to legalistic about all of this.

Would a nonbeliever actually be completely repulsed by our Christian insider language and actions?  Some yes and some no.  Wouldn’t things Jesus said and did been really strange to all that encountered Him?  Isn’t that a part of what attracted people to Him?

Then there is the other side of that coin; the fact that at the end of his ministry there were only eleven insiders who were truly clued in.  When those went out (adding Paul to the equation) they began to minister in ways that were all things to all people.  That is what changed the effectiveness of the evangelization.  The inner circle methods of Jesus were to catalyze the movement through the ones he trained.  The Disciples were not the oranges, they were the seeds.

1 Corinthians 9:19-23 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)  –  19 Although I’m free from all people, I have made myself a slave for all people to win more of them. 20 I became Jewish for Jewish people. I became subject to Moses’ Teachings for those who are subject to those laws. I did this to win them even though I’m not subject to Moses’ Teachings. 21 I became like a person who does not have Moses’ Teachings for those who don’t have those teachings. I did this to win them even though I have God’s teachings. I’m really subject to Christ’s teachings. 22 I became like a person weak in faith to win those who are weak in faith. I have become everything to everyone in order to save at least some of them. 23 I do all this for the sake of the Good News in order to share what it offers.

The soil in various places is different and as such the planting and growing methods in various places has to be different too.  Planting oranges in the dessert requires a lot of irrigation and different treatment than planting the oranges at an oasis.  The seeds must be treated differently in different environments to accomplish the same end.  The whole process changes depending on environment based on what will work best in that environment.

The ideas that I take away from this is that the models we have been building are good first generation sending ministries, but in the current American environment will not be transformational to cities until the nineteenth century Western Church model and really all twentieth century Western Church models are left behind for however God will best speak to the community at hand.

That includes knowing how to be like a person who is weak in faith to win others who are weak in faith.  There are many in the metropolis that I am speaking of that are at best weak in faith and to build a church that is centered on the comfort levels of the strong in faith could only tend towards cross-pollenizing from the other churches and denominations, particularly in the metropolis I am speaking of.

Cont. in Part 2

The Way My Child Receives the Kingdom pt. 2

First Church Nerd Party

(Photo credit: Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious)

The Way My Child Receives the Kingdom pt. 2

 

Mark 10:15 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) 15 I can guarantee this truth: Whoever doesn’t receive the kingdom of God as a little child receives it will never enter it.”

Today was an interesting day which gave me an interesting follow up opportunity on my discussion with my son about his perception of what it would take for him to have the perfect church experience.  (The Way My Child Receives the Kingdom pt. 1)  Some of what transpired today and a new conversation on the issue have come together to shed more light on his vision of the perfect church.

When he and I had this conversation about a week ago he had some surprisingly well though out answers which led me to believe that he had thought about some aspects of this before. I also had some questions about his theories and answers that could also be answered through some experimentation on his part with a few different church models.

Lets back up and look at some of the circumstances surrounding this conversation as I believe these tidbits of fact are relevant.

My son is thirteen going on fourteen later this year.  The mega-church my family attends has several different children’s and youth ministries that group age groups together.  There is a junior high school ministry which is where he is usually put because of his age and grade on school.  He did start going to that age group a year and a half early because he is simply a big kid and was kinda bored with the younger group.

In the junior high school group there is a set service with worship, announcements, a sermon which all of the participants are required to sit in.  Then after the service the preteens/tweens are unleashed as a loud, screaming stampeded of energy to play various videogames, board games, billiards etc. or to lounge on couches and chairs to while gobbling their favorite snacks from the snack stand.

For a long time, my son loved this service then came the day when he simply decided that he didn’t want to go to that service, saying it was boring.  He started insisting that he come with us to the main sanctuary for the regular service.  He seemed to be a little bored at the main service, but tried his best to remain attentive.  He has repeatedly stated that he prefers the main service to the youth service.

Then, in the discussion he and I had last week, I got a glimpse as to why he did’t enjoy that service any more.  To sum it up before giving any detail, I would have to say that he flat-out outgrew the service both in regular maturity and in spiritual maturity.  Their goal was to build a deeper desire for the things of God and he grew that desire and ended up noticing the limitations of or holes in the service that would not build his next level of growth.  In seeing the holes in the junior high school ministry and not being old enough for the high school service he decided the youth ministry was just no longer for him.

Then when we had the whole “The Way My Child Receives the Kingdom pt. 1” conversation as well as a couple of conversations that followed, I caught a glimpse of some of the challenges he was having.

A key was that he was not a fan of the fact that a lot of what happened was things that people were forced to do (or at least felt forced to do) and was truly disingenuous and much of the interaction with God was manufactured and artificial.  Well with the middle school kids they are forced to sit through all of the service components before having the fun part (which is what many of them were apparently looking forward to as the good part). In further discussion with him and thought I would have to say, that I might find I hard to seek the deeper presence of God if I were surrounded by people who didn’t want to be there, but that wanted all of this God stuff to be done so we can all go and have fun.

He had mentioned something I was curious about, but was still pondering and so I had not included it in the previous post.  He had stated that his service would not have video games or other distractions of that sort as it takes the focus off of God and seems to make (at least the middle school kids) less likely to seek God.

Then a lot of the observations that

He made several observations that apply to the main service also that all seem to be shaped by his newfound understanding that artificial worship is not worship at all and is thus a waste of time.  The only real benefit a person gets from attending a worship service if everything that is done there is artificially done is whatever benefit a person gets because he/she sacrificed and hour or two of their time to be where he or she thinks God would like him/her to be once a week. 

Today, while we were on our way to church a couple of our relatives called him to inform him that they were going to be in the high school service and wanted him to come.  He was excited to see them and wanted to go so I told hi he should.  He didn’t know if he could get in, but he is a pretty big kid and easily looks old enough (he is still a year younger than their usual lower age limit).

One of the suspicions I had in our previous discussions was that he had “perfect world” theories (probably mixed with a wee bit of what he thought I wanted to hear) about what a church that was perfect in his view was, but had not considered if he would actually be as drawn to that as he was thinking he would be.

By the time the service was over today I cold hardly wait to ask the question again relative to the high school service.  I was also curious what technique they use to get and keep Silicon Valley high school kids in church.

I asked about the service and the structure they used and my son happily answered.

He said they had two or three worship songs, one announcement and a sermon done by the youth pastor (who I went to bible college with and have a deep respect for).  He said this so happily so I thought through what we had discussed previously and remembered that he had specifically wanted a shorter service, with few if any announcements and basically just the worship and the sermon. 

I loved that the service structure was what he had basically wanted from God, but was puzzled by one thing:  Isn’t this similar to the structure that the younger group had that was so artificial.

When I asked him if people were forced to participate etc. he answered with a very excited “No!”  He stated that participation in the worship and sermon etc. was purely voluntary and if you did not want to participate you could just go and play video games etc.

This was interesting to me because it is probably that most of these teens that were there were forced to go to church by their parents, but once they arrived at the service they were given an option to ignore the “God thing” altogether.  In my mind, high school teens when offered a choice between listening to a bunch of this “God stuff” and singing mushy Jesus songs would almost unanimously choose video games and “kickin-it” with their friends.

So I asked, “Did a lot of people choose not to participate?”  He said an emphatic; “No!  Almost everybody sat in the service.”  I was intrigued by this.  The fact is they were not forced at all seemed to have the opposite effect on the high school age kids.  They seemed to be more involved because they didn’t really have to be.

I wondered if they took an offering.  My son said they did, but it was different.  Instead of the passing the bucket, which he said put inordinate pressure on people, during the service they matter-of-factly said that if anyone had an offering they wanted to make they should come up front and drop it in the bucket. 

I immediately thought back to our previous conversation about the pressures of the bucket passing and though everyone going up front but me would be way more pressure then sitting in my seat and just passing the bucket past me.  So I specifically asked my son if he felt pressured by the offering and he answered, “Not really.”  So there was a level of pressure applied, but it was done in a way that didn’t force you to experience much guilt if you didn’t give, didn’t want to give or couldn’t give.

I asked him if people brought Bibles.  He stated that a few people did but most people didn’t; “But, they projected the verses on screens for everyone and they used way shorter verses than in the main service.”

All and all he seemed very happy with this service which did at least somewhat satisfy much of what he thought a service should be like to be relevant to him.

So then I started to wonder about the things I have been pondering over the past couple of years like:

  • Do people even remember what is taught when in a traditional service (my personal asking of people and discussions in the days following a service has demonstrated that they usually remember little tidbits but not the large majority of what is said)
  • How deep of a personal experience with God each individual gets at a traditional service as opposed to smaller settings where you are kinda forced to connect with God and each other.
  • Do people think about how they should change because of what they have learned and make plans/goals to make those changes (another area where my own discussions with various people indicates there is some level of this normally, but it is very limited)

So I asked the questions:

Do you remember what the message was?  “He said yes and was able to regurgitate with some detail and even summarize the point of the message which was that “…even when there seems to be no hope God is there.”

Then I asked him:  “Do you feel like you felt or experienced God in the service?” 

He stopped with a puzzled look and then responded with a slightly less excited “No.”  He did explain that a few people seemed to experience God, he just didn’t.  I was intrigued with the tone of his response.  He seemed slightly troubled by the idea that this might be the wrong answer, but the tone also suggested that since it was such a good service experiencing God personally might not be as important.

I suppose he did encounter God in the fact that he worshipped him and learned from his word, but there are two things that are worth more consideration and possibly concern.

  1. If he does not know if he encountered God or not how can a gathering where we seek God be considered a success.  I do not say this as any attack on my son or his spirituality; I say this because it is a common mindset that I am constantly puzzled by.  The question in my mind is:  “If we are gathering in God’s name and we do not encounter him at that gathering, what exactly are we doing?”
  2. The similar idea that we do all of that stuff (sing, listen to the scripture etc.) and there is not further need to connect with God in that context.  If that is the case the amount of “God” in that context is limited at best.  The context is one of getting stuff about God without really getting God.  I guess this mindset (which is one I encounter pretty regularly) is one that has dominated our information driven American culture where information is king.  (The problem is that the people who had the most information about how God does things and about Jesus when Jesus actually came were the same people always fighting with Him and who ended up killing Him – Information about God is not the same as knowing God)

Then I asked him if there was something that he was going to do differently because of what he heard and experienced in the service.  He thought for a minute and said:  “No.  not really.”

This is another norm that I am always troubled by:  The idea that learning about what God wants is key and that doing anything about what is revealed to you is optional or something you just put off until it comes up as some major problem.

I see how in this context those conversations might just seem like a bunch of pressure or hyper-religious stuff, but these things are key.  This is where I have to agree with my son that having some kind of smaller group setting either in conjunction with this kind of service or in place of such a service is the best context for some of the more personal connections with God and with other believers.

In this context a small group discussion over a bagel and an iced tea or soda might be the best place to personally connect with God and to personalize what has just transpired. 

Thos groups would have to be with the people you are already comfortable with or at least the kind of people you can be comfortable with at that level.  After all that seems to be how the larger services are broken up at the church (the age groups and the reason my son connected better with this group that the younger group). 

For the purpose of this discussion we will describe these groups as affinity groups.  The tighter the affinity group (and possibly the smaller up to a point) the more opportunity to get deeper into what the verse means to you, what you will do about it and to get deeper into relating to God.

All-in-all, I think my son’s observations have proven to be correct observations.  The real test is the test of time.  After weeks and weeks of this how does he feel? As he goes through hormonal, mindset and perception of coolness changes does he still find all of this as relevant?

The real questions at hand are: How does any of this apply to his age group as a whole and how does any of this apply to the church as a whole.

These do agree with some of the research that I discussed in my previous post (What is Happening To The Church), but there are some aspects that could not be covered in the large group setting that my son is in now.  There would have to be a smaller context, possibly voluntary (that may exist and I simply don’t know about yet) where these tougher discussions and deeper connections would happen.

I hope these observations and discussions between my son and I are helpful to you and lead to further discussion in your context.  I can say that they have deepened my curiosity about what God is doing next in the church and what I have been doing (or not doing) to facilitate that.

I have been pondering how I receive God and what he reveals in much the same way that my son does.  How much of what he likes and dislikes is the same as what I like and dislike even though for vastly different reasons.  I have spent a lot of time recently wondering if I would grow better in the environments he has described and if I would greatly deepen my personal relationship with God in such a context.  I also wonder how much of what he is observing and thinking applies to much of our culture and possibly the whole world.  How much learning to receive the kingdom in the way that my son does needs to be sought after by me and by others.

I think in all of this I have seen some awesome potential solutions to the challenges the church as a whole is suffering from and have seen some gaping holes that could be paralyzing the church as a whole (or at least the American church).

A key focus that I was given as a new Christian by one of my mentors when I had noticed some contradictions in what I thought should have been going on and what was actually taking place. 

She stated that:  “God doesn’t show you things that are wrong just so you can complain or gossip about it.  God shows you something that is wrong because He intends for you to be a part of the solution.”

That needs to be what I and possibly everyone reading this needs to take away from these conversations.  The question “What part am I supposed to play in solving the problems God reveals to me?”

One more thought to ponder is the focus given to me via fortune cookie the other day:

ENGAGE IN GROUP ACTIVITIES THAT FURTHER TRANSFORMATION!

 

Be blessed in group activities that further your transformation,

 

W. Lawrence Hess

What is Happening To The Church

Abandoned Church

What is Happening To The Church

Matthew 22:36-40  GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)  –  36 “Teacher, which commandment is the greatest in Moses’ Teachings?”  37 Jesus answered him, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and most important commandment. 39 The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ 40 All of Moses’ Teachings and the Prophets depend on these two commandments.”

A recent poll named “The Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism,” is stating that atheism is on the rise and religiosity is on the decline.  There has been similar research in the past few years and there seems to be more and more evidence to support all of this.

First off, before going any further in the discussion I think it important to note a flaw that I saw in survey.  The question that led to the statistic that showed that religiosity is on the decline might have produced incorrect results due to the wording and a shift that is occurring in some circles surrounding the word “religious”. 

In many of the Christian circles I run in, the word “religious” has come to represent a prideful, Bible thumping, legalist that is seen as the example of what not to be as a Christian.  If asked twelve years ago if I was religious I would have quickly said yes.  However, if asked now, if I am religious, I am most likely to quickly say no, I am spiritual.  In other words, I am a no on that question and I am a churchgoing man of faith who is devoting my life to working with others and according to this study, I would be one of the proofs that people are leaving the faith in droves. 

In other words, I believe the study is flawed, but not totally untrue due to other research I have seen.

Now, on to the topic at hand, people leaving the church in droves.  I remember repeatedly hearing one saying when I was a youth pastor and was encountering messages and trainings for youth ministry:  HE WHO CONTROLS THE YOUTH CONTROLS THE FUTURE!  I am not so sure the word control is the best word to use, but I get the point.  So, if the church of to day is to look at the future, it has to look at what is going on in the youth.

Well, according to the Barna Group three out of every five kids (59%) that are in church now will leave the church later  (see Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church).  They did eight national studies and came up with six themes that seem to be the most prevalent reasons:

Theme 1 = Churches seem overprotective

  • “Their experience of Christianity feels stifling, fear-based and risk-averse”
  • “Christians demonize everything outside of the church”
  • “Church ignoring the problems of the real world”

Theme 2 = Teens’ and twenty-somethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow

  • “church is boring”
  • “faith is not relevant to my career or interests”
  • “the Bible is not taught clearly or often enough”
  • “God seems missing from my experience of church”

Theme 3 = Churches come across as antagonistic to science

  • “Christians are too confident they know all the answers”
  • “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in”
  • “Christianity is anti-science”
  • “been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.”

Theme 4 = Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental

  • ‘they “have made mistakes and feel judged in church because of them.”’
  • “teachings on sexuality and birth control are out of date.”

Theme 5 = They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.

  • “church is like a country club, only for insiders”
  • “forced to choose between my faith and my friends.”
  • “churches are afraid of the beliefs of other faiths”

Theme 6 = The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.

  • ‘not being able “to ask my most pressing life questions in church”’
  • ‘their faith “does not help with depression or other emotional problems” they experience’

I think the most pressing issue is the idea that they are experiencing Christianity as shallow and specifically the idea that they are not experiencing God in the church service.  I have to wonder:  If they are not experiencing God in the service, what are they getting in the service?  Clearly, nothing worth staying for!

It is easy to get all hyper-religious and say it is them and they must be way too self-centered and in great sin etc.  I do not have that luxury, because I have stated similar ideas in previous posts. 

Jesus Based Free-for-All vs. Super Leader/Heresy Hunter

What is Wrong With the American Church? Better Exegesis?

I am not saying it is impossible for a person to experience personal interaction with God in the average church service, but it is clear that whatever we are doing currently in most of our churches is not LIKELY to lead the youth that are in these churches now to that experience.  Without the experience of God, there is no experience.  It is just a room full of religious mumbo jumbo (consider everything else observed in the study).

Add to the ideas of:  Not being able to ask the pressing questions, that in the middle of all this church mumbo jumbo the church experience is incapable of solving real problems (like depression), the feeling that once you have sinned the church will never forgive you (in spite of what Jesus says he does) etc. the standard experience of the generation to come is not one that represents a deep personal love for God or a love for one another.

If we are not bringing the youth to a personal exchange of love with the Father and our example is not one where it is clear that we love one another (the fact they do not feel free to ask the deep questions, and feel openness means being frowned upon by the church  proves this) means we having trouble representing Christ adequately to the next generation.

John 13:34-35 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)  –  34 “I’m giving you a new commandment: Love each other in the same way that I have loved you. 35 Everyone will know that you are my disciples because of your love for each other.”

If large groups in various places and in various churches/denominations are experiencing a lack of love, then it is probable that something we are doing may have communicates love to previous generations, but not to the ones to come.

We can blame them and ignore it until they become the dominant generation and it is too late or we can assume God is moving into a new season for our church models and move with Him.

Perhaps, if a new generation is coming through that thinks and experiences things in a vastly different way, the church should do some changing to match some of these changes (within the confines of what is biblical). 

1 Corinthians 9:19-23 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)  –  19 Although I’m free from all people, I have made myself a slave for all people to win more of them. 20 I became Jewish for Jewish people. I became subject to Moses’ Teachings for those who are subject to those laws. I did this to win them even though I’m not subject to Moses’ Teachings. 21 I became like a person who does not have Moses’ Teachings for those who don’t have those teachings. I did this to win them even though I have God’s teachings. I’m really subject to Christ’s teachings. 22 I became like a person weak in faith to win those who are weak in faith. I have become everything to everyone in order to save at least some of them. 23 I do all this for the sake of the Good News in order to share what it offers.

Some of these things are relatively easy to change some would require massive shifts.  I do think a HUGE starting point is to be more open and candid and take a massive step away from the angry and inflammatory rhetoric that has become the public face of American Christianity.  We have to stop the overly vigorous debate about whose theology is better because it will not matter if you win the debate and get to preach the supposed best theology to and empty room.

What we need to do is open our minds to what is best representing God to this new wave of thought that He has allowed to rise up.  It is not that what we have built in concept has not been an awesome solution to the problems that were confronted during the years these models became en-vogue.  Those problems are no longer the focus because the model was successful so new problems arose that have to be met with different solutions.

From a more personal perspective (supported by some empirical evidence) I do think that some kind of small group experience, which can be tied to a larger worship service or could also not be, would seem a better venue to deal with many of these issues.

The more personal experience and the more close knit culture of small groups can be more conducive to a more open and caring experience.  There is more room to discuss the harder questions and although the answers may not be perfect the idea that God is interested and personal interaction with God and other believers is a better foundation than attaining of mere information. 

After all, the people who had attained the most Bible information in Jesus’ day had all the information to know Him better than anyone else and yet they fought and resisted Him at every turn, persecuted Him, ridiculed His work, and eventually had Him killed.  It is no good to know the Book of God if you still end up not knowing the God of the book.

There was a study and the resulting article from the Barna group from 2007 that suggests my focus on the small group models might be at least a good step towards looking in the right direction.  House Churches Are More Satisfying to Attenders Than Are Conventional Churches suggests that a far greater amount of attendees at house church models were satisfied with the leadership, the faith commitment of the people involved in their gathering, the level of community and personal connectedness they experience, the spiritual depth they experience in their house church setting.  This was a study of all age groups, but look at how many of the same areas surveyed are tied to or at least related to the reasons teens stated they were drawing away from the traditional church.

If you look at what the results show is taking place at these groups, you can also see how the individuals participants in the group have more potential for personal experience with God and each other that in the traditional setting of any size.

  • 93% have spoken prayer during their meetings
  • 90% read from the Bible
  • 89% spend time serving people outside of their group
  • 87% devote time to sharing personal needs or experiences
  • 85% spend time eating and talking before or after the meeting
  • 83% discuss the teaching provided
  • 76% have a formal teaching time
  • 70% incorporate music or singing
  • 58% have a prophecy or special word delivered
  • 52% take an offering from participants that is given to ministries
  • 51% share communion
  • 41% watch a video presentation as part of the learning experience

I am always astonished at the resistance that ideas like this get from traditional church is the only way people who have made an assumption that a building with a seminary trained pastor and a big cross on the front is the only way God will reach people properly and effectively in our culture. 

Well, first off, statistically that is simply not true.  Think through all we have discussed here.

Second off, there is no example of a church of that kind in the new testament.  There is the idea of a pastor and teaching etc. but the only clear models were in homes and the Jewish believers in Israel still went to the temple as a cultural norm.  The non-Jewish converts met in homes.

I am not saying to put the wrecking ball to your building and abandon traditional ministry.  I am just saying that to say the house church or small group people are somehow unbiblical or somehow less Biblical is an outright lie.  They are from a literal perspective doing a better job of following the example of scripture than those of us (I myself still attend a traditional church with my family) that still attend a traditional service.

Philemon 1:1-7 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)  –  1 From Paul, who is a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and our brother Timothy.  To our dear coworker Philemon, 2 our sister Apphia, our fellow soldier Archippus, and the church that meets in your house.  3 Good will[a] and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ are yours!  4 Philemon, I always thank my God when I mention you in my prayers because 5 I hear about your faithfulness to the Lord Jesus and your love for all of God’s people. 6 As you share the faith you have in common with others, I pray that you may come to have a complete knowledge of every blessing we have in Christ. 7 Your love for God’s people gives me a lot of joy and encouragement. You, brother, have comforted God’s people.

Consider the statistics above and the observations of Paul about Philemon and the “church” that met in his home.  It was successful and Paul himself, inspired by God (as anything that appears in the Bible is inspired by God) calls the meeting in Philemon’s home a “church”.

We are so busy looking at keeping things the way we think is best (the way we as individuals are comfortable with) that we fail to seek what will work best for the next wave God is bringing into dominance throughout the planet.  It is a failure to love God as it is a failure to love what He is loving how he is loving it.

So do I believe droves of people are leaving the church?  Absolutely!  Do I think we can stop the bleeding?  Absolutely!  Before the problem started I believe God had already laid the foundations of the solution.  I just suspect that some of us Jonah’s are resistant to the kind of work God is calling us to next. 

 

Spit up on the beach and ready to minister as God wishes,

W. Lawrence Hess